How the royal Krakow tapestries got home

From the June 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

The last Polish king of the Jagiellonian dynasty, Sigismund II Augustus (1520-1572), son of Sigismund I the Elder and his Milanese queen, Bona Sforza, was born at the Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow. It was there that he grew up and will use the building as his main official residence for most of his life. Upon his death, he was buried in Wawel Hill Cathedral. He was also responsible for the most important artistic commission related to the castle. In a decade, between 1550 and 1560, he ordered 160 magnificent tapestries from Brussels to decorate the royal apartments of the castle. The first set – showing biblical scenes – was probably intended for the coronation of Sigismund’s second wife, Barbara Radziwiłł, in December 1550. However, it was not exhibited until a few years later, on July 30, 1553, during the third marriage of the King with Catherine of Austria, which followed Barbara’s untimely death in 1551. The King continued to order tapestries for Wawel over the following years.

Of the 160 original tapestries, 137 survive. Nineteen are biblical scenes, designed by Michiel Coxcie the Elder (1499-1592) and comprising episodes from the Old Testament, from Adam and Eve to the construction of the Tower of Babel. Sigismond was the princeps edition from this series, much copied until 1700. Among the remaining tapestries, 44 are verdures with animals – leopards, monkeys, camels, otters, wild boars, deer and fantastic reptiles, dragons and even a unicorn-giraffe (see p. 87). The king also ordered 26 tapestries with grotesque decorations around his interwoven initials, or around the arms of Poland and Lithuania. Another 37 tapestries were made to be placed around windows and above doors, with a combination of greenery and emblazoned designs. Finally 11 tapestries were used as seat covers (six with the monogram ‘SA’ and five with bouquets of flowers). All these tapestries belong to Wawel Castle, with the exception of two: the Moral fall of humanity, which belongs to the Royal Castle in Warsaw, and an arcade for an over-window, now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Heavenly bliss, from the Serie History of the first parents (1550-1560), designed by Michiel Coxcie the Elder, woven by the workshop of Jan de Kempeneer. Wawel Royal Castle, Krakow. Photo: Tomasz liwiński

All the tapestries, with the exception of the Amsterdam arcades, are now exhibited together in Wawel for a few months and can be admired in 21 rooms spread over the two main floors of the castle. The tapestries are exhibited on the walls and sometimes (depending on their state of preservation) in display cases. Two of the largest rooms at the Wawel – the Envoys Room and the Senators Room – have been fully carpeted with Flemish tapestries, giving a vivid idea of ​​the luxury and glorious effect of these works of art in a royal residence. Many over-doors, over-windows, sub-windows and arcades have been placed in their original locations, showing how the hangings were originally intended to cover all surfaces of the castle. Greens with their animals populate the interstices between the biblical scenes and can be found in a number of other rooms and on the Staircase of the Envoys. Text panels and display cases with comparative objects tell the story of the making of the tapestries and their more recent conservation.

After Sigismund’s death, the tapestries became the property of the Polish crown and were often used for coronations, royal weddings and important ceremonies, both in the castle and in the cathedral. Even in modern times, Jagiellonian tapestries have been present at some of the key events in Polish history. In May 1935, for example, the tapestry of God blessing Noah’s family was suspended above the Vasa Gate in Wawel during the state funeral of Józef Piłsudski, on pater patriae of the Republic of Poland. In August 2002, some of the tapestries were exhibited along the courtyard gallery of the castle for the visit of Pope John Paul II.

Tapestry with the coats of arms of Poland and Lithuania and a figure of Ceres (1550-1560), designed by an artist from the circle of Cornelis Floris and Cornelis Bos, woven by the workshop of Frans Ghieteels.  Wawel Royal Castle, Krakow.

Tapestry with the coats of arms of Poland and Lithuania and a figure of Ceres (1550-1560), designed by an artist from the circle of Cornelis Floris and Cornelis Bos, woven by the workshop of Frans Ghieteels. Wawel Royal Castle, Krakow. Photo: Tomasz liwiński

Yet the history of tapestries has – unsurprisingly, considering the history of Poland – not been as simple and glorious as it seems at first glance. In 1669, John II Casimir Vasa, short of money after his abdication, pledged the Gdańsk tapestries. After the third and final partition of Poland (1795) and the effective disappearance of the country from the map of Europe for over a century, the tapestries were brought to Russia and exhibited in a number of places in Saint -Petersburg and Gatchina Palace. The Treaty of Riga, signed in March 1921, stipulated that “collections of works of art” (among other objects) were to be returned to Poland “regardless of the conditions and pretexts under which they were taken and independently from the authorities responsible for this removal. Between 1921 and 1928, all Russian tapestries were returned to Poland.

An Otter with a Fish in its Mouth (1550-1560), designed by an artist of the school of Pieter Coecke van Aelst,

An otter with a fish in its mouth (1550-1560), designed by an artist of the school of Pieter Coecke van Aelst,
woven by the workshop of Jan van Tieghem. Wawel Royal Castle, Krakow Photo: Tomasz liwiński

Only ten years after their return to Poland, however, the tapestries faced a much worse threat. Just two days after the Nazi invasion of Poland, on September 3, 1939, Poland’s national treasures, starting with the Wawel tapestries, were evacuated. Wawel’s chief curator, Stanisław Świerz-Zaleski, and architect Józef Krzywda-Polkowski organized the transport of the works. A map in the exhibition traces their journeys during the war. Via the Vistula, the tapestries reached Kazimierz and then, by truck and carts, were transferred to Romania. They were then shipped through Malta and Genoa to Marseille, and across France to the United Kingdom, from where they were transported to Canada and stored at the National Archives in Ottawa. They remained there for the duration of the war, under the watchful eyes of Świerz-Zaleski and Krzywda-Polkowski. But after the war, a controversy arose over the return of treasures to a communist country, and the tapestries were transferred to Quebec, to be finally returned to Poland in 1961. The present exhibition therefore commemorates the centenary of the Treaty of Riga. and the 60th anniversary of the second return of these tapestries, from Canada – and it is a pleasure to see them in their rightful place.

“All the king’s tapestries: Retrouvailles 2021-1961-1921” is at Wawel Royal Castle, Krakow, until October 31.

From the June 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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