The Hermitage Museum: 13 Masterpieces you can see in 2 hours

August 12, 2015

During our cruise in the Baltic Sea, one of the things I most looked forward to was visiting the Hermitage Museum, one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. It has the largest collection of paintings in the world.  The museum, located on the banks of the Neva River, was founded by Catherine the Great in 1764 and has been open to the public since 1852.  (Source) The museum occupies six buildings, but the main complex consists of five buildings plus a theatre.

Hermitage-main-complex          Aerial photo of the main complex downloaded from the Hermitage Museum’s web site.

Even if you had a week to spend at the Hermitage Museum, you could not see everything in the museum.  There are 3,102,917 items in the collection, but not all are on display at the same time. Our tour guide gave us a 2-hour tour of some of the main highlights, from which I chose 13 to highlight here. I hope to someday return to St. Petersburg and visit the Hermitage again, as well as other places of interest I did not get to see.

All pictures herein were taken by myself or my husband, Dale Berman, unless otherwise specified.

The largest building of the Hermitage Museum is the former Winter Palace of the tsars. It is this building that one first enters the museum.
The largest building of the Hermitage Museum is the former Winter Palace of the tsars. It is this building that one first enters the museum.

If you look very closely along the edge of the building pictured above, you can see a massive line of people waiting to get into the museum, which opens at 10:30.  This line continued down the edge of the museum and around the corner for at least a block! We were able to enter at 9:30, a huge advantage, partly because we were able to take pictures without hordes of people in the way!

I will list the 13 items in the order that we saw them, which should allow for a somewhat continuous flow between the two main buildings, the Winter Palace and the Small Hermitage.

  1. The Jordan staircase of the Winter Palace – The main staircase of the museum is called the Jordan staircase, because on the Feast of Epiphany, the tsar would descend this staircase for the ceremony of the “Blessing of the Waters” of the Neva River, an Orthodox celebration of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River. (Note: Some of my information comes from The Magnificent Hermitage Museum: One-day Guide to 10 masterpieces of the St. Petersburg Museum, by Larisa Levanova, e-book downloaded to my Kindle from Amazon.com.)

Jordan StaircaseDSC_0555Ceiling fresco above the staircase

2. Small Throne Room

The Small Throne Room, decked out in red, was built for Tsar Nicholas in 1833 by the French architect August de Montferrand (the same one that designed St. Isaac’s Cathedral). In the alcove behind the throne is a large painting dedicated to Peter the Great, flanked by jasper columns. The floors are covered in inlaid wood patterns. During the days of the tsars, diplomats would pay their respects to the tsar on New Year’s Day in this room.

Note the insignia on the throne and above the painting: it is a two-headed eagle, one of the symbols of the Russian royal family.
Note the insignia on the throne and above the painting: it is a two-headed eagle, one of the symbols of the Russian royal family.

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Wood floor design in the Small Throne Room
Wood floor design in the Small Throne Room

3. Hall of generals’ portraits

KODAK Digital Still CameraKODAK Digital Still CameraDSC_05874. Wooden floor designs – The wood floors are also masterpieces of inlaid wood in a variety of beautiful patterns. The floors pictured are located in the first few rooms we went into.

KODAK Digital Still Camera KODAK Digital Still Camera5. Peacock Clock – Try to time your viewing of this clock to occur on the hour or half hour (which we did not) – bells chime, the golden peacock in the glass case spreads its plumage and its companions, a rooster and an owl, also move around. All we saw was the peacock sitting on a tall tree stump, and below are small creatures and mushrooms, all sculpted of metal. The actual timepiece mechanism is inside the largest, flat red mushroom. A dragonfly which serves as the second hand sits atop the clock mushroom.

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In the middle is the mushroom inside which is the clock mechanism. The dragonfly on top of the mushroom marks the seconds.
In the middle is the mushroom inside which is the clock mechanism. The dragonfly on top of the mushroom marks the seconds.

6. Tile floor mosaic – One floor that was roped off was entirely made of mosaic tiles depicting a circle of mythical beasts and human hunters – spectacular!

KODAK Digital Still Camera7. Rembrandt painting: Return of the Prodigal Son

20150812_0212378. Leonardo da Vinci paintings:  Madonna Litta and Madonna Benois (Madonna and Child). There are two small da Vincis in this gallery; my favorite was the Madonna Benois (Madonna and Child). The Madonna Litta pictures the Virgin suckling her child,framed by two arched windows.

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9. The Rafael Loggias. Empress Catherine II commissioned a replica of the Raphael Loggias at the Vatican. A loggia is a covered corridor, open on one side with vaulted ceilings and archways. This exact copy was painted after that by Raphael and his pupils, by a group of Italian artists. The paintings on the ceiling depict Biblical scenes, and the walls are covered with ornamental paintings with themes taken from mythology, the natural world, and the arts.

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KODAK Digital Still Camera KODAK Digital Still Camera KODAK Digital Still CameraKODAK Digital Still Camera KODAK Digital Still Camera

10. Michelangelo sculpture:  The Crouching Boy.

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11. Rembrandt painting: Danae. This painting has an interesting story behind it. In the 1980s, a visitor to the museum, apparently offended by the painting’s nudity, threw acid onto the painting and slashed the canvas several times with a knife! It took 14 years to restore the painting. If you look closely, you can still see faint rivulets where the acid caused the paint to run, but other than that, only the artist would know the difference. Fortunately, Rembrandt had a tendency to paint in layers, so the damaged top layer was removed and the painting touched up. The cloth that covers Danae’s calves and feet in the original was opaque; now it is translucent. Other than that, the restoration was nearly perfect.

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12. Statue of Jupiter. A hall containing various Greek and Roman sculptures, including Aphrodite (Venus of Taurida), a Greek marble statue believed to date from the 2nd century B.C. and found in Rome in 1719, also contained the formidable statue of the god Jupiter, from the Roman Empire, estimated 1st century B.C. This 16 ton, 3.5 meter tall statue was brought from Italy in 1861 and had to be placed on a special foundation. This Jupiter is one of the largest antique sculptures in any museum in the world. In ancient Rome, Jupiter represented loyalty, keeper of the borders and defender of liberty. In his left hand, he holds a scepter and on his right dances the goddess of victory, Victoria. Jupiter enforced his will by thunder, lightning, and the flight of birds, represented by the eagle at his side with its wings spread.

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13. Giant jasper vase, the “Queen of Vases”.  It was carved out of a single piece of jasper and it weighs 19.2 tons (heavier than Jupiter!). This vase was carved in the Kolyvan region of Russia, some 5,000 km from the capital of St. Petersburg. In February 1843, 154 horses were harnessed to a giant sledge to haul the vase to the capital. In the fall of 1849, it took 770 workers to put it into place in the palace!

The Queen of Vases, made of one piece of jasper.DSC_0687

There is a cafeteria in the museum for relaxing during or at the end of your visit!

 

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