Many of the finest large embroideries in Russia were produced in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. In the 16th century, backgrounds became more complex, and more use was made of gold and silver thread. As the metal was apt to tear the stuff, it became customary to couch the thread along the fabric, stitching it into place with coloured silks.
Much work of this type was done in palace sewing-rooms and in those which had been established in the households of prominent boyars. Sometimes jems were added, when the embroidery simulated metal-filigree work. Pearl embroidery also became extremely admired by Tsar Boris Godunov (c. 1552-1605). He commissioned several panels as gifts to the Trinity Sergius Monastery near Zagorsk, where they remain to the present day. Since woven patterned fabrics were still extremely expensive and in short supply, plain stuffs were often embroidered to imitate those which were imported.
Picture 1: Sleeve-band detail embroidered with gold and silver thread, late 16th or early 17th century
Picture 2: Detail of yoke of phelonion embroidered with gold and silver thread, late 16th or early 17th century
By the 17th century much excellent embroidery was being produced in the major regional capitals, but it was in workshops which the Stroganovs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stroganovs) established at Solvychegodsk that much if the best work was done.
Picture 3: Icon with figures of Saints Zosima and Savvaty. From the sewing-rooms of the Stroganovs, Solvychegodsk, second half of 17th century
The magnificent panels of ecclesiastical vestments were worked with both Oriental and seed pearls, jewels and gold spangles. Pearl embroidery was combined not only with gold plaques
Picture 4: Pearl-embroidered yoke of phelonion, 15th century
but also with jewels, coloured glass beads, gold studs, spangles and heavy bullion.
Picture 5: Pearl-embroidered yoke of ecclesiastical vestment, late 17th or early 18th century
Picture 6: Pearl-embroidered yoke of ecclesiastical vestment, late 17th or early 18th century
Picture 7: Pearl-embroidered edging of liturgical cuffs, late 17th or early 18th century
The costumes of Russian nobility, too, were worked with gold thread and fine coloures silks, and had seed pearl sewn on the edgings. The designs include combinations of motifs derived from the Near East, and a large repertory of traditional Russian patterns which represent a totally independent ornamental style, developed in Russia during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Floral motifs and beasts, such as the panther or lion, appear together with such fabulous creatures as the Sirin, a bird with the head of a woman, and a griffin:
Much of the decoration has symbolic meaning. Some motifs were originally amulets, protecting against evil - ram's horns, certain birds, the sun, the 8-pointed star. The Tree of Life in various forms symbolized the axis mundi, or creative center of the universe; the peacock was a Byzantine symbol of the Resurrection; the unicorn is a symbol of purity; the dragon represented fertilizing power; the griffin was a mythological creature with a lion's body and an eagle's head and wings; the Sirin-bird also represented the favorable aspected heavenly bodies.
Favorite floral motifs are roses, carnations and tulips. Stylized flowers and fabulous beasts are often combined with Cross or the Tree of Life.
(...to be continued...)