Slutsk sash — a significant accessory of its time

Belarusian relics brought to National Art Museum from Vilnius

By Viktar Andreev

Four masterpieces of ancient Belarusian art are to be on display until June in Minsk, from the Lithuanian Art Museum: sash belts, as once worn by every local nobleman. Woven in Slutsk, founded by Armenian craftsmen Yan and Leo Mazharsky, at the instruction of the Radziwill Dukes, they were also known as ‘Persian’, since they drew inspiration from oriental embroidery. However, they were unique in also interlacing national Belarusian motifs.

“The belts were hand-woven, using silk, golden and silver threads,” explains Yelena Karpenko, the Head of the National Art Museum’s Ancient Belarusian Art Department. Revealing past masters’ secrets, she tells us, “Initially, oriental belts were copied; then, exotic oriental flowers were replaced with Belarusian wild flowers: forget-me-nots, cornflowers, poppies and bell-flowers. Belarusian craftsmen developed their own unique sashes, with labels reading ‘In the town of Slutsk’ and ‘Yan Mazharsky’. These early belts had their own ‘brand’.

Fringed sashes and those embroidered with precious threads are very rare today: only 11 are kept in Belarus. Those on loan from Vilnius are in superb condition. It’s hard to believe they’re really 300 years old.

Slutsk sashes were sewn from the early 18th-early 19th century, being worn by men as a symbol of status and wealth. They were always worn at significant events and remain a central treasure of Belarusian culture. They were even copied in French Lyon two centuries ago.

The National Art Museum plans to further organise exhibitions of Slutsk sashes from various collections. Those from the Moscow State Historical Museum went on show at the National Art Museum in 2008-2010 and are likely to come again in 2013. According to Mr. Karpenko, the collection in Moscow was given as a gift by famous Russian collector and patron of the arts Piotr Shchukin. He donated several thousand Russian, European and oriental works of art in 1905, including about 100 Slutsk sashes.

Vladimir Prokoptsov, Director of the National Art Museum, hopes that the exhibition of rarities from Vilnius will attract large crowds, especially as a unique portrait is also on display, by famous Minsk artist Valentin Vankovich. It depicts Wojciech Puslowski — a major figure of Slonim nobility, who was a Councillor of Russian Tsar Alexander I. He was awarded the St. Anna Order for his efforts in the 1812 war against Napoleon, on the Russian side. He is shown wearing the Order, with his robe belted by a Slutsk sash.

Ms. Karpenko regrets that no original works by Vankovich remain in Belarus. “This is the first of his pictures to appear in his historical motherland for many years,” she notes. The portrait is also on loan from the Lithuanian Art Museum.

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