• May 10, 2023
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Tapestries of Sigismund Augustus in the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania

On May 3, in the National Museum of the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, the exhibition “Sigismund August’s Tapestries in Vilnius” was opened.

The exhibition, described as the biggest event in the history of Lithuanian museology, will be on display in Vilnius for only two and a half months.

Presidents Andrzej Duda and Gitanas Nausėda are the patrons of this project.

The Golden Age of Poland and Lithuania

“Today we remember the golden age of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland, the 16th century, the Renaissance era, which was characterized by reforms and transformations, the development of cultural relations in Europe, the phenomenon of patronage. It was at this time that we also began to feel a great threat from the East, which still persists today” — Vydas Dolinskas, the director of the Rulers’ Palace, said at the opening of the exhibition.

“One of the most expressive signs of this renaissance heyday of Vilnius and Krakow is the legendary, incomparable and priceless tapestries of Sigismund Augustus, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania” – Dolinskas said.

As the museum director emphasized, this exhibition is therefore a unique sign of the attention and favour of the Wawel Royal Castle Museum and Poland towards Lithuania, as well as the best gift for Vilnius on the occasion of its 700th anniversary. It is also one of the most complex, largest and most expensive projects in the history of Lithuanian museology, and the uniqueness of the exhibition “Sigismund August’s Tapestries in Vilnius” is evidenced by the fact that “on this scale, the tapestries have never before been exhibited outside the walls of the Royal Castle”.

Opening on a symbolic day

The event is held under the patronage of the Presidents of Poland and Lithuania. The ceremonial opening of the exhibition was attended by President Gitanas Nausėda.

“It is symbolic that today’s (May 3) opening of the international exhibition reveals even earlier and deeper layers of historical ties and cultural integration between Lithuania and Poland, as well as with the whole of Europe. Renaissance treasures are returning to the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania — the most representative artefacts from the Sigismund Augustus collection of tapestries, which is a unique phenomenon in the history of European culture and an integral part of the world’s artistic heritage” — said the President.

Gitanas Nausėda stressed that this exhibition is a special and significant gift of the Wawel Royal Castle and, through it — the whole of Poland on the occasion of the 700th anniversary of Vilnius. Thanks to the successful international cooperation that has been developing for many years between Lithuanian and Polish museums, scientific institutions and cultural memory institutions, the most representative tapestries of Sigismund August will be available to Vilnius residents and guests, among whom will be NATO leaders who will attend the alliance summit in Vilnius in July.

“I would like to thank the organizers of the exhibition — The National Museum, The Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, the Wawel Royal Castle, The Adam Mickiewicz Institute, their leaders, communities and partners — all those who, with their professionalism, enthusiasm and resources, contributed to the success of this exhibition project” — said the President.

Sigismund Augustus ordered tapestries while living in Vilnius

A letter from the President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, was read out by Konstanty Radziwill, Ambassador of the Republic of Poland to Lithuania. In it, the President of Poland expressed his joy at the presentation of the tapestries in Vilnius, recalling the contribution of Sigismund Augustus to the history of Poland and Lithuania, as the creator of a new chapter in the history of both countries and the forerunner of ideas extremely important for modern Europe.

The President recalled the turbulent history of extremely valuable fabrics at the time of partitions and subsequent wars, and the great care that Poles have taken for national treasures over the centuries. “We Poles, on the occasion of the 700th anniversary of the capital Vilnius, are handing over this extremely valuable relic to our Lithuanian brothers for the duration of the exhibition. We remember that it was in Vilnius that Sigismund August lived when he ordered these masterpieces of which we are proud today” — wrote the Polish President.

The Ambassador also addressed the audience with a few sentences from himself in Lithuanian, which was very warmly received by the large audience. He recalled that the tapestries first decorated the Wawel Castle in Krakow on the occasion of the marriage of Sigismund II Augustus to Catherine of Habsburg in July 1553, but later witnessed the love that united Sigismund Augustus and Barbara Radziwillowna. “It is wonderful that after almost 500 years they have returned at least for a moment to Vilnius, the cradle of these two families” —  the Ambassador said, encouraging to look at the tapestries from such a human perspective.

Extremely rich collection

The entire collection of Sigismund August’s tapestries originally consisted of about 160 pieces. It was made in Brussels for the Polish king between around 1550 and 1560. 138 fabrics have survived to the present day. Although the collection consists of several series with different themes, dimensions and formats, which were made in different workshops, it is nevertheless a compact whole. The collection is considered to be one of the most valuable collections of artistic fabrics in the world.

The museum presents all groups of the Sigismund August tapestry collections. Nearly 40 of the most beautiful tapestries can be seen in Vilnius — 9 tapestries with biblical scenes from the series: the History of the First Parents, the History of Noah, the History of the Tower of Babel, 10 with plant motifs, 6 tapestries with the initials of the ruler, 10 tapestries with the coats of arms of Lithuania and Poland, and 2 other smaller tapestries. Some of the tapestries have been incorporated into the interior exposition. Such a large collection of tapestries has never been exhibited outside the walls of Wawel Castle.

More about the king’s tapestries and the backstage of the exhibition in the next magazine issue.

Translated by Katarzyna Korniak within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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