Artibus et Historiae no. 64 (XXXII)

2011, ISSN 0391-9064

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MARCIN FABIAŃSKI - Renaissance Nudes as ‘materia exercendae virtutis’? A Contemporary Account of the Royal Tapestries in Cracow

For the wedding of King Sigismund August of Poland to Catherine of Austria in 1553 the bridal suite at Wawel castle was adorned with a set of Flemish tapestries. The decoration was immediately described by Stanisław Orzechowski in his Nuptial Panagyricus. Owing to several factors he could not see the figural tapestries well enough, so not all the details in his ekphrasis could be accurate. However, he rallied his vast classical erudition and imitated (in fact, emulated) a number of ancient sources, in particular the Tablet of Cebes. The material, workmanship and realism of the arrases were lavishly praised. The author’s visual culture was probably based on his extensive knowledge of classical literature. Although Orzechowski admitted that the nude First Parents depicted there aroused wanton members of the public, all of the scenes in the Garden of Eden series provided the royal couple with beneficial moral teachings.

To account for this paradox, a vast number of ancient, early Christian and Renaissance literary sources have been studied here in an attempt to find such an interpretation that would turn the alluring nudes to the moral benefit of the beholders. The justification could be found in the doctrine best expressed by St Augustine in his City of God. The impeccable nudes of Adam and Eve set before the bride and groom an ideal example of innocent marital feelings, recommended by Orzechowski to Sigismund August. According to Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski, a secretary to the king, lascivious scenes could thus become ‘the material to exercise virtue’.

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