Fascinating story of Vasa kings brought to life at Warsaw’s Royal Castle
The Swedish Vasa kings who ruled Poland in the seventeenth century took the country to its largest ever territorial expanse, conquered Moscow and even captured the Russian Tsar.
After moving the capital from Kraków to Warsaw, they reigned in Poland when it was at its most powerful, yet they failed to capitalise on early successes and left the country in a decline that would eventually lead to its breakup and final disappearance from the map of Europe.
This fascinating story is now being brought to life in the first ever major exhibition devoted to this dynasty at Warsaw’s Royal Castle.
‘The World of the Polish Vasas’ is the crowning finale to the Castle’s Year of the Vasas, which celebrates 400 years since the first king of that dynasty put the finishing touches to the Royal Castle in the five-sided form in which it exists today.
The Vasas, whose name either comes from the family’s estate of Vasa near Uppsala in Sweden, or from the Swedish for sheaf (vase), which features in their coat of arms, first came to power in Poland when Zygmunt III arrived on the Polish throne in 1587 thanks to his father’s marriage to Polish princess and Queen of Sweden Katarzyna Jagiellonka.
After having his Swedish crown snatched away, he waged wars with Sweden to regain it and also defeated Russia, leading to the famous Russian Homage in 1611 when Tsar Vasily IV paid homage to the Polish king in the Senate Hall of the Royal Castle.
He waged wars with Turkey in Moldova and annexed the lands of Smolensk, Chernihiv and Seversk, making Poland was one of the strongest powers in Europe.
After Zygmunt, his son Władysław IV took the throne and ruled Poland between 1632 and 1648. After successful campaigns against the Ottomans, he took on the Russians at Smolensk and broke their siege of the city.
He supported religious tolerance and carried out military reforms, such as the founding of the Commonwealth Navy. He was also a renowned patron of the arts and music. He failed, however, to realise his dreams of regaining the Swedish crown.
The last Polish ruler of the Vasa dynasty, Władysław's half-brother Jan Kazimierz, was one of the most disastrous in the history of Poland. Poland was attacked by Russia and then by Sweden, which brought about hitherto unprecedented destruction to the country.
Attempts to halt the rot were continually thwarted by the nobility’s use of the liberum veto and his reign was further troubled by the Cossack rebellion under Chmielnicki.
According to exhibition curator Dr Zbigniew Hundert, the Vasas cannot be judged unanimously. “They tried to rule the country properly although things didn’t always work out as they wished,” he said.
“They soon realised that the throne didn’t offer them as much power as they desired. And they got into conflict with the nobility, which had a rather republican outlook,” he added.
The Royal Castle’s exhibition reflects the splendour and majesty of the Vasas time on the throne, which was known as the ‘silver age’ or ‘the era of silver but thickly gilded’.
Spread over 11 rooms, 300 objects borrowed from 77 institutions from Poland and abroad tell the story of this period.
The highlight of the exhibition is the Panorama of Warsaw from 1625 by Dutch painter Christian Melich who was employed by Zygmunt III. It shows the Old Town viewed from Praga in which the Royal Castle in its five-sided form can be seen for the first time on canvas.
The painting has been borrowed from the Pinakoteka gallery in Munich and it is the first time that it has been shown in Poland since it left the country 350 years ago.
Another highlight is the Rape of Europe by Guido Reno, painted to the order of Władysław IV, which has been borrowed from the National Gallery in London.
From Vienna comes the Portrait of the Old Man, which was part of the Jan Kazimierz collection and was ascribed to Rembrandt until recently. A portrait of Zygmunt III by Rubens is also on display for the first time in Poland.
Hidden among the larger exhibits are two sketchbooks by Giovanni Battista Gisleni, who worked as an architect for the Polish Vasas. In one of them are designs for the funeral of Władysław IV as well as panels in the Royal Castle’s famous marble room.
In the final room is a lapidarium featuring Vasa-era stonework stolen by the Swedes during the Deluge that were lost in the Vistula when boats transporting them up the river sank. The stone carvings were found in 2015 when low summer water levels revealed them at the bottom of the river.
The World of the Polish Vasas is open at the Royal Castle in Warsaw until 14 January 2020.