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The mystery surrounding Gediminas’ death – and inspiration for artists: a 19th-century painting of grand dimensions at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania

Along Tour Route II, in the Reconstructed Historical Interiors exposition space, the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania presents an exclusive painting relating a scene from the life of Lithuania’s ruler, The Funeral of Gediminas. Its author was artist Kazimierz Alchimowicz. The painting of grand dimensions, weighing 150 kg, is on loan to Lithuania from the National Museum of Krakow to mark the occasion of Vilnius’ anniversary. The transportation of Alchimowicz’s work was a complicated procedure in itself, and in order to get it to its exposition space in Vilnius (the Grand Renaissance Hall), the work had to be lifted-in using special technical equipment via the Palace of the Grand Dukes gallery.
 
An artist who grew up in Vilnius
 
The author of the painting was born in 1840 in Dembrowo (Dziembrów, present-day Belarus) to a noble family. He spent his childhood and youth in Vilnius, however, with the outbreak of the 1863–1864 Uprising, Alchimowicz, along with a significant number of the nobility and representatives of the intelligentsia of the time, stood up against Russia’s occupation and repressions. After the uprising was supressed, Alchimowicz was deported into the depths of imperial Russia. It is precisely here that the artist-to-be started to draw. After six years in exile, he left for Warsaw where he took up artistic studies in the studio of Wojciech Gerson, before continuing at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich and then working in France, where he headed several art studios.
His monumental canvas The Funeral of Gediminas, personally gifted to the National Museum of Krakow that was just opening at the time, is frequently considered as one of Alchimowicz’s most mature works. In 1888 the painting was awarded a first prize in Saint Petersburg, while a year later it received a bronze medal in Paris. The painter’s work was published in the interwar Lithuanian press as well.
 
A painting with many interesting details, historical figures, and even Trakai Castle
 
This particular painting is unique in art history because of its chosen theme – a pagan ruler’s funeral. It is precisely rulers’ funerals that have been most veiled in legends. And each approach taken when looking at this story is like an attempt to solve the as-yet unanswered question – where indeed is the Lithuanian grand duke buried?
The painting depicts Gediminas’ funeral procession, probably making its way from the Veliuona surroundings via Trakai to Vilnius, as the prevailing belief is that the grand duke died in around 1341 during a clash against the Teutonic Order not far from Veliuona, and was buried in Vilnius.  The Lithuanian warriors seen marching in a procession accompanied by armour-clad Teutonic knights – their captives – suggest this is the return from the battle field.Two musicians and a krivis [pagan priest] are at the fore of the procession, heralding the death of the ruler; the ruler’s sons are also depicted, along with many other interesting details.
 
The mystery behind Gediminas’ death
 
Gediminas’ actual place of burial has not been found to this day. According to 14th-century historical sources, the deceased grand duke may have been cremated in a wooden cage made, most probably, of pine or fir logs. Other legends claim that the ruler could have been buried in the territory of present-day Kalnai Park in Vilnius, on Gediminas’ Grave Hill. In the distance of the painting we see Trakai Castle, thus Vilnius, the grand duke’s main residence and, most likely, the ruler’s place of eternal rest, is not far away... Exhibition curator Gabija Tubelevičiūtė unlocked the secrets encoded in the painting, for example, that the pines depicted in the work point to the ruler’s violent death.
Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas (1316–1341) was one of the most famous rulers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the Middle Ages, the founder of the Lithuanian-born Gediminid dynasty that in the 14th to 16th centuries ruled not just in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, but also in the Kingdom of Poland as well as the kingdoms of Bohemia, Hungary and Croatia. Gediminas earned renown not only for being a courageous commander, but was also known as a very prudent ruler and diplomat. The grand duke sent letters to the pope and autonomous Germanic cities, inviting merchants, craftspeople and monks alike to settle in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It was in one of these letters in 1323 that Vilnius was mentioned in writing for the first time as the main residence of the ruler. This has fostered the association of Gediminas with the beginnings of the city of Vilnius, or broadly, of Vilnius as a capital city.
 
A rich programme of cultural events  
 
The National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania has put together an inviting cycle of events for us to remember and look back in more detail at Vilnius in Gediminas’ times, the life of the ruler and burial traditions, while also finding out about the historical narratives recorded in painting canvases. On November 7, culture historian Dr Jolanta Širkaitė will present a lecture titled “Lithuania’s history in 19th-century artists’ works”. Based on the latest research, Prof. Dr Vykintas Vaitkevičius will tell the museum’s visitors about Lithuanian rulers’ funerals and rituals. In the middle of December, the male folklore group Ugniavijas will treat us to a concert of old war songs. And in January, the most famous researchers of the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania will engage in an open discussion, titled “Rounding up the anniversary year of Gediminas’ letters: discoveries, achievements, experiences”.
The public will also be able to learn about the founder of the Gedimind dynasty, one of our most famous rulers and his life and death by taking part in excursions, during which museum staff will disclose the narratives encoded in Alchimowicz’s painting. Visitors will also be able to see where the Lithuanian grand duke lived, how the palace looked in the times of Gediminas, not to mention Vilnius itself. Excursions will be hosted by National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania guides.
 
An exhibition under the patronage of Poland’s and Lithuania’s politicians, and the most important cultural institutions
Whilst in Vilnius for the NATO Summit, Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Zbigniew Rau visited the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and then, together with the head of the Polish Institute in Lithuania Dorota Mamaj, he suggested the idea of arranging this one-painting exhibition. Alchimowicz’s canvas The Funeral of Gediminas symbolically brings to a close Vilnius’ 70th anniversary year programme. The exhibition is under the patronage of the ministers of foreign affairs of Poland and Lithuania, and both states’ ministers of culture.
Not only the National Museum of Krakow helped organised the difficult transportation of the painting and its exposition, but also the Adam Mickiewicz Institute (Warsaw, Poland), which is another regular supporter of the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania’s projects. It is thanks to the Institute that we could admire the tapestry collection of Sigismund Augustus in Vilnius as well as many other Lithuania-related exhibitions.
 
The painting will be on display at the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania until the middle of January of next year.
 

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Published:: 2023-10-11 09:59 Modified: 2023-10-18 10:09
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