Reflections, impressions, opinions

Europe of the Jagiellonians in Warsaw

"Europa Jagellonica 1386–1572"

19 May – 30 September 2012
Galerie Středočeského kraje, Kutná Hora

10 November 2012 – 27 January 2013
Royal Castle and the National Museum, Warsaw

1 March 2013 – 16 June 2013
Haus der Brandenburgisch-Preussischen Geschichte, Potsdam

Albrecht Dürer, "The Sea Monster", c. 1498, Library of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences, Print Room © Haus der Brandenburgisch Preußischen Geschichte

In the Polish collective memory, the term “Jagiellonian epoch” is, I suppose, almost synonymous with a “golden era” in the history, perhaps not of the entire mankind, but certainly, pars pro toto, of the Kingdom of Poland. But what was the importance of this dynasty in Europe? What impact did the Jagiellonians have on the great politics of their time, on the shape of the societies living under their rule, and perhaps even directly on the lives of particular citizens? The exhibition project discussed here is an attempt at answering these questions. It is also a result of a research project called The Jagiellonians in the art and culture of Central Europe, conducted by the Geisteswissenschaftliches Zentrum Geschichte und Kultur Ostmitteleuropas (Humanities Centre History and Culture of Eastern Europe) in Leipzig.
The exhibition Europa Jagellonica – such is its lead title – is a truly monumental undertaking, presenting hundreds of artworks and historical artefacts in three successive instalments for more than a year, in Kutná Hora, Warsaw and Potsdam. When this short review assumes the form of an article in a periodical, we will already have the first two instalments behind us. So it is a good moment for a first summing up, especially that the exhibition can still be seen in its third successive venue, and the opinions put forward in this text can be verified. As a point of reference, let us use the interview in Herito given a few months ago (1/2012, no 6) by Jiří Fajt, director of the research project and curator of the exhibition, then at the organisational stage. Speaking about its conception, he announced the intent of leaving the “glass tower” of abstruse scholarly language and opening it to the general public. Another aim of the organisers was to go away from a purely historical and artistic perspective in presenting the material through showing the cultural context of the pieces on display.
In Warsaw this conception could take on a material shape in the ample rooms of the National Museum and the Royal Castle. The character of these two places, fulfilling slightly different cultural functions, had some impact on the form of the two displays and on their thematic structures. They were united by the subtitle of the Warsaw exhibition: Art and culture in Central Europe under the Reign of Jagiellonian Dynasty. In the National Museum, which visitors usually associate with the presentation of art, the emphasis was put on the artistic and cultural aspects of the epoch. Right on entering the exhibition room, whilst reading the extensive introductory texts from the display boards, we could discover that the display was very intellectually demanding. The texts were written in a scholarly language, as if specialists were talking to specialists. Further on it was no better, especially as the captions were printed in small letters and often in places making comfortable reading impossible.
The division of the exhibition was clear-cut. Part one was ordered according to countries and historical and geographic lands, and part two was divided thematically, showing various aspects of life, from economic matters through religiousness to the perception of a work of art at that time. But the first structure, which we would today call “geopolitical”, was determined more by the state of preservation of the artefacts rather than by the importance of particular regions in that period. The most striking illustration of this is the presentation of the Kingdom of Hungary. Transylvania was shown separately, although it became a princedom only after the death of Louis II, the last Jagiellon on the Hungarian throne. Additionally, identifying today’s Slovakia with the historical region of Upper Hungary needs clarification. This name then referred mostly to the north-eastern areas of the Kingdom. Putting Transylvania and Upper Hungary to the fore is justified by the fact that the majority of works from the period which survived originated there. The central parts of the country, rich in artefacts, were completely destroyed during the wars against the Ottoman Empire, which lasted for 150 years.
This section of the exhibition, divided both geographically and thematically, was filled with works representing a high artistic level. But not all them were connected with the cultural issues discussed in the texts hanging in the rooms. For example, the excellent sculpture of St. John the Baptist from Schwabach, in recent years attributed by many researchers to Veit Stoss, stands forlorn and without any context. The original intent of the organisers was to contrast this figure with the sculpture of St. John the Evangelist from the Church of St. James in Levoča, by the best follower of Stoss, Pavel of Levoča. Unfortunately, the organisers ultimately failed to secure the loan of this work.

"The Passion of Christ", c. 1480–1490; Toruń, St. James the Apostle Church © Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

The subject of the exhibition at the Royal Castle was the monarchs themselves and other members of the dynasty. The strong point of this part of the display was showing them not only as sovereigns wielding power, but also as “ordinary” people with a rich family life, and ultimately also being the recipients of the culture, the shape of which, they often directly influenced. The arrangement of the display, presented in many rooms, was truly royal, the colour scheme and the refined proportions of the whole corresponded to the high aesthetic quality of the works shown.
Having visited both sections, do we have answers to the questions we asked at the beginning? On the contrary, we have even more questions. This is not only because various communities of scholars provide us with quite different answers to the same questions. In the Warsaw exhibition, the positions of Polish researchers were added under the exhibits if they differed markedly from those presented by the curator and his team. Many questions also come to mind during the visit itself, following reflection on some aspects of the extraordinarily complex culture of the Jagiellonian era. The exhibition is a good starting point for such a personal reflection.
If we want to deepen our knowledge, we may also make use of the richly edited and ample guidebook. And in the Autumn of 2013 a monumental publication will come out containing essays by researchers from the countries of Central Europe.
But a certain sense of insufficiency remains. We know that despite the intense efforts of the organisers, the exhibition will not travel to many places which the Jagiellonians were closely related to. It will not be available in Lithuania or Hungary, it will not be opened in Prague or Krakow. So the story of this exhibition raises yet more questions about the state of dialogue between – not only these – cultural communities in Central Europe.

Translated from the Polish by Tomasz Bieroń