All the King’s Tapestries

During the exhibition of Renaissance tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2002, among forty exhibits on the display there were two pieces from the Wawel collection[1]Thomas P Campbell i N.Y. Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence (New York; New Haven, Conn.: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Yale University Press … Continue reading. This year, the Wawel Royal Castle is finally presenting its collection in all its glory.

And what a collection it is – originally numbering about 162 pieces, all of them commissioned by a single person [2]Magdalena Piwocka, „Arrasy króla Zygmunta Augusta. «The Art of Majesty» ostatniego Jagiellona"”, w Patronat artystyczny Jagiellonów, t. 1, Studia Jagiellonica (Kraków, 2015), 398. – Sigismund August, the last dynastic king of Poland. Artistic tapestries in that period were typically created in another region of Europe - in France, Italy and the Netherlands, and had to be imported by Hungarian, Polish or Lithuanian courts. Therefore it may come as a surprise that the Wawel collection is the largest ever commissioned by a single patron. The most important, however, are the extraordinary artistic values of the collection, which set several new trends in European art. For the Poles, the collection has a sentimental value as well, as a reminder of the golden age of the Jagiellonian dynasty, as well as the dramatic fate of XX-century Poland, reflected all too clearly in the history of the tapestries.

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Tapestry with SA Monogram and Globe
Tapestry with SA Monogram and Globe
Brussels, circa 1560
design: artist from the circle of Cornelis Floris & Cornelis Bos
workshop: Master FNVG (Frans Ghieteels?)
287,5 x 339 cm
Tapestry with Polish and Lithuanian Coat of Arms Arras z herbami Polski i Litwy oraz postacią Wiktorii
Tapestry with Polish and Lithuanian Coat of Arms Arras z herbami Polski i Litwy oraz postacią Wiktorii
Brussels, circa 1560
design: artist from the circle of Cornelis Floris and Cornelis Bos
workshop: Jan van Tieghem
156 x 292 cm
Over-door tapestry with the coat of arms of Poland against the background of a landscape with animals
Over-door tapestry with the coat of arms of Poland against the background of a landscape with animals
Over-door tapestry with the coat of arms of Poland against the background of a landscape with animals
Over-door tapestry with the coat of arms of Poland against the background of a landscape with animals
Brussels, circa 1560
design: artist from the circle of Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Michiel I Coxcin, probably Jan II Tons or Willem Tons
109 x 250 cm
Animals Entering the Ark
Animals Entering the Ark
Brussels, around 1550
design: Michiel and Coxcie
border design: artist from the circle of Cornelis Floris and Cornelis Bos
workshop: Pieter van Aelst the younger
475 x 792 cm
Bliss in Paradise
Bliss in Paradise
from the Story of the First Parents series
Brussels, around 1550
design: Michiel and Coxcie
border design: artist from the circle of Cornelis Floris and Cornelis Bos
workshop: Jan de Kempeneer
480 x 854 cm
Cain flees the wrath of God
Cain flees the wrath of God
from the Story of the First Parents series
Brussels, around 1550
design: Michiel and Coxcie
border design: artist from the circle of Cornelis Floris and Cornelis Bos
workshop: Pieter van Aelst the younger
467 x 526 cm
Llama and grazing cattle
Llama and grazing cattle
Brussels, 1550-1560
design: artist from the circle of Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Michiel I Coxcin, probably Jan II Tons or Willem Tons
workshop: Master of the geometric sign
152 x 320 cm
Owls, hoopoe and parrot
Owls, hoopoe and parrot
Brussels, 1550-1560
design: artist from the circle of Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Michiel I Coxcin, probably Jan II Tons or Willem Tons
workshop: Master of the geometric sign
108 x 348 cm

The tapestries commissioned by Sigismund August were not the first to adorn the walls of the Wawel castle. His parents, Sigismund the Old and Bona Sforza, have gathered a collection of over 100 imported pieces. These include tapestries made to their order, but also a figural series brought by Bona as a dowry. The young prince was therefore well acquainted with this form of art from early childhood. More tapestries were brought as the dowry of his two Habsburg wives – Elisabeth and Catherine.

Sigismund August was a known connoisseur and collector of art. It is therefore no surprise that he was visited his court in Vilnius (the Polish king, at the time, was also the Grand Duke of Lithuania) by a merchant representing tapestries weavers from Brussels, bringing drawings – known as vidimus – of tapestries that could be commissioned. At the time, it was a common way of ordering this extremely luxurious commodity: although ready-made tapestries could be bought in Antwerp, it was more common to commission new ones based on design drawings. Sigismund’s first commission consisted of depictions of biblical stories of Adam and Eve and Noah by Michiel Coxcie.[3]Magdalena Piwocka, „«Wszystkie arrasy króla . Powroty 2021-1961-1921» w Zamku Królewskim na Wawelu”, udostępniono 29 marzec 2021, … Continue reading Similarly to the later series dedicated to the story of the Tower of Babel, they are notable for the simultaneous depiction of scenes happening asynchronously, freely arranged in the landscape, among the wealth of realistically rendered species of plants and animals.

The size of tapestries is truly impressive (the largest of them are 4.8 by 8.8 meters, that is over 42 square meters, corresponding to the size of a small apartment). They are lavishly made, not just with respect to the craftsmanship and the beauty of the composition, but also material costs. The bill of materials includes wool, Italian silk, as well as silver and gold threads. The latter significantly increased the cost of the contract, being made of a silk thread wrapped in a thin silver plate, that can be gilded in high-grade gold. The cost of such a thread is significant, but the effect is spectacular, and the durability – incredible.

At the time, it was the life-size figural scenes that drew the most attention. It may be hard to believe today but as Stanisław Orzechowski describes it, “the naked bodies [in the tapestries] had such effect, that men smiled at Eve, while the girls gazed lustfully at Adam, as their uncovered bosoms showed their masculinity and femininity in full glory”. These erotic depictions were commissioned with the intention of placing them in the royal bedroom, which was unusual in the time of intense criticism of eroticism in art. The bedrooms of royalty were usually decorated with ornamental brocades.[4]Marcin Fabiański, „Ksiądz Stanisław Orzechowski i swawolne dziewczęta wobec opon Zygmunta Augusta na Wawelu”, Terminus, nr R. XIII (2011) z. 24 (2011): 41–69, … Continue reading On the other hand, the ancient tradition provide examples of more much more “meretricious” and erotic mythological motives on bedroom curtains. The depiction of sinless bliss of Adam and Eve in paradise was intended, according to Marcin Fabiański, to “stimulate the newlyweds intellectually and emotionally to fulfil their duty to the family and state”.[5]Marcin Fabiański, Złoty Kraków, Wyd. 1 (Kraków: Wydawn. Literackie, 2010), 139. Unfortunately – to no avail, as Sigismund August died childless, marking the end of the period of royal dynasties and the beginning of elective monarchy, with the king being chosen by the general assembly of Polish nobility.

Even more popular than the depictions of Adam and Eve was the series devoted to the story of Noe.[6]Piwocka, „«Wszystkie arrasy króla . Powroty 2021-1961-1921» w Zamku Królewskim na Wawelu”. It has gained great popularity among patrons commissioning new tapestries, lasting through the first half of 17th century – the researchers have identified numerous variations on this theme mirroring the design from Wawel.[7]The re-editions of Noah's series consisted of eight, ten, or twelve fabrics. Six replicas have been identified for the series of Adam and Eve, and for the series of Story of the Tower of Babel - a … Continue reading Thus Sigismund August became a trendsetter in an area where most patrons preferred to stick to tried and tested designs.[8]Piwocka, 405.

The tastes, however, are changing and what arouses the most interest today is the verdures – representations of plants and animals in a wide landscape. There’s a bit of everything here – birds, reptiles, mammals, fish, trees, shrubs, mosses, fruits and flowers. The richness of fauna and flora delights and arouses curiosity – in accordance with the intention of the creators who created a sort of nature compendium. The species present mostly live in the temperate climate zone. Especially numerous are the depictions of plants found on the edge of the forest and the banks of streams and ponds. Originally there were over 50 verdures, which made them the largest recorded group in history.[9]Piwocka, „Arrasy króla Zygmunta Augusta. «The Art of Majesty» ostatniego Jagiellona"”, s. 406. 

They exemplify an important phenomenon in European art of the period – animal and plant themes becoming an independent subject. The natural look of the depiction and their botanical correctness, allowing for the precise identification of each species, were a consequence of previous research and artistic interests that gained popularity on our continent since the 15th century (to mention for example Albrecht Dürer, who died in 1528).[10]Magdalena Piwocka, Arrasy króla Zygmunta Augusta. Rośliny (Kraków: Zamek Królewski na Wawelu. Państwowe zbiory sztuki, 2010). However, the widespread recognition of landscape or still life as an independent painting topic was only a song of the future when the tapestries were being created. The widespread recognition of landscape or still life as an independent topic, however, was still a long way off when the Wawel tapestries were being made. Their innovation lay not so much in creating a new genre, as in combining new achievements in landscape painting with realistic presentation of fauna and flora.

There are also fantastic and exotic creatures (or combinations of the two, as in the case of the unicorn-giraffe). What may be surprising considering the country of origin of the tapestries is the lack of tulips, indicating that they were created before 1560, when this plant began to conquer the hearts of Europeans.

There is also no lack of plant and animal motives in the figurative tapestries – on their borders – as well as in those adorned with Sigismund August’s monogram and coat of arms. One should also note the inclusion of species freshly imported from the New World and relatively unknown in contemporary Europe, such as peppers, pineapples, cocoa and cobs of corn.[11]Piwocka, Arrasy króla Zygmunta Augusta. Rośliny, 4–5. Their sight and taste were a novelty, a synonym of luxury and, considering the country of origin of the tapestries, also a symbol of power of the Habsburg empire. The rule of the Spanish branch of the family extended then to both the Netherlands and colonies in the New World. The Habsburgs were also important patrons of arts and it is possible that it was the regent of The Netherlands, Mary of Hungary, who directed the Brussels tapestry merchant to Sigismund’s August’s court in Vilnius.[12]Piwocka, „«Wszystkie arrasy króla . Powroty 2021-1961-1921» w Zamku Królewskim na Wawelu”.

The borders of the tapestries, full of plant, animal, figurative, as well as grotesque themes, are a challenging puzzle for art historians. These densely interwoven decorations seem to have a life of their own, with human, animal, plant and architectural motives mix, creating decorations or building separate simple scenes. They constitute an integral part of each work but were not created by the same authors as the main tapestries. They show many Italian influences and allow us to hypothesize about how specific motives found their way to the tapestries.[13]Magdalena Piwocka, „Arrasy z groteskami i bordiury”, w Katalog arrasów króla Zygmunta Augusta, t. II, III t., Kolekcja arrasów króla Zygmunta Augusta w zbiorach Zamku Królewskiego na Wawelu … Continue reading

The making of the tapestries was a complicated, multi-stage process. It consisted of design drawings with various levels of detail,[14]Piwocka, „«Wszystkie arrasy króla . Powroty 2021-1961-1921» w Zamku Królewskim na Wawelu”. the commission contract (which could include detailed directions regarding the weight and origin of specific raw materials), and finally the time- and labour-intensive weaving. All this made tapestries an extremely expensive good that even the richest European courts could not afford to order frequently. The last of the Jagiellonians on the Polish throne was well aware of the unique value of his collection: in his last will he entrusted it to his sisters for life, and after their death to the Polish Commonwealth – a legal solution unprecedented at the time.[15]Piwocka, 398.

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A fox devouring a bird and a rabbit
A fox devouring a bird and a rabbit
Stork and rabbits
Stork and rabbits

Although they are commonly known as Wawel tapestries and in the public imagination they are inseparably linked with the historical seat of Polish kings, their story is not as simple as it appears. The collection has been moved numerous times. Some of the tapestries temporarily left Wawel already in the 16th century.[16]Piwocka, „Arrasy króla Zygmunta Augusta. «The Art of Majesty» ostatniego Jagiellona"”. The entire collection was deposited in Gdańsk for several dozen years at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, as collateral for debts of the Polish crown. Later, the collection was moved to Warsaw. When Poland disappeared from the map after being partitioned by its neighbours at the end of the 18th century, the tapestries were taken away to Russia. With each move, the collection diminished or damaged (for example, richly embroidered borders were removed from some tapestries) – it is difficult today to reconstruct all the circumstances that led to the shrinking of the collection from the original 162 pieces to 136 that returned to Poland in 1921 after the Polish-Soviet War.[17]Maria Hennel-Bernasikowa i Magdalena Piwocka, Katalog arrasów króla Zygmunta, t. II, Kolekcja arrasów króla Zygmunta Augusta w zbiorach Zamku Królewskiego na Wawelu (Kraków, 2017), 83.

Later, with World War II already looming on the horizon, a plan was drafted to evacuate the tapestries in special, custom made boxes. When the time came, however, the plan could not be implemented because of severed communication lines between Warsaw and Cracow. The staff of Wawel Castle faced a difficult choice – should they attempt a risky, improvised evacuation? Among those critical of this idea was Adolf Szyszko-Bochusz – a famous architect and head of restoration works at the Wawel Castle. In retrospect, he was probably right, as although the German countless works of art have been stolen by the Germans during the war, most of them were preserved intact. But in 1939 nobody could be sure of it. It was finally decided that the tapestries, along with other treasures (including Szczerbiec – the ceremonial sword of Polish kings; as well as manuscripts of Annales of Jan Długosz and Chopin’s notes), should be evacuated. They were loaded, along with almost 80 passengers (Wawel staff and their families), onto a coal barge on the Vistula river. The road was fraught with danger – the crew had to contend with burning bridges and German patrols, and move the treasures from the boat to horse carriages and then to buses. On the night of September 17-18, just after Poland was invaded from the east by the Soviet army, the transport crossed the Romanian border. It was then moved through the Mediterranean Sea to France, England, and finally to Canada, where it was safely deposited with the National Archives in Ottawa.

After the war, Poland found itself in the Soviet sphere of influence and the tapestries became a political issue. The Polish government in exile in London did not want the national treasures to return to Poland while it was under the communist yoke. The new government in Warsaw, in turn, considered recovering the national property seized by the Germans or deposited abroad to be instrumental in legitimizing its power. As it took diplomatic measures aimed at recovering the treasures from Canada, the London government quickly and secretly moved them to a different location. They were thus shuffled from place to place for a while – unfortunately often in suboptimal conditions, which did not have a positive impact on their preservation. The controversy regarding their return to Poland led to conflicts between Stanisław Świerz-Zalewski and his assistant Jan Krzywda-Polkowski – the two men who accompanied the tapestries from Cracow all the way to Canada. The conflict was not resolved even after Canada recognized the government in Warsaw in 1946 – as the issue became an object of political struggle in Canada[18]Marta Kijewska-Trembecka, „Losy skarbów wawelskich w Kanadzie”, „Studia Migracyjne – Przegląd Polonijny” 43, nr 1 (163) (2017): 381–89. Compare: Historia skarbów wawelskich w czasie II … Continue reading. The tapestries were returned to Poland only in 1961. Everyone who participated in the initial stage of their evacuation was then decorated.[19]„Historia skarbów wawelskich w czasie II wojny światowej (cz.1,2). Trudności związane z ewakuacją arrasów, a następnie z ich odzyskaniem. Osobiste wspomnienia prof. Karola Estreichera. (PR, … Continue reading

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The current exhibition, “All the king's tapestries: Homecomings 1921-1961-2021” is the first such comprehensive presentation of these works in one place at the same time.[20]Piwocka, „«Wszystkie arrasy króla . Powroty 2021-1961-1921» w Zamku Królewskim na Wawelu”. Of course “all the tapestries” should be understood as “all that are preserved” - or almost all, as the one from Amsterdam Rijksmuseum could not be borrowed out. It is also not clear what the 2021 date is supposed to indicate. The comebacks in 1921 and 1961 were spectacular and their entailed return of the tapestries from abroad. The homecoming in 2021 is a different matter. It could be argued that the tapestries are back on display (including those borrowed from the Warsaw Royal Castle), but the comparison with sophisticated diplomatic and logistical operations that led to their return in 1921 and 1961 appears somewhat exaggerated.

The exhibition itself, however, is truly delightful. The tapestries are accompanied by works by contemporary artists: Mirosław Bałka and Marcin Maciejowski, which provide a contemporary context and underpin the use of the 2021 date in the title. However, they pale in comparison with the main subject of the exhibition and could be easily omitted.

The royal tapestries themselves are stunning. Their beauty was brought out by the skilful use of lighting. The exhibition also brings to attention the problem of preserving fabrics. The colours fade with time (particularly in blue parts), especially when exposed to light. There is a clear difference between the fabrics that were exposed for longer and those that (often due to their poor condition) spent most of the time in storage. Clearly distinguishable are also the pieces that display the full range of preserved colours owing to the washing process. Colours are an important element determining the visual attractiveness of fabrics. In order to familiarize contemporary recipients with their original intensity, it was also decided to present the reverse of one of the preserved monogram tapestries. The issue of fabric conservation is clearly emphasized in the exhibition and this seems to be a valuable contribution to building collective awareness that works of art require not only care but also expertise, labour and money to survive the next centuries.

The exhibition is huge – it covers two floors of the castle. The under-window, above-window and arcade tapestries are placed in the locations for which they were originally designed, helping illustrate the validity of the term "mobile frescoes of the north" sometimes applied to them.

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Wawel Tapestry perservation- missing fabric
Wawel Tapestry in the course of perservation
Wawel Tapestry – completed after a perservation

If we picked your interest and you would like to visit Wawel, do so at the first opportunity, as the exhibition surely will not be extended beyond the end of October, because of planned restoration work. You can also take a virtual tour.

The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue edited by Jerzy Holc, Magdalena Ozga and Magdalena Piwocka.

I would like to thank the Wawel Royal Castle for an opportunity to visit the exhibition and for providing the photos used in this post.

Bibliographical information for this post (divided into popular and scientific texts) is available in the Polish version.

All The King's Tapestries - Catalogue Cover
All The King's Tapestries - Catalogue Cover

Wawel Royal Castle

All the King's Tapestries: Homecomings 1921-1961-2021

Curators and authors of the exhibition: Magdalena Ozga, Magdalena Piwocka, Jerzy Holc

Przypisy

Przypisy
1 Thomas P Campbell i N.Y. Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence (New York; New Haven, Conn.: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Yale University Press [distributor, 2006), VII
2 Magdalena Piwocka, „Arrasy króla Zygmunta Augusta. «The Art of Majesty» ostatniego Jagiellona"”, w Patronat artystyczny Jagiellonów, t. 1, Studia Jagiellonica (Kraków, 2015), 398.
3 Magdalena Piwocka, „«Wszystkie arrasy króla . Powroty 2021-1961-1921» w Zamku Królewskim na Wawelu”, udostępniono 29 marzec 2021, http://www.radiokrakow.pl/audycje/kolo-kultury-sztuki-wizualne-i-teatr/wszystkie-arrasy-krola-powroty-2021-1961-1921-w-zamku-krolewskim-na-wawelu/, Piwocka, „Arrasy króla Zygmunta Augusta. «The Art of Majesty» ostatniego Jagiellona"”, 403-404.
4 Marcin Fabiański, „Ksiądz Stanisław Orzechowski i swawolne dziewczęta wobec opon Zygmunta Augusta na Wawelu”, Terminus, nr R. XIII (2011) z. 24 (2011): 41–69, https://doi.org/10.4467/20843844TE.11.003.0033.
5 Marcin Fabiański, Złoty Kraków, Wyd. 1 (Kraków: Wydawn. Literackie, 2010), 139.
6, 12, 14, 20 Piwocka, „«Wszystkie arrasy króla . Powroty 2021-1961-1921» w Zamku Królewskim na Wawelu”.
7 The re-editions of Noah's series consisted of eight, ten, or twelve fabrics. Six replicas have been identified for the series of Adam and Eve, and for the series of Story of the Tower of Babel - a single one. In total, about 350-400 fabrics depending on the Wawel prototype were identified. It is a clear proof of the artistic success of royal tapestries. Piwocka, „Arrasy króla Zygmunta Augusta. «The Art of Majesty» ostatniego Jagiellona", p. 405.
8 Piwocka, 405.
9 Piwocka, „Arrasy króla Zygmunta Augusta. «The Art of Majesty» ostatniego Jagiellona"”, s. 406.
10 Magdalena Piwocka, Arrasy króla Zygmunta Augusta. Rośliny (Kraków: Zamek Królewski na Wawelu. Państwowe zbiory sztuki, 2010).
11 Piwocka, Arrasy króla Zygmunta Augusta. Rośliny, 4–5.
13 Magdalena Piwocka, „Arrasy z groteskami i bordiury”, w Katalog arrasów króla Zygmunta Augusta, t. II, III t., Kolekcja arrasów króla Zygmunta Augusta w zbiorach Zamku Królewskiego na Wawelu (Kraków, 2017), 49–54.
15 Piwocka, 398.
16 Piwocka, „Arrasy króla Zygmunta Augusta. «The Art of Majesty» ostatniego Jagiellona"”.
17 Maria Hennel-Bernasikowa i Magdalena Piwocka, Katalog arrasów króla Zygmunta, t. II, Kolekcja arrasów króla Zygmunta Augusta w zbiorach Zamku Królewskiego na Wawelu (Kraków, 2017), 83.
18 Marta Kijewska-Trembecka, „Losy skarbów wawelskich w Kanadzie”, „Studia Migracyjne – Przegląd Polonijny” 43, nr 1 (163) (2017): 381–89. Compare: Historia skarbów wawelskich w czasie II wojny światowej (cz.1,2). Trudności związane z ewakuacją arrasów, a następnie z ich odzyskaniem. Osobiste wspomnienia prof. Karola Estreichera. (PR, 16.01.1974)”.
19 „Historia skarbów wawelskich w czasie II wojny światowej (cz.1,2). Trudności związane z ewakuacją arrasów, a następnie z ich odzyskaniem. Osobiste wspomnienia prof. Karola Estreichera. (PR, 16.01.1974)”. The current exhibition is dedicated to some of the persons involved in the evacuation in 1939 and the recovery of Wawel treasures after the First and Second World Wars.

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