Lithuania’s battle against the Swedes in Latvia

  • 2010-09-15
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

BATTLE OVER LATVIA: The Battle of Kircholm by Flemish painter Pieter Snayers, on show until Sept. 19.

VILNIUS - This year, Lithuania at the highest state-level celebrates the 600-year anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald (known as the Battle of Zalgiris in Lithuania and the Battle of Tannenberg in Germany). The battle, in which the allied armies of Poland and Lithuania beat the Teutonic Order in 1410, was known throughout Europe in the Middle Ages as the Great Battle. Therefore, Vilnius museums are presenting exhibitions related to the Battle of Grunwald and other events from the history of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy. An interesting painting is on display until Sept. 19 in the Vilnius Picture Gallery (a branch of the Lithuanian Art Museum). It is The Battle of Kircholm, by Flemish painter Pieter Snayers, who lived from 1592-1667.

This painting is from the collections of Sassenage Castle (or Chateau if using the French word for castle) in southeastern France. This chateau was built in the 17th century by the Berenger-Sassenage family, wealthy and influential nobles who had close ties to the French royal court. In 1971, the last member of this family, Marquise Pierrette Elisa de Berenger, left this chateau, together with its works of art and archive, to the Foundation of France. Sassenage Castle and some 50 objects within it, including Pieter Snayers’ The Battle of Kircholm, have been added to the French list of cultural treasures in the Rhone-Alpes region. The exhibition of this painting in Vilnius was organized by the Lithuanian Art Museum, the Foundation of France (La Fondation de France) and the French Cultural Center (Le Centre Culturel Francais). Before being exhibited, this painting was restored at the Vilnius-based Pranas Gudynas Restoration Center of the Lithuanian Art Museum.

The painting would probably not be on a top priority list for decorating some interior of a Swedbank office because it shows the defeat of the Swedish army by the Lithuanian army in the territory which is modern day Latvia. This painting depicts the Battle of Salaspils (then this town near Riga was called by its German name, Kircholm), which was fought between the armies of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Sweden on Sept. 27, 1605. In this battle the Lithuanian army, under the command of Grand Hetman John Carol Chodkiewicz (known in contemporary Lithuanian-language history books as Jonas Karolis Chodkevicius, or Katkevicius), defeated the more than three times larger Swedish army of 14,000 soldiers, which was led by Swedish King Charles IX. Lithuania received some non-significant support from Poland and the Duchy of Courland (lands south-west from Riga), which was the vassal of Lithuania and Poland during the 16-18th centuries. Some 9,000 Swedes perished in that battle.

That victory astonished the rulers of Europe – congratulations to Chodkiewicz came from the Pope of Rome, England’s King James I and the Turkish sultan. The pre-history of the conflict was as follows: Swedish-origin Sigismund Vasa, elected by the joint parliament of Poland and Lithuania to be a king of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, also wanted the throne of Sweden. However, Lithuania did not gain much from that victory of 1605, leaving a bigger piece of Livonia (contemporary Latvia and Estonia) to Sweden because Chodkiewicz had other things to do. Chodkiewicz, who was one the greatest heads ever of the Lithuanian army, needed to rush to Poland to calm the revolt against the king there. Later, Chodkiewicz marched his troops into the Moscow region and was fighting mostly against the Russians, though he perished in 1621 fighting against the Ottoman army in the territory which is now Ukraine. It is symbolic that the painting The Battle of Kircholm is on show in the Vilnius Picture Gallery, which is a former estate of Chodkiewicz.

Brussels-based Snayers, who painted The Battle of Kircholm, was one of the leading battle painters of the 17th century. He painted the most famous battles of his epoch, such as Suleiman’s Siege of Vienna in 1529. The Battle of Kircholm was probably commissioned by Sigismund Vasa in around 1619. The southern side of the landscape in the painting is in the upper part of the picture where the Daugava River flows from left to right toward the Baltic Sea. The units of the Lithuanian army and its allies are on the left, and the Swedish ones - on the right. The decisive phase of this battle is depicted: the center of the Lithuanian army has already penetrated deep into the formation of the Swedish army. The painting gives a bird’s-eye view of the Battle of Kircholm, but some minor details of high expression are noticeable as well – for example, a Swede on his knees begging for mercy in front of a Lithuanian hussar, who sits on his horse.

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