Historical outline

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ANCIENT RUSSIAN ORNAMENTAL TILES
 
 

Since prehistoric times and until now, the ordinary clay has served as a magnificent building material and provided a base for unlimited variety of ceramic wares. From eroded by rain clay the primitive man fashioned the first simple bowl. And this same ordinary clay enabled unknown masters of Ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Greece to create such masterpieces as pitchers, lamps, and other objects. 

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Red girdle tiles of Moscow production. First half 17th century

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Tiled stove 1680s

The invention of glaze - a hard and transparent coating of the clay surface - turned clay into a durable and beautiful building material. Decorative tiles embellished building facades, walls, fireplaces, and table tops. In the beginning, potters and builders used only monochromatic glazes: transparent, gray-green or yellow. Gradually, however, such a variety of colors developed that ceramics became increasingly ornamental and complex.

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Red girdle tiles of Moscow production. Late 16th century.

First well-preserved samples of Russian ceramic tiles were made in the 10th-11th centuries. But it was not until the beginning of the 15th century, after the country has recovered from the Mongolian invasion, when Russian ceramic tiles began to be produced on a wide scale.

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Terra-cotta plaque from the lower band of the Nicolo-Peshnoshsky Monastery cathedral. First quarter 16th century

At that time, the country strove to construct a great number of glamorous buildings quickly, and builders used bricks to construct them. Artisans created relief-patterns on clay plates to imitate stone carvings. Although unglazed, this was the first example of ceramic cladding has been well-preserved and still decorates buildings today.

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Stove with red-tile facing. Reconstruction.

Anonymous artisans working in small potteries in Moscow created the first tiles, and, gradually, the art extended throughout Russia. In the hands of these gifted craftsmen, tile-making and tile-setting developed into an art that reflected the life, tastes and customs of people.

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Red tiles of Moscow produstion. Late 16th century.

The first ceramic tiles were made from red clay and were called terra-cotta. The terra-cotta color is, on its own, very decorative. The relief figures imaged on them were unicorns, griffins, winged horses, and dragons. This made decorated surfaces looking more like a book of fairy tales. The use of decorative tiles spread to the facades of churches and houses as well as the facing of the heating stoves.

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Red tiles of Moscow produstion. Late 16th century.

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During the 16th century appeared the first samples covered with green glaze, so-called "Muravnie" tiles. From these, masters created the walls of churches and fashioned stoves of extraordinary beauty. 

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Stove with Muravnie tiles facing.

 

Muravnie glazed tile. 1690s.

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In the middle of the 17th century, Russian tile-makers began producing a polychromatic relief tile called Tseninny (valuable), or Friazhzky (foreign.) Much in vogue at that time, they fit well with Moscow tastes of ornate exterior of churches, public buildings, and private homes. 

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Detail of the tiled frieze in the Apparition of Crist Church in Solikamsk. 1687

 

Relief tile from the décor of the Mostovaya (Bridge) Tower in Izmailovo, Moscow, 1670s

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Stove tiles became popular among the wealthy, decorating not only the Czar's chambers, but the homes of rich traders, and prosperous townspeople as well. Caught in the rays of the sun, the ornamental tiles sparkle like precious stones.

The golden age of Russian tile-making came in the last quarter of the 17th century. Tiles, tile panels, bands, and friezes profusely adorned most of the churches built during those years.

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Tile stove 1680s

 

Relief tile from the décor of the Verkhospassky Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin. 1680s

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History rarely conserved the names of those masters of Russian ornamental tiles. However, in documents of Czar Aleksey Mikhailovich Romanov (1629-1676), it was certified the author of the famous ornamental tiles in the imperial halls was master Stephan Ivanov, nicknamed "Half-Devil."

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Tiled stove. Second half 18 century.

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Izrastsy, especially the ones covered by colorful glaze, were very expensive and could be afforded only by the church or very noble people. It is hard to compare the prices of those times and today, not only because of the change in currency but also because our life values changed too. In the scriptures from those days it says that one tile cost one rouble. It was for the same price as a steel helmet for a decent Russian soldier. As example: one small izrastsy ornament was made out of 100 izrastsy, the cost was equivalent of buying a whole herd with 49 cows and 32 calves.

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Izraztsy tile decor on Pokrovski church, 1673, Moscow

 

Russian herd with 49 cows and 32 calves, 1674.

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The use of ceramic tiles for exterior finishing came to an end at the beginning of the 18th century. Artisans then used tile to clad, or sheathe fireplaces, and high detail relief was no longer relevant. Gradually this evolved into the creation of tiles with no relief. At first, a small elevated oval portrayed a flower or another detail with a caption. Finally, the even oval disapeared, leaving only a flat colored pictures.

Tile stove. Second half of 18th century

 

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Blue Delft tiles from Holland greatly influenced Russian ceramic work. Traveling at the end of the 17th century, Czar Peter I was so impressed with this art that he decided to begin production in Russia. He hired two Swedish masters to make blue tiles "in the Dutch manner." The works of these masters has been lost, but white tiles with blue drawings remained popular throughout the entire 18th century. 

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Painted tiles “in a Holland Manner.”

Last quarter 18th century.

 

Painted tiles of Petersburg production “in a Russian Manner.” 1710s-1760s

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In the 19th century, the emergence of highly technical ceramic factories adversely effected smaller handicraft workshops. However, the folk art displayed the salient characteristics of simplicity with a clear, expressive idea. The best of these talented artists skillfully combined the ornamental and functional elements into a single monolithic whole- a genuine work of art.

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Painted tiles. Second half of 18th century.

 

Painted tile. 19th century.