Marble in the Art History of the GDL

Marble is a specific rock that has been used to decorate buildings and create works of art since the antiquity. Marble is a hard, steady and durable material easy to carve while producing various forms and reliefs. Marble shines when polished. Marble is mined in underground quarries where each layer yields a rock of specific colours. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania has a unique history of marble as a decoration material. Marble emerges in the GDL in the middle of the 16th century and becomes incredibly popular in the first half of the 17th century, but then gets quickly forgotten in the 18th century.

Marble’s winding road to Lithuania

The Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth did not have its own marble quarries until the first half of the 17th century. The first marble tombstones in Vilnius were made in Krakow using marble mined in Hungary, the oldest of which is a tombstone of Albertas Goštautas, the Chancellor of the GDL who died in 1539 and was buried inside the Vilnius Cathedral. But marble items were rare because the material was not readily available and there were very few sculptors in the royal environment. Initially marble tombstones dominated, and marble epitaphs became popular later on. Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł the Orphan, the Chancellor of the GDL, ordered several marble tombstones and a marble-decorated altar for the Church of Corpus Christi in Nyasvizh in the late 16th century. The magnate, who has introduced innovations in many areas, had to use a complicated route for marble delivery, just like any other wealthy individual who wanted to decorate his castles or churches with marble. Radziwiłł the Orphan would order marble items in Italy, mostly in Venice, through his acquaintances and intermediaries and used to manage personally their transportation and shipment permits.

The situation began to change in the 1620 due to a number of reasons. First, more foreign sculptors arrived to work in Vilnius and many of them received creative orders from the ruler. Secondly, the construction of the royal Chapel of St. Casimir commenced inside the Vilnius Cathedral in 1623. Marble, a new thing in the GDL, has been chosen as the main decorative material for the chapel. Plenty of marble was used for the decoration of the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania in Vilnius, the reconstruction of which got underway at that time. Earlier, decorators used marble only for certain details but now the material has become very popular.

Large quantities of marble arrived in Lithuania by the Baltic Sea and rivers (Nemunas and Neris) from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy. Black marble dominated, but imports also included red and white marble.

The decoration of the Chapel of St. Casimir has become an obvious promotion campaign for marble throughout the GDL, because every visitor of the chapel could feel the artistic impression of the marble.

Moreover, the remains of marble from the royal construction were used for tombstones and epitaphs of aristocrats. Many of them took a good chance to obtain this rare and exquisite material which had already been brought from across seven seas (literally). Moreover, they did not need to look for sculptors from far away as many of them were working in Vilnius at that time.

Local quarries foster exquisite decoration

The Dębnik quarries next to Cracow delivered first shipments of black marble around 1620 and later began providing red marble as well. The PLC had not mined its own marble before that. The quarries, which belonged to the Discalced Carmelites, offered new opportunities for the aristocrats to acquire this fine rock for decoration.

The king’s orders and the opening of the quarries in Dębnik prompted a more active trade in marble.

Port cities of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth (Gdansk and Konigsberg) traded marble of different colours, and many sculptors worked there. Radziwiłł the Orphan was compelled to import marble from Italy in the late 16th century, while in 1648 the Reverend Mother of the Bridgettine Convent in Grodno ordered tombstones for the founders of the cloister, the Wiesielowski family, by contacting the sculptors in Gdansk directly. This fact speaks for the popularity of marble in the first half of the 17th century.

Do You Know?

The St. Michael Church in Vilnius is a kind of museum of marble of the first half of the 17th century.

The church housed works of art created between about 1625 and 1655; they are all different because artists used marble from different quarries. The church offers a reflection of the variety of marble used in the GDL. One of the tombstones marks the burial place of Lew Sapieha (d. 1633), the Hetman of the GDL, and his wives. Most probably, the tombstone has been ordered by the magnate himself. The tombstone does not yet feature black marble,  which is plentiful in the Chapel of St Casimir, because it is made of dark brown marble mined in several different quarries and of reddish marble which was already losing popularity at that time. The main altar, built in around 1630, is decorated with marble from at least ten different quarries, according to researchers. Black, red and white marble, very popular in Vilnius at that time, dominates the tombstones of Krzysztof Sapieha (d. 1631) and Jan Stanisław Sapieha who was the Marshall of the GDL and died in 1635. The tombstone of Teodora Krystyna Sapiehowa, built in about 1655, is already made of black marble from the quarries in Dębnik. The exquisite tombstone features the artistic plasticity of the late Baroque and offers contrasts of black and white marble.

Pažaislis, the marble “supernova” of the GDL

The use of marble was a common thing in the second half of the 17th century. Historical documents refer to many different marble items in churches (altars, fonts, candlesticks) and in palaces (windowsills, door and window rims, floors) throughout the GDL. Even wealthier city dwellers had marble items, such as tables, according to their property inventories.

The decoration of the Pažaislis Church became a swan song for marble in Lithuania.

Krzysztof Zygmunt Pac, the Chancellor of the GDL, commenced the decoration of the church in 1672 and wanted marble to play an important role. In fact, never before and after had marble been used so plentifully in a single building of the GDL. The decoration using marble took almost two decades. Sculptors used black and red marble to cover walls, decorate arcs and to rim doors and balconies. The church and its chapels feature marble floor. That is something that only a very rich founder could afford. Ordering marble in the quarries near Cracow, working it up, transporting it by rivers, installing it in Pažaislis and hiring sculptors was an extremely costly affair. It was considerably more expensive than wall painting, wood carving and stucco moulding.

The financial reasons were behind the decreasing popularity of marble in the 18th century. Marble has not disappeared from the history of art of the GDL, though, because people were still importing smaller marble items; some of them used marble to decorate minor details and even ordered marble tombstones. However, the rock that used to fascinate people with its artistic characteristics was being replaced at that time with wall painting, wall moulding and its own imitation, the artificial marble.

Mindaugas Paknys