Accueil » Inscription reinterpreted: Fabergé Imperial Pelican Easter Egg

Inscription reinterpreted: Fabergé Imperial Pelican Easter Egg

27 Août 2013

Carl Fabergé made 50 Imperial Easter eggs for the Russian tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II and their wives. Some of the eggs, starting with the 1893 Caucasus Egg, have dates either on the egg itself or on the surprise, or names of the places indicating where the commemorated event occurred. Uniquely, just two of the eggs bear written messages in the Old Slavonic style.

They are the 1898 Pelican Egg and the 1915 Imperial Red Cross Egg ((The Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs. Tatiana Fabergé, Lynette G. Proler, Valentin V/ Skurlov/ – CHRISTIE’S. London, 1997, p.133-135)) both presented by Tsar Nicolas II to his mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna ((From the end of the 18th century German and Dutch princess, who married Russian grand dukes received a patronymic name Feodorovna to honor the holy relic of the House of Romanov – 12th century icon of the Feodorovskaya Icon of the Mother of God. Among new members of the Tsars family who received new names after conversion into orthodoxy were Maria Feodorovna (wife of Paul I), Alexandra (wife of Nicholas I ), Maria Feodorovna (wife of Alexander III), Alexandra (wife of Nicholas II) and Elizabeth Feodorovna.)). Both eggs with inscriptions are currently in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia, United States. They became part of the museum collection upon the bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt, art collector and philanthropist in 1947.

It seems that the messages these two eggs were intended to convey have not been closely investigated until now. The combined effect of text and symbols so deliberately crafted together has since been missing, all due to hasty translations.

A more attentive examination immediately provokes a number of important questions:

Whose decision was it to include such messages in the very design? What kind of relationship could the craftsman and his patron have to warrant creating such a significant and enigmatic object? To what extent do the symbols contained therein reflect contemporary understanding? What do these messages mean in the context of each egg?

The following observations and analysis concern the Imperial Pelican Easter Egg’s biblical inscription in the context of Russian history. It is the first known exploration of these complex and elusive questions, stimulating additional interest in the Imperial Red Cross Egg and the connections and significance of these eggs to their makers, owners, and viewers, past and present.

Lost in Translation

In 1897, the Department of Institutions of the Empress Maria, in charge of educational and charitable institutions in Russia, had a grand celebration for the 100th anniversary of its foundation (( To commemorate this event, in the spring of 1898 Tsar Nicholas II presented to his mother the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, a golden egg crowned by the enameled sculpture of a nesting pelican with raised diamond-studded wings.

The egg sits upright on a delicate stand. The commemorative dates 1797-1897 are engraved on the bottom part of the metaphorical eggshell while on the upper slopes, just below the pelican nest, are engravings of a nesting pelican in a wreath of laurels on one side, and vines on their stalks surrounded in laurels on the other. Above this pelican on the front is inscribed in an arch: И ВЫ ЖИВЫ БУДЕТЕ (ye [plural] shall live also). The opposite side has a similar arched inscription above the vines: ПОСЕТИ ВИНОГРАДЪ СЕЙ (you [singular] visit this vine). When open, the egg reveals a surprise: eight painted oval miniatures of educational institutions in St. Petersburg and Moscow, most of them known as Mariinsky (Empress Maria’s) « Institutions for the Education of Noble Young Ladies. » Depicted are only eight (( out of many other charitable institutions, including colleges, hospitals, orphanages, and societies, of which the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna was a devoted and passionate patroness. Each ivory miniature is backed with a thin oval golden plate bearing the name, engraved, of the institution depicted on the obverse. The aforementioned inscriptions shine on the tops of the miniatures’ oval frames to the left and right of the central pelican ornament. On the left above the miniature of the Patriotic Institute, founded in 1827, is the inscription ПОСЕТИ ВИНОГРАДЪ СЕЙ. On the right, above the name of the Pavlovsky Institute, founded in 1798, is the inscription И ВЫ ЖИВЫ БУДЕТЕ.

Detached from its original owner and later, from Russia, this important piece of art and history gradually became an enigma with layers of encoded meanings ((Indeed, on several websites I have found references to the eight depicted institutions as founded by the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, while in fact they were founded throughout the 18th-19th centuries by different members of the Tsars family – hence the names of the institutions such as Smolny Institute, 1764, Pavlov Institute, 1798, Nicholai Orphanage, 1837, Xenia Institute, 1894 etc. Another general misunderstanding on both sides of the Atlantic is connected to the meaning of the term “noble young ladies”. Popular understanding is that “noble young ladies” are from noble families by origin while in fact they were young ladies from all levels of society who were expected to become “noble” by the means of education. This goal was a part of the Enlightenment program set up by Catherine the Great. In a century, with the active involvement of the Offices of the Empress Maria (see also page 1, note 3), women’s education in Russia was brought up to become one of the best in Europe.)). The most notable loss of understanding occurred when the egg crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the United States as a part of Armand Hammer’s collection of treasures, which he amassed in the late 1920s in Soviet Russia. According to the documents ((Description of the Imperial Pelican Easter  Egg, Article #5324, Hammer Galleries, not dated, attachment to invoice 1936 in Mrs. Lillian Thomas Pratt Archive, box 2, file 5, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; also, Brochure 1939, Hammer Galleries; also Olenchak, Thomas Richard, 1940, Imperial Easter Eggs from the collection of Mrs. John L. Pratt. Prepared by Hammer Galleries, New York, handwritten and illuminated for Mrs.Pratt by Thomas Richard Olenchak, 1940, CP. Lowes and McCanless, 2001, 58)) given to Lillian Pratt from the Hammer Galleries when she purchased the egg, the inscriptions were translated as: Visit the vineyard and you will also live, 1797-1897, where the plural ye was substituted with implied singular you and the also came out as and … also (an extra word). Consequently, with the addition of the commemorative dates, the two messages were joined into one. This incorrect translation could be understood upon examination of linguistic nuances between Russian and English. The word И (and, or also), starting the second phrase, often serves as a conjunction in both languages. Thus the two inscriptions could have been perceived as one. The translator tried his best to adjust it to his level of understanding of the Bible and Russian history by using both and and also for И, and ignoring the plurality of ВЫ. However, the joint phrase is grammatically and semantically incorrect in Russian, and has a vague meaning in both languages.

Even after the Pelican egg changed hands ((The Kremlin Collection by Tatiana Muntian, in The Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs. Tatiana Fabergé, Lynette G. Proler, Valentin V/ Skurlov/ – CHRISTIE’S. London, 1997, chapter 11)) from private collector and became an artifact at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the inscriptions are still similarly misunderstood. New translations shed no light on the motives behind the combination of these particular symbols and text. The new translation read: Visit our vineyards, O Lord, and we shall dwell/live in Thee. This version sounds more poetic than the first attempt at elucidation and allows passersby to brush off the inscription as vague biblical text that could be applied to many instances in which one may wish another the best. It was made viewer friendly.

In The Beginning Was the Word
John, 1:1

In October of 2010, in the course of preparations for their upcoming July 2011 exhibition Fabergé Revealed, the VMFA asked me to examine the Pelican Egg in order to double-check the translation of all its inscriptions. My first attempt was to read them in Russian on both sides as one sentence. The phrase however, was grammatically wrong.

Correct understanding of the two legends ПОСЕТИ ВИНОГРАДЪ СЕЙ (visit this vine) and И ВЫ ЖИВЫ БУДЕТЕ (ye shall live also) is possible if they are treated as two separate phrases. My justification, based on a broad range of considerations, from the rules of grammar to Russian and biblical history, is as follows.

Visit this vine is found in the Holy Bible ((Attachment I, on, King James version as a part of the discourse: Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vine, Psalms, 80:14 (Russian Bible: Псалтирь, Пс. 79:15). Psalm 80 contains several re-incantations of the phrase and we shall be saved, which by association might have enforced the error in translation. However, more significantly, the words ye shall live also are found in St. John, 14:19 (Евангелие от Иоанна, 14:19) as a part of Jesus Christ’s speech to his disciples: Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also.

These two phrases were very familiar to the public before the Revolution not only as quotations from the Holy Scripture, but also as phrases associated with the two major departments of the Office of Empress Maria. This Office itself had earlier roots with Catherine the Great (Catherine II) during the previous century. One of the departments dealt with public education, another with social/charitable services such as public hospitals and foundling houses. The departments were substantial bureaucratic structures with such attributes as uniforms, logos, and mottos. Visit this vine, and Ye shall live also had direct connections to the missions of the Imperial educational institutions depicted in the egg’s panels.

The pelican was the official emblem of the entire Office. The vineyard imagery and the vine motto were official for the Institute of Noble Young Ladies and other organizations for the betterment of women. Ye shall live also and its associated imagery were used within the realm of charitable institutions more as high tokens of achievement. Both phrases appear in variety of artifacts ((Attachment II, on ((Attachment III, on, typically commemorative items, as well as on the uniform buttons for students and employees of the Office.

The Pelican Egg fits very well into this pattern, as it was specifically dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Office in 1897. The hundred-year history of the Office is extremely rich and eventful. Its role could hardly be overestimated in bringing up generations of Russian educators, doctors, and intelligentsia, and in improving living conditions for people in general. We can only admire the power of the designer to use this miniature art form to express both his own and his patron’s appreciation of what had been achieved in a hundred years in Russia in the development of charities and social services and in the field of public education, particularly the education of young ladies, providing them with self-betterment opportunities rarely found even in the West.

The symbols and phrases depicted on the egg have very deep religious roots coming back to the beginnings of Christianity ((Please find more detailed discussion of the Biblical symbolism of these phrases in the Attachment IV, on )) that played important roles at the foundation of the Office. Their meaning, as with most quotations from the Bible, have multiple layers of understanding and are all quite relevant to the education of young generations and helping those who suffer. As the Tsar was considered to be God’s hand on Earth in Russia, religion was almost always under state control. Religious images of the vines happily growing under the sun, and of the pelican, symbolically associated with Christ, who feeds his weak and helpless children from his own chest were literally translated into the Tsar or Empress helping his or her people to grow and live in health and happiness. The symbols and the words fitted well and represented the goals and purposes of the Office of the Empress Maria perfectly. Well funded and very successful, the Office evidently showed firm intentions to keep such promises. Mottos from commemorative medals from the Office became pledges of the Romanov dynasty to the Russian people to provide care and education, which they certainly fulfilled ((Unfortunately, Russia of 1897 could hardly be called as the best place under the sun either for the Russian people, or for the Romanov family themselves in other areas of life.)).

Therefore, the 100th anniversary of the Office deserved commemoration. Carl Fabergé’s Imperial Pelican Easter Egg does this complex job ultimately well in design, artistic merit, and symbolism. His plan behind the concept design is striking. Like in a Russian religious icon, the Pelican egg combines various events separated in time within the realm of one object. Everything within the egg has a symbolic aspect. The interplay of symbols and meanings creates a dramatic performance of which Fabergé was a great master. It barely stands upright when opened, highlighting further the care involved in handling such a precious object. The egg unfolds to the delight of its beholder who interacts with it by looking, reading, turning, and supporting each memorable event from the history of the Office of Empress Maria. The inscriptions play a guiding role in this handling process. The Craftsman, as he was known by his colleagues, placed the phrases of the two departments of the Office in strategic spots on the rims of the miniature frames so that the biblical quotations could be read both in the folded and unfolded positions. In both situations the inscriptions are separated (or perhaps united) by the sculpture of the pelican in the nest; Visit this vine sounds like an outcry for help while Ye shall live also recalls a favorable promise. Without any doubt one is a cry for help by the Russian people and another is a reassuring response of the Russian monarch. As the owner of the egg moves on to open the surprise, as the miniatures of the founded institutes and orphanages unfold, an additional dramatic effect is observed: the existence and reality of these institutions is the best proof that the promise has been fulfilled.

To my knowledge these biblical verses are not united within any other item neither in Russia nor in the Western world at that time. It was a must for Carl Fabergé to include the two of them within the realm of one egg for commemorative purposes. Fabergé and his team solved this task brilliantly in the creation of additional meanings and effects that surely were appreciated by the Royal Family and by the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in particular.


Correct translation helped to satisfy the seemingly irresolvable questions related to the way of thought, design, and meaning of the work of the Craftsman Carl Fabergé. Unfortunate consequences of the incorrect translation were that the real intellectual value and the place of the egg as a historical monument were obscured. The vague phrase made the reader look for a hidden biblical meaning, open to wide interpretations, breaking the general notion that all Fabergé art is always clear in its meaning and intent. Abstract concepts and heavy religious imagery is not typical of any of the Easter eggs. Connecting these two phrases with the celebrated Office’s mottos puts everything in its place – the egg is concise, symbolic, and high art, at once an unbelievably exquisite Imperial Easter gift and at the same time full of historical truth.

The translation also gives us an opportunity to once again return to the history of public education and social and charitable services in Russia and, in wider context, the world. The Office of Empress Maria was among the first and the best in the world in educating young people, especially, as was mentioned, young women. Generations of well-educated people were brought up and helped by the system. Traditions of the Russian intelligentsia had their roots there, and remained strong and alive despite Bolshevik destruction after 1917 ((For example, top Moscow technical institution in the Soviet time was the Moscow State Technical University (Bauman’s School). This prestigious University was in fact the Imperial Moscow Technical School simply renamed after the October Revolution. This school was created for the orphans living at the Moscow Foundling House at the end of the 18th century. The Technical School was so successful that in 1868 it received status of the University. School had a tremendous influence on developing of many different sectors of the Russian industry before the Revolution, and, keeping high standards in education, it continued the tradition in the Soviet and post-Soviet time.)). New authorities closed and destroyed the Office and tried their best to wipe out any memory about it, spreading disinformation. This explains why few people, even in modern Russia, are aware of this significant piece of history that could serve as a proud example of progressive ideals put into practice. There is huge potential in studying the success of these services provided by Office as we continue to face many challenges today in the improvement of the human condition in Russia, the United States, and globally.


© 2011 Elena A. Lioubimova ((Elena A. Lioubimova on & Tatiana Fabergé SA, Geneva
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