You might imagine that the Hermitage is a small cottage suitable for, well, a couple of hermits.  Do not be fooled.  Catherine the Great named it this to make her guests feel exclusive and special when she had it built as her Winter Palace. But it was a palace even then.  Now it’s the second largest art museum in the world (after the Louvre), and has more Rembrandts than the Rijksmuseum.

Interior of the Hermitage, at the main entry.

If you’ve heard anything about the Hermitage, it’s probably that it has fabulous artwork and that it’s not taking care of it.  No air conditioning and open windows mean that summer humidity and bright sunlight assault the masterpieces daily. True.

The view of the Peter Paul Fortress from an open window at the Hermitage.

On top of that, 30,000 visitors per day produce even more heat and humidity. Water bottles were banned after a vandal threw sulfuric acid on Rembrandt’s “Danae” in 1985, so most people remember their time in the Hermitage as a hot, crowded, thirsty ordeal.  My sister says on a previous trip (yes, my sister has visited TWICE!) the hordes were piled up at least three and four deep before every artwork, and she was shoulder to shoulder with all the other sweaty tourists.

The interior of the museum is as much a work of art as any of its exhibits.

But the wonderful Olga of SPB Tours (yes, I’m giving them a shout out – we were in excellent hands) got us inside 30 minutes before the museum opened, which gave us a head start on the hordes.  We moved around easily and got up close and personal with the art – with the help of Olga.  “My dear friends, come quickly, we must get ahead of this next tour group…”   Olga, it turns out, has an undergraduate degree in linguistics, and a masters degreee in Art History, is passionate about art and sharing her love, and is the perfect guide.

Just an ordinary doorknob.  

I could use many adjectives to describe the Hermitage – amazing, gorgeous, awesome – but honestly, they all fall short.

The throne room, where in 1906 the first Duma was held.  Nicholas and Alexandra let in commoners and peasants for the occasion, hoping to head off a revolution.  And we all know how well that turned out.  “They looked at us as if they hated us,” Alexandra is reported to have said.  

My personal highlight? Well, that story starts about 25 years ago when the Navigator first came home with a computer and told me about this new invention they were using at his work.  He told me it could take me anywhere.  It was called the World Wide Web.

12th century crozier from Italy – the head of a bishop’s staff.  What are those animals?  A dragon, a ram, and – a squirrel???

“What do you mean it can take me anywhere?  And a web?  As in spider?” I asked. “Well, where do you want to go?” he asked. So I chose the most inaccessible place I could think of, to test this crazy invention – The Hermitage Museum in SPB, Russia. And was completely boggled to receive a virtual tour.

The Benois Madonna, by da Vinci.  One of his earliest works, from ca. 1478.  Critics say Leonardo should have put scenery in the window, and they don’t like the ears;  but I love that the Madonna is portrayed as the young teenager she was.  

It was exactly like Star Trek!

And that day I discovered the Hermitage owned a Rembrandt. Many in fact; but one in particular called “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” I had been very moved by a book of that name by Henri Nouwen, the Dutch theologian. And always wanted, but never expected, to see the painting in real life.

The Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt.  There are better images on the internet – the lighting caused glare everywhere. 

The most poignant part of the painting for me are the feet of the prodigal.  One bare, cut and bleeding, the other only half-covered in a worn-out shoe, both feet dirty and callused. Those feet walked to foreign lands of suffering and humiliation before taking him home again to an uncertain welcome.  Add to that his shaved head – like that of a monk, convict, a diseased person – or a concentration camp survivor.  There may have been a tear or two.  I just typed that last sentence, took it out and typed it in again.  You may as well all know what kind of a wuss I am.


Did I say personal highlight? Call it a Shining Moment instead.

The panorama shot still doesn’t do it justice… Wow, those Russians love their gold finishes!