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A Medieval Decoration. The Mysterious Belt from the Times of Vytautas the Great

Event date: 2015 y.April0417 d. - 2015 y.July0712 d.00:00 All events
Valdovų rūmų Gotikinė antikamera
Relevant until 2015-07-12

On 17 April 2015, a truly great international exhibition is due to open at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, entitled ‘A Medieval Decoration. The Mysterious Belt from the Times of Vytautas the Great’. 

Vytautas the Great (ca 1350–1430), Grand Duke of Lithuania (1392/1401–1430), was one of the most distinguished rulers in Lithuania both in the eyes of his contemporaries and in historical memory, the creator of the early Lithuanian state, its structures and power, and defender of its sovereignty, a proponent of bringing Christianity to Lithuania and Samogitia, an apt diplomat, talented commander and hero of the victory at Grunwald, one of the most eminent rulers of his era in Europe who was offered the royal crowns of Bohemia and Lithuania, and due to the tactical reasons even the king’s crown of Poland.

Vytautas, born in 1350, was the eldest son of the acting co-ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Duke of Trakai, later the Grand Duke of Lithuania Kęstutis and his wife Birutė. Raised in the south-western ethnic Lithuanian lands with the center in Old and New Trakai that were ruled by his father, from an early age Vytautas was well aware of the threat posed by the Teutonic Order to the independence of the Lithuanian state. Thanks to clever, strategically sound and calculated political dealings, The Duke made an effective use of his external foe – the Teutonic Order – and Lithuania’s internal political forces to strengthen his role as a leader in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and to force his cousin Jogaila, the King of Poland, to recognize his real authority in Lithuania. In 1392 Vytautas became Lithuania’s factual ruler, and in 1401 he was acknowledged to be the Grand Duke of Lithuania (Magnus Dux Lithuaniae) until his death, even though the Polish King Jogaila retained his nominal title as the Supreme Duke of Lithuania (Supremus Dux Lituaniae). On 15 July 1410 it was actually Vytautas who commanded the joint Lithuanian and Polish army in one of the largest battles of medieval times – the Battle of Grunwald – where the powerful army of the Teutonic Order was decimated, despite having the support of knights from all over Western Europe.

In Vytautas’ times, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania reached the height of its power. The state’s borders stretched from the Baltic to the Black seas. A whole line of duchies – Pskov, Novgorod, Ryazan and even Muscovy – ended up in Vytautas’ sphere of influence. Pope Martin V recognized Vytautas as the apostolic vicar of Pskov and Novgorod. The congress of European rulers in Lutsk in 1429 confirmed Vytautas’ international authority and the geopolitical significance of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas was offered the crown of Lithuania by Sigismund von Luxemburg, who was later to become the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. But death in 1430 prevented Vytautas from being crowned King of Lithuania and from achieving one of his most important political goals – the Kingdom of Lithuania.

Vytautas was energetically involved in the building of the state status and prosperity. In his times, the sovereignty of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was strengthened, a distinction was made between the concepts of dynasty and throne succession, the state was centralized, its governance underwent reforms, a ruler’s court with the structure outlining the first state officials was formed, and the nobility was granted privileges. Thus Lithuania’s political nation started being formed, cities gained self-rule privileges, the crafts and trade strengthened. 

Realizing the important existential significance of Christianity, Vytautas rapidly engaged in spreading the new faith: in 1417 Samogitians were baptized and the Samogitian (Medininkų) Diocese was founded, a parish network grew, and the first monasteries and schools were established. The acceptance of Christianity determined the state’s choice of political and cultural directions, putting into place the foundations for its further successful development and integration into the Latin European civilized space. Vytautas was among the most generous of patrons. 

Vytautas is also known for his role in beginning the history of non-Christian communities in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – namely, the arrival and settlement of Tatar, Karaim and Jewish communities in the country. This was in part a result of the favourable legal environment that Vytautas had a hand in forming, as well as religious and ethnic tolerance. In the Tatar and Karaim communities, Vytautas is still   considered the most important military hero.

 A grand scope of secrecy and numerous unknowns still veil the times of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas and the ruler as a figure. The whereabouts of his grave are as yet unknown, and no one can say where the royal crown sent to him disappeared. Every newly discovered treasure from those times raises the great interest of historians and art researchers. Sometimes these discoveries are accompanied by legends, various interpretations and conclusions requiring additional research.

In this joint international exhibition organized with the National Historical Museum of the Republic of Belarus, we present an interesting collection of belt segments created most likely in the late 14th–first half of the 15th century by Genoan masters working in the Crimean Peninsula in the city of Kaffa (Crimean Khanate, present-day Feodosia, Crimea) possessing Eastern ornamental characteristics. The collection of belt segments consists of 11 round discs, a buckle, tips, and two rectangular sheaths. All of the belt details are made of high-grade silver; many elements are gold-plated and blackened. The Gothic shape and décor of the buckle is typical of the school of the Lombardian and Venetian masters. Meanwhile the round discs point to local, Turkish influences. Attention should be drawn to the depiction of birds and basilisks on the discs. This toreutic (artistic metal-work, metallurgy) cultural heritage monument is one of the most valuable and significant treasure on the list of cultural heritage of the Republic of Belarus and thus holds special status.

The belt was found in 1990 together with a hoard of coins in the Minsk district of Molodechno, in the village with the symbolic name of Litva (Lithuania). For over a decade the belt belonged to private collectors, but in 2006 thanks to Professor Valentin Riabcevich of the Belarusian State University, the belt was handed over to the state, and one year later it entered the collections of the National Historical Museum of the Republic of Belarus.

From the moment it entered the public eye, a great deal of speculation and interpretation has arisen regarding the belt’s origins and ownership. Some historians and public figures associate this treasure with the Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas, creating an exciting story about the belt being a gift to the Lithuanian ruler in 1428–1429 from Khan Hacı I Giray, who was born in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Motivating their hypothesis on the stylistic décor of the belt, its ornamentation, dating and the fact that an accessory of such nature and opulence could have belonged to a wealthy and high-ranking figure, some historians assert that the belt could have belonged to the Lithuanian ruler.

Over time a tradition has formed to call this piece the Belt of Vytautas. So in any case, the exhibition held between 17 April and 12 July 2015 titled ‘A Medieval Decoration. The Mysterious Belt from the Times of Vytautas the Great’ is an excellent opportunity to again recall the proponent of Lithuanian statehood, and the most distinctive ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Vytautas the Great.

However it must be stressed that there is no direct and irrefutable evidence to claim that the treasure on display actually belonged to Grand Duke Vytautas. It cannot be unilaterally or assuredly said that this belt dates to the times of this Lithuanian ruler. Without exception, it is an interesting artwork worthy of attention, one that hides many unresolved riddles. Further research will show and at least go some way towards drawing away the shield of mystery surrounding this exceptional treasure. 

Opening ceremony of international exhibition ‘A Medieval Decoration. The Mysterious Belt from the Times of Vytautas the Great’ will be held on 17th of April at 5 p. m. in the Museum (entrance with invitation).

Exhibition patrons
Minister of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania Šarūnas Birutis
Minister of Culture of the Republic of Belarus Boris Svetlov

National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania
National Historical Museum of the Republic of Belarus

Exhibition partners            
Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in the Republic of Lithuania
Embassy of the Republic of Lithuania in the Republic of Belarus

Exhibition and publishing coordinators
Gintarė Skujutė, e-mail: g.skujute@valdovurumai.lt, tel. (8 5)  255 9152
Marijus Uzorka, e-mail: m.uzorka@valdovurumai.lt, tel. (8 5)  255 9152

Published:: 2015-04-07 16:42 Modified: 2015-04-08 11:35
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