Castle renovation reveals priceless horde of 17th century polychromes

The unexpected and historically significant find was made during general renovation works at Wieliczka’s Żupny Castle. Art Service 2/PAP

A remarkable discovery of original polychrome wall paintings dating back to the times of the 17th century Vasa dynasty has been made at a castle in the salt mine town of Wieliczka.

Added to the UNESCO Heritage Site List in 2013, the castle’s current general renovation was part of a wider plan to make the site more accessible for tourists.Art Service 2/PAP

The unexpected and historically significant find was made during general renovation works at Wieliczka’s Żupny Castle and includes a painting of the Vasa coat of arms and a fragment of the emblem of the Polish state from the times of the Vasa dynasty.

Spread across five of the castle’s rooms, the wall paintings were found hidden beneath several layers of plaster dating back to between the 17th and 20th centuries.Art Service 2/PAP

Judged by experts as largely well-preserved, taken as a whole the polychromes form a large set of monumental paintings depicting classicist architecture with landscape scenes. However, they also include floral motifs, such as flowery bouquets in vases, as well as artworks of an illusionistic nature such as stone statues above doors, draped fabrics in ceiling friezes, and ornaments in Arabesque and oriental style.

Spread across five of the castle’s rooms, the wall paintings were found hidden beneath several layers of plaster dating back to between the 17th and 20th centuries.

Judged by experts as largely well-preserved, taken as a whole the polychromes form a large set of monumental paintings depicting classicist architecture with landscape scenes.Art Service 2/PAP

Marcin Chojowski, the conservator in charge of the renovation said: “The preserved layers, which come from various periods, interpenetrate each other. In some places only small fragments have been preserved, whereas in others - bigger parts… We're planning to possibly exhibit all of the layers to show them as part of the history of this place.”

He added: “The discovery of the Vasa coat of arms was especially surprising because earlier tests hadn’t detected the presence of wall paintings in this particular area.”

Klementyna Ochniak-Dudek, head of the museum’s Art and Ethnography Department, added that although valuable discoveries have previously been made inside these rooms, the latest finds nonetheless came as an unexpected surprise.Art Service 2/PAP

From the second half of the 13th century, until 1945, Żupny Castle acted as the organizational headquarters of the Wieliczka and Bochnia salt mines. It is now the seat of the Cracow Saltworks Museum in Wieliczka.

Added to the UNESCO Heritage Site List in 2013, the castle’s current general renovation was part of a wider plan to make the site more accessible for tourists.

Jan Godłowski, director of the Cracow Saltworks Museum in Wieliczka, described the finds as “incredibly rare”.Art Service 2/PAP

Jan Godłowski, director of the Cracow Saltworks Museum in Wieliczka, said: “We wanted to adapt the castle to serve exhibition purposes so we launched a general renovation. It turned out that we had beautiful polychrome art here which we didn't even know existed… These types of discoveries happen incredibly rarely.”

Klementyna Ochniak-Dudek, head of the museum’s Art and Ethnography Department, added that although valuable discoveries have previously been made inside these rooms, the latest finds nonetheless came as an unexpected surprise.

Marcin Chojowski, the conservator in charge of the renovation, said: “The discovery of the Vasa coat of arms was especially surprising because earlier tests hadn’t detected the presence of wall paintings in this particular area.”Art Service 2/PAP

She said: “We know for certain that the easternmost room, in which the paintings can also be found, was once used to receive guests. However, we don't have any precise information as to the decor of these rooms, and that's why we were surprised to find these impressive and perfectly preserved paintings ornamenting these rooms.”

The paintings, which will now require careful conservation, will also undergo tests so as to determine the substances and pigments used to complete them in order to learn more about their history and so as to pinpoint their exact date of creation.

The paintings, which will now require careful conservation, will also undergo tests so as to determine their exact date of creation.Art Service 2/PAP

Ochniak-Dudek added: “At the moment we're certain that the oldest painting hails from the 17th century. It's a fragment of the emblem of the Polish state from the times of the Vasa dynasty, that is from the 17th century… Right now we're happy to have a set of paintings of monumental character, suited for a flagship seat of an important Old Polish company such as Cracow Saltworks.”

The museum is now considering how best to display the polychrome artworks to visitors alongside the temporary exhibitions planned for the renovated rooms.