Splendour, Representation, and Politics – Heraldic and Monogram and Tapestries
Decorating walls with precious textiles added grandeur and significance to modest interiors. It is known from preserved descriptions and inventories that European rulers highly valued this artwork and loved being surrounded with tapestries since they added splendour to their owners. Tapestries were ordered for specific chambers of a ruler’s residence as they performed relevant functions in a given space, expressed through the subject matter of their presentations. A special place in the entire collection of Sigismund II Augustus was occupied by monogram and heraldic tapestries, commissioned probably after 1553 (around 1555). Their subject matter and set of motifs expressed a precisely defined agenda directly related to the person of the ruler and his country.
This kind of monarchical textile originates as far back as in the Byzantine tradition. Heraldic tapestries were very popular from the late Middle Ages, for example those of the millefleur type, in which coats of arms of rulers were depicted against a meadow with a thousand flowers. Such goods of a typically court and stately nature were produced in Audenarde and Tournai in the 15th century and in Brussels in the sixteenth century.
We learn from Panegyric by Stanisław Orzechowski where the first three series of tapestries with scenes from Genesis comissioned by Sigismund II Augustus were presented. Their dimensions and subject matter determined their function, first as a decoration of interiors (of private and representative rooms such as the Tournament Hall, the Envoys’ Room and the Military Review Room) and then as a setting for the most important royal ceremonies. In contrast, monogram and heraldic tapestries were intended for official audience chambers. Their function was emphasised by the language of forms relating to the circle of royal symbols and emblems, as well as moral didacticism, which was to glorify the power and politics of the state.
The first group consists of monogram tapestries, those in which the king’s initials SA – Sigismundus Augustus – appear. The intertwined initials of the ruler, surmounted by a closed crown, formed a personal sign of Sigismund II Augustus, which was also his supralibros (the proprietary mark of a book collection). The SA monogram is present in the tapestries of King Sigismund in several variants. It appears in a cartouche or medallion, surrounded by Netherlandish grotesque, as well as on a forest background, accompanied by two satyrs – shield bearers. A culmination of this group of textiles is the most impressive tapestry among them – the monogram tapestry with a globe. Individual elements of its composition can be interpreted symbolically; however, its most important element is the title globe, which, in the context of the royal initials, refers to the majesty of authority – therefore, it is the most representative.
Heraldic tapestries form a group of textiles bearing a meaning associated strictly with the state of Sigismund II Augustus. The king commissioned the whole series of fabrics which constituted an interpretation of his political agenda. Being aware of the fact that he had no heir, Sigismund II Augustus strived to strengthen bonds between the Commonwealth and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania throughout the entire period of his reign, especially towards the end of his life. Many years of efforts resulted in the Union of Lublin signed in 1569, which united the two nations under the rule of one king. Commissioning of heraldic tapestries even before the union, around 1555, seemed to be a resolute political measure, in which art was a tool used to propagate the royal agenda.
In all the textiles of the latter group there are presented the coats of arms of the Commonwealth – the Eagle with the SA monogram on its chest, whose shield is surmounted by a crown – and the coats of arms of Lithuania – the Charging Knight with a shield closed with a ducal cap. Heraldic tapestries can be divided into two types.
The first one presents both coats of arms together against a grotesque in the background, accompanied by the goddesses Ceres or Victoria. Because of their sizes and strong propaganda overtones, these are the most impressive variants of this group. The figure of Ceres in the context of the coats of arms symbolises prosperity and wealth resulting from economic ties between the two nations. The meaning of these economic relations is enhanced by bunches of ripe fruit and vegetables. Victoria standing on a stack of militaria with a broken spear and a laurel wreath in her hands represents the peace and victory that was to be brought to the united Kingdom by a common foreign policy (especially in the era of the contemporary threat for the Duchy from the tsar of Russia – Ivan IV the Terrible). This heraldic tapestries from the group of grotesques are intentionally presented against a red background. With their colours, they refer to the ancient prototype of this ornament and, above all, to the imperial purple indicating the regal splendour. Intense colours of tapestries stood out from colours of interiors of the castle chambers, adding splendour and official character thereto.
The second type of heraldic tapestries are over-window and over-door textiles, which present a single coats of arms against the background of a mannerist landscape with animals; therefore, they belong to landscape and animal tapestries (verdures).
Making use of art to demonstrate the royal power and state policy was natural; this method was used both in the Commonwealth and throughout Europe at that time. For this purpose, Sigismund II Augustus used very stately and valuable tapestries not every ruler could afford, which added splendour to his court and testified to the greatness of the state governed by the Jagiellonian king.
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