Easter is the most joyful celebration of the Orthodox faith in Russia...
After the devout church services, families gather to exchange gifts of decorated eggs, symbols of renewed life and hope. The Easter of 1885 also marks the twentieth anniversary of Czar Alexander III and Czarina Maria Fedorovna, and the Czar needs an exceptional gift for his wife.
So he places an order with a young jeweler, Peter Carl Faberge, whose beautiful creations have recently caught Maria's eye.
On Easter morning, Faberge delivers to the palace what appears to be a simple enameled egg. But to the delight of the Empress, inside is a golden yolk; within the yolk is a golden hen; and concealed within the hen is a diamond miniature of the royal crown and a tiny ruby egg - both now lost to history.
His wife's delight is all Czar Alexander needs to reward Faberge with a commission for an Easter egg every year. The requirements are straightforward: each egg must be unique, and each must contain a suitable surprise for the Empress. With consummate craftsmanship and an inventive spirit, Faberge repeatedly meets the challenge, borrowing inspiration from the gilded lives of the Czar and Czarina.
In October of 1894 the Czar's health fails. He dies suddenly in the prime of life, and his son, Nicholas II, unwillingly ascends the throne. "My God! The Lord has called our deeply beloved Papa to him. My head is spinning. What is going to happen to me? To Russia? I am not prepared to be a Czar. I never wanted to become one." (October 20, 1894. from the letters of Nicholas II)
Untrained in the business of ruling one-eighth of the world's population and purposely cut off from progressive thinking by his parents, Nicholas embraces the limited ideals of order, service and tradition.
"So to make sure that he didn't make any mistakes," explains author Lynette Proler, "he decided that the easiest course for him was to continue everything that his father had done."
But Russia has not kept pace with the rapid changes in economic and political life taking place elsewhere in Europe. But Nicholas holds firmly to his belief in the preservation of the monarchy and opposes any concessions to those favoring more democracy in government. Yet he shows little aptitude for ruling, vacillating on important issues, coming across as weak and contradictory. And there are omens, signs that trouble looms on Russia's horizon.
Nicholas' rigid adherence to convention applies as deliberately to the established customs within the court and family as to the affairs of state. "And of course, the Easter eggs was a tradition that was started by his father, and Nicholas decided to carry it on," adds Proler. So Czar Nicholas orders the continuation of the annual commission of a Faberge Easter egg for his mother and adds a second order to be delivered each year to his wife, the new Czarina Alexandra Fedorovna.
So imaginatively conceived and opulently executed, Faberge's work elevates jewelry to a decorative art unequaled since the Renaissance. At the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, the Imperial eggs are shown in public for the first time. They astound the jury, which showers him with honors, and Faberge's fame spreads throughout Europe. The novelty of combining artistic excellence with functional value – and a touch of whimsy – so captures the imagination of the aristocracy that the Faberge workshops are flooded with commissions, transforming an ordinary goldsmith shop into the famous "House of Faberge." But though aristocrats, barons of industry, kings and queens alike all cross his threshold seeking gifts, Faberge's first duty is always to the Czar.
Nicholas loves the pomp and ritual of military life and Imperial ceremony, which require him only to look good and say little. But he shows little aptitude for ruling, vacillating on most important issues, coming across as weak and contradictory, though he firmly opposes any much-needed political or social reforms. Over the years, the royal couple increasingly insulate themselves from politics and the intrigues of the court, preferring instead the comfortable sphere of family and life's less complicated decisions. So Faberge makes a point of learning something of the interests and achievements of the Romanovs, fashioning the memorable moments of their lives into Easter gifts to delight and surprise them.
By 1901, Nicholas and Alexandra have been blessed with four daughters, and in 1904 an anxiously awaited boy and heir to the throne is born. Over the years, the royal couple increasingly insulate themselves from politics and the intrigues of the court, preferring instead the comfortable sphere of family and life's less complicated decisions. So Faberge makes a point of learning something of the personal interests and public achievements of the Romanovs, fashioning the memorable moments of their lives into Easter gifts to delight and surprise them.
Year by year, Faberge's Imperial Easter eggs reach new heights of invention and extravagance, expressions in miniature of the life of imperial privilege. According to author and Faberge expert, Geza von Habsburg, "They are the absolute summit of craftsmanship. They are unbelievably made. They were the sort of apogee of what Faberge was able to do, and he lavished everything he could on them." Ultimately, these eggs would become painful reminders of the tragic events to come.
But most Russians have no time for toys, and ultimately, these eggs would become painful reminders of tragic events to come. Hopeless wars, famine, disease and despair are unraveling the fabric of faith the Czar's people once had in the divine right and benevolence of the monarchy. Cut off from politics and growing unrest, Nicholas continues to oppose any political or social reforms: "I shall maintain the principle of autocracy just as firmly and unflinchingly as my unforgettable late father!" Choosing to believe in the unfailing devotion of his people, Nicholas becomes a prisoner of his illusions.
By 1914, Russia is at war with Germany, and at first the simmering discontent of the nation is cooled by patriotic unity in defense of Mother Russia. But Russia's dismal economic conditions make it impossible for Nicholas to sustain the war effort against powerful, industrialized Germany. By 1917, famine threatens the country. Riots and strikes demanding bread are commonplace in Moscow and St. Petersburg. When the Imperial troops join the demonstrators, the government collapses to the revolution. On March 15th, with neither the support of the people nor the aristocracy, Nicholas is forced to abdicate.
All the elements of the Romanov story come together most elegantly in the Fifteenth Anniversary egg (1911), a family album just over five-inches-tall. Exquisitely detailed paintings depict the most notable events of the reign of Nicholas II and each of the family members. "Not only is it a staggering tour-de-force of the jeweler's art," says Forbes, "but probably more than any other egg, it is the one most intimately associated with the whole tragedy of Nicholas and Alexandra and that incredibly beautiful family. There are these five children – all these sort of glamorous events surrounding their lives – and there they are looking out at us happily unknowing what was going to happen to them just a few years later."
During the first months of Russia's involvement in World War I, the simmering discontent of the troubled nation is cooled by patriotic unity in defense of the motherland. But the Russia's dismal economic conditions make it impossible for Nicholas to sustain the war effort against powerful, industrialized Germany. By 1917, famine threatens the country. Riots and strikes demanding bread are commonplace in Moscow and St. Petersburg. When the Imperial troops join the demonstrators, the government collapses to the revolution. On March 15th, with neither the support of the people nor the aristocracy, Nicholas is forced to abdicate.
The next day, a decree is passed ordering the arrest of Nicholas II and all other members of the Romanov family. The Czar and his family are arrested and eventually removed to Siberia where they are held captive for over a year. In the chilly pre-dawn hours of July 17th, 1918, Nicholas and Alexandra, with their five children - Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei - are herded into a basement and executed.
Of the immediate family, only Nicholas' mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna, would escape the assassin's bullet. As she makes a hasty departure from her homeland, she brings with her the Order of St. George egg, the last Faberge Imperial Easter egg she will ever receive from her son Nicholas, once the Czar of all the Russias.
In the harsh light of historical hindsight, the Faberge Imperial Easter eggs can be seen as nothing more than the frivolous indulgences of a decadent monarchy, perfect symbols of the fragile Romanov dynasty under the last Czar.
The eggs represent a unique synergy of opulence, romance, expansiveness and creativity. No one but Faberge could have created such masterpieces, and no one but the Romanovs could have inspired them.
Faberge's Imperial Easter eggs endure as fragile mementos of the doomed Russian dynasty, each not only an artistic masterpiece, but a remarkable reflection of the joys and achievements of a family at the crossroads of history.
The true worth of the eggs lies in the very personal glimpse they provide into the life of a family - an extraordinary family, but a family all the same.
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