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An exhibition of priceless treasures opens in Vilnius – the tapestries of Sigismund Augustus

The international exhibition The Tapestries of Sigismund Augustus in Vilnius, opened at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. Extraordinary in size and scope, growing into a legend over the centuries, the tapestry collection of the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismund Augustus (1544/1548–1572) is the oldest national relic of the Polish-Lithuanian state. In contemporary Poland, the tapestry collection is known as an art treasure, the most important accent in the permanent expositions at the Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow, while the exhibition of such a collection in Lithuania is a historic event for both Lithuania and Poland, a neighbouring state’s gift on the occasion of Vilnius’ 700th anniversary.
 The opening of this exceptional exhibition at the Palace of the Grand Dukes attracted the attention of almost half a thousand art specialists, exhibition partners and friends of the museum. The last time Sigismund Augustus’ tapestries decorated his Vilnius residence was during the reign of the Vasa dynasty, so the return of such a large collection, numbering almost 40 historical textiles, to the Lithuanian capital is the first of its kind in 400 years.
Exhibition patrons – the Presidents of the Republic of Lithuania and of the Republic of Poland
According to the Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda, “on May 3rd each year we mark the anniversary of the first written Constitution to be adopted by a parliament in Europe. This historic phenomenon embodies the shared history and cultural heritage of Lithuania and Poland, testifying to the European dimension of our countries’ development. It is symbolic that the international exhibition being opened on May 3rd exposes even earlier and deeper historic bonds and aspects of cultural integration between Lithuania and Poland, as well as of Europe as a whole.
The most emphatic representation of Renaissance cultural power and beautiful aesthetics is returning to the reconstructed residence of the Lithuanian grand dukes – artefacts from the tapestry collection of Sigismund Augustus, which are an exceptional phenomenon in the treasury of European cultural history and also a significant and integral part of the whole world’s artistic heritage”.
               The new Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Republic of Lithuania Konstanty Radziwiłł spoke on behalf of the President of Poland President Andrzej Duda. Sigismund Augustus was not just a ruler and a politician, he was also a very well educated humanist and lover of fine art. … His order presented to the weaving masters of Brussels was the largest commission of its day in Europe, encompassing more than 160 tapestries. In this way, in the 1550s, a collection of art masterpieces was formed that is now one of the most superb monuments of Renaissance art – said President of the Republic of Poland Andrzej Duda in the welcome message he passed on. I sincerely thank the curators at the Wawel Royal Castle and the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, as well as the collective at the Adam Mickiewicz Institute for organising this impressive exhibition”.
The exhibition is a reminder of the golden age of Krakow and Vilnius
The tapestries of Sigismund Augustus are being exhibited in Vilnius on the third level of the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, in the Reconstructed Historical Interiors space. The enormous collection of 16th-century textiles reveals European Renaissance culture and the representational aspirations of the last ruler of the Gediminid-Jagiellon dynasty – the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania – which remind us of the golden age of Krakow and Vilnius, the Renaissance.
“In the European context, this is probably the most valuable collection in every sense: the artistic, historic and material... Art historians compare it to the collections of the Roman popes and kings of Spain” – said the Director General of the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania Dr Vydas Dolinskas at the opening of the exhibition. “Such a large collection of tapestries has never been exhibited outside the walls of Wawel Castle. The fact that it was brought to Vilnius shows the truly close bond of the Polish state with Lithuania and the friendliness of the directors of the Wawel Royal Castle. I would like to especially thank the Director of Krakow’s Wawel Royal Castle – State Art Collections, professor and academic doctor Andrzej Betlej, as certainly not every director would dare to have such a valuable and senstitive collection of textiles taken out of their museum”.
According to the Director of the Wawel Royal Castle, Prof. Dr Andrzej Betlej, “The exhibition of the tapestries of King Sigismund II Augustus at the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania in Vilnius is an unprecedented event. The tapestry collection is the pearl in the crown of the holdings of the Wawel residence. It is one of the most valuable collections, the importance of which extends far beyond the artistic dimension. At this point it is unnecessary to emphasise the importance we attach to it; how deeply it is intertwined with the history of the former Commonwealth. As a part of the Wawel Crown Treasury and a splendid backdrop for momentous state ceremonies, the tapestries of Sigismund Augustus have acquired a status akin to crown jewels. Appreciated by specialists from all over the world, they rank among the finest creations of their kind made in Brussels in the sixteenth century.
We hope that this unique presentation will bring everyone closer to the vision of the times of the flourishing and powerful Polish-Lithuanian state, strengthened by the far-sighted political and culture-building policies of the last Jagiellon. The tapestry collection bears testimony to our common history, but in very difficult times we face today, it is also a visible sign of unity and common aspirations in this most important dimension of spiritual and artistic, as well as political culture”.
Sigismund Augustus’ tapestry collection attracts the exclusive attention of institutions from both states
The main exhibition sponsors and partners were the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw, the Office of the Government of Lithuania, as well as the Polish Institute in Vilnius and the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Lithuania.
When speaking at the opening of the exhibition in Vilnius, Barbara Schabowska, the director of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw, said that “the tapestries feature the coats of arms of both states – our union and commonwealth, which existed in Europe for around 400 years and served as testimony of the modernity and might of both the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
At the exhibition in Vilnius, these tapestries are being presented as civilisational treasures, as evidence of our union. The displayed textiles come from all of the series that make up the collection of Poland’s and Lithuania’s ruler, Sigismund Augustus. This will be the first time that the tapestries will be shown outside of Wawel Royal Castle on such a grand scale, further highlighting the exceptionality of this exhibition, of which the Presidents of Poland and Lithuania have kindly agreed to act as patrons. I hope that it will serve as a kind of journey into the Renaissance world – a time of beauty, culture and spiritual perfection. So different to today’s world, and therefore so enticing and captivating”.
The turbulent history of the tapestries
Sigismund Augustus, ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, commissioned several tapestry series in the mid-16th century, which were woven by the most famous masters of his day in the capital of the Spanish Netherlands, Brussels. Over ten years, Sigismund Augustus accumulated a collection of 160 artistic textiles.
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 expensive textiles were kept in the treasury of the Kingdom of Poland. 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 Krakow. 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. Close to 140 tapestries have survived, the majority of which are kept at the Wawel Royal Castle.
Exhibition on at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania until the end of July
The exhibition is important to Vilnius due to one other, significant historical detail – the earliest tapestries of Sigismund Augustus were commissioned in the Vilnius Lower Castle. They include the series The Story of the First Parents and The Story of Noah, and the heraldic textiles. Museum staff at the Wawel Royal Castle do not intend to loan a collection of this size to any other institution in the immediate decades. This fact makes the exhibition a sign of the Wawel Royal Castle’s and the Polish state’s exceptional attention and amicability towards Lithuania, the best possible gift to Vilnius, which is celebrating its 700th anniversary. At the same time, it is one of the most complicated, largest and most expensive exhibition projects to be undertaken in the history of museology in Lithuania. Visitors will be able to see the exhibition in Vilnius at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania until July 30. 

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During Easter the museum will be closed!


Dear visitors,
If you are planning to visit the Palace of the Grand Dukes, please note that on Easter (March 31st – April 1st) the museum will be closed. More information about working hours and ticket prices you can find here. 

This year on the 10th of April in the National museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania preparations for the state representative event will take place. Therefore, on this day, visitors will not be able to enter some of the rooms on the ground floor of Route I, while the exhibition of the restored historical interiors on Route II will offer the exhibition of Giovanni Bellini's painting "Madonna and Child", the Baroque Ruler's Library, and the Ruler's private apartments and the Treasury. To add, You won't be able to visit the Observation Tower either. Routes III and IV and their exhibitions will be accessible as normal.

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Published:: 2023-05-03 12:09 Modified: 2023-08-08 12:15
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