Beautiful symbols

[b]Slutsk sashes become bright example of Belarus’ rich cultural heritage[/b]Even though several centuries have passed since Slutsk sashes were widely used, one can’t but admire these elegant ornaments in delicate fabrics and wonderful colours; they are quite dazzling. If they were made today, they’d rival the couture of Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino and Hugo Boss. However, they exist only in museums. Sadly, few Slutsk sashes are kept by Belarusian museums, as their beauty has sent them around the globe. Of course, we should be proud that their fame reaches so far. From time to time, attention towards them grows here. Many people currently believe we should be making every effort to return these Slutsk rarities to Belarus, even at great cost. Others are convinced that Belarusian culture is rich in wealth and every aspect deserves equal attention. Recently, Minsk hosted a historical and cultural exhibition entitled Slutsk Sashes as part of the National Heritage and Honour of Belarus.
Slutsk sashes become bright example of Belarus’ rich cultural heritage
Even though several centuries have passed since Slutsk sashes were widely used, one can’t but admire these elegant ornaments in delicate fabrics and wonderful colours; they are quite dazzling. If they were made today, they’d rival the couture of Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino and Hugo Boss. However, they exist only in museums.
Sadly, few Slutsk sashes are kept by Belarusian museums, as their beauty has sent them around the globe. Of course, we should be proud that their fame reaches so far. From time to time, attention towards them grows here. Many people currently believe we should be making every effort to return these Slutsk rarities to Belarus, even at great cost. Others are convinced that Belarusian culture is rich in wealth and every aspect deserves equal attention.
Recently, Minsk hosted a historical and cultural exhibition entitled Slutsk Sashes as part of the National Heritage and Honour of Belarus. The Culture Ministry and the National Art Museum helped organise the event, which was dedicated to the 120th anniversary of the birth of famous Belarusian poet Maxim Bogdanovich. A Slutsk Sashes table calendar and Slutsk Sashes as a Destiny Sign documentary have been released, encouraging us to embrace our rich cultural heritage.
“This is a landmark event, as our Slutsk sashes are a source of national pride; they are our calling card,” asserted Vladimir Prokoptsov, the Director of the National Art Museum, at the exhibition launch. He reminded all those present that few Slutsk sashes remain in Belarus. Until recently, some Slutsk sashes from Russia were on display for two years. Negotiations are now underway to bring sashes from Ukraine and Lithuania to Belarus. Meanwhile, in 2012, a silver coin dedicated to Slutsk sashes is to be released, alongside the calendar and CD of the documentary — on sale at the museum and across Belarusian book stores.
The Deputy Director of Minsk Printing Factory in Goznak, Lyudmila Vitkevich, tells us that the creators of the calendar have endeavoured to reproduce the texture of the fabric on the cover. “We’ve used special paper and metallised paint to depict the quality of Slutsk sashes, showing how their tightly woven fabric reflects the light,” she explains. Belarus’ Deputy Culture Minister, Tadeush Struzhetsky, is confident that the new exhibition will inspire other interesting ideas relating to Slutsk sashes.
We don’t need to present the sashes in any special way, as they’re already widely known; Slutsk sashes occupy an honoured place in the history of Belarusian decorative-and-applied art. In the second half of the 18th century, they were an indispensable part of the wardrobe of the aristocracy — symbolising dignity, noble birth, high social position and prosperity. They were far more than accessories. In the 19th century, Slutsk sashes began to be used to decorate castles and museums, and were incorporated into the vestments of Catholic priests.
In the 18th century, King Stanislaw August Poniatowski and leading members of aristocratic families within the Rzech Pospolita (including the Belarusian Radziwills, Oginskis and Sapegis) began to manufacture ‘Kuntush’ sashes, inspired by Eastern models. These proved extremely popular. By the early 1770s, Slutsk sashes were viewed as the most perfect — in their design and craftsmanship; they were admired as works of art as well as being part of a nobleman’s wardrobe.
Today, these priceless artworks encapsulate the aesthetic taste and style of their time; they even embody the complex historical and cultural processes of the Rzech Pospolita. Slutsk sashes became the standard for other workshops, although their quality was impossible to reproduce. Until the late 18th century, Slutsk sashes were synonymous with all long silk sashes — regardless of their place of manufacture. By the 20th century, they were the ‘calling cards’ of Belarus’ artistic culture and of its bordering states, which were once part of the Rzech Pospolita.
Undoubtedly, the dominance of Slutsk sashes was no accident. The founders and patrons of Slutsk workshop worked hard to promote and improve their goods. In the early 18th century, families competed to employ the best artists and craftsmen, creating collections of artworks. The ‘Slutsk Persian’ business was launched by brothers Michal Kazimierz Radziwill and Hieronim Florian Radziwill; they kept a close eye on the workshop making the wonderful belts, ever encouraging improvements.
Hieronim Florian built a new factory building, installing the latest equipment (at the time, the removal of looms from the Ottoman Empire -the largest exporter of ‘Kuntush’ sashes at that time — was forbidden under penalty of death). Michal Kazimierz personally sought out weavers, luring the best to come and work for him. Regardless of the expense, he sent his people to study crafts in celebrated studios; training could last for around seven years.
In 1757, Michal Kazimierz sent two Nesvizh weavers — Tomasz Haecki and Jan Gadowski — to perfect their mastery under talented master Yan Madzharsky, at Stanislavskaya workshop of Domenik Misiarowicz (now called Ivano-Frankovsk, in Ukraine). In 1758, Michal Kazimierz invited Yan Madzharsky to his Nesvizh Residence, inviting him to head his workshop, and a contract was signed.
The invitation to Yan Madzharsky became the second important landmark in popularising Slutsk sashes. The Armenian master aimed not to copy the style of Eastern models but to create a whole new, unique local version, surpassing imported examples in its perfection. This inspired experimentation and innovation, with Madzharsky often violating the canons of Eastern silk weaving. Eastern-style sashes drew on elements from Western European culture — from the baroque and classic genres — as well as on
Belarusian folk art.
Within just a few months, the Radziwill persiarnya (sash workshop) had transformed sash production, using a double-sided design; each side differed in colour, allowing it to be alternated for festive or everyday use. The ends were given long fringing, which was a wonderful tribute to Belarusian traditional belts (which always had fringes, unlike Eastern belts).
In the 1760-1770s, Yan Madzharsky performed his boldest creative innovations, developing new ornamental compositions inspired by Eastern sash decorations. Later, his work was continued by his son Leon. In total, seven new types of decoration with contemporary titles appeared: ‘karymfil’, ‘sukharyk’ (a piece of dry toast), ‘kitaiskoe oblachko’ (a Chinese cloud), ‘vasilki’ (cornflowers), ‘buket’ (bouquet), ‘tsvetushchie pni’ (flower buds) and ‘venechno-medalonny’. They were distinctive and extremely stylised, making them unique.
Slutsk sashes also received their own inscription: ‘SLUCK’. Another was created after 1776, when the next owner took over — Karol Stanislaw Radziwill Panie Kochanku (1734-1790). When Yan Madzharsky transferred rental rights to his son Leon (around 1740-1790), the sashes had the inscription woven on in Cyrillic capitals: ‘СЛУЦК’, ‘ВЪ ГРАДЕ / СЛУЦКЕ’; ‘ЛЕО МА / ЖАРСКИЙ ВЪ ГРАДЕ/СЛУЦКЕ’.
Madzharsky’s Slutsk sashes drove out Eastern pieces from the Rzech Pospolita market, while the masters themselves acquired such popularity that even King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, who wished to open a persiarnya in Grodno, was obliged to ask Radziwill to ‘lend’ him a weaver. Undoubtedly, the Grodno enterprise would have closely resembled that of the Radziwills in Slutsk, producing fabrics in a similar style. Karol Stanislaw Radziwill was keen to remain independent from the Warsaw monarch however, seeing himself as king of Nesvizh and Slutsk. He refused, forcing Poniatowski to use French weavers.
In the 1780s, Slutsk sashes were used as the model across the Rzech Pospolita. The workshops of Stefan Filsian and Pashalis Jakubovich (both located in the suburbs of Warsaw) followed the technique and designs closely, as did Krakow’s Frantishek Maslovski, Antony Putilovski and Yuzef Troyanovski. In the late 18th century, a French textile manufacturer in Lyon also began to make its own version of the Slutsk sash.
In late 1790, Leon Madzharsky became a member of the nobility ‘for his contribution to the development of crafts in the state’. In 1791, he was granted a ‘Dar’ coat of arms and, in 1792, became captain of the horses in Novogrudok Province, while being awarded the honorary title of royal gentleman-in-waiting. He headed sash manufacture until 1807 and, after his death in 1811, was buried at Slutsk’s Catholic Bernadine church. His factory continued its work until 1846, when a serious of state transformations led to its closure.
Curiously, only men were allowed to weave Slutsk sashes. According to the legend, if a woman’s hand touched the sash, its golden and silver threads would fade. Weavers were highly paid, despite only recreating the designs of artists (rather than inventing independently). Serfs were forbidden from involvement.
At first, sashes from Persia and Turkey cost 500 golden ducats each; however, when production opened in Belarus, the price fell to 120. In comparison, a highly qualified master at the factory earned four Ducats a month. The factory released only 200 sashes annually, woven with gold and silver thread, so a high price was charged — affordable only by the elite: gentry and magnates.
Slutsk sashes were certainly unique to our national artistic culture and made a supreme contribution to Western and world applied and decorative art, being harmonious in their colour palettes and decorated with the finest and most delicate of ornamen-tation.

By Victor Mikhailov
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