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Section: Imperial Orders of Chivalry

The Imperial Order of St. Catherine the Great Martyr

Author: Michael Medvedev / Publication date: 2006-11-13

The Imperial Order of St. Catherine the Great MartyrThe Order was founded by Tsar (later Emperor) Peter I under the name of the Order of Liberation (Orden Svobozhdeniya), under the patronage of St. Catherine of Alexandria, and specially for his spouse, Tsarina Catherine (later Empress, and after his death the Sovereign as Catherine I). In this way Peter I commemorated Catherine’s merits during the unsuccessful Russian expedition against Turks in 1711. In the course of the campaign the Russian troops, led by the Tsar himself, were surrounded by the enemy. To bribe the Turkish commander, Peter used personal jewels of Catherine, who followed him as a mistress (they were unmarried until 1712). The Russian troops escaped the catastrophe; hence the original name of the Order.

The Statutes, compiled on behalf of the Tsarina, were published in 1713. Daughter of a peasant, ex-Lutheran, previously married, and an ex-mistress of two Russian generals who finally ceded her to the Tsar, Catherine did not seem a trivial spouse for a Russian monarch; the foundation of the Order was doubtlessly intended to support her public position and good name. Only on 24 of November 1714, maybe after analysing the public reaction, Peter bestowed the badge upon his spouse and announced the definite approval to the Statutes.

According to the Statutes, the Order comprised of Dames Grand Cross (limited to twelve, the members of the Imperial house and foreign dynasties being supernumerary) and Chivalrous Dames or Dames Lesser Cross (limited to ninety-four). However, during the founder’s lifetime Catherine remained the only Dame of the Order. After her accession on the throne in 1725, she created seven dames Grand Cross (among them were her daughters Anne and Elisabeth, the future Empress); the eighth Grand Cross was given to young Prince Alexander Menshikov [Jr] for his gentle “female” disposition.

Left: Gd.Duchess Anne (Anna Leopoldovna), the Regent of the Empire in 1740-1741 (during the major part of the ephemerical reign of the newborn Emperor John VI (III) of Brunswick. Although the absolute power, including the Grand Magistral prerogatives of St.Andrew, was vested in her person, she used the insignia of St.Catherine only.

Among the Dames nominated by Catherine II were Princess E. Dashkova (née Countess Vorontsova), a remarkable stateswoman and director of the St. Petersburg Academy of Science, and A. Kroun, a wife of captain-lieutenant, awarded for effective and brave rendering of first aid in a battle.

No lesser crosses were conferred and they were forgotten until 1797, when Paul I introduced new Statutes of the Russian Orders.

Since 1797, the Order (now called “of St. Catherine the Great Martyr”) was an integral part of the corporation of the Russian chivalry (“the Russian Order of Chivalry”) headed by Emperor as Grand Master of all Russian Orders; nevertheless the Order obtained its particular Superior alias Master (Ordensmeister, rather than Mistress, to which would rather correspond the inexistent but possible “Ordensmeisterina”) in the person of Empress. For the heir’s spouse, the Statutes establishes the dignity of the Lady Lieutenant (Namestnitsa) alias Deaconess [sic, rather than ‘Dean’] of the Order, who may, with certain restrictions, act instead of the Master in her absence. The Empress Dowager retains the Mastership for life. If the heir is unmarried, the office of the Deaconess is to be executed by the senior princess of the house. The Order’s patents should be signed by the Master.

Only noble ladies are eligible for admission. The nominees are obliged to swear an oath of fidelity to the Imperial Majesty in presence of the Master and a prelate. The duties of each Dame include daily thanksgiving for the God’s grace which saved Peter I in the campaign of 1711; daily prayers for the Emperor and the dynasty; reciting the “Pater Noster” three times on each sunday “in the same intention” and in the honour of the Holy Trinity; missionary works, avoiding any duress; and paying a ransom for at least one Christian kept in the “barbaric slavery”. This later obligation was, with time, turned into paying, on admission, a fee of 400 roubles (for the Dames Grand Cross) or 250 roubles (for the “mere” Chivalrous Dames) which sums were donated by the Orders’ Chapter to charities.

Paul I established a special charitable school under the Order’s patronage; the church of this school was also the Order’s church. The Order’s feast is celebrated on 24th of November (according to the Julian calendar; in our days this corresponds to 7 of December). Another Pauline novelty was the introduction of the “commanderies”, i.e. the Order’s estates to benefit the six senior Dames Grand Cross and the eighteen senior Chivalrous Dames (in each case, senior by the terms of admission). These “commanderies” brought no degree with them and were finally turned into the annual pensions (2.320 roubles and 2.150 roubles, respectively).

According to the Statutes, the Order had its Master of Ceremonies, a Secretary and two Heralds with insignia similar to those of dames but of lesser size and value, and worn as neck or breast badges.

Today the dynasts continued to enjoy their hereditary membership in the Order; the last female member of the Romanov family admitted into the Order before the revolution is Princess Catherine (born in 1915), niece of the late de jure Head of the House, Vera I Konstantinovna.

In the emigration, the duties of the Master were claimed and executed by the spouse of Grand Duke Cyril (Kirill), Grand Duchess Victoria, the Grand Cross being awarded in 1934 to the Duchess of Kent, Cyril’s niece; in 1938, after Victoria’s death, to Princess Olga of Oldenburg. Several nominations of “chivalrous dames” were also made. Today the Grand Mastership is claimed by Grand Duchess Mary and the Mastership by her mother, Grand Duchess Leonida. De jure, both the Grand Mastership and Mastership between 1989 and 2001 were vested in the person of Grand Duchess Vera [I] who declined from the execution of the correspondent prerogatives. With her death, the Grand Mastership passed to HM the King of the Hellenes, the Mastership to HM the Queen, and - most strikingly - the office of the Deaconess belongs to HRH Marie-Chantal, The Crown Princess of Greece, Princess of Denmark and Duchess of Sparta, the spouse of HRH the Diadochos, although she is “unequal” under the Russian Imperial Law and thus did not become entitled to the membership authomatically.

The Order’s badge is an enamel medallion surrounded with rays forming four arms of a cross. The medallion bears the coloured image of St. Catherine holding a large white cross moline, with a lesser diamond cross in its center, and surrounded with the characters D, S, F and R (the words of the Psalm: Domine, salvum fac Regem). The reverse bears an allegory (introduced by Peter I but not mentioned in the Statutes): a couple of eagles defends their nest from snakes; the Latin legend says “Aequat munia comparis”. The medallion’s edge and rays are adorned with diamonds (since 1855, the Grand Cross is decorated with brilliants and the lesser cross, with rose-cut diamonds). The Order’s motto “ZA LYUBOV’ I OTECHESTVO” (in cyrillic; For love and fatherland) is embroidered in sequins on the bow. The Grand Cross is worn on a sash (over the right shoulder) with the specific “female” bow, and the lesser cross on the bow alone, on the left breast. The ribbon is red (sometimes pinky red) with silver-embroidered stripes, invariably formed of small squares or rectangles, near edges. According to the first Statutes, the ribbon should be white; but even on the earliest representations the ribbon is red or pink with the silver stripes. Heraldically, however, the ribbon of the Order is to be considered as having the tincture Purpure and represented as pink.

The star of dame Grand Cross is silver, eight-pointed, with a cross over a broken wheel in a red medallion, completed with the characters DSFR and encircled with the Order’s motto.

The Statutes of 1797 establish elaborate robes of silver and gold, with green velvet train (of different length depending on the dame’s rank); the broken wheel, set with diamonds and rubies, is to be worn on a green velvet hat.

The motto and the legend on the badge’s reverse deserve special remarks.

If the motto is understood as a call, mentioning the values to defend and support, it is fully understandable. However if the motto was intended to express the founder’s premial concept (which opinion is widely accepted, and seems probable if the motto in discussion is compared to that of the Order of St. Alexander), the meaning appears to be not so clear. According to the disputable but ingenious hypothesis of Mrs. M.A. Dobrovol’skaya (St. Petersburg), the original meaning of the motto’s last word could be not “Fatherland” but “Fathership”, thus stressing that, apart of being loving mother of the Empire, the Empress shared the burden and merits of Peter I as the father of the nation.

The textual part of the allegory on the badge’s reverse is curious in another way. It is a transformed quotation from Horace (Book II, ode V, v.2) who metaphorically describes a young girl as a heifer, “not yet able to wear the yoke on the obedient neck, to share her companion’s labours, neither to endure the weight of a bull impetuously in love”:

Nondum subacta ferre iugum valet
Cervice, nondum munia comparis
nec tauri ruentis
In venerem tolerare pondus.

Although the composition’s meaning is opposite (the equality and maturity are proven) and the Empress is represented as an animal more regal, it is not impossible that the allegory was marked by Peter’s sense of humour. It is striking but not un-petrine that the foundation of the Order, so cautiously prepared to augment the Empress’ reputation, could bear such a mark of irony. At least this would explain why the reverse was never described in the Statutes. One may even imagine that the allegory could be a kind of a personal message of Peter to Catherine, hidden on the reverse of her personal badge (the only one conferred before her accession), and later mechanically reproduced on other badges; but the opposite suggestion (the allegory could be a regular element of the Order’s symbolism, not described by a mere oversight) is equally probable.

It worth mentioning that the full name of the Order as given in the final, amended version of the Statutes, is "the Imperial Order of St. Catherine the Great Martyr, alias the Order of Liberation", the last word being, surprisingly, given in its modern form [Osvobozhdeniya] rather than in the original, archaic version [Svobozhdeniya]. However this double name of the Order seems to be never used outside the first lines of the Statutes.

© 2006 The.Heraldry.Ru / M. Medvedev