Gallery of Old Masters
European and Old Polish Decorative Arts, Painting and Sculpture. 15th–18th Century
The former galleries: the Gallery of Decorative Arts and the Gallery of European and Polish Old Masters of the National Museum in Warsaw have been merged to form the new Gallery of Old Masters. Bringing together diverse art forms, we intend to move away from the traditional discourse of art history where the “high” pictorial art — painting, sculpture, drawing and graphic arts were separated from decorative arts understood exclusively in utilitarian terms. Yet such division did not exist in the past. Generally speaking, all art forms were perceived as equal. If any of them was considered superior, it was not painting or sculpture but goldsmithery and tapestry weaving. The very notion of art – Latin ars (followed by Italian arte and French art), Greek techne, German and Dutch Kunst – originally signified artistry, skillful execution, craft. What was most highly esteemed in painting and sculpture was exactly artisanal expertise, virtuosity of workmanship.
The representational character of painting and sculpture — subjected to the principle of the imitation of reality (mimesis) — was not a criterion of division either. As our exhibition demonstrates, the majority of examples of old artisanal handicraft, while undeniably decorative, also featured figurative depictions, which are the quintessence of painting and sculpture. Decorative arts shared with painting and sculpture their purpose and functions, but also spaces where they were collected and exhibited. These “social spaces” have provided the key to the division of the gallery: 1. palace, villa, court; 2. church, chapel and domestic altar; 3. the city. In other words: 1. court culture; 2. religious culture; 3. city culture.
The part CULTURE OF THE COURT, consisting of three rooms: Palace and Villa; The Royal and Princely Court; Polish Magnates’ Courts and Nobles’ Manors, gathers paintings, sculptures, furniture, tapestries, textiles, carpets, goldsmith objects, silverware, glassware, maiolica, faience and porcelain which were signs of luxury and splendour, instruments of moral instruction, vehicles of political propaganda, or simply means of entertainment. The part RELIGION AND DEVOTION IN CHURCH AND AT HOME and its rooms: Late Medieval Objects of Cult and Piety; Renaissance Objects of Private Devotion; In the Realm of the Altar: Liturgical Objects; After the Council of Trent: Religious Paintings and Objects in Churches and Convents; After the Reformation: Religious Images at Home and in Public Buildings, presents elements of setting of liturgy in churches and places of religious cult as well as instruments of private devotion, prayer and contemplation at home or in private chapel. The third part of the Gallery, situated in a separate museum wing is THE CITY, consisting of the following chapters: Citizens and Their Institutions: Town Hall and Guild; City House and Its Inhabitants; Paintings in Collectors’ Cabinets; Ethos of Patricians and Their Vision of Plebeians and it demonstrates how decorative arts, painting and sculpture contributed to the formation of the upper-class culture in cities. This narration concludes with an exceptional city – Venice: A City for Export. The exhibiton is complemented with treasures of artisanal handicraft confined in the three cabinets: porcelain, glass and rock crystal ware and goldsmith objects.