The Ruzhansky Legends: Women in Belarusian Art and History

Ruzhany Castle, located in Brest region of Belarus, is currently under reconstruction. Earlier it was the residence of the potent dynasty of Sapieha, a castle whose beauty was compared to the French Versailles. Historical information states that the duke Jan Sapieha received the king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Sigismund 1 the Old in Ruzhany. There was a theatre in the castle where the performances were in French. Destructive wars, especially the Second World War, turned a beautiful castle into ruins, but legends about those places still inspire Belarusian artists.

In one of the legends telling about the origin of the name Ruzhany – a small cozy town in Brest region, located on the border of Belarus with Poland, the names of two sisters – Ruzha and Anna, who were the daughters of the owner of the town (but the owner’s name remained unknown) are mentioned. The contemporary Belarusian artist E. Los (born in 1957) decided to embody her ideas about the appearance of these young beauties in the triptych “Ruzhansky Legends”. It should be noted that her works are also in the collections of the Museum of Ethnography in St. Petersburg, the Museum of Ancient Belarusian Culture of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, in the holdings of the Belarusian Union of Architects and Moral Re-Arnament (Switzerland).

The artist turns to pages of Belarusian history in lithographs “Anna”, “Ruzha”, “Hunting” (they make the series “Ruzhansky Legends” (1990)). On the lithographs of E. Los we see the coat of arms of Ruzhany with the image of St. Casimir in a wreath of scarlet roses, and the spire of Holy Trinity Ruzhany Church, and the domes of the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and Ruzhany Palace.

The image of the girl, depicted by the artist on the lithography “Ruzha”, can be described as collective, idealised, especially since the rose is the flower of Venus – the goddess of beauty [1, p. 485]. That is why knights-troubadours (XI-XIII centuries), chanting female beauty, compare the Beautiful lady with the rose, the most exquisite and desired of all flowers. On the other hand, the wreath of scarlet roses depicted on the coat of arms of Ruzhany (which is “Allusive arms” – the speaking coat of arms), and the name of the flower are surprisingly in tune with the name of the city, and with the name of lithography. Thus, we can assume that on the engraving “Ruzha” E. Los recreated an idealised female image – in the form of a girl holding a rose and a book. And a book has always been an indisputable attribute of virtue [2, p. 299], which is emphasised by the artist and through the image of the dog [3, p. 522] next to the Ruzhany-Rose.

Pondering the riddle of the image of the girl depicted by E.Los on the lithography “Anna”, one can assume that this image in some way goes back to the real (and legendary) historical character – Anna Jagiellonka (1523-1596), the daughter of the Polish king Sigismund I the Old and Bona Sforza. An original “hint” of the artist, necessary for deciphering the mystery of lithography, is the image of the stork – this bird in Renaissance and Baroque traditions symbolized respect to parents [4, p. 55]. Indeed, Anna Jagiellonka became the queen of Poland and Grand Duchess of Lithuania only at a very mature age (in 1575), in other words, the young years of the future queen were influenced by the powerful mother – the Queen Bon Sforza, who actually ruled the country.

Note that the artist portrayed Anna as playing the lute (against the background of Catholic Church of Holy Trinity), and this instrument also served as an attribute of Music, whose heavenly patroness was St. Cecilia [5, p. 610]. Religious and secular ideas about the “ideal of a creative woman” were broadcast through the image of Saint Cecilia in Western European art culture. These representations reflected an unspoken set of rules for a woman’s behaviour in society; society’s judgments on the level of general and artistic education of a woman; socially approved forms of creative activity of women [6]. On the other hand, the lute (along with harpsichord) was the most popular instrument of Renaissance, sounded at the royal courts. The lute was an ideal home instrument with a soft, silvery sound, and the lute in Anna’s hands seemed to recall the rapid rise of culture in the 16th century on Belarusian lands, the intensive development of music exchange among Western European countries, the popularity of the works of F. da Milano, V. Galilei, G. Bakfak. At the same time, the image of the entrance gate (brama) of the Ruzhansky castle on the lithography “Anna” nevertheless “approximates” the image of the girl to the legend of two sisters whose names merged in the name of the town.

It is possible to identify the generality of the artistic and aesthetic ideas inherent in the lithographs “Anna” and “Ruzha” E.Los through the comprehension of the specific characteristics of the space of everyday life. During the XV – XIX centuries for women the most accessible way of knowing the surrounding world of all historical forms of comprehension of the phenomenon of being (religion, philosophy, science) was precisely artistic creativity Playing musical instruments, reading, painting, organising home theatrical productions, embroidering (and other forms of artistic creativity) were expression of a personal relationship to the world around them, a way of intellectual and creative self-development of women within the framework of private life.

The softness and lyricism of the female images of “Ruzhy” and “Anna” is strengthened by comparison with the lithography “Hunting” (also related to the series “Ruzhansky Legends”). Its vigour, dynamic saturation of the figurative system is emphasised by the figure of the horseman, who proudly flaunts on the galloping horse. The stage of hunting is, as it was “voiced” by the artist through the evocative sounds of hunting horns, and in the imagery-emotional terms “Hunting” directly echoes the once popular musical genre “caccia” (Italian caccia, literally – hunting, pursuit). Caccia – the two-part canon – was one of the favourite genres of Italian early Renaissance (more precisely, the Ars nova period), which arose “under the influence of the pictorial nature of the genre: the canon of the two upper voices conveys a kind of revival and dynamics of hunting, pursuit of the hunter for the beast, roll call, cheerful exclamations “[7, p. 119]. The display of the sound of the musical canon on the engraving “Hunting” is undoubtedly the roll of two instrumental voices – the hunting horns of the horseman and the hunter is clearly “traced” by the artist.

Another important accent of the Linocut “Hunting” by E.Los is quoting fragments of works by other authors – in particular, the drawing of the Belarusian artist, musician and diplomat Napoleon Orda (1863), which shows the entrance gate and the main building of the Ruzhany palace ensemble. (It should be noted that it was practically destroyed during the Second World War). The artist “borrows” the image of the main building of the palace from the image of N. Orda, as if reminding the viewer of the brilliant events of the past: the reception in honour of King Stanislaus August Poniatowski (1784), the magnificent theatrical productions, luxurious balls and numerous hunts. Such a bright historical and chronological contrast, which is the undoubted creative finding of E. Los, expresses the emotional and simultaneously anxious attitude of the artist to Belarusian history, and attention to the past and the present.


by Shkor Lydia Alexandrovna
Associate Professor of the Department of
Belarusian and World Artistic Culture
Belarusian State University of Culture and Arts

, , ,