Ever since I was a little girl I have dreamed of visiting The Hermitage, the winter palace of Catherine the Great that consists of five interconnected buildings, the largest of which is the Winter Palace that gloriously picturesque turquoise building.
I featured how special it was to visit The Hermitage Museum in my ’48 Hours to St Petersburg’ post right here but as discussed in that post, I just had so much more I wanted to share, and especially images to share. However now, as I’m writing this, I find it impossible to actually put into words just how magnificent this gallery is and how blessed I feel to have visited. Even if you’re not an art history fan, I challenge anyone not to gasp in awe when you enter the enormous Palace Square and see what is one of the world’s greatest if not the greatest art museum in the world.
Its 3 million exhibits (only a tiny fraction of which are on display at any one time) include treasures from every century in history and every corner of the world. Think of any great artist and you’re sure to find your favourite be it Rembrandt or Picasso. The problem is it would take you years to see it all so you’ll just have to follow my example and head for the highlights. And because it is considered to be one of the greatest collections of art in the world and that I believe is just as impressive to the untrained eye and a dream-come-true for art enthusiasts like myself.
What really makes this place special is the breathtaking splendour of its interior decoration. Every room and staircase is a jewel of architectural delight. But what really makes this museum special is that it is housed in the former Winter Palace of the Russian Tsars so the building alone is steeped in history and stories.
The Winter Palace was the official residence of the Romanov Tsars from 1762 until the revolution in 1917 and it alone contains over 1,000 rooms, 1,900 windows, 1,700 doors and 100 staircases. There’s no way I can possibly begin to explain how beautiful it was inside or how much it meant to explore. I just feel so, so lucky I finally got to experience this museum like I’ve wanted to ever since I was a little girl. In fact looking back on these still brings happy tears to my eyes. In order to do justice to my experience, I’m going to create a seperate post with many more photos and information for those as interested as me in the arts.
When you first enter the enormous Palace Square you feel as if you are stepping onto a film set and yet this is real- it is the very heart and soul of the city.
Driven by a thirst for knowledge and a quest for the throne, it was Catherine The Great (for more about Catherine II you might like this post from my travels of Catherine’s Palace) who propelled herself to the role of Empress of Russia and for thirty-four years, reigned over a golden age of Russian culture, founding what would become the State Hermitage Museum and transforming St. Petersburg into one of Europe’s cultural centres
Catherine’s main interests were in education and culture. She read widely and corresponded with many of the prominent thinkers of the era, including Voltaire and Diderot. Catherine was a patron of the arts, literature
Palace Square has played a unique role in Russian history for gatherings both celebratory and confrontational. It was the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1905, it witnessed Lenin’s Bolsheviks seize power in 1917, saw Leningraders celebrate the end of the War and in 1991 thousands rallied to support Boris Yeltsin.Today it is used to celebrate New Year and as a venue for rock concerts. In the centre is the enormous Alexander Column which took 2,400 workmen 2 years to complete and today stands simply by gravity as a celebration to the defeat of Napoleon.
The magnificent curved building of the General Staff Headquarters dominates the square and the 2 wings are connected by a arch crowned by a sculpture of victory and leading to the Nevsky prospekt, the main street in St Petersburg. Once housing the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Finance today it houses military items and 20th century French art.
Without question the most important building in Palace Square is the Hermitage, one of the largest and finest museums on our planet. Not only are its 3 million items an encyclopedia of world culture, what really makes it so special is that it is housed in one the most breathtakingly beautiful buildings I have ever seen.
The most impressive building is the Winter Palace, the former royal residence of the Tsars. Catherine the Great added the Little and Large Hermitages to house among other things her 2,500 paintings and 10,000 drawings. She then built the Hermitage Theatre to enjoy other artistic pleasures. Nicholas I who was also a keen collector commissioned the New Hermitage and in 1852 opened part of the collection to the public. Today the public can enjoy the 5 -10% of the Hermitage’s treasure that goes on display in its 5 interconnected buildings. The museum has seen massive changes and survived the Revolution, bombing and damage from World War II.
Let’s go inside now but I must warn you it’s not the easiest museum to navigate! You can get a plan from the information desk, get an audio guide or go on a tour as I did. Basically it is organised by country and era. On the first or ground floor you can find works from antiquity including spectacular Roman and Egyptian art. The treasure gallery is divided into 2 sections. One one side of tre entrance are the Siberian Antiquities and the greek and Oriental Gold collection. On the other side you can see The European Gold Collection and see the Kolyvan Vase carved out of jaspar. It is so large at 19 tonnes that the Large Hermitage was built around it. While you admire the exhibits take time to enjoy the fantastic interior; in this part you see the Hall of 20 columns.
We now enter perhaps the most spectacular space in the Winter Palace and climb the Jordan Staircase, a sweeping white marble Baroque masterpiece. It was here that the imperial family watched the Epiphany ceremony of baptism in the River Neva, celebrating Christ’s baptism in the Jordan.
On the second floor are the rooms used by the imperial families including the rooms the last Romanov children lived in, staterooms and ballrooms. The North facade overlooks the Neva. The largest room is found here, the Great or Nicholas Hall used for the first ball of the season when 5,00 guests would gather. This leads to the Malachite Room where over 2 tonnes of ornamental stone
In the West wing is the Gothic Library with oak panelling and a Dark Corridor containing French and Flemish tapestries. The Golden Drawing Room is gilded throughout on its walls and ceiling and contains carved gems from Western Europe.
On the South facade, facing Palace Square is the White Hall retaining decorations from the wedding of Alexander II in 1841, French Rooms housing 18th century French art and the Alexander Hall where Gothic vaulting is combined with Neo-Classical stucco bas-reliefs on military themes.
Other rooms on this floor are the Small Throne Room or Peter the Great Hall which houses a silver-gilt English throne and is dedicated to peter I. Many ot the rooms have witnessed key events in the nation’s history including the Field Marshal’s Hall where fire broke out in 1837, the Armorial Hall with its vast gilded columns used as a field hospital in world war I and the Small Dining Room where the Bolsheviks arrested the Provisional Government in 1917.
The majority of the museum’s vast art collection is displayed on the second floor. There is French art of the 15-18th centuries including works by Poussin, Lorrain and Fragonard. The “Apostles of Peter and Paul” is one of the El Greco pieces in the Spanish collection. British art is known for its large collection of portraits. The German, Dutch and Flemish collection is renowned for its quality and quantity and includes vast numbers of works by Rubens such as “Bacchus” and “the Union of Earth and Water”, van Dyck and Rembrandt including his “Abraham’s Sacrifice” and “Return of the Prodigal Son”. Italian works includes Titian’s St Sebastian, Michelangelo, Raphael’s “Holy Family” and “Madonna Conestabile”, Leonardo de Vinci’s “Madonna Benois” and “Little Madonna”, Giorgione’s “Judith” and Caravaggio’s “Young Man with a Lute”.
We now enter the Little Hermitage to see the Pavilion Hall, an enormous gilded room with 30 chandeliers and Roman and Byzantine mosaics on the floor. It houses of the museum’s highlights, the 18th century Peacock Clock. When the clock is wound up bells can be heard, the peacock spreads its feathers and the cockerel crows.
I wandered around in a pure state of enchantment at every single element to this grand, beautiful place full of treasures that are more than the eyes and mind can take in at once. It’s an absolute dream to look back on these memories from my day at The Hermitage in St Petersburg and in my opinion, a must-have thing to do if you’re staying in the city. And if you’re after some extra reading, I highly recommend ‘The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia’ by Susan Jaques a truly fascinating account of Catherine II and the arts.
I traveled with Volga Dream through Cox and Kings for my Russian adventures and couldn’t recommend them more for a truly perfect itinerary. We were actually based longer in beautiful St Petersburg for a few days and hence were able to have the joy of experiencing this spot for half a day, which I would recommend to any other budding visitors.
If you’ve just stumbled across this post, you can recap the whole of my Russian travels right here that I took with Volga Dream. The first stop was the magnificent St. Petersburg. then we set sail for Rural Russia with the first stop the charming Svirstroy, then the otherworldy Kizhi Island, the fascinating Goritsy the beauty of Yaroslavl, to the breathtaking churches and history of Uglich and finally to the cosmopolitan Moscow.