Renaissance Routes, Signs, and Looks in the "Adoration of the Magi" Altarpiece from Drysviaty
Acta Academiae Artium Vilnensis
Keywords:Central Europe, Drysviaty, Northern Renaissance panel painting, iconography, identification portrait, Nicholas Radziwill, Sigismund Jagiellon, Maximillian I Habsburg
Huge losses of material heritage in the mid-seventeenth-century wars and later calamities do not allow conducting a more thorough research into the transmission and reception of Renaissance art in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. However, case studies focusing on individual pieces might offer a glimpse into the provenance, function, and reception of images. Concentrating on the Adoration of the Magi altarpiece that once belonged to the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin founded by the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland Sigismund Jagiellon (r. 1506–1548) in 1514 on the island of Lake Drūkšiai / Drysviaty (today’s Belarus), this essay traces the painting’s history, discusses its possible provenance, and examines the figures of the magi for their potential as identification portraits. Although the first reference to the altarpiece comes from the 1650s, its Northern Renaissance style suggests that the painting was executed much earlier, in a workshop active in a German-speaking town of Central Europe, whose practice was influenced by the Nuremberg patterns. The inquiry into the composition and stylistic features concludes that the altarpiece was painted by several masters, who were skilled copyists not yet familiar with drawing from life, and therefore relied on a number of graphic examples to produce the Drysviaty altarpiece.
The deep tradition of identification portrait and the potential of the three magi to be associated with Christian rulers have prompted to search for a historical personality disguised under the representations of a magus. The figure of Melchior, whose posture stands out in the composition, appears to be the aptest candidate: shown as a bearded middle-aged man wearing the Order of the Golden Fleece, Melchior gazes at the Virgin. However, identification is confused by the fact that Melchior’s facial features lack individuality specific to Renaissance identification portraits. Moreover, the contrast between the accuracy of representation of the chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece (the sheepskin being transformed into portrait medallions during later repaintings) and the typicality of Melchior’s face directs the inquiry towards a broader historical context and the activities of Nicholas Radziwill (1468–1521), who was entitled to build the church in Drysviaty and most likely commissioned the altarpiece. Two members of the Order of the Golden Fleece were important to Radziwill’s career: Emperor Maximilian I (r. 1508–1519), who granted him the ducal title in 1518, and Sigismund Jagiellon, the founder of the church in Drysviaty. Although the lack of data prevents reaching final conclusions, the essay hypothesizes that the figure of Melchior is more likely to be associated with Sigismund. Paradoxically, this assumption is derived from the absence of Sigismund’s portraits before 1521, which means that the masters of the altarpiece did not have an image to copy in contrast to numerous woodcuts featuring the Order of the Golden Fleece they could follow. The research concludes that the Northern Renaissance style of the Drysviaty altarpiece provided medieval notions of likeness with visible form. Grounded in typological thinking, the figure of a magus functioned as a spacious antitype which might be associated to an individual type according to the status and deeds, rather than lifelike similarity.