For first time in history, over 130 stunning ‘national treasure’ tapestries go on display at Wawel castle
For the first time ever in their nearly 500-year history, all of the Jagiellonian Tapestries, one of Poland’s national treasures, have been put on public display in Kraków’s Wawel Castle for what staff there are billing as the world’s largest ever exhibition of tapestries.
Hidden from the Swedes, looted on the orders of Empress Catherine of Russia, spirited away down the Vistula three days before the Germans entered Krakow in 1939, evacuated to Romania, then to France, Britain and finally to Canada, the tapestries are one of Poland’s most important treasures and a symbol of its tumultuous history.
Of 160 ordered by Polish king Zygmunt August II in the 16th century, in what was the largest ever purchase of tapestries by a single monarch, 138 tapestries have survived to today.
New pandemic measures that come into effect on Saturday mean that the tapestries will be on display initially for two days before the country plunges into another national lockdown.
Those lucky enough to get to the castle before then will see 137 tapestries including vast wall coverings showing Biblical scenes and fantastic animals - 136 are held in the Wawel collection, while one belongs to the Royal Castle in Warsaw.
Only one smaller window tapestry was not able to be brought to Poland. It belongs to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and was shown at Wawel in 2000.
The exhibition ‘All the King’s Tapestries. Returns. 2021-1961-1921’ is carefully timed to commemorate two important events in their tumultuous history.
The first is the 100th anniversary of the return of the tapestries from Soviet Russia after the Polish-Bolshevik war under the Riga Treaty signed on March 18, 1921.
The second is the 60th anniversary of their later return after World War II from Canada. The ship bringing them back docked in Gdynia in 1961.
Wawel Castle director Professor Andrzej Betlej told TFN: “Poland in its history has lost almost all of its Crown Jewels. But we have the tapestries. They fill this role.”
Zygmunt August ordered the tapestries in 1550-60 from the best weaving workshops of Brussels, then the capital of the Spanish Netherlands.
Many of the tapestries now on display have never been seen by the public before.
The collection comprises 19 monumental Biblical tapestries with scenes from the Book of Genesis, including The Entry of the Animals into the Ark and The Building of the Tower of Babel, both measuring a boggling eight by five metres.
Of the 50 ‘verdures’ originally ordered 44 have survived, with representations of animals set in the landscape – otters, deer, fantastic reptiles, a Unicorn-giraffe, a lynx, storks and rabbits.
A large part of the collection is made up of 42 coats of arms of Poland and Lithuania, as well as smaller furniture upholstery and fabrics for decorating window niches and the space above doors.
Dr Magdalena Piwocka, one of the two curators of the exhibition, said: “The cost of the tapestries was carefully kept secret by the king himself.”
The only report concerning one series with an unknown number of tapestries mentions 12,000 florins, which was an astronomical amount for which 600 horses could be bought.
Andrzej Betlej says that the contemporary value of the collection would not be smaller than the Czartoryski collection.
The Wawel premiere of the Biblical tapestries took place In July of 1553, at the third wedding of Zygmunt August II to Catherine of Austria.
They were then used to add splendour and royal authority to coronations, weddings, and state ceremonies of the highest rank.
When Zygmunt August died he bequeathed the whole collection of tapestries to his three sisters, stipulating that after their death they should become the property of Poland. This bequest made them a national treasure.
They were displayed at the coronation of Henri de Valois in 1547, at the wedding of Zygmunt III Vasa and Anna of Austria in 1592, and at the coronation of Cecilia Renata, the wife of Władysław IV in Warsaw in 1637.
The tapestries had to be secretly borrowed for the wedding of King Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki, as his predecessor, Jan II Kazimierz had pawned them in Gdańsk.
After the third partition in 1795, the whole collection was stolen on the orders of Tsarina Catherine and taken to Russia. Many of the tapestries were cut to fit the walls of the Winter Palace and Gatchina Palace, or they were used as furniture upholstery.
The tapestries finally came back to Poland by the Treaty of Riga in 1921. As early as 1922 an exhibition of the first tapestries which returned to Poland took place.
The last ones were recovered in 1928, but several tapestries have never returned from Russia.
Three days after the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, their dramatic evacuation began. They were initially sailed by barge down the Vistula to Sandomierz. From there they were spirited out of war-torn Poland to Romania and France.
In January 1940, in Aubusson, France, the crates holding the precious cargo were opened to reveal nine damaged tapestries. The cause was probably a sudden storm in Romania that flooded the crates. Over time, an invasive mould took hold causing disastrous fading.
When France fell to the Germans, the tapestries had to be evacuated again, this time to the UK and then to Canada, where the precious cargo arrived on 12 July 1940.
The transport was looked after by Stanisław Świerz-Zaleski, curator of the Wawel collections, and Józef Krzywda-Polkowski, also a Wawel employee.
The Canadian authorities provided the tapestries with a safe and suitable storage facility in Ottawa.
After the war though, the Canadian government were reluctant to hand them over to the communist authorities of the People's Republic of Poland.
Their storage places were secretly changed several times. Eventually, in 1948, the provincial premier of Quebec, Maurice Duplessis, a staunch anti-communist, took possession of the tapestries and placed them in the Quebec Provincial Museum where they remained for many years.
Only a few years after the death of Stalin in 1959 did the efforts to recover the collection bring a positive result.
The tapestries were unloaded in the port of Gdynia from the ship MS Krynica on 16 January 1961 amid cheering from jubilant crowds.
Initially, all the tapestries were hung in the castle, but it soon turned out that presenting the collection could have fatal consequences.
Increasing crowds of visitors, contaminated air, dust eating into the wool, light, and the weight of hanging fabrics all began to threaten the tapestries and their colours.
Jerzy Holc, who heads the Wawel Tapestry Conservation Workshop, told TFN that the conservation of the tapestries is arduous and time-consuming, with one taking 10 years.
Though the exhibition will initially be open for two days only, it is due to run until October 31, which should hopefully give plenty of time for the public to enjoy it.