olga nicholaevna: an important russian gilded silver and enamel icon triptych, ovchinnikov, moscow, 1895
This impressive icon triptych with St. Olga was presented to Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna by the citizens of the town of Tsarskoe Selo on the occasion of the birth of their first child, Grand Duchess Olga Nicholaevna, on November 3, 1895. The icon is of particular significance because the imperial couple's favorite home, the Alexander Palace, is located in Tsarskoe Selo and the young Grand Duchess whose birth it commemorates was born there. The icon, in other words, was a gift from the imperial couple's "neighbors" and most likely hung in the family's living quarters in the Alexander Palace.
Nicholas's diary entry for the day recalls both the worry and happiness the momentous day held for him: "A day I will remember forever, during which I suffered a very, very great deal. [...] At exactly 9 o'clock a baby's cry was heard and we all breathed a sigh of relief! With a prayer we named the daughter sent to us by God 'Olga'! When all the anxiety was over, and the terrors had ceased, there was simply a blessed feeling at what had come to pass!" (A. Maylunas and S. Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra, Their Own Story, New York, 1997, p. 130).
Nicholas and Alexandra shared a deep piety and traditional values, so it is no surprise that they named their first daughter in honor of the tenth-century Russian St. Olga, wife of the Kievan Great Prince Igor. She is considered "equal to the Apostles" in the Russian church because of her efforts to Christianize Russia's still-pagan population, as the cross in her hands makes clear. Although she did not live to see the official "Baptism of Russia" - her son and successor Svyatoslav remained a pagan - she founded many important churches, including the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev. She was, therefore, the perfect model for a pious female member of the Imperial family.
A portable, folding icon, or skladen, was a traditional gift to newborn children and their parents. It would usually include a central image of the child's name saint and perhaps those of the mother and father. Certainly, the tiny Grand Duchess and her parents are known to have received several examples of portable, folding icons with images of St. Olga flanked by St. Nicholas the Wonderworker and St. Alexandra. The composition of this triptych - St. Olga flanked by the Great Martyr St. Catherine and the Mother of God of the Sign - suggests that the commissioners were trying to avoid the more typical formula.
The Great Martyr St. Catherine of Alexandria was an appropriate choice for one of the side panels for several reasons. As a Grand Duchess, Olga Nicholaevna automatically became a member of the Order of St. Catherine, an honorific awarded only to women and which was second only to the Russian Order of St. Andrew in terms of prestige. St. Catherine is also called upon for relief and assistance during difficult births; Alexandra Feodorovna was in labor for twenty hours with the ten pound infant, a birth that both Nicholas and his sister, Xenia Alexandrovna, remembered as "terrifying" in its complications. It is possible that this fact was made public through the official Court Circular or unofficial gossip.
The intended meaning of the panel on the left with Mother of God of the Sign is less clear. This image of the Virgin orans, or praying with raised hands in the ancient manner, with an image of Christ on her breast appears in the upper, or prophets', row of iconostases flanked by numerous Old Testament prophets. This is meant to refer to the Divine Incarnation of Christ as the fulfillment of the prophecies, particularly that of Isaiah: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel" (Isaiah VII, 14). The image referred to the promise of salvation for all peoples, but also made subtle reference to the imperial's couple responsibility for quickly providing a son and heir to the throne. Although the birth of a healthy daughter was a great relief, as Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna summed up in her diary, "A great joy, although it's a pity it's not a son!"
For other triptych icons presented on the occasion of the birth of imperial children, see Géza von Habsburg, et al, Fabergé in America, New York, 1996, pp. 62-63 (an icon of St. Aleksei) and Fabergé: Treasures from the Kremlin, Las Vegas, 2003, pp. 180-181 (an icon of St. Olga).