Portraits after Life - The Baroque Legacy of Poland's Nobles
The elaborate funeral portraits of Poland's 17th-century nobility are a window on their self-image and lifestyle, as Bozena Grabowska discusses here. (Translated from the Polish by George Lambor).
The Baroque period in Poland lasted longer than any other in the course of the country's recent history. The first signs of it appeared towards the end of the sixteenth century and its decline did not set in until around 1740-60, when it found itself competing with the new currents of the Enlightenment. The high point of Baroque development occurred in the seventeenth century, despite this being a period when the country was frequently at war. If we count the years of peace enjoyed by various European countries during this time, Poland had just thirty-two years; Austria, thirty-nine; France, forty-seven; Sweden, forty-eight; Russia, forty-nine and England fifty-eight.
Poland, a nation existing at the meeting point of two worlds, the oriental and the occidental, and under continual threat from Muslim Turkey and the Tartar hordes, developed an ideology all of its own, known as 'Sarmatism', the name derived from the ancient Sarmatians, a. people living in the seventh century BC along the river Dniester in modern Ukraine. It was based on the conviction that Poland had a special function to perform in Europe, as a shield protecting Christianity from the flood of heathens (the fulfilment of which doctrine came with the relief of Vienna from the Turks by the nobleman and later king, Jan Sobieski, in 1683). Hence the Polish nobleman, in calling himself a Sarmatian, was accepting with that name certain attitudes and duties to which he was bound by reason of his birth. The latter-day Sarmatian was a knight-hero, defender of the faith, the country and its traditions and deserving of the nation's pride.
But if the nobility in Poland saw Sarmatians among their ancestors, a number of individual families looked for their origins among the patrician Roman families; for example, the Pac family from Pazzi, the Krasinski family from the legionary Corvinus.
These historical lineage-claims lead to the development of the idea that Poland was a nation of noblemen. The justification for this lay in the high percentage (over 10 per cent) of nobility that resided in Poland, compared to that of other European nations. In France the nobility formed only 1 per cent of the population and in the neighbouring Russia, 2 per cent. The theory of a common descent contributed to the integration of the entire caste of nobility, within which all – irrespective of their religion, mother-tongue or wealth – benefited from the same privileges and laws. It was this claim to a different and unique line of descent that became, frequently, the basis for placing the peasants and the burgesses outside the Polish nation proper.
In order to reinforce the position, significance and power of his noble class and to ensure its continuing tradition, the nobleman-Sarmatian took care to pass on to his descendants a memory of himself and of his public achievements. He often became a patron of the arts, funded churches, and aimed at building for himself a suitably impressive palace. Alternatively, he chose the somewhat cheaper way of passing into the memory of later generations by commissioning a portrait of himself. Thus arose the fashion of commissioning personal portraits, portraits of the closest members of the family, and in fact whole galleries of more or less real ancestors. This demand for portraits led to the development of a special type of painting which came to be termed 'Sarmatian'.
In the portrait, the subject, dressed in orientalised-Polish dress, surrounded himself with all kinds of early dynastic distinctions, proudly displaying his coat-of-arms and supplementing the information about himself with added detailed inscriptions. The strong attachment to tradition, together with the cult of a praiseworthy past, made the nobleman eager to have himself represented as a warrior, defender of the motherland, invariably carrying arms, and occasionally wearing some form of armour. In sharp contrast to the Western European-idealised court-painting of the time, the Sarmatian portrait was distinguished by a totally realistic representation of the sitter. Any idealisation would have been seen as depriving the Sarmatian's descendants of the sight of his individual characteristics, of which he was greatly proud.
The ideology of Sarmatism, which contains everything we call today Polish tradition, was able to develop because of the political system, so very different from that of other European countries and known by historians as the 'democracy of the nobility'. That political system, for which the Latin name Respublica was used (translated literally to mean Common Wealth) was considered to be the heir to the Roman Republic. The existence within it of a king – which should have made the system into a monarchy – did not in any way restrict the notion of the republic, because the king in Poland performed a function comparable to that of a president, though with much wider powers.
The conscious and repeated desire to reproduce a faithful likeness of the sitter and his character in Sarmatian coffin portraits stemmed from practices closely linked to the old Polish funerary rites. These rites, in spite of the additional elements of coffin portraits, triumphal gates, funeral flags and so on, were based on the so- called Italian funerals so widespread in seventeenth-century Europe, supplemented by Polish medieval traditions associated with burials of monarchs. Until the middle of the seventeenth century, the funeral ceremony known as pompa funebris was practiced only by the royal court and the magnates. When Sarmatism brought about 'equal rights for all nobles', the rest of the nobility also took it up, seizing upon the funeral ceremony as a means of reflecting their new status.
To explain how this 'democratisation' came about we have to move back to 1370 and the death of King Casimir the Great. His death marked the end of the Piast dynasty, which had ruled Poland from the establishment of the Polish State in 966, but had also been deeply involved in the events leading up to it. Casimir was childless, and wanting to regain from Russia the disputed districts of Ruthenia and Galicia, obtained the support of his nephew, King Louis of Hungary, and in return nominated Louis as his heir. The new ruler was given a very cool reception from the Poles. When he passed the throne on to one of his daughters, as a sweetener to the Polish nobility, Louis granted them a number of privileges, including a ceiling on taxation, and the agreement that any rise in taxes would have to be accepted first by the entire body of nobility. These privileges were the first of many.
Louis' daughter, Jadwiga, was a much-loved monarch. She married Prince Wladyslaw Jagiello, ruler of Lithuania, an alliance which resulted in the union of Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, which survived until the Partitions at the end of the eighteenth century. When Jadwiga died unexpectedly at the age of twenty-eight, Jagiello, the obvious successor, found himself with no legal claims to the throne written into the original marriage agreement. To consolidate his position as monarch he had first to gain the acceptance of the nobility and be certain of their support. He therefore, agreed to grant them further privileges.
These encompassed freedom from all dues and taxes except tax on the amount of land owned by an individual; a guarantee of inviolability of the person, or property, of a nobleman. (This allowed imprisonment of a nobleman only following the decision of a court law; his property, however, would not be forfeited). The new privileges also included the right of all noblemen to be appointed to any office and position in the kingdom, while regional offices could be filled only by those noblemen resident in the district and on the advice of the council of noblemen of the district.
These rights completely changed the constitution of the three countries of the Union, and though these privileges did not as yet have institutional status, they were already considered to be the custom. The king still bore the title 'dominus et heres', meaning lord and heir, but after the death of Jadwiga, ascendancy to the throne was no longer hereditary. Every new king had to be accepted by the Royal Council of the nobility. In the course of the next two hundred years, the kings of the Jagiellonian dynasty succeeded one another according to these new rules, some- times not even according to seniority. The model of the constitution changed to encompass 'the state by agreement'.
The year 1505 became another landmark, when the laws and the privileges of the nobility were drawn up under the law 'Nihil novi' and the formulation of a new constitution. This decreed that no new dues or duties could be demanded of the nobility without the approval of the deputies and senators. This amounted no less than to recognising a two- chambered parliament, which hence- forth was to represent the whole nation. The structure of it reflected that of the various classes in Poland; the Chamber of Deputies or Sejm, gathered representatives of the nobility elected at regional assemblies, and its decisions, to be valid, had to be strictly unanimous. What used to be the Royal Council consisting of the representatives of the magnates, now became the Senate. The king was accepted as a separate, one person class.
King Sigismund II Augustus (1540-72) was an enlightened Renaissance monarch, but there was also a widespread consensus amongst the Polish nobility as to what constituted the interests of the country. At the time of the St Bartholomew's massacre in France and the law of 'cuius regio, eius religio', declaring that the religion of' the monarch was the religion of the state, in Germany, Poland distinguished herself among European nations for her complete religious tolerance. With many nationalities living within its borders, Poland had to accept a diversity of religions among its citizens, particularly as the state did not have at its disposal a large army, nor a strong apparatus of enforcement. The feeling of a bond among all members of the nobility, expressed in the slogan 'the free with the free and the equal with the equal' was so strong that it overcame religious differences and religious tolerance became the law, the custom and the tradition. The only limit to the tolerance was that, according to an unwritten law, the king had to be a Catholic, and during the interregnum it was the primate with the title of interrex who symbolically replaced the king.
The tradition of religious tolerance was strenuously defended by deputies and senators alike, Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox. After the death of Sigismund II Augustus, the last of the Jagiellonian Dynasty, the Sejm was called to elect a new king. The interregnum was long and stormy, because there was no obvious candidate for the crown, a situation totally new to the nation. Finally, after negotiations with Bishop Montluc, the envoy of the King of France, the Sejm chose Prince Henri de Valois, younger son of Henri II and Catherine de Medicis of France, and incidentally, one of the instigators of the massacre of St Bartholomew. In 1575, a year after the massacre, in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Polish envoy, Jan Zborowski, demanded that before he be accepted as Poland's new ruler, Henri should swear to maintain the existing religious freedom in his new kingdom. The prince refused. 'You do not swear, you do not reign', said Zborowski. Henri swore. A few months later, however, unable to get used to the extent of the power wielded by the nobles, Henri returned to France, leaving the country uncertain as to whether he had relinquished the crown or not.
But Henri's election to the throne had set in motion the pattern and principle on which the King of Poland was to be elected by the whole of the nobility through voting. From then on, every nobleman could say of himself 'I am the state'. The election also redefined the legal position of the king, and permanent laws, known as Cardinal Articles were drawn up – more popularly referred to by the nobility as 'The Golden Freedoms'. Every successive king had to abide by these. He was bound to honour the principle of free election to the monarchy which meant exclusion of any canvassing or deals during his lifetime. The king gave up the title of heir and his son could not use any title that suggested he was in the line of succession. The king could not unilaterally make any decisions in matters of war or peace, but he held in his hands the entire executive power through his officers. He could also, by legal means, carry out any constitutional changes and alter any law for the public good, because no class and no individual was allowed to shield behind existing privileges against the agreed will of the king and the Sejm. On the other hand, the nobility acquired the right to refuse to obey the king in the event of his taking action contrary to the Golden Freedoms.
Freedom and equality were the ideological basis of the nobility, and they shaped the social and political life of Poland throughout the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. On the face of it the Golden Freedoms meant freedom to behave in any way the nobleman wished, Limited only by a few paragraphs in the Cardinal Articles. So, he could not kill or imprison another nobleman, raid, steal, or commit arson or rape. He could not go back on agreements made. He could do what he liked on his own estates, but again, within the above strictures. He could buy without paying customs duty and sell the goods to whoever he wished. He could take money from whoever was willing to give it to him – including the king, as well as foreign kings – a dangerous freedom, as it turned out to be in the long run. He could say whatever he wished in private and in public, much to the horror of an Englishman travel- ling through Poland in the sixteenth century, probably William Bruce, who wrote: 'Every nobleman is allowed to say without consequences to himself whatever comes to his head, even if it could cause a riot and difficulties'. He was equally free to write whatever came to his head, as long as it was not sacrilegious or in praise of absolute government. Finally, he could travel without any restrictions at home and abroad if he so wished and had the money.
This ideology of freedom was closely linked to the ideology of equality. As every nobleman was, in law, equal to all the others, each elected the king and could be elected king, so each one in his own estimation saw himself as a potential senator or a sheriff of the country. That an average nobleman felt honoured when a magnate patted him on the back, was another matter. During the sixteenth century, magnates frequently stood against the principle of equality, but later they learned to exploit it skilfully to their own ends. The noblemen liked to address each other as 'My lord brother', but in fact equality was a fiction; the nobility was split internally into layers: at one extreme there were the magnates, who kept their own armies, owned villages and even towns, at the other extreme was the type of nobleman known as 'naked one', who owned only a scrap of land or none at all, his all-important coat- of-arms and a sabre hanging from his waist by a piece of string. Financially he was little different from a peasant, but in law his privileges were equal to the wealthiest. Between these two extremes were a whole range of middle ranking nobles.
Together with the feeling of being a 'free man' in a very wide sense, went the assurance that a nobleman's dignity was upheld by the law. He was capable of successfully defending his honour against a magnate or the king, the respect for whom, we must add, was very considerable. In spite of the existence of the article guaranteeing the right of refusal to obey the king in certain circumstances, the very idea of a clash with the ruler was highly unpopular, although, the average nobleman, face to face with the majesty of a king knew how to behave with courage and dignity. This was demonstrated by the deputy, Michal Kazimirski, whose remarks during the sitting of the Sejm annoyed the very powerful King Stefan Batory (1575-86). The king shouted 'Silence, you clown!' to which Kazimirski replied: 'I am not a clown, but a citizen who elects kings and puts down tyrants'.
A nobleman's lifestyle was essentially a rustic one. He lived in the country, in a manor some distance from his neighbours. There was little of the palace culture such as that which surrounded Louis XIV in France. The nobleman would look with distaste on the town, seeing in it 'a nest of decadence and lies'. Life in the country was very much bound up with his interests: looking after the estate in the tradition of Ancient Rome, where even a dictator would have to lay aside a plough before going to defend his motherland. It was in the countryside that the noble- man could see a personal Arcadia as achievable, one without bad neighbours, without disasters or wars. Life was bound with the seasons, and when the busy period was over, there was time to spare, food was plentiful, so it was spent pleasantly on feasting and entertaining.
The granting of public offices, of which there were several thousand (some of them merely fictitious), was in the hands of the king and could be distributed only among the nobility. The majority of those offices carried no monetary reward, again looking back to the tradition of Ancient Rome. On the contrary, they carried with them certain expenses, if only for the splendid feast that had to be given to mark the granting of the office. In spite of this, there was much competition for them. The main reason for this was that the title of the office replaced the-range of titles current among Western aristocracy at the time, but totally absent in Poland (though not in Lithuania and Ukraine), Whatever their form, such titles signalled that their bearer was 'somebody'. It was bad form to chase after offices; in practice, the chase went on all the time and the ultimate dream was to have a senator in the family. Second to that, was to gather a large estate, but it was very characteristic of the Polish attitudes, that in spite of those aspirations, a nobleman reaching out for the position of a magnate would always attract severe condemnation.
To move from outside the nobility into it was extremely difficult. Mere distinction in performing public services was not enough. The quality demanded was that of noble spirit illustrated by exceptionally brave behaviour in battle. Two noted exceptions were Szymon Szymonowicz, an extremely gifted sixteenth-century poet, and the painter, Eleutery Siemiginowski. In all such cases, those showing the nobility of spirit were adopted into the nobility and not enobled by the king, and even then, for the first three generations they were barred from holding public offices.
There was also a very strict attitude towards occupations and certain professions were considered to be demeaning. Outside the army and farming, only judges were socially approved of, although medical men were held in high regard. Merchants were held in low esteem; of them was written 'they destroy the country and enpoverish it, they empty the wealth and enrich themselves', and 'to trade is a sin and shame'. This did not prevent the nobleman from trading in wheat, horses and timber. Physical work was also held in low esteem, except in agriculture. The nobleman limited himself to supervising the work of his peasants, but there was a sizeable percentage of the poorest nobility who did their own ploughing and other tasks.
A deep sense of honour was attached to having a coat of arms, undoubtedly springing from the knightly ethos. Bravery was praised highest of all and was the very symbol distinguishing the noble class from the rest. Running from the field of battle carried the severest consequences: infamy and confiscation of estates. The fighting itself had to be carried out along the principles of fair play and it was forbidden, for example, to attack an unarmed enemy.
Always sensitive to anything that might threaten to undermine their privileges, the nobles stood against the setting up of an efficient policing force or increases in the size of the army. However, when the country was in danger, as during the sixteenth century when it was under attack from the Turks, all nobles had to turn out immediately, armed and fully equipped. The concept of Poland as the forward defence of Christianity and European civilisation lies behind much of the Poles' attitude and behaviour in the following centuries to the present day. It defined the Polish nobility's perception of its role, raising it above other nations in its own esteem, and strengthening its sense of significance within the country. The anarchic life which towards the end of the eighteenth century brought Poland to partition among three of its neighbours, grew out of the feeling that it was the forward defence and the Poles sincerely believed that Europe would not allow the heirs of Jan Sobieski to perish, if only out of gratitude. That same attitude emerged again during the Second World War.
In spite of her perception as defender of Christianity, Poland found herself much influenced by the East. At the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this influence manifested itself in a style of dress adopted in its classical form by the nobility and henceforth identified as their costume. For men this dress consisted of wide trousers, long smock and a coat called a kontusz, with sleeves slit to allow the arms greater movement. It was the fashion to throw the sleeves over the shoulders when bowing to a lady, or to one's equal. Originally the nobility imported their belts from Persia, but later local manufacture developed. The belts were made of gold and silk thread, from which, suspended by a silk rope, hung the sword. The outfit was completed by long boots, for special occasions, made of saffian, and a fur hat with a brooch attached at the front. In terms of sheer display of wealth, men's clothes in eighteenth- century Poland far outstripped ladies'.
Women's dress, on the other hand, was, from the seventeenth century onwards, modelled on the French fashions. But among men Western dress was never fully accepted; this was due to the significance attached to the garments described above, which symbolised everything: civil status, age, profession and above all social position and even political outlook. Dressed in the kontusz, the man was seen as a traditionalist; dressed in a French costume, he was immediately suspected of wanting to abolish the Golden Freedoms in favour of absolutism. The magnates, when wanting to seek the support of the nobles would dress 'Polish style', and even kings, often foreigners in the country, would adopt the style for everyday wear.
It is in the funerary portrait-painting that we encounter the best examples of the stereotypical Polish nobleman. They commissioned their own portraits, portraits of the present family, as well as of ancestors. Sarmatian galleries of ancestors were meant to convey to the onlooker the power and the grandeur of the family. The wealth of dress displayed in them, signs of offices, the proud demeanour, all conveyed to the onlooker that the family able to display such a gallery were people of consequence.
The portraits were painted by the same painters who excited ordinary family portraits, and varied in quality according to the wealth of the family commissioning them. They were usually commissioned well in advance of the funeral, but if the need for one came unexpectedly, then the artist would copy the official family portrait, or even make up the face from a description provided by the family.
The deceased was always portrayed as in life, according to the Christian doctrine of eternal life. The oval internal shape of the earliest known funerary portrait, that of King Stefan Batory, and the frequent later enclosure of the deceased's silhouette against a dark oval background, are comparable with the ancient symbol of the wheel, or clipeus. The clipeus appears on both classical and early Christian Roman funerary sculpture, such as sarcophagi, surrounding the image of the deceased, as for example on the fourth-century sarcophagus of the two brothers in the Vatican Museum. This depicted the cosmos, the image of the world, and their endless- ness and eternity. The change of technique – from relief sculpture to a painting on metal plate – gave additional potential; a gold- or silver-coloured background added the other-worldly atmosphere into which the deceased now had passed. The same care was taken with regard to the formal pose; the deceased stands immobile along the central axis, face slightly turned sideways, the eyes looking directly at those present. The portrait represented the deceased's presence during the ceremonies.
The funeral developed a widely-accepted form, consisting of three parts: the first took place at home; the family, after praying at the bed of the deceased, carried him – dressed to show his rank and status – to the decorated bed of state in the church or to the family chapel inside the palace. Sometimes an actor, known as an arcbimimus and specially engaged for the occasion to play the role of the deceased would stand over the corpse. At this stage an elaborate hearse called the castrum doloris, or 'castle of sorrow', would be constructed in the church. This was a splendid structure requiring the design skills of an architect for its construction. The interior walls of the church were hung with expensive materials and funerary standards. When all this was ready, the body was brought into the church and placed on the hearse. At the foot of the coffin was attached the funerary portrait of the deceased, and at its head a tablet with his coat-of-arms and suitable epitaphs. After the Mass, if the deceased was male, the arcbimimus would ride into the church on a horse and with a great deal of noise, fall off at the foot of the hearse. Then the various marks of the deceased's status, such as seals, officer's batons, marshall's staff, banners and arms, would be broken.
The coffin would then be carried in a procession to the cemetery, or around the church if the burial was to be inside, passing through a series of specially-built triumphal gates. Those invited to the funeral would be given printed leaflets with panegyrics written in honour of the deceased. After the body was placed in the tomb, various members of the family made lengthy speeches in honour of their recently departed relative. The last speaker would invite all present to the festive wake. As the deceased would not have been personally known to all the members of the family invited, the wake would turn into a jovial feast, accompanied by an orchestra and fireworks. If two or three persons had died within a short period then, for practical reasons, their funerals were arranged to follow each other over a period of several days. Between the funerals there would be intermezzos with hunts, dancing and theatrical performances arranged for the mourners.
The day after the funeral, the participants attended a farewell at which they were thanked for attending, and a final panegyrical sermon in praise of the deceased was given. After that, the funerary portrait, the tablet with the coat-of-arms and epitaphs were hung in the church. During the following years these would be the focus of ceremonies on anniversaries of the death or funeral, or on the feast of the deceased's patron saint. Sometimes these anniversaries surpassed in splendour the funeral itself.
The clergy often protested at the waste of money lavished on such ostentatiousness but with little effect; few families reduced the scale of the festivities. It was, after all, an excellent occasion to show off the wealth which demonstrated the magnificence of the family of which the deceased had been a member. A modest funeral would cast a shadow on the good name of the family, which would be suspected of meanness or even of misappropriating the money set aside for the funeral.
Today, only the funerary paintings hanging around the walls of various churches remain as memories of these celebrations of the Polish nobility. They were made to last, painted on zinc, bronze or even silver, and only rarely on wood. The collection of coffin portraits, inscribed tablets and coats-of-arms, all of which accompanied the coffin lying in state, gathered in the museum in Miedzyrzecz, a modest town near Poznan in western Poland, is quite outstanding. That it boasts such a collection is the work of one man, Alf Kowalski, who set up the museum after the Second World War and travelled around the district assiduously gathering them up, mostly from churches.
Coffin portraits were instituted as the ultimate public-relations exercise for the departed nobles. As such, they became singularly successful, far beyond the expectations and far beyond the times of those who had instituted the fashion.
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