An Entirely Different “Mater”…

Is anyone else as fascinated with Russian nesting dolls as I am?  I’m not a collector of anything other than books, but these wooden creations have captured my imagination since early girl-hood.  I own one Matryoshka doll.  She stands about 12 inches high (a rather large specimen!) and wears a native Russian costume (teal babushka or head scarf and a crimson dress).  A multitude of flowers are painted on her too.  And, oh yes, she is a blonde.  I received this beautiful doll as a birthday gift one year from a family member.  The doll was imported directly from the Ukraine.  From time to time, I will pull each of the 10 dolls apart and admire them for their beauty, hand-craftedness (spun on a lathe you know!), and their delicate birch odour (don’t laugh, they smell great…..!) [grin].

Apart from the immaculate craftmanship and skilled required to make these dolls, I am amazed by the Matryoshka concept of multiplicity.  “Why Matryoshka?”, you might ask.  Apparently the names Matryoshka and Matryona were common in the late 1800’s when these dolls were first produced in Russia.  Both names carry the Latin root “Mater” – meaning maternity or mother.  Aha!  Makes sense, doesn’t it?!  The itty bitty baby in the tiniest of wombs is held by a daughter (this little stump of wood always makes me smile – with her tiny painted-on face), that daughter is held within a mother and so on until we are examining the largest “parent” doll.  So, if I were the tiny stumpy baby held within the womb of the second last doll (my eyes are actually bigger than two pin-points!), the largest feminine shell would be my great, great, great, great, great, great, great-grandmother! Whew!  My head hurts just thinking about it…

When I did some research on the history of these dolls, I was surprised to learn that the initial concept of the doll is not Russian at all.  Apparently, the Japanese (historically) began making similar nesting dolls much earlier.  The Japanese dolls were frequently modelled after Shichi-fuki-jin (or “The Seven Lucky Gods”).  Upon being inspired by these earlier carvings, a Russian fellow by the name of Mamontov decided to try his hand at making a Russian version of these wooden dolls – hence the Matryoshka was born and lovingly welcomed into Russian and Eastern European culture.  Over time, as the lineage of the doll was manifest, various artists and regions “stamped” their unique colours, themes and styles on the dolls.  This proud display of artistic nationalism and regionalism allows many collectors (and Matryoshka dealers) to identify the location of production (and possibly the artist themselves) by examining the intricacies of the doll’s craftmanship and design.  Did I mention that Sotheby’s auctions these creations for exorbant amounts of money from time to time?!  They are highly prized and collected for good reason.

As I sip my morning coffee, I find myself re-assembling my dis-articulated Matryoshka doll.  While my hands lovingly restore her children to their “whole-selves”, I cannot help but think of the timelessness and multiplicity of generations – be they masculine or feminine.

Hmmmm….perhaps I should call my little woody nurturer “Gaia”….

-Poseidon’s Muse


4 responses to “An Entirely Different “Mater”…

  1. You know I’ve never thought about nesting dolls as a personification of mothers and their daughters before. How interesting. I think most people are fascinated by them – one inside of another and another and another… There’s something satisfying about that – like two mirrors held together reflecting their images over and over.

  2. Karen – Hi! Thanks for your comment. Yes, up until today I wouldn’t have thought of these dolls as a metaphor for feminine lineages – but a visit to one site enlightened me:

    Who knew?! Like you, I think the concept is quite interesting. And funny enough – many artists actually make some of the nesting dolls a little different from one another too (like daughters and mothers) which makes it quite interesting.

    Now, with this in mind, how do we explain the George Bush, Tony Blair or Vladimir Putin nesting dolls….!? Tiny armies of political derelicts I suppose…Now that’s “kitsch-y” art….!!!!!

  3. You know, there might be a cottage industry for the political derelect nesting dolls. Now where’s that lathe?

  4. Lol! George Bush or Tony Blair with a Babushka….Can you say “priceless?!”…..

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