Art review: Catherine the Great; National Museum of Scotland

Project manager Esther Lunn looks at some of the treasures on display
Project manager Esther Lunn looks at some of the treasures on display
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Ruling over Russia in what was to become the Golden Age of the Russian empire, Catherine the Great was the longest-ruling female leader Russia has ever known, an ambitious war queen, and a great patron of the arts and literature.

This special exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland presents many of the art objects the eighteenth-century empress collected during her lifetime, on loan from the State Hermitage Museum in Russia. The exhibition outlines Catherine’s achievements in creating a thriving courtly life and suitable architecture to house it at home in Russia, as well as her political campaigns abroad.

A brief introductory section tells the story of Catherine the Great’s rise to power. She married the Russian Emperor and then forced him to abdicate, leaving her the throne. Shortly after his arrest, he was strangled to death by his own guards.

This narrative section and the courtly life areas have the most interesting stories, but other areas of the exhibition have more spectacular objects.

A carnival sledge that was used during winter carnival celebrations in the 1770s is a highlight. The sledge is decorated with a Roman soldier on a gilded horse fleeing from a griffin, whose head forms the front of the seat. Presented in front of a panoramic illustration of the winter carnival scene, it’s easy to imagine this lavish gold sledge in context.

Visitors should purchase an exhibition catalogue, because although there are clearly many interesting things to say about Catherine the Great, very few of them are said in the exhibition itself.

What context there is is rather flaccid, especially when compared with the grand themes promised by the promotional materials. A real connection with the historical scene is established around the sledge, so it’s a shame similar tactics haven’t been used elsewhere as well.

Widespread and loose organisation make it unsuitable for children, but the unusual depth of the exhibition, which includes a coronation portrait of Catherine that hasn’t been seen outside of Russia since the Revolution, make it a must for Russian history buffs.

Run Ends 21st October

Rating: ***