Teeming with Life

15 September 2023

Prof. Andrzej Betlej, director of Wawel Royal Castle, talks about how the site continues to surprise and inspire with its latest projects.

Interviewed: Katarzyna Kachel

Katarzyna Kachel: How much time should you devote to seeing Wawel?

Andrzej Betlej: Not including the cathedral – which isn’t technically part of the museum – you need at least five hours, although seeing the Crown Treasury in just seven minutes is something of a record. But if you want to do it properly, stopping to read every caption, you need a good few hours. We have something for everyone – each exhibition is carefully prepared and developed. Some people love the ever-popular, clearly laid out Crown Treasury with its state-of-the-art exhibits, others may prefer the State Rooms or the spectacular presentation Expression: Lviv Rococo Sculptures showcasing artworks from war-torn Ukraine. This diversity is one of the reasons behind the great success achieved by our entire team and record-breaking attendance levels – and let’s not forget that there is an upper limit to these numbers. After all, Wawel interiors aren’t a specially-designed gallery space – they are historic castle rooms with no mechanical ventilation. We have clearly defined conservation restrictions which impose certain limitations and constraints on visitor numbers beyond our control. If we were to allow, say, four million people to visit Wawel in a single year, we would be forced to close the castle because our exhibits would suffer significant damage.

You are always expanding your exhibitions. This year, you have added works by Titian and Brueghel to your collections, and you are planning to add more. What leads your choices of acquisitions?

It’s true to say that Wawel is expanding. We recently purchased Titian’s Allegory of Love, Jan Brueghel the Younger’s Charon’s Boat, Paris Bordone’s Diana and Callisto, and François de Troy’s Portrait of Jakub Ludwik Sobieski. We are also delighted to have seen the return of Drawing Lesson by Jan Maurits Quinkhardt, lost during the war. These unique, truly majestic artworks are an important addition to our collections, and they were all shown for the first time during Museum Night. All the new acquisitions can be seen at permanent exhibitions – our philosophy is that we only acquire artworks which can be shown straight away or in the near future. Wawel remains popular and more people continue to discover this site; the castle’s collections are far too important to hide them away from the public. To improve accessibility, we recently introduced family tickets. Wawel’s significance means it deserves to hold the finest artworks. Our latest exhibitions, which we will soon reveal to the public, include a landscape by Jan Brueghel the Younger – a small but highly significant painting.
As we continue building and expanding our collections, we are guided by principles such as artistic value, attractiveness and how the artworks complement our exhibitions. We prioritise works linked with rulers of the Commonwealth and those closely related to the history of Wawel Castle and Poland as a whole. When we acquire works by artists such as Titian and Brueghel, it’s because their paintings had adorned Wawel in the past; they are important elements of the history of art collection and expertise of Poland’s kings. Sigismund the Old, Sigismund II Augustus and Sigismund III Vasa were all seasoned art collectors, while the Jagiellons and their support for the arts easily matched some of the greatest patrons of Europe.

The Jagiellonian dynasty will be the subject of your next major exhibition, Image of the Golden Age. What makes it special?

It is the most extensive presentation of art of the period ever shown in Poland and a showcase of the finest era of the arts in the Commonwealth’s history. We are recalling traditions of great exhibitions at Wawel, such as Court Art of the Vasa Dynasty in Poland, the exhibition commemorating the Battle of Vienna, the anniversary Wawel 1000–2000, A Sign of Glorious Victory (2010) and All the King’s Tapestries: Homecomings 2021–1961–1921.
This exhibition will be the latest to be installed in all storeys of the castle. The collection, including a few hundred artworks brought in from all over the globe, will serve as an extensive review of culture blossoming across the vast lands of the Commonwealth including Lithuania, and the state-of-the-art exhibition tools will help visitors get the most of the exhibition. This serves to introduce courtly art from Wawel, Kraków and the entire Polish lands. We are showcasing the great cultural diversity of the late period of the Jagiellonian dynasty, shaped by myriad traditions and influences from the East and the West. I think the exhibition will help many people realise how vast, wealthy and multicultural the Commonwealth was.

Is it a nod to the past showing how we are now drawing on these traditions?

That’s right – and if the division between East and West Europe still persists anywhere, we are showing that we have always been at the centre and participated in the most important events of the period, and that Poland’s culture is indelibly tied to Europe’s culture. It is important that we are presenting the paintings in their natural setting of a royal residence, in the interiors once inhabited by Sigismund the Old and Sigismund II Augustus, among original architectural details, ceilings and wall paintings which all provide a part of the narrative.
I also believe that the way we will present the unique Renaissance heads, set in the ceiling of the Envoys Hall, will be especially memorable. The opportunity to stand face-to-face with thirty heads, temporarily removed from their coffers for the duration of the exhibition, will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. One of the faces will appear in a range of formats and even stepping beyond the castle in a truly monumental format. On one hand, the exhibition will be highly educational, while on the other it will be a terrific opportunity for connoisseurs.
I would truly love to talk about each of the 430 items brought in from all over the globe because they all have their own stories to tell, but there simply isn’t enough time or space. I will just mention the paintings and drawings attributed to the fascinating yet mysterious artist Hans Dürer – brother of the far more famous Albrecht – who lived in Kraków and painted for King Sigismund the Old. We have acquired his artworks from Rome, Prague, Paris and Erlangen. We will also show previously unseen sketches by Giovanni Jacopo Caraglio – Sigismund II Augustus’s engraver and goldsmith.
The bold, far-reaching exhibition is the perfect representation of Wawel of the Golden Age; we use the term deliberately, in the context of the grandness and diversity of the Commonwealth during the Jagiellonian era. This should influence how we think about the past and marvel at our extraordinary heritage. Get ready for a tale accessible to audiences of all ages! Wawel is for everyone and our exhibitions cannot be hermetic, and we are very proud of our educational programme, our catalogues and our collection of comics aimed at our young visitors. The latest edition will focus on the Jagiellonian dynasty. Join us for the exhibition showcasing the significance of Wawel as a symbol, museum, home to countless artworks and a space uniting all Polish people.

The year will close in Wawel’s vaults. When will we descend down there?

Work is currently ongoing, and the Lapidarium – an underground trail under the castle’s eastern wing – will open in autumn. It will be the first instalment of this major project. I believe that exploring previously hidden nooks-and-crannies of the cellar will be a perfect example of our vision of Wawel as a place for all – open, friendly and accessible, and somewhere you’ll want to visit time and again. You can’t help but be drawn in by Wawel and explore all its aspects. We don’t want to hide it – we want to show it off! The Lapidarium is already feeding imaginations – after all, we will be the first generation to descend to the vaults, previous only accessible to a few researchers. We will see for the first time how the Renaissance residence was built, and state-of-the-art technologies will reveal earlier elements of the previous Gothic castle. Wawel will also open a modern studio which will be regularly expanded with new elements; it will be open to the public while remaining a permanent work space for our curators. The exhibition will be accessed from the Arcaded Courtyard, which also holds a presentation about water at Wawel at the well vestibule. The route ends at the Royal Garden. The cellars were created five centuries ago and they are the latest space open to visitors. The second instalment of the project “Underground Wawel” will feature an exhibition presenting former fortifications of Wawel Hill at the archaeological site on the Vistula side, currently closed to the public. The presentation will introduce the prehistory of this special place.

While we’re on the subject of uniqueness, what else makes Wawel stand out from other royal residences?

This is probably best shown through the courtyard which naturally recalls a public space intertwining Italian and Roman elements with 16th-century trends while remaining typical of Polish styles and customs. You won’t find this combination of myriad sources of inspiration and artistic influences anywhere else. So you simply must visit – not once, not twice – because Wawel continues to surprise, and remains unpredictable.

The text was published in the 3/2023 issue of the "Kraków Culture" quarterly.

Andrzej Betlej

photo by Jeremi Dobrzański
Dr. Andrzej Betlej is an art historian, professor at the Jagiellonian University and author and editor of numerous academic books and articles. He served as director of the Institute of Art History at the Jagiellonian University between 2012 and 2016. During his time as director of the National Museum in Krakow (2016–2020), the institution launched the new Czartoryski Museum. Director of the Wawel Royal Castle – National Art Collection since 2020, responsible for the creation of a recent major tapestry exhibition and the New Crown Treasury. Awarded the silver “Gloria Artis” Medal for Merit to Culture. 

Katarzyna Kachel

photo from the author’s archive
Journalist, editor, co-author of books and tourist guides and author of articles published in “National Geographic Traveler”, “Dziennik Polski”, “Taternik” and the “Kraków” monthly. Transmodal breathing therapist. Cracovian by choice, explorer, lover of people and stories who always returns to Kraków. Her place is here.



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