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The mastery of brussels tapestries. The New Exhibits at the Palace

22 September–20 November 2022
Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania

Tapestries have been mentioned at the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania in Vilnius during the periods of residence of rulers from the Gediminid-Jagiellon and Vasa dynasties in both the 16th and the 17th centuries. King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismund Augustus (1544/1548–1572) stayed at the Vilnius palace the most frequently of all the rulers and is to be most credited with its development. There is no doubt that the tapestry collection of Sigismund Augustus not only often decorated the Vilnius residence, but this was also where his earliest heraldic and biblical tapestries were commissioned, being paid for from the treasury of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

The historic collection of Sigismund Augustus’ artistic textiles served as a guiding star when seeking to create a new tapestry collection for the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. The newly formed tapestry collection has symbolically returned to the Vilnius Palace its former representational function and highlighted the value of the historical collections, while also allowing the museum to become an important historical artistic textile centre recognised on an international scale. The new collection of historical textiles reflecting 16th–17th-century Gothic, Renaissance, Mannerist and Early Baroque stylistics, intended to decorate the interiors of the reconstructed Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania in Vilnius, started to be formed in 2004. The museum’s representatives sought out antique dealers, auctions and private collections in Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, the United States and other countries, searching for textiles whose artistic stylistics, themes, chronology and geographical origins bore some association with the historic collection of Lithuania’s rulers. A total of 25 tapestries had been acquired in 2004–2012 before the palace expositions were opened to the public. Of these, the historically most valuable piece is a heraldic textile with the combined coat of arms of Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismund Augustus, woven in Flanders in 1544–1548. The composition of heraldic symbols in this tapestry clearly shows that this artistic textile was commissioned by Sigismund Augustus as the reigning grand duke of Lithuania, and must have adorned his Vilnius residence.

In 2013–2021, the tapestry collection of the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania was supplemented with another 10 historical textiles and thus became the largest and most important collection of 16th–17th-century tapestries in Lithuania and the Baltic countries, arousing the interest of the international academic community. The newly acquired tapestries have enriched the existing collection both thematically and chronologically. The collection of historic artistic textiles at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania more than doubled the old tapestry collections of Lithuania’s museums and this national foundation of European culture and art heritage, while the period represented in the textile collection kept at Lithuania’s museums has been extended by around 150 years, as the earliest tapestries at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes date back to the very beginning of the 16th century.

Four of the tapestries acquired in 2020–2021, at the very height of the pandemic, are presented in this exhibition. They are a tapestry from a Brussels workshop depicting a pergola with vases and considered to be one of the so-called “pergola-type” textiles, woven in around 1600. Pergolas usually featured arbours supported by variously shaped columns entwined with climbing plants or grapevines, often with vases and floral bouquets amid a landscape background. Textiles such as this were widespread in Flemish workshops in the mid-16th century and remained popular for around the whole century. In palaces, their function could be to represent winter gardens, or orangeries. Two new textiles have been added to the museum’s collection of verdures. These are a pair of tapestries from the Gardens with Ovids Figures series, depicting gardens with characters from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. One is Garden with Venus and Adonis, the second is Garden with  Theseus and Ariadne. The series was woven in the first half of the 17th century at the workshop of Cornelis Mattens in Brussels. The fourth tapestry presented at this exhibition, Romulus Brings the Head of Amulius to Numitor, was woven at the famous workshop of Frans Geubels in Brussels at the end of the 16th century, and is part of the Romulus and Remus series of textiles. This theme was popular in Flanders from the middle of the 16th to the first half of the 17th centuries when interest in the Antiquity and its stories made a resurgence during the Renaissance.