Learning about glorious forefathers

Portraits of Grand Duchy of Lithuania magnates — from Ukrainian museums of Lvov and Lutsk — find their place at Belarusian National Art Museum
By Victor Mikhailov

Only a few historical monuments and ancient artworks — such as portraits from past centuries — are found in modern Belarus. In the early 20th century, many Belarusian residences and palaces lost their galleries, owing to the two world wars and the 1917 Revolution. Individual portraits remain in some museums, in Belarus and in neighbouring states; including items from the Radziwiłł family, who lived at Nesvizh Castle. These are now on show at museums in Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Russia.

The National Art Museum of Belarus is always working to find and exhibit past treasures of artistic and historical value, which are now held abroad. The 2012 exhibition at the Lithuanian Art Museum (Vilnius) is now on show at our National Art Museum in Minsk: Portraits of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and Nobles of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from Ukrainian Museums. Of course, the territory of modern Belarus, Belarusian language, literature and book printing were formed in the days of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, alongside our cultural traditions, wonderful architecture (such as the castles of Mir and Nesvizh) and original art (icons, religious sculpture, engravings and portraits).

The largest and oldest museums of Lvov have given their artworks on loan for the show — from the Historical Museum and the National Gallery of Art (19th-early 20th century collections) and from the Volyn Local History Museum, founded in 1928. Most of the portraits feature figures from the 14th-18th century Rzech Pospolita and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania who had some link to Belarusian lands: through state affairs or personally. Władysław Jagiełło married Sophia of Halshany in Novogrudok, while Stephen Bбthory built a royal residence in Grodno and planned to move the capital of the Rzech Pospolita there, from Krakow. Władysław Vasa once visited Nesvizh, Ruzhany and Zhirovichi and John Sobieski (and his son) genuflected before the miraculous Zhirovichy icon. 

The Radziwiłł family are widely represented at the exhibition, with eight portraits coming from Olyka Castle, in Volyn, where they were known as ‘the Princes of the Holy Roman Empire in Olyts and Nesvizh’). Most of the portraits of the Sapiega, Tyszkiewiczy, Sanguszko and Pociej families are likely to have hung originally in their family galleries, with most being viewed only recently by Belarusian researchers.  Several pictures from the Radziwiłł family (Moravian branch) in Zaushie (near Nesvizh) are worth mentioning, having been painted by Lvov’s Konstantin Alexandrovich.

Undoubtedly, visitors will be impressed by portraits of such beauties as Barbara Radziwiłł, Eleonor Maria Josefa of Austria and the wife of King John III, Marie Casimire Sobieska.

The exhibition is an outstanding event in the cultural life of Minsk and all Belarus, strengthening our modern relations with our neighbouring states of Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland by recalling the past, and giving us new insight into those noble families.  The show runs until late August and is not to be missed.
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