Sunday, March 02, 2014

Gallery of Medieval Art at the National Museum in Warsaw

Photo: MNW

The National Museum in Warsaw (MNW) has one of the largest collections of medieval art in the region, which has been on view in a new installation since the end of last year (the gallery opened on December 11, 2013). Last week I finally had a chance to spend again a few days in Warsaw, and went to see the exhibition. Then I went back for a more detailed look - there is so much to see that one visit is definitely not enough. The exhibition is located on the ground floor of the museum, and takes up about 800 square meters in three large halls. These rooms are full of the best of late medieval art from the territory of modern Poland, while also include a few other works from other parts of Europe.

The altarpiece from Grudziadz
The first room provides a rather dramatic entry for the entire exhibition. It is a wide hall, where two lines of statues divide the room as if in a three-aisled church, and at the center, directly opposite the entrance is one of the largest altarpieces in the museum. The dark environment contributes to the church-like feel of the hall. This first room displays the earliest works in the collection, including Romanesque sculpture, as well as what is called  the Inter-regional Art of Northern Europe in the 14th-15th centuries. There are a number of French and German statues here, but the most important works come from the territory of Silesia - which at the time was a possession of the Crown of Bohemia. The international connections are also illustrated by such works as the carving of Three Marys from a Crucifixion-group, carved in alabaster by the Rimini Master, and coming from a church in Wroclaw.
Beautiful Madonna from Wroclaw
 Among a number of late Gothic statues stemming from Wroclaw (Breslau), one can also admire the famous Beautiful Madonna from Wroclaw - made either there or in Bohemia at the end of the 14th century. The large altarpiece in the center of the arrangement comes from Grudziadz (Graudenz) in Pomerania, from a chapel of the Teutonic Knights. It is one of the most refined painted altarpieces of the International Gothic Style, dating from 1390 (or maybe somewhat later). The installation enables one to study all the paintings on the altarpiece, including the Passion-scenes of the first opened stage of the altar, and the Life of the Virgin scenes on the fully opened altar. Other works in the room - originating from Gdansk (Danzig) round out the rich demonstration of the International Gothic.

The next section of the exhibition (in the second, long exhibition gallery) focuses on Wroclaw and Silesia at the middle of the 15th century, with the St. Barbara Altarpiece from 1447 as the main work here. Proceeding chronologically, the next highlight is the Polyptych of the Annunciation with the Unicorn, a wlarge altarpiece from around 1480. As the visitor turns and enters the third long room, artworks from Silesia dating from the the decades around 1500 can be studied, among them the unpainted limewood relief of St. Luke Painting the Virgin by Jakob Beinhart. This sophisticated carving, based on a woodcut by Veit Stoss, demonstrates the very high level of artistic achievement in Wroclaw at the end of the 15th century.

St. Luke Painting the Virgin, by Jakob Beinhart

After this a few works come from the medieval lands of the Polish Crown: works from Lesser Poland (Cracow) and Greater Poland. Here the altarpiece with scenes from the life of St. Stanislaus (Krakow, 1510s) in particular deserved attention. Other works illustrate the close connection of this region with the art of Upper Hungary, especially the Szepes (Spiš) area - this is not surpsing if we remember that King Sigismund pawned 16 towns in Szepes to Poland, in order to finance his Venetian war (after which he of course had no money to get the settlements back, so they belonged to Poland until the 18th century). There are even works from Szepes towns on display, including a relief of the Lamentation over Christ from Szepesszombat (Spišská Sobota). The final section of the exhibition is dedicated to the art of the northern Hanseatic towns around 1500 - most of the works come from Gdansk (Danzig), but we can find a large altarpiece from Hamburg cathedral. The strong role of Netherlandish painters in this region is quite obvious: there are a number of carved retables from Antwerp, such as the Passion Altarpiece from the parish church of Pruszcz Gdanski, the side panels of which were painted by the workshop of Colijn de Coter. After this section, the visitor is taken back to the first room of the exhibition again - from which it is possible to exit, or to go around the exhibition one more time!

As I said above, most of the works on display come from the territory of modern Poland - reflecting the fact that the collection was put together mainly after World War II. It is then not surprising that the strongest section of the new medieval galleries is the long series of first-rate artworks from Silesia, primarily from Wroclaw. This richness is not even matched by the first-rate works from the territory of the former State of the Teutonic Order. The medieval territory of Poland is not as well represented in the exhibition - but we have to mention that the works from Krakow and Lesser Poland are generally on view at the National Museum in Krakow, or are, in fact still in situ - as for example Veit Stoss' Altarpiece of the Virgin at St. Mary's Basilica in Krakow. Overall, this new permanent exhibition in Warsaw is one of the largest and most interesting we can find anywhere in Central Europe. It is definitely a must-see for anyone travelling to Warsaw.

The new installation uses black backgrounds throughout, and large, industrial-like black metal supports to display the material, which mainly consists of large winged altarpieces, painted panels and large-scale sculptures. The installation is reminescent of the one used at the reinstallation of the medieval galleries at the National Gallery in Prague (at the Convent of St. Agnes). This type of installation appeared in Warsaw when the National Museum hosted part of the Europa Jagellonica exhibition in 2013 - the architect was the same who had already worked with curator Jiri Fajt at the reinstallation of the National Gallery in 2000. In any case, the installation is a lot more subtle in Warsaw than in Prague: the metal elements are mainly there just to support the large artworks, and the walls have a more pleasing neutral grey colour. This type of installation is coupled with a high-tech lighting system at the new galleries in Warsaw, which really lets the works shine and be seen among the best conditions (there was maybe one work in the entire exhibition which was not properly lit - more such problems affect the labels, unfortunately). Only the basic information is given on the labels next to the objects: everything else is available on touch-screen monitors installed in every room. Some of this information (in Polish and English alike) is also available on printed sheets as well as in an audioguide form.

The exhibition is accompanied by two new publications: a bilingual (Polish/English) book containing good illustrations of the works in the collection, accompanied by a brief introduction (Malgorzata Kochanowska-Reiche: The Mystic Middle Ages / Skarby Muzeum series; and a small guide walking readers through the exhibition (titled simply Gallery of Medieval Art - published in the series of small guides for the National Museum). Another new book, listed on the website, was not available at the shop during my visit. Unfortunately, this part of the collection is generally not yet available in the new collection database of the National Museum - but below, I am including a few photographs I took in the exhibition (you can also find the photos on Flickr).

1 comment:

  1. There are two possible reasons I know Veit Stoss' work and not the art of other artists whose work appears in this splendid, new Warsaw gallery:
    1. I tend to read only art history written by British, French, German or Australian academics or
    2. Voss received more commissions from Western and Central churches and royals...than other artists.

    In either case, there is a lot of learning to be done at the new gallery. Thank you.