Tomb of King Władysław III of Varna

Tomb of King Władysław III of Varna (1434-1444)
Red marble, bronze, 1903-1906, sculpted by Antoni Madeyski
Kraków, Wawel Cathedral

The Jagiellons – a dynasty originating from Lithuania, whose representatives were pagan until the late 14th century, entered the arena of Latin Europe when Christianity was accepted by the Polish throne taken by Duke Jogaila in 1386. He married Jadwiga (1373/4-99), a princess of the Hungarian branch of the d’Anjou dynasty, who became the king of Poland as the successor of her father, king of Hungary, Louis the Great (1382). Jogaila – called Władysław II Jagiełło henceforth (c. 1351-1434) – started a long and fruitful reign of the new dynasty. In the age of the Hussite wars (a religious revolution in Bohemia that started when a great reformer of Christianity, Jan Hus, was burnt at the stake during the Council of Constance in 1414), and significant succession issues in Central Europe of the 15th century, the Jagiellons  who joined the rank of Polish kings and Lithuanian grand dukes – played a key role by building up their prestige and control over a huge territory. As early as in 1440, Jagiełło’s son, Władysław III, succeeded both as the King of Poland and Hungary, but his poor political skills resulted in a battle between a Christian coalition with the Turks near Varna (1444), where the young ruler died heirless.
His successor and younger brother, Kazimierz IV Jagiellończyk, however, was not crowned until 1447. The delay was enforced by magnates opposing Kazimierz who took advantage, amongst others, of the fact that King Władysław’s body had never been found. Therefore, gossip of his escape from Varna spread and even of an alleged atonement he was supposed to undertake to repay the truce he had broken off so recklessly and thus led to the defeat of a Christian ally. One of the versions stated that Władysław went on foot to the Santiago da Compostella sanctuary, another that he chose to live his life on the Portuguese island of Madeira. Instances of all sorts of impostors are known who tried to impersonate the dead king, the most famous of whom was a Jan from Wilczyna near Ryczywół, who arrived in Wielkopolska in 1451 and introduced himself as the miraculously found king. The legends have lived on until modern times; according to a recently released book by Manuel Rosa, the Polish King settled on Madeira and a fathered a boy known by the name of Christopher Columbus. All these speculations are proven false by a very detailed account of the events at Varna written at that time by a Turkish chronicler Hoxha Effendi (Saad-ed-din). According to his report, Władysław III, accompanied by a small troop, recklessly carried out a raid to kill the Padishah in charge of the Turkish forces and became separated from his army. A Turkish Janissary, Kodja Hazar, killed his horse and cut off the King’s head. The small group of knights under the king’s leadership were also wiped out. The Shah was to greet the news of victory with a joyful exclamation “Praise the God for victory” and had Władysław’s head speared on a pike to weaken the enemy’s morale and discourage them from prolonging the war. The head was then sent to Bursa, allegedly in a pot of honey to protect it against decay, and exhibited to the public.
The tragic circumstances in which the King of Poland died (regardless of whether he was the ‘last crusader’ and martyr for the faith, or a young and irresponsible ruler whose enthusiasm led to a severe defeat of his own army, as was fiercely debated in the 20th century), resulted in the fact that he did not have a tomb to commemorate him erected in the royal necropolis on Wawel Hill. Such an initiative was not undertaken until the early 20th century on the rising wave of interest in the history of Poland, almost at the dawn of regained independence. As early as in c. 1875, a custom was started to offer masses for the souls of past rulers in St. Leonard’s crypt under the western part of Wawel Cathedral. Memorial services for Władysław III were obviously celebrated on the 11th of November, on the anniversary of the battle of Varna, based on a mass fund established by Roman and Pelagia Sanguszko. During a major renovation of Wawel Cathedral executed in the years 1895-1910 by two architects, Sławomir Odrzywolski and Zygmunt Hendel, a number of actions was undertaken to put some order to local ‘historical memory’. Apart from the construction of a new canopy over Władysław Łokietek’s tomb, an idea was put forward to build sarcophagi for Władysław Jagiełło’s wives – Jadwiga, Anna of Cilli, and Sophia (Sonka) of Halshany, as well as for Kazimierz IV Jagiellończyk’s only wife – Elizabeth of Austria. Unfortunately, only the first project was executed thanks to a contribution from a great enthusiast of art and patron of culture, Karol Lanckoroński. In 1902 he ordered from a Polish sculptor based in Rome, Antoni Madeyski, a splendid sarcophagus for Queen Jadwiga, which was to be placed in the first arcade from the east of the cathedral’s nave that is opposite Władysław Jagiełło’s tomb. It should be noted here that the gravestone of the Jagiellonian dynasty’s progenitor was moved to the Świętokrzyska chapel in 1753, and was only restored to its original location by Stanisław Odrzywolski during the said restoration. The wish to place the sarcophagi of Jagiełło and his first wife opposite each other was surely based on historical reasons, but an increasing interest in Jadwiga d’Anjou’s cult also played an important role in the process. The sarcophagus of the saint-to-be was eventually situated in the first arcade from the west in the southern wing of the ambulatory, while a statue of Władysław Jagiełło’s firstborn son was placed in the location originally intended for the Queen’s tomb. The figure was ordered from Antoni Madeyski in 1903 (the agreement was signed by the then Kraków ordinary, Cardinal Jan Puzyna) and placed there in 1906.
The gravestone of Władysław III of Varna is shaped as a tomb, with the figure of the ruler dressed in full armour on the top slab. The giasant has a youthful face with idealised features and holds a bare sword against his chest – ‘Szczerbiec’ – which serves the purpose of styling the King as an ideal Christian knight. The introduction of a particular object known to all Poles, in this case the coronation sword of polish kings, into the composition had been adopted a number of times in the culture of the 19th century, especially in Jan Matejko’s paintings. It served the purpose of making past events and figures more probable by linking them to particular items or works of art that were considered national relics. Such combinations were not always justified from a historical perspective, but they were used consciously, according to the rules of philosophy of history, which in the distant past allowed for an insight into God’s plans and some general principles governing the history of the country divided by the three partitioning powers. This is the case as regards Władysław III’s gravestone, because ‘Szczerbiec’ is a ceremonial sword dating back to the mid. 13th century, used to perform rituals of justice and never used in actual battle. In 1320 it was used during the coronation of Władysław I Łokietek and, in the so-called Kronika Wielkopolskia [Chronicle of the Wielkopolska Province], it was linked to Bolesław Chrobry, who was to receive the sword from an angel and hit it against the Golden gate in Kiev during his excursion to Rus. Thus, Władysław III does not hold an ordinary sword but an artefact associated with a number of symbolic meanings, insignia of royal power and the only Polish regalium that survived the partitions.
The King’s historical mission is also referred to in the heraldic composition on the sides of the tomb – multiple coats of arts of the two kingdoms of Poland and Hungary, and a short inscription in gothic letter type engraved along the edge of the slab. It strongly emphasises that the King of Poland and Hungary met an honourable death in a terrible battle in which he defeated Christianity:

Laduslaus III poloniae et hungariae Rex nat[us] a[nno] D[omi]ni mccccxiv / pro christiana inclytam / ad warnam pugnam acriter pugnans mortem gloriosam p[er]petuit an[n]o Domini mccccxliv.

The structure of the gravestone, which is covered with a free-standing canopy, clearly refers to the local medieval tradition of the commemoration of kings. However, the way Władysław III is depicted as a ‘man of arms’ is not exhibited in any earlier tomb in Wawel Cathedral. It reflects rather an idealised perception of the Middle Ages and Poland’s past at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. The tomb also lacks images of mourners so typical of the Wawel necropolis. However, a number of detailed solutions refers to local Krakow works of art from the 15th century. The most obvious example consists in the ‘hatching’ motif repeated at the top of each column supporting the canopy. Geometric decoration covering the pillars’ shafts and creating zigzagging grooves was commonly used in Romanesque art, and its use in Poland is exemplified by the portal from Ołbin abbey in Wrocław re-set in the southern elevation of St. Mary Magdalene Church in Wrocław. Such geometrical decoration of shafts may be also found in numerous late gothic buildings in which a sort of ‘neo-Romanesque’ phenomenon occurs. Examples can be found in some buildings in Cologne-upon-Rhine, such as the famous Gürzenich Haus (1444) and its emulations, for example the house am Hof (also known as Das Haus Saaleck). Small polygonal towers that accentuate the corners of these fine buildings are supported on columns, whose shafts are carved in overlapping diagonal crystal-like patterns. The said motif occurred for the first time in the Małopolska region at Dębno castle, the seat of the Kraków Castellan, Jakub of Dębno (c. 1470-1480, pillars between the windows in the southern and northern bay). A very similar detail to the one found in Dębno adorned the clergy house by All Saints Church in Kraków as evidenced by the window frame set in the external elevation of Jagiellonian University’s Collegium Maius. This type of detail became extremely popular in the architecture of the early 20th century in Kraków, exemplified, amongst others, by the window frame in the middle bay of the Cloth Hall (architect Tomasz Pryliński 1875-1879, the so-called Suski House at Plac Dominikański (architect Władysław Ekielski, 1906-1909, Collegium Physicum UJ (Gabriel Niewiadomski, 1908-1911). To sum up this thread, it is worth emphasising that Neo-Gothic forms appeared as an exception in Antoni Madeyski’s works, because the artist usually referred, with all due belief and consistency, to ancient and Renaissance art only. Neo-Gothic forms in Władysław III’s gravestone adopted by such a persistent classicist clearly refer to the Wawel’s medieval royal tombs. Geometrical ornamentation on columns of Kraków origin was used here in order to give a local character to this essentially international monument.
Madeyski’s Wawel tombstones met with a very warm reception and wide recognition, first and foremost in Kraków. As soon as in 1913, Archbishop Adam Stefan Sapieha began a collection of funds for the statue of his predecessor, Cardinal Jan Puzyna, and the cathedral chapter donated 2000 crowns for that cause. Although the project has never been executed, a photograph of the model prepared by Madeyski in Rome has been preserved. The Cardinal was depicted as a kneeling man immersed in prayer; his prie-dieu features a coat of arms, bishop’s insignia, and an inscription. Among the examples of inspiration from the Wawel tombs, there is Konstanty Laszczka’s design of a sarcophagus for the Bishop of Krakow, Iwo Odrowąż (1218-1229), which was to be erected on his burial site in the chancel of the Holy Trinity Dominican church in Kraków. A model with a signature K. Laszczka 14 IX 1915 on the side of the base has been preserved in the monastery. Apart from general compositional premises, a clear allusion to Jadwiga’s tomb sculpted by Madeyski can be identified in a dog lying under Odrowąż’s feet, which, in this case refers to a commonly known nickname of the order – Domini canes (the Lord’s dogs).

– Corpus inscriptionum Poloniae, vol. VII: województwo krakowskie, ed. Z. Perzanowski, issue 1: Katedra krakowska na Wawelu, publication, introduction and annotation by A. Perzanowska, ed. R. Zawadzki, Kraków 2002, cat. II 157, p. 348
¬ – K. J. Czyżewski, M. Walczak, Uwagi o późnogotyckim detalu architektonicznym zamku w Dębnie koło Wojnicza, [in:] Zamek i dwór w Średniowieczu od XI do XV wieku. Materials for the 19th Medieval Studies Seminar in Poznań, October 1998, ed. J. Wiesiołowski, Poznań 2001, pp. 39-42
– M. Rożek, Wawel i Skałka panteony polskie, Kraków 1995


NR Inwentarzowy
Antoni Madeyski
długość: 356 cm
szerokość: 215 cm
wysokość: 360 cm
Typ obiektu
Czerwony marmur, brąz
Data pozyskania
Miejsce powstania
Miejsce przechowywania
Królewska Katedra na Wawelu
Właściciel praw
Królewska Katedra na Wawelu
Antoni Madeyski
Rzeźba, kamień, metal

We are all well aware that to enter this Cathedral can not be without emotion. More I say, you can not enter it without the internal tremor, without fear because it contains in it - as in almost no Cathedral of the world - the enormous size, which speaks to us in all our history, our entire past.

cardinal Karol Wojtyla
8 March 1964