Russian Heraldry within the European Context:
The State Eagle as an Example
heraldic tradition contains a lot of devices and badges marginal to heraldry and
to heraldic art, its norms and customs. Indeed, the heraldic tradition in
some countries has or has had such a marginal character and sometimes it is
very difficult to define how applicable the heraldic criteria of
understanding and research are to such tradition. This also applies to some
periods of the heraldic history of Russia.
We can liken
Russian heraldry to a labourer arriving late at the vineyard (Matthew
20:1-15). The "heraldisation" of the
Muscovite State began in the 17th century, especially the second half of it.
At that time there already existed in Russia a preheraldic
tradition of emblems which sometimes were similar to (and even imitative of)
Western coats of arms but essentially such emblems represented the domestic
traditions, being far from heraldic art. Nevertheless, this difference of
genres was not clearly understood either by Western observers or by Russians.
As a result, the tendency to neglect the specific features of heraldry became
usual even for some heraldists. No wonder that
passages on "ancient" Russian heraldry, as well as the preheraldic understanding of coats of arms, often
appeared (and appear now) in historical works. It is especially typical of
historians who analyze Russian heraldry first and foremost as being a part of
the national history - from V. Tatishchev
(1686-1750) and A. Lakier (1824-1870) to our
contemporaries N. Soboleva and E. Kamentseva. On the other hand, G. Vilinbakhov
refuses to appreciate this and tries not to use the term "heraldry"
in its narrow armorial sense. This approach would be sufficient only if
Russian coats of arms were of no heraldic interest(1).
problems, present and past, of Russian heraldic thought and practice can be
illustrated by the history of the Russian eagle - not because it is the first
to come to mind but because its history clearly reflects the development of
especially N. Likhachev(2) and G. Alef(3), maintain that the Byzantine eagle was adopted by
the Grand Duke Ivan (John) III first of all not as a sign of Byzantine
heritage but as an antithetical analogy to the heraldic eagle of the Holy
Roman Empire, under the strong influence of armorial practice. It determined
the life and changes of the Russian eagle Some different versions were in
parallel use, each imitating Western forms. Some of these disappeared as
being too dissimilar to armorial models, for example the version with closed
beaks. From its adoption the eagle usually appeared on the reverse of state
seals, the obverse being adorned with a horseman killing a symbolical wyvern
or dragon. This horseman represented the Sovereign himself(4).
Ivan the Terrible (John IV) was the first to introduce a new kind of state seal(5) with a composition combining both sides. The image
of the Tsar was placed on the eagle's bosom as an escutcheon of pretence but
it remained a stylized portrait There was a strong influence of heraldry but
without a deep appreciation of heraldic principles.
of Ivan III (1497).
On the Great
State Seal of Ivan the Terrible the eagle was surrounded by emblems, mostly
beasts, symbolizing the provinces of the Muscovite State, with an artificial
inclusion of some poorly reproduced coats of arms indicating the Western
territorial pretentions of Russia. A perfect Swedo-Polish
analogy to this emblematic miscellany is represented in the lecture of Dr. A.
Heymowski (herein). Such an emblematic exchange was
founded first and foremost on sphragistical
practice (so coats of arms until the 18th century were
often defined in Russia as "seals"). The specimens of one genre
were understood in a context formed by another genre.
Great State Seal of 1667 (reproduced from the matrix).
Making a design
for the Great State Seal in 1667 the Muscovite artist G. Blagushin
also tried to imitate the splendour of the seals of Western emperors, this
time surrounding the eagle not with territorial emblems but with small
landscape compositions, groups of warriors and ornamentation(6). The official
description of this seal is interesting, being included in the state act
issued in the same 1667. The eagle is already called a coat of arms but the
colours were not fixed and interpretation is doubtfully heraldic. For
example, the three crowns explained as being a symbol of the three Tartar
realms conquered by Russia(7). It is strange that N.
Soboleva considers this text to be absolutely
heraldic, a blason(8).
analogy for this composition is on the state seal of Tsar Alexey (Alexis) for
Great State Seal of Tsar Alexey for the Ukraine.
representation of the horseman was not uniform. There were two main versions:
one with a spear and a monster (sometimes a dragon and sometimes a wyvern)
and another with a sword and without a symbolic enemy. This latter form was
especially close to the horseman of Lithuania.
On a small
personal seal of Tsar Feodor (Theodore) III who reigned
from 1676 to 1682 the Russian eagle for the first time assumed a completely
heraldic form. It was represented on an escutcheon, the third crown being on
a tournament helmet and a mantling was also added(10).
It was Feodor who abolished the old complicated system of honours and
privileges called mestnichestvo: "the
place system". According to this quite "oriental" system the
idea of being noble was connected with the holding of hereditary office and
not with ancient origin. There was no place for heraldry in that system and
probably its abolition was the reason for family coats of arms becoming
fashionable in Russia as an expression of genealogical pride. From the reign ot Feodor the use of coats of arms became normal, his own
seal being an example.
But still no
specific colours were established for the eagle. On banners and on
illuminated charters it was usually depicted in gold or in natural colours on
a white background but there was also a number of other versions in use with
different backgrounds and including white, black and even green eagles. All
these norms were valid at the beginning of Peter the Great's
reign; he also established and used until 1700 a personal flag with a golden
eagle on the Russian white-blue-red flag(11). We can
note in reference to the eagle of the 16th and 17th centuries that it was an unheraldic emblem, rapidly developing under the influence
of the Western heraldic analogies but still without real heraldisation.
There is one
more fact to be noted. From the late 17th century the intricate symbolic
compositions, the so-called conclusions, imported by Ukrainian clergy, were
fashionable in Moscow. No wonder that the role of the eagle in conclusions
was of great importance. The illustration in Truby...,
a homiletic book by L. Baranowicz, published in
1674, is an early Russian example of the genre(12).
Here the eagle is represented three times. In the middle of the page it has
its usual appearance, only the customary regalia being replaced by a sword
with three laurel wreathes and a sceptre with three eyes. The symbols of the
four evangelists are next to him, namely a winged lion and ox and then a
simplified form of the double-headed eagle for St. John and the Tsar on
horseback killing a dragon for St. Matthew. Lastly, in the lower part of the
picture the tsarist eagle acts as a background for the Dove of the Holy
Spirit. Our Lady blesses the eagle, Her crown being also the middle crown of
the eagle. All the details are annotated with phrases from Holy Scripture.
The eagle often appeared in conclusions as a background or a frame for the
most esteemed images, both secular (a tsar, two symbolic hearts of co-reigning
monarchs etc.) and spiritual (a Crucifixion, an icon). The richness and
freedom of the imagery of the Russian Baroque also influenced heraldry
itself. We can compare the picture from Baranowicz's
book with the coat of arms granted by Peter the Great to Count Zotov. The heart Gules transfixed by two arrows Argent saltirewise from the original Zotov
coat of arms is adorned here with eagle's head, wings, claws and tail Or and
charged with a "stone" with seven eyes and a fess wavy. Other
attributes are also added(13). Essentially it is an heraldic conclusion. Both the difference in the genres
and the similarity are clear.
Like Ivan III
before, Peter the Great wanted to use all this
emblematic heritage for the demonstration of his parity with the Holy Roman Emperor.
The eagle could be used for this purpose effectively only by being made more
heraldic and this was clear to such a westerniser
As a result of
one of the early experiments with a public and official use of the eagle as
arms, in 1699 appeared a coin bearing an escutcheon charged with the eagle
with three crowns. The escutcheon is surrounded by the collar of the
newly founded Order of St Andrew and surmounted by a fantastic tiara with a
fur lining and three coronets composed of fleurs-de-lis and various leaves(14). It was quite a witty but unique heraldic
version of traditional tsarist crowns and caps. Another form, an imitation of
some Western heraldic crowns, was frequently used at the time.
Small State Seal of Peter the Great (1710s) with the eagle surrounded by
In the early
18th century a collection of state seals of different sizes but of identical
design was made for Peter. Here the representation is more westernised. The
crowns are nearer to the continental royal ones and the third crown is absent
from the shield(15). The placing of escutcheons on
the eagle's wings seems to be inspired by some German and Polish examples.
Soon the main royal crown and then lesser crowns were replaced by imperial
ones, this latter version being common long before the adoption of the
imperial title in 1721.
In rendering the
state eagle more heraldic Peter had to define the tinctures. This matter was
settled by him in contradiction to proto-heraldic tradition and the German
imperial tinctures, Sable and Or, were introduced(16).
Lakier supposed that it happened only after Peter's
death mentioning some later acts(17) but in fact
this reform was carried out much earlier and it is notable that the sources
which brought about this change-over were still not fully heraldic. Around
1700 or 1701 Peter abolished the tsarist personal flags with eagles in
natural colours. The new personal tsarist flag for the Navy was yellow with a
black state eagle holding in its beaks and dexter
claw, instead of a sceptre, three realistically depicted maps of three actual
seas. Later a part of the Baltic region was conquered and the orb was also
replaced by a map(18). The inescutcheon
with the horseman representing the monarch was preserved but was strangely
interpreted. From the time of Ivan III both the horseman and the eagle were
symbols of the Russian or Muscovite state Peter abolished the term "The
Muscovite State" so the toponyms
"Moscow" and "Russia" were separated. The eagle was
understood as a symbol of Russia and the tsar horseman as one of Moscow. And,
moreover, the horseman was proclaimed to be St. George(19).
This type of interpretation of the state's emblem was absolutely alien to the
Russian tradition but usual amongst foreigners.
Peter even laid
down that the horseman with sword was St. George without the dragon and
supported all these new interpretations by making an historical note on the
matter, full of mistakes and fabrications(20).
There were also
various methods, more or less heraldic, of placing the badge and collar of
the St. Andrew order in the state coat of arms.
Russian heraldic officer, Count Santi, made a
blazon for the state eagle. In the contemporary, terminologically curious
Russian translation the black tincture was called a sandy colour and so on.
At the end of the blazon Santi noted that
"this coat of arms is not such as it has to be". This blazon
There was no
state act establishing a state coat of arms until 1726 when the Senate passed
an act for the new seal of Catherine I, the reigning widow of Peter. The
description of the arms for this seal determined some main elements and three
main tinctures, namely Sable for the eagle, Or for the field and Gules for
the inescutcheon(22). The seal was made without any graphical indication
of colours, so their determination in the Senate's act means establishing a
coat of arms by means of the establishing of an
heraldic seal. This practice, continuing the pre-heraldic tradition of sphragislical perception of coats of arms, was used even
The first state
act properly heraldic, the so-called Muennich's
Armorial, was confirmed by the sovereign only in 1730. The eagle is depicted
and emblazoned thus: Or, a double-headed eagle Sable, armed, legged,
beaked and crowned with three Imperial crowns and holding in its claws the
regalia, all of the first, the central crown infulated
Azur; over all on an escutcheon Gules, St. George
proper vested Or on a horse Argent killing a dragon Sable. The whole
achievement is ensigned with an Imperial crown(23).
The third crown
of the eagle is a charge here, probably because of the oval form of the
shield. From Peter the Great and till the time of Paul I the state seals of
the Russian Empire bore a representation of the eagle between six
escutcheons, this design being first used by Peter the Great and heraldically
developing the form of the seal of Tsar Alexey. But the eagle itself was
still without a large shield, so the third crown was included in the
The fineline between heraldry and sphragistical
design was not clear and this position of the third crown was understood as
normal for the eagle, both in a shield and without it. In the same way the sphragistical composition with provincial arms
surrounding the eagle was understood (and later used) as the first full
achievement of the Empire.
In 1781 a new
project for a "coat of arms for the City of Moscow" was prepared by
the Heroldmeister Volkov,
an active dilettante: the colours were changed here. New tinctures were also
introduced to the Muscovite Grand-ducal arms on the eagle's breast. It shows
not only that Russian territorial coats of arms were connected with toponyms more than with juridical bodies but also that
the influence of the prehcraldic perception of
emblems colours was still strong. So the Lithuanian heraldic horseman, being in fact of the same origin, for a long time could
not (and cannot even now) choose exact tinctures for himself.
The same Volkov was ordered to add provincial arms, or a part of
them, to the newly composed coats of arms of smaller towns. The inclusion of
a part usually involved a dimidiation (per fess or by another division). But
for Volkov this method seemed too boring so for the
towns of Kostroma province he used not the coat of arms of Kostroma - Azure,
a Lymphad Or on a waves Proper - but Azure,
a Lymphad Or as seen from the rear on waves Proper.
Volkov called it "a part of a coat of
arms"(24). He understood his task but in a proto-heraldic manner.
granted a lot of coats of arms to cities. Some ol
these were good heraldry and even masterpieces,
especially designed by von Enden or composed
earlier by Count Santi and Count Munnich and then re-granted by Catherine.
But usually in
coats of arms designed for small insignificant towns there was simply a beast
or an object such as the bar of soap of Shuya city.
Beasts, usually Proper, depicted realistically, were essentially new versions
of old animal emblems. The interest in nature and geography, so typical of
the time, only supported this tendency. But the arms landscapes are
especially notable. They were coats of arms in name only and through the use
of an escutcheon with a provincial emblem as a frame. All this would be no
more than bad heraldry if it were not a result of the influence of other
emblematic systems, perhaps more popular than heraldry itself.
In 1799 Pavel (Paul) I was proclaimed the Grand Master ol the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, so he replaced the
badges of St. Andrew by a Maltese cross ensigned
with a Grand Master's crown(25).
The old form of
the seal with the collar of St. Andrew and with escutcheons surrounding the
eagle was abolished but not forgotten. The same composition developed into a
project for a Grand Coat of Arms of Russia prepared under the supervision of
Paul himself(26). This time a great number of
provincial arms was to be used. Compiling this
achievement one had to choose between two main models, the
"Austrian" one with all quarterings in an
escutcheon placed on the eagle's breast, and the "Prussian" one.
The latter was preferred, not only as a more trivial one or because Paul
sympathised with Prussia but especially because this version would preserve
the composition with the eagle surrounded by shields. The central escutcheon
with the state eagle was surrounded by eight escutcheons (dynasty of
Holstein-Gottorp, three grand duchies and four tsardoms) posed in orb and the big shield contained the quarterings reflecting the rest of the Imperial title.
At the time a
number of principalities had more than one version of their own arms. No
wonder that in the new achievement absolutely new versions sometimes
appeared. However, not only the old composition but also old forms of crowns
were preserved and even supplemented in the same style. The integration of
the Russian tradition into the European heraldic context was made quite
successfully but not without some mistakes and barbarisms. Probably that is
why Paul confirmed the manifesto about this achievement and its parts but
neither published nor used it. In 1801 Paul was murdered and all the versions
of the state arms established by him were replaced by the older form of the eagle(27).
There is a
popular belief that the system of heraldry and the heraldic norms were artifically introduced in Russia and that Russian emblems
were then arranged according to that system. But as we can see there was too
little of a system in Russian heraldry at the time; it was composed of
singular achievements and heraldic acts, sometimes contradicting one another.
This applies to state heraldry as well as to all public and family coats of
The arms of the
Counts Sheremetev are a good example. They appeared
as a deformation of a Polish prototype and were used in several inconsistent
versions incorporating the elements of different emblematic systems and
traditions. Finally, an attempt at heraldic correction, made on matriculation
in the late 18th century, only made the irregularity greater(28).
happened with the state eagle. Its further history is marked by two heraldic
crises? two recurrences of the pre-heraldic
In the second
decade of the 19th century, as a parallel to the state arms and more and more
often instead of the state arms an unheraldic eagle
was used. Its form was influenced both by the Napoleonic eagle and by the unheraldic form of the eagle of Prussia. The details of
this emblem were not constant, the number of crowns and the objects in the
claws being changed often. This Hoheitszeichen,
even officially, was sometimes called the state arms and in any case it was
considered the state eagle just as the heraldic form was. In coats of arms,
both public and personal, this eagle appeared sporadically as an emblem of
patronage, possession or as an honourable augmentation. Some authors tried to
ignore the unheraldic character of that stage of
the eagle's development(29). Nevertheless, its
history directly continues the late preheraldic
tradition showing an emblem used like a coat of arms, designed in a
fashionable style, this time not heraldic, and imitating western models, this
time also not completely heraldic.
example of the eagle's use: the arms of the city of Mozdok,
granted in 1842; in the upper part of shield the "unright"
form of the State Eagle on a mountain is reproduced from the arms of the
Caucasian province, granted in 1828.
In the 1830s Nikolay (Nicholas) I abolished the wide use of the unheraldic forms that remained only as a part of some
badges and emblems. Under this monarch the six escutcheons of the main tsardoms and principalities appeared on the eagle's wings
again. This version was a base for projects by Baron Koehne
who was commissioned to put all the Russian heraldic practice in order. In
l856 the arms prepared by him were authorised, namely the great, middle and
small state arms, the great and small personal achievements for all members
of the dynasty, the heraldic designs for state seals and for seal boxes as
well as for the seals of the state authorities, central and local(30). The
small state arms contained the eagle with shields on its wings but in the
great and middle state arms Koehne preserved
another composition, an eagle surrounded by escutcheons; namely the eagle was
placed in the helmed shield held by supporters and adorned with a Wappenzelt, the whole composition being surrounded
by nine freely soaring escutcheons. Unfortunately, this conception was not
"incarnated" successfully: Koehne's
heraldic knowledge and taste were wide but not deep. For example, Koehne recognized inescutchcons
as charges and added to the Muscovite shield a narrow bordure Or trying to
divide the field Gules and the eagle Sable. The same was done in the arms of
the Taurian tsardom; the inescutcheon in the arms of Holstein remained
"incurable", and finally Koehne tried to
abolish it completely!(31). The scholastic
understanding of heraldic rules forced Koehne also
to turn the Muscovite horseman to the dexter. The
small coats of arms of some Grand Dukes were differenced by bordures which
disappeared in their great arms and the arms of an elder son of an heir was
differenced by a coronet gorging the eagle in the shield, this being not a
mark of cadency but a change of charges. The
precedence of the provincial arms was out of order,
this was probably the most ill-conceived part of the arms composed by Koehne. The traditional irregularity of details of
provincial arms produced some new versions.
Koehne's reform was not popular in Russia. In 1882 and 1883
the state arms were reformed once more(32) but the
projects were made by the same author, the arms being changed a little but
not corrected. In the great and middle versions a wreath of oak and laurel
was included, established before for the design of seal boxes. It was a
prototype for the numerous wreathes of the Soviet quasi-heraldry.
crisis was an epiphenomenon of the Russian revolutions. The monarchy being
destroyed, the Provisional Government abolished the old state coat of arms
without establishing a new one. A State eagle authorized at that time was an
uncrowned version of an emblem of the 16th century; on the government's seal
there was a representation of the Parliamentary Residence below the eagle,
this being an imitation of the sphragistical
compositions of preheraldic times. The designer of
the seal I. Bilibin was a specialist in such
historical imitations. The eagle's use in colours (usually a black eagle
without any fixed background) was no more than of a semi-official character(33).
Almost all the
double-headed eagles and other emblems used by the rest of the non-communist
governments during the Civil War were also unheraldic
and finally the Bolshevik regime tried to establish its own quasi-heraldic
system based on the complete absence of an heraldic
Now, this second
heraldic crisis being continued in Russia it is especially important to see
it is unnecessary and even impossible to understand the history of the
Russian eagle as a solid and consistent symbolic entity. The contact of
heraldry and preheraldry produced a lot of singular
synthetic emblems and arms, sometimes beautiful, but it did not produce a
total synthetic emblematic system or genre. The mutual incompatability
of the armorial and non-armorial traditions determined the inner dynamics of
the Russian practice of public and private emblems, heraldry remaining
nothing but heraldry.
1. Some authors analysed Russian heraldry
more heraldically. In the early 20th century Y. Arsenyev,
V. Lukomskiy, S. Troynitskiy,
P. von Winkler and others were interested in the specific character of
heraldry as a science, an art and sometimes as a play. This atmosphere was
destroyed by the revolutions.