Gallery of Medieval Art
Gallery of Medieval Art
The National Museum in Warsaw’s collection of Medieval art, the richest and most diverse of its kind in Poland, will soon open to visitors in a completely new and unique format. Famous works such as the Beautiful Madonna from Wrocław, the Grudziądz Polyptych, the Annunciation with the Unicorn Polyptych, the Triptych with the Legend of Saint Stanislaus the Bishop and the monumental altarpiece from Pruszcz Gdański will be presented in a modern arrangement specifically designed to resonate with the modern viewer. This new means of rediscovering Medieval art and its many functions was developed by a young and distinguished team from the Warsaw-based architectural studio WWAA. The opening of the gallery to the public is took place on 11 December 2013.
The National Museum in Warsaw’s Gallery of Medieval Art consists mainly of works from the Late Middle Ages (14th–16th c.) originating from various regions of Poland, along with several examples of works from western Europe. These are items whose original functions were almost exclusively of an ecclesiastical nature. The gallery was designed in a way so as to allow viewers a most thorough picture of the role that works of art held in religious life of the Middle Ages – a time when our modern understanding of art was still unheard of. The gallery features grand winged altarpieces, sculptures intended to adorn the so-called rainbow beam of a church, and ornate pillars, as well as many items of a much smaller scale: liturgical paraphernalia, small shrines, and paintings and sculptures for private devotional use. Such a broad overview of works enables visitors to form a clear picture of the full spectrum of artistic practices in the Middle Ages: painting, sculpture in wood, stone and alabaster and many artistic handicrafts. In contrast to the former arrangement of the gallery according to artistic domains, the new design is meant to enlighten visitors to Medieval visual culture, in which the church interior was a gathering place for a wide range of works from various fields of art.
Another driving force in the exhibition was to show both universal phenomena and those that were specific to certain regions in Medieval Europe. The gallery highlights interregional trends appearing in 12th–15th century art, such as the emancipation of sculpture in the round from the domain of architecture during the Romanesque period, the central European sculptural trend of depicting the Madonna on a lion, and the International Gothic style of circa 1400, often referred to as Court Gothic, the Soft Style or the Fine Style. Many of the pieces on display bear witness to the distinct nature of art from particular regions of central Europe: Silesia 1440–1520 (massive, multi-wing altarpieces, epitaphs, votive and didactic tablets, Ways of the Cross), Lesser Poland, Greater Poland and Kujawy 1440–1520 (altarpieces and devotional paintings) and Gdańsk and the northern Hanseatic Region 1420–1520 (grand altarpieces from Hamburg and Pomerania).
The layout of the exhibition space devised by the WWAA architectural studio (recipients of many awards, including accolades for the Polish Pavilion at the 2010 Expo in Shanghai) is not intended to mimic a church interior but to allow these exceptional works of Medieval art to speak for themselves. Thanks to a novel mounting approach, multi-panelled polyptychs such as the Grudziądz Polyptych are now approachable from all sides, allowing viewers a first-time look at the reverse of the wings. Visitors will be able to learn about the full iconographical messages appearing on these monumental works of art. A significant change to the exhibition space was made by uncovering the windows looking out over the museum’s courtyard and by eliminating unnecessary divisions to the floor plan. In doing so, we have restored the original historical dimensions of the rooms designed by Tadeusz Tołwiński, the architect of the National Museum building.
The spatial configuration and the materials selected by WWAA make for a minimalist setting which is conducive to an effective presentation of the works and does not compete with the art on display. The dark, graphite wall colour and raw metal mounting brackets emphasise the mass of the pieces and propel them into the foreground. A huge impact is made by the lighting: the artificial (spotlights) mingles with the natural (from the windows) to enliven the glistening golden backgrounds in many of the paintings and sculptures.