The coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in May of 1896 was a spectacle of grandeur that was to be the last of its kind. The artifacts preserved from this historic event, housed at the Russian History Museum, offer a tangible connection to the opulence and solemnity of that day.

The museum collection contains dozens of objects and documents relating to this occasion: books, photographs, programs, menus, porcelain, prints, and commemorative scarves and beakers. The following selection reflects the artistic trends of the time, but also encapsulates a significant moment before the fall of an empire.

1. Coronation Album: An Elaborate Account of the Resplendent Proceedings

Nicholas II’s Coronation Album. St. Petersburg, 1899. Gift of Nina Winthrop in memory of Rev. Peter Burlakov

Beginning with Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great, lavish albums were published to document the imperial coronations of Russia’s Romanov rulers. These detailed accounts of the grand ceremonies and celebrations were accompanied by sumptuous illustrations commissioned from the foremost artists of the time.

Nicholas II’s coronation was no exception. The coronation album consists of two volumes. The first volume documents the history of Romanov coronations and is embellished with abundant illustrations by artists such as Viktor Vasnetsov, Albert Benois, Ilya Repin, Valentin Serov, Nikolai Samokysh, and Elena Samokysh-Sudkovskaya. The second volume focuses on the coronation ceremonies, balls, festivities, programs, menus, and lists of attendees at the three-week-long festivities.

Pages and illustrations from the coronation album of Nicholas II:

This luxury publication took three years to produce. Printed in a small run, it was presented to the most distinguished guests and participants of the coronation.

The Russian History Museum holds a copy of the second volume of the Russian edition, as well as the French edition of the album, which was published as a single volume. The covers are in the Art Nouveau style, with an impressive imperial eagle and a copy of the commemorative coronation medal at the top, with the inscription “God is with us.”

2. Coronation Robe: Custom-Made for Clergy

Coronation Sticharion (Dalmatic). Firm of A. and V. Sapozhnikovy, Moscow, 1896. Gift of St. John the Baptist Cathedral, Washington, DC

A magnificent set of ecclesiastical vestments was produced for the clergy officiating at the 1896 coronation. Designed by the firm of A. and V. Sapozhnikovy, suppliers to the Imperial Court since 1852, the fabric is embellished with a pattern of a double-headed eagle holding a scepter. The design was modeled on Venetian golden velvet that was imported to the Moscow court in the 17th century and used to make a ceremonial garment for Tsar Feodor Alexeevich (reigned 1676-1682). Later, the fabric was repurposed for a robe worn by Patriarch Adrian (1638-1700) that is now in the collection of the Kremlin Armory.

The Venetian fabric from Patriarch Adrian’s sakkos provided the inspiration for the coronation vestments. Source: Moscow Kremlin Museums

Photographs of the coronation ceremonies show all members of the participating clergy – bishops, priests, deacons, and altar servers – wearing vestments made from the same brocade. The Russian History Museum is home to a sticharion (dalmatic) that would have been worn by a deacon or altar server. The back of the sticharion features an intricately embroidered crown.

A crown embroidered in gold thread adorns the back of the sticharion

A subdeacon is seen wearing a similar sticharion as Nicholas processes from the Dormition Cathedral following the coronation ceremony. Source: IMDb.com

For an in-depth exploration of the historical meaning of the coronation vestments’ design and the work of the firm of Sapozhnikov, watch this lecture by Dr. Karen Kettering.

3. A Print for the Populace

Chromolithograph Coronation Print of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna. Firm of Shtadler and Pattinot, St. Petersburg, 1896. Gift of the Association of Jurists

Deluxe coronation albums like those described above were very expensive to produce and were published in limited quantities. But just because coronation albums were available only to the elite did not mean that people of lesser means were left without souvenirs of this momentous occasion.

Chromolithograph prints like this one, depicting the newly crowned emperor and empress, were less expensive to print and far more affordable to purchase. In fact, this particular print appears to have been distributed on a complimentary basis – the word “free” is printed at the bottom of the image.

The print shows Nicholas and Alexandra wearing their crowns and ermine-lined coronation mantles. At the center is the ancient “Vladimir” Mother of God icon and the text of a prayer invoking blessings upon the new monarch.

4. Cup of Celebration, Cup of Sorrow

Enameled Coronation Cup (Khodynka Cup). Russia, 1896. Russian History Museum

Other mementos that were freely distributed to the masses during the coronation festivities included an ornamented enamel-coated beaker. These, along with scarves and food, were given out to revelers at Moscow’s Khodynka field at a public celebration that was to include competitions, music, performances, and fireworks.

A crowd of several hundred thousand people gathered on the field. Soon a rumor swept through the crowd that there were not enough free souvenirs for everyone, causing a stampede. Security at the site was woefully inadequate, and the mad rush caused over thirteen hundred casualties as people were trampled to death. This calamity became known as the Khodynka Tragedy. It was an ominous beginning for the last Romanov reign that concluded in revolution and the murder of the Imperial Family.

Souvenir Cup. Firm of G. Khaimovich, St. Petersburg, 1896. Russian History Museum

Souvenir Cup. Firm of M. Kuznetsov, 1896. Russian History Museum

In addition to the enamel-covered beaker distributed at the Khodynka Tragedy, often referred to as the Cup of Sorrows, the Russian History Museum has two other examples of souvenir cups from the coronation. One is made from tin and features portraits of Nicholas and Alexandra on one side, while the other is decorated with the imperial eagle, the couple’s cyphers, and the coronation date. The other beaker is glazed ceramic, with Moscow’s coat of arms, the tsar and tsarina’s cyphers, and the inscription “In commemoration of the coronation.”

We recently found a connection between the coronation beaker and the writer Leo Tolstoy, which is explored in this short video.

5. Performance Program: A Glittering Gala

Coronation Gala Performance Program. Firm of A.A. Levenson, Moscow, 1896. Gift of the Russian Nobility Association in America

A gala performance to celebrate the coronation took place on May 17, 1896 at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. The program for this event was illustrated with chromolithographs after artists Petrov-Ropet, Ryabushkin, Samokish-Sudkovskaya and others. The gala opened with scenes from Mikhail Glinka’s Life for the Tsar – a patriotic opera in which the peasant Ivan Susanin sacrifices his life to save the first Romanov tsar, Michael, from a band of Polish marauders by luring them into the depths of an impenetrable forest.

Illustrations of scenes from The Pearl were created by Elena Samokysh-Sudkovskaya

The second part of the gala featured the premiere of The Pearl, a one-act ballet composed by Riccardo Drigo with choreography by Marius Petipa, the premier maître de ballet (First Ballet Master) of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres. The best dancers from St. Petersburg and Moscow ballets were selected for the cast.

The Russian History Museum not only has a copy of the gala program, but also a ticket to the event issued to a member of the delegation representing the United States at Nicholas II’s coronation.

Ticket to the Coronation Gala at the Bolshoi Theater on May 17, 1896. Gift of the Russian Nobility Association in America