The tapestry collection of the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismund Augustus (1544/1548–1572), distinguished for its highest level of artistry, historical significance, unparalleled scope of an artistic project realised by one client, legendary material value and turbulent destiny is truly a diamond in the context of European art collections. It is viewed as an idiosyncratic phenomenon of European patronage, art and cultural heritage, an actual historic relic of the early Polish-Lithuanian state, equalling the insignia of rulers in terms of its symbolic significance. In current-day Poland, Sigismund Augustus’ tapestries are named as the most valuable historic collection and the most important exhibit at the Wawel Royal Castle in Kraków, drawing inquisitive audiences from around the world.
Sigismund Augustus’ tapestry collection consisted of around 160 artistic textiles. Of these, 140 exist today, most of them being kept at the Wawel Royal Castle. The tapestry collection is made up of large format works depicting biblical scenes, as well as textiles bearing the ruler’s initials SA and the coats of arms of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – the White Eagle and Vytis, verdures with animals and plants, as well as other textiles for the decoration of window openings, doorways and furniture.
Sigismund Augustus’ tapestries were created in circa 1550–1560, meaning the collection was formed over the course of about ten years. The first two series of biblical tapestries were completed in 1553, when these sublime textiles decorated the halls of Wawel Castle on the occasion of Sigismund Augustus’ marriage to Catherine Habsburg, delighting and leaving the gathered guests in awe at their beauty. The tapestries were created at the most important artistic textile weaving centre in Europe of the day – in the capital of the Spanish Netherlands, Brussels. The artists and weaving manufactories of this city supplied monarchs, bishops and magnates with the most expensive textiles displaying the highest craftsmanship. Tapestry prices were enormous, costing significantly more than paintings. To be able to acquire his tapestries, Sigismund Augustus sought a loan, the size of which equalled the expenses for a year-long campaign in the Livonian War.
One of the most appealing qualities of tapestries is that they can be transported from one place to another. At the time, tapestries were even referred to as ''mobile frescoes of the North'', which would be used to evoke the impression of grandeur and opulence in castles, palaces and cathedrals, all while exalting their owners. These textiles were viewed not just as works of fine art, but also as embodiments of the greatness of a ruler, teachers of the Bible stories, resources for learning about flora and fauna, and the guardians of deep symbolic meanings.
The drawings for Sigismund Augustus’ tapestries and the actual weaving were executed by the most acclaimed masters of the day. The author of the tapestry designs with biblical scenes is considered to be Michiel I Coxcie (1499–1592) from Mechelen, otherwise known as the ''Flemish Raphael''. He studied in Rome and later went on to produce interpretations of works by Raphael and Michelangelo. The authorship of the verdure cartoons has been attributed to an anonymous artist who belonged to the circle of Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Pieter van Aelst, 1502–1550). Heraldic tapestries and those decorated with the ruler’s monograms (initials) were created based on graphic art from Antwerp, displaying the influence of Cornelis Floris (1514–1575) and Cornelis Bos (1506 (1510)–1556). Tapestries featuring wool and silk thread, embellished with gold and silver metallic thread, were woven in as many as eight workshops in Brussels which belonged to figures such as Pieter van Aelst the Younger, Jan de Kempeneer, Willem de Kempeneer, Jan van Tieghem and other masters.
The tapestries of Sigismund Augustus were assigned to his sisters in his last will and testament, and following their deaths – to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The priceless textiles were kept in the treasury of the Polish Kingdom. After the Third Partition of the Commonwealth in 1795, the textiles were plundered and taken away to Russia; at this point, some were damaged or even destroyed. Bolshevik Russia returned the tapestries to Poland in accordance with a treaty from 1921, from which time they adorned the walls of Wawel in Kraków. Vilnius University professor Marian Morelowski is to be merited in seeing the recovery of the tapestries. When Nazi Germany attacked Poland in 1939, Sigismund Augustus’ tapestries were evacuated to Canada as a national relic. It was not until 1961 that the invaluable collection was returned to Poland, to the Wawel Royal Castle.
This exhibition presents all groups from the collection of Sigismund Augustus’ tapestries. Visitors will be able to see 37 textiles – 9 tapestries with biblical scenes of the First Parents, Noah and construction of the Babel Tower, 10 verdures, 6 tapestries with the ruler’s initials, 10 textiles with the coats of arms of Lithuania and Poland and 2 smaller tapestries. Some of the textiles have been integrated into the palace interiors exposition. A tapestry collection of this scale has never before been displayed beyond the walls of Wawel. This fact makes the exhibition an exceptional gesture of the Wawel Royal Castle’s and Poland’s attention and good-will towards Lithuania, the finest possible gift to Vilnius on the occasion of its 700th anniversary. It is also one of the most complicated, largest and most expensive projects undertaken in the history of museology in Lithuania. The exhibition’s importance and historical significance, reminding us of the long-lived unity of Lithuania and Poland and the whole region, is further underpinned by the patronage of the presidents of Lithuania and Poland.
This is not the first time Sigismund Augustus’ tapestries are in Vilnius. It is believed that the first wife of Sigismund Augustus, Elisabeth Habsburg, brought her dowry tapestries to the palace in the Lithuanian capital in 1544. At the time, Sigismund Augustus must have commissioned his first heraldic textiles in Vilnius, one of which adorns the walls of the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania today. While in residence at the Vilnius palace in 1547, the ruler chose from artistic textile designs being presented before him, selecting those featuring narratives from the stories of the First Parents and Noah. Some of these tapestries are on display at the exhibition here today. Sigismund Augustus’ tapestries decorated the Vilnius palace on various special occasions from the mid-16th to the mid-17th centuries. Some of the ruler’s tapestries were also loaned for exhibitions held at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania in 2009 and 2013 by the Wawel Royal Castle.
Sigismund Augustus’ tapestry collection is considered one of the most valuable collections of monumental artistic textiles in the world. It offers an excellent representation of European Renaissance culture, artistic ties, the representational aspirations of the last ruler of the Gediminid-Jagiellon dynasty – the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania – and the traditions of patronage. This textile collection of the ruler of the joint state is also a further reminder of the period when Kraków and Vilnius truly flourished – the Renaissance.