Posted: 02.02.2023 17:11:00

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Custom-made tapestries of the 17th–18th centuries are under restoration at Mir Castle

Few people know that in Mir Castle one can see the largest collection of old tapestries in the country. They were purposefully collected throughout the entire period of the museum’s existence, and today there are 18 works of hand and machine weaving. Once upon a time, lint-free wall carpets served to insulate the stone walls of medieval castles, they hung windows and closed holes. Now the cost of some rare specimens can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars. How to save 400-year-old rarities from destruction, is it easy to restore the lost and who helps the custodians and restorers in this difficult work? 

The castle complex at the urban-type settlement of Mir in the Korelichi District is one of the most important tourist attractions in Belarus
Photo by Yury Mozolevsky

It is interesting that a long time ago tapestries woven at manufactories in Korelichi and Mir were known far beyond these places. The most famous are associated with the Radziwill family. In our time, the location of the rarities created in Korelichi is known that four of them are in the museums of Krakow and Warsaw in Poland, one is in the Lvov Historical Museum. Alas, similar samples can be found neither in the Mir Castle, nor in the country as a whole. Now the walls of the Mir Castle Complex are decorated with foreign products, which arrived mainly from France. Among them are the Flemish Hunting of the 16th century, The Struggle between Theseus and Taurus before Minos and Ariadne (1670s), Aubusson’s Odysseus and Circe, dated to the second half of the 17th century, and others. 

Yelena Denis amid The Struggle between Theseus and Taurus before Minos and Ariadne tapestry, Flanders, Brussels, last quarter of the 17th century

Head of the Department of Keeper of Museum Stock at the Mir Castle Complex Museum Yelena Denis knows all about picture carpets. 
“Tapestry or Gobelins?” I ask the first question to the expert. 
“Tapestries is a broader concept. Gobelins are called products created at the manufactory of the Gobelin brothers in France. If we talk about our collection, then we are talking about 14 hand-woven items of the late 16th — early 18th centuries and four machine-made items from the early 20th century. We also have four tapestries of modern production, which were once made at the Borisov Combine of Decorative and Applied Art named after A.M. Kishchenko. They are located in the conference hall and in the interiors of the hotel,” the interlocutor says with a smile.

Alexander at the Battle of the Granicus tapestry, 16th–17th centuries

One of the important issues is the restoration of historical woven products that need repair and special storage conditions. Museum staff approach it very responsibly, “Since most of the tapestries are on display, we periodically remove them so that they ‘rest’. The restorer carefully examines them, and sometimes surgical intervention is necessary. Warp sagging, thread divergence and other ‘sores’ require a careful approach. The problem is that the restoration school is not as developed as we would like in the country. But, of course, there are wonderful specialists at the National Art Museum: in 2020 they helped restore the Landscape with a Windmill tapestry from France, which was purchased at auction by order of the museum.”

Tapestry depicting a multi-figured genre scene from ancient history, Flanders, Brussels; late 16th — early 17th centuries

Yelena Denis offers to walk through the halls to see the very rarity with our own eyes.
“It is the smallest in size of all those in the castle. However, the restoration took almost a year of painstaking work. Another rarity hangs nearby, which was once confiscated at the border by employees of the Brest customs. This is a Queen Zenobia in front of Emperor Aurelian tapestry, dated from the second half of the 16th — beginning of the 17th century,” the specialist demonstrates a small canvas. 
Landscape with a Windmill tapestry,
France, Aubusson, mid–18th century
Currently, the restoration workshop has a valuable copy — The Triumph of Mordecai composition, made in France at the Aubusson manufactory in the second half of the 17th century. The artist-restorer of the Mir Castle Complex Museum Natalya Otsetskaya awaits us in the holy of holies, where the woven panel is ‘treated’, “When dismantling the lining, we noticed pockets where the silk thread collapsed. Linen fabric had to duplicate these areas on the reverse side. As you can see, the tapestry is wound on a machine, which the museum staff once made with their own hands. We saw something like this in France. It has a very convenient turning mechanism, which literally saves, given the lack of space where the canvas could be completely expanded. The size of this sample is 3.50 by 2.70 metres.”
Museum curators recently turned to forensic experts for help, who were tasked with examining the threads that make up a piece of decorative art. It was necessary to immediately restore the textile material on the wrong side of the lower edge of the exhibit’s border. 
“First of all, we were interested in what dyes were used, what was included in their basis, the chemical composition and thickness of the twist, and so on. This knowledge allows us to more accurately select modern analogues. A total of five samples were handed over. According to the experts themselves, it was a very interesting and unusual work. They confirmed that the tapestry was created from silk, wool and linen, established a unique production technology for the product. It is important to understand that we do not restore losses, but only fix those places where the threads fell out or parted. However, it will still be a long time before the item appears on display again. There are two more tapestries in the Mir Castle funds, which are waiting for their turn for restoration, so that later they can take their rightful place in the halls of the museum,” Natalya Leonidovna notes.

The artist-restorer Natalya Otsetskaya in the workshop where The Triumph of Mordecai composition is being restored, France, Aubusson, second half of the 17th century

There are 2,291 exhibits in the main fund of Mir Castle and 2,600 materials in the auxiliary scientific fund. 4,891 items in total. 27 employees are responsible for their preservation and restoration. 

By Tatiana Vrublevskaya  
Photos by Aleksey Bibikov