Portraits in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 16th-17th centuries

Royal portraits as a result of an artist’s imagination

In the early period of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, portraits were not popular. There is historical evidence testifying that the portraits of the Chodkiewicz family were immortalized in the wall paintings of the Suprasl Orthodox church, built in the end of the 15th century. There is also mention of the Vytautas flag dating to the first half of the 16th century, possibly with the portrait of Vytautas as a horseman, hung in Vilnius Cathedral, which was his burial place. However, the early examples of portraits have not survived until our days. They could have been similar to the image of mounted Władysław II Jagiełło in the Lublin chapel, painted at the beginning of the 15th century.

Different interpretations are known to have been given to the same type of the Jagiellonian image in various portraits of the 15th-16th century, ranging from a thin, elderly, balding Władysław II Jagiełło to a bearded strong man.

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In the 16th century, after the publications with rulers’ portraits started to appear in Poland, traditionally the previous rulers were portrayed in different ways. The same portrait was often used to describe different rulers. The overall picture regarding portrayal of rulers in different publications was quite confusing.

Up to the first half of the 16th century, the portrait as a means of immortalizing the image of a person had not been widespread as such. Besides, at that time in history it was difficult to obtain credible knowledge what the old rulers really looked like.

Sigismundus the Old was probably the first ruler, whose historical image conveyed in the portraits raises no doubts. As a rule, he is portrayed as a handsome, broad-shouldered man, with a large beard and a fleshy face. In the mid-16th century, portraits started to spread in GDL as well. The surviving portraits of Sigismund Augustus and Barbara Radziwiłł are believed to have been painted in Vilnius. Furthermore, the emergence of the tradition of tombstones in the mid-16th century also served as a substantial impetus strengthening the tradition of the portrait genre in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The similarity of the portrayed image to that of the real person no longer raised any doubts.

Portrait as a means to immortalize personal merits

In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the genre of portrait became widespread in the 17th century. It was then that different types of portraits and ways of portraying individuals were developed. Moreover, portrait galleries were started to be formed. In most cases, full-figure portraits were painted, or a person was represented from the waist up. In the portraits, the persons were usually portrayed with the insignia reflecting their position. For example, the chancellors were shown with seals as keepers of the Great Seal, whereas hetmons were represented with mace as a symbol of power. The founders of churches and monasteries were usually portrayed holding a foundation act or a design of the church in their hands. In some cases, the view of a church was depicted in the background of the portrait.

Often the key merits of a person, position or committed acts of beneficence are testified by the historical records.

The portraits reflect the coat-of-arms of a person, symbolizing his origin and relating the person to a specific dynasty. Family and kinship were important; therefore, collections of portraits were created, with the portrayal of relatives or persons related through marriage. There is historical mention about such galleries of portraits from as early as the beginning of the 17th century. The largest ever gallery was collected in the Radziwiłł’s Nyasvizh palace, with as many as 968 portraits recorded in 1671. In some cases, portrait galleries were arranged in churches as well. In 1706, a gallery of 76 portraits was collected and exhibited in Kodeń St. St. Anne’s Church, portraying the Sapieha family and the persons related to them. In the 17th century portrait galleries of the bishops of Vilnius and Samogitia were installed.

In the 18th century, the portrait genre basically did not change. There was a tendency for portraits to become “richer,” in the sense that a greater number of various details were introduced in them, while the background and the surrounding environment were more eloquent and decorative. That notwithstanding, there were almost no details in the 18th century portraits which had not been used previously.

Imaginative portraits as certain time machines

Let us take a closer look at one of the earlier portraits. We are standing in front of the portrait of Marshal of Pašušvys Michal Szuszkiewicz (mid-16th century). The portrait is painted in a realistic and primitive technique. The artist can’t have been very talented, and yet he managed to convey the main ideas. The nobleman is show as an elderly person. To strengthen this impression, the artist shows his grey beard, moustache, and adds a grey strand into is hair. Szuszkiewicz is portrayed as slightly tense, as if posing for the portrait. And yet, the painter has succeeded in conveying the most important features of the face in the portrait, such as the hair combed up, a big ear, high raise eyebrows, a big ear and large eyes, carefully tended-to moustache and a beard. These personal facial features are distinctive marks, making the person being portrayed stand out from the others. The nobleman’s wealth is betrayed by the details of his clothes: the red delia (an item of male clothing worn over the żupan by the nobility) is pinned together with ornate, gilded pear-shaped broaches; the shirt under the delia is buttoned up with gold-plated buttons; he is wearing a  trim decorative belt. The nobleman is holding a marshal’s bat in his right hand, a symbol of his powerful position, and a sword handle in his left hand. Judging by the details of the clothing and the style of the hair, the portrait must have been painted in the first half of the 17th century. The type of portraits when the persons who lived in previous times are “clad” in the clothes of the later epoch, are called imaginative. In this particular case, the painter must have relied on the nobleman’s portrait painted at an earlier time, o he might have been given a detailed account of what the nobleman looked like. This is the only explanation for such a bold and specific representation of the features of the nobleman’s appearance. An entry in the upper corner of the painting reminds us of the nobleman’s position, the date of death (16 April 1563) and the fact that he was the founder of the Pašušvys Catholic church. This information also implies the reason for commissioning the portrait: this piece of work was commissioned by the relatives succeeding him to be hung in Pašušvys church, so that the congregation remembered the founder and prayed for his salvation (particularly on the day of his death).

Literature: M. Matušakaitė. Portretas Lietuvos Didžiojoje Kunigaikštystėje. Vilnius, 2010.

Mindaugas Paknys