CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Sigismund II Augustus’s Armorial Tapestry from Vilnius

Exhibition: 17 October 2015 - 17 January 2016

From the Art Newspaper, 1 October 2015

Sigismund II Augustus’s Armorial Tapestry from Vilnius, which goes on view this month at the Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow, is the result of serendipity. In 2006, a sharp-eyed Polish woman spotted a tapestry at a Drouot auction in Paris that she recognised as bearing the arms of the then heir apparent to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland, Sigismund II Augustus (1520-72). The authorities of the Royal Castle were alerted, as were those of the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania in Vilnius and a battle of the paddles ensued. The Lithuanians won, but have eirenically loaned the tapestry to the Royal Castle for this show.

Sigismund II Augustus was the last of the powerful Jagiellonian rulers of Lithuania and Poland. The dynasty and its vast territories had come about by the marriage in 1386 of Jogaila, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, to Jadwiga, the Queen of Poland. The grand duchy embraced what are now Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and a large slice of western Russia. from 1471 the cadet branch succeeded to the kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary, making the Jagiellonian dynasty the rulers of the largest political sphere east of the Holy Roman Empire.

Sigismund made himself a Renaissance prince worthy of his coevals elsewh ere in Europe. A great bibliophile, he amassed a library of around 4,000 bound volumes. He was a talented architecture buff, and arms, armour, weapons and jewellery filled his palaces in Krakow, Vilnius and elsewh ere. There were paintings, of course—notably some by Titian and Paris Bordone—but tapestries were his greatest love. At his death, he owned more than 350, some inherited, but most commissioned, woven in Antwerp and Brussels to designs by the greatest painter-designers of the period, including Pieter Coecke van Aelst, as well as Cornelis Floris and Cornelis Bos, who specialised in grotesques with coats of arms (although the designer of the tapestry on show is unknown). The collection was dispersed after Sigismund’s death.

Sigismund’s tapestry from Vilnius, flanked by Jagiellonian armorial tapestries from the Polish collection, is a rare wool and silk Flemish work of 1544-48, showing a coat of arms with the quarters of Lithuania, Poland and three smaller states. It also honours Sigismund’s tapestry-loving mother, Bona Sforza, the Sforza escutcheon.