Around 1547, the Flemish master-weavers, Jan and Willem de Kempeneer, Jan van Tieghem, and Pieter van Aelst the Younger embarked upon a tapestry commission of remarkable scale. Pairing up with other weaving workshops, they would eventually send more than 140 tapestries from Brussels to Kraków, for display within the sumptuous and fashionable royal residence of Sigismund II Augustus, King of Poland. Based on designs by the likes of Michiel Coxcie and perhaps Pieter Coecke van Aelst and the landscape-designing Tons family, no expense was spared, with the tapestries woven in wool, silk, and precious metal-wrapped threads. Decades in the making, the king’s Brussels tapestries included the Biblical stories of the Creation and of Noah, verdure landscapes filled with beautifully observed flora and fauna – some real, some fantastical – as well as unique designs for armorials sporting the Jagiellonian monarch’s heraldic devices. Sigismund II Augustus bequeathed his tapestry collection to the Polish Commonwealth; their massed display delighted Henri de Valois (future Henri III de France) at his 1573 coronation as Sigismund’s successor as (short-lived) King of Poland. Ranging from monumental wall hangings, to smaller overdoors, entre-fenêtres, and upholstery, 137 of these tapestries still survive.
The Valois, the Tudors, and the Habsburgs all rivalled Sigismund in the scale of their own commissions from the weavers of Brussels. However, unlike the French and British royal tapestry collections, which have been dispersed and drastically depleted in the intervening centuries, the Jagiellonian legacy can still be experienced together, within the historical setting of a Renaissance-era palace, at the Wawel in Kraków. It is difficult to exaggerate the advantage of encountering these splendid, monumental-scale tapestries within the very spaces for which they were first acquired. Though the tapestries feel so stable in their setting, it is startling to realize how frequently that security has been threatened throughout the past three hundred and fifty-odd years. Already in 1669, the tapestries were jeopardized when absconding abdicant King John II Casimir Vasa illegally pawned them to Gdansk-based banker and postmaster, Franciszek Gratta. This was only the beginning of centuries of peril for such portable wealth, so often synonymous with plunder and booty.
All the King’s Tapestries: Homecomings 2021-1961-1921 is the catalogue that accompanied a major exhibition held at the Wawel in 2021 marking the hundredth anniversary of the restitution of Sigismund II Augustus’s tapestries to Poland. This restitution, agreed between Poland and Russia in March 1921, returned the tapestries to Cracow after well over a century spent primarily in Saint Petersburg, where they had been kept since the Third Partition of Poland formalized by the Austrians, Prussians, and Russians in 1795. The great fascination of All the King’s Tapestries lies in the engrossing story it tells of threats that the tapestries encountered time and time again. The book focuses on three key moments: their 1795 systematic plunder by the Russians; their evacuation from the advancing Nazis in 1939; their decades-long, post-war limbo across the Atlantic in Canada, as treasured cultural patrimony held back as the world watched the USSR’s annexation of eastern Europe; and eventually, against the backdrop of Cold War diplomacy, the tapestries’ ultimate return to Poland in 1961.
The book is divided into five sections, essentially dictated by the reverse timeline of the tapestries’ various arrivals in/returns to Kraków. The first chapter, entitled “The Tapestries 2021: Now,” is the briefest and, for this reader, the least compelling, summarily introducing as it does three contemporary art installations created at the Wawel in response to the tapestries. The second chapter, “The Tapestries 1961: Evacuation and Return,” relates the extraordinary tale of the tapestries’ (and their curators’) escape from Poland – a gripping feat, literally days ahead of the Nazi advances across Europe – and diplomatically tiptoes around the tapestries’ subsequent decades in Canada, while stakeholders, including the Polish Government-in-Exile in London, ruminated whether or not it would be appropriate to return the tapestries to the USSR-affiliated People’s Republic of Poland, eventually conceding 22 years after their wartime evacuation. The third chapter, “The Tapestries 1921: Restitution,” recounts the less familiar but equally compelling narrative of the Russians’ late-eighteenth century wartime theft of the tapestries, and the negotiations for their eventual return following the end of the 1919-21 Polish-Soviet war. Here, the early twentieth-century restorations transforming the Wawel into a museum space are also touched upon. The fourth chapter, “The Tapestries: Their History,” might have been titled more elegantly and consistently as “The Tapestries 1553: Arrival,” summarizing as it does the circumstances of the brand-new tapestries’ first accession to the Wawel, and the context of Sigismund II Augustus’s original commission from the weavers of Brussels. The final chapter, “The Tapestries: Conservation,” brings the narrative full circle, starting with an account of early twentieth-century repair efforts, concluding with current conservation methods developed at the Wawel’s Textile Conservation Studio. The book ends with a partially illustrated, summary checklist of all the works displayed in the 2021 exhibition, including all 137 surviving tapestries.
The authors are to be commended for their decision not to focus on the tapestries themselves, which have been most recently published in great detail by Maria Hennel-Bernasikowa and Magdalena Piwocka in their Catalogue of the Tapestries of King Sigismund II Augustus (Kraków: Wawel Royal Castle, 2021), a companion volume to the book of essays edited by Hennel-Bernasikowa, Dzieje Arrasów Króla Zygmunta Augusta (Kraków: Wawel Royal Castle, 2011), which covers much of the same material as the second, third, and fourth chapters of All the King’s Tapestries but in Polish only, with an English language summary. In addition, All the King’s Tapestries includes biographies and portraits of the key players – curators, directors, archivists, and art historians – who protected, evacuated, and preserved the tapestries during their checkered twentieth-century history. The present book also benefits from crisp maps and clear timelines which keep pace as the gripping narrative is unrolled, in reverse, from the tapestries’ return in the 1960s, back through post-war diplomacy, wartime evacuation, early-twentieth century restitution, and their sixteenth-century genesis. Though, perhaps, lighter on text than one could wish for (it can be read cover-to-cover in a couple of days), the book is elegantly designed, spaciously laid out, and illustration-rich. It boasts fascinating archival photography, like the images in the second chapter recording the massive, Communist-era crowds of Poles waiting to welcome the special trains returning the tapestries to Kraków in 1961, a poignant reminder of these textiles’ importance in embodying national cultural identity and civic pride. The third chapter’s bite-sized, single-page summaries of the core topics of patron, designer, production process, and weavers are helpful in the context of this book, but do not in any way eclipse the usefulness of Hennel-Bernasikowa and Piwocka’s 2021 catalogue, nor indeed of the trail-blazing earlier publications already familiar to tapestry historians: Jerzy Szablowski, The Flemish Tapestries at Wawel Castle in Cracow: Treasures of King Sigismund Augustus Jagiello (Antwerp: Mercatorfonds, 1972; also published in French, Dutch, German, and, in 1975, Polish; revised and amended as Jerzy Szablowski, The Flemish Arrases of the Royal Castle in Kraków, Warsaw: Arkady, 1994). Like all but one of all these preceding publications, All the King’s Tapestries, frustratingly, does not include footnotes, and has only a very brief bibliography.
In conclusion, All the King’s Tapestries does not claim to be the most detailed and informative analysis of the original commission, designs, iconography, and techniques of the tapestries themselves, but for those already familiar with Sigismund II Augustus’s tapestries, it is a marvelous supplementary source for their subsequent history. Over and above the book’s appeal to students and scholars of textiles and material culture, it is an engrossing contribution to the broader study of art as booty. By lifting the curtain to the archives, recounting the negotiations and decision-making, and giving identities to the flesh-and-blood stakeholders who played out these narratives of art theft and restitution from the eighteenth century through the Cold War, it stands as a brave, breath-taking, and ultimately uplifting publication.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York