Alms pouch (coin pouch)
Line, silk, silk and gold thread, embroidery
15.5 x 14.5 cm
France, c. 1340 (?)
Krakow, the Wawel Cathedral treasury
A small pouch made of a long piece of fabric sewn in half, reinforced on the sides with a silk tape, with a binding in the top part and a hole for a string used to tighten and loosen the pouch. At the bottom, there are decorative elements (tassels) consisting of gold circles made of thread and long single tassels. The whole pouch is embroidered with split stitch, long and short stitch and fishbone stitch. On one side, there are four human figures among thin trees with palmate leaves resembling oak leaves. A young man grabs hair and hood of an older man. A young man behind his back accompanies him. The older man is running away with his arms extended in front of him. Above, another old man is leaning out of the tree crown, visible only from his shoulder upwards. On the other side, the same young woman is being led up a hill by the old man. Another old man is following her with an open book in his hands. There is clear distinction between the figures. The girl and the young man are a lady and knight, with their hair styled, dressed in elegant clothing, moving with sophisticated courtly elegance. She is wearing a sumptuous dress, too big in size, so that she has to hold it on her stomach to be able to walk without falling flat. He is wearing a short tunic with a belt and a sword and tights-boots. The old men have long hair and dense beards, they are wearing sweeping robes with hoods on their heads, they are also barefoot. The colour design of the embroidery, although most certainly faded, is still quite bright and vivid. The background was originally gold, so was the knight’s robe, while the composition is dominated by vivid greens, yellows, and ochres with pink, red, and blue accents. The decorative globes of thread were originally gold, while the tassels were red.
Church treasuries often include moneybag reliquaries called burse. It may be assumed that the said pouch is actually a reliquary mentioned in Inwentarz katedry krakowskiej [Inventory of Krakow Cathedral] of 1563, in the Chapel of Our Lady, as kalietka cum reliquis. There is no doubt however that it originally served as an alms pouch, that is a moneybag worn with a belt, used for safekeeping coins. It must have belonged to a wealthy person with a high position in social hierarchy, because the craftsmanship is of very high quality and the pouch is richly decorated in the figurative style. Although interpretation of the scenes on the alms pouch is not certain, it is most likely they depict episodes from the story of Tristan and Iseult. The tale of unhappy love of brave Tristan to beautiful Iseult, the wife of king Mark of Cornwall, was written down for the first time in the 12 century and has been reappearing since then in many countries and language versions. Scenes embroidered on the pouch, enrooted in the Arthurian tradition, depict the clash of a sophisticated world of courtly ways (young and beautiful lovers) with wild forces of nature (the old men). There are only several alms pouches with similar decorations preserved until now. The Krakow example is closest to two pouches from the 14th century XIV, one of which is stored in the cathedral treasury in Sens (inventory no C.106), the other in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg (inventory no 1956.137/St.21).
Due to the place of manufacture and relation to court culture, the alms pouch bears resemblance to another Wawel artefact, that is to an ivory chest decorated with a selection of scenes from chanson de geste. Both items might have found their way to Krakow thanks to queen Jadwiga. Family connections of the Hungarian d’Anjou court with the French dynasty speak for this hypothesis. Presence of luxurious French goods at Jadwiga’s court is highly probable, because written sources confirm her interest in art. Various traditions and sources of influence met at courts, thus, for example, exclusive fabrics made probably in Egypt and Spain were found in Jadwiga’s tomb Most of her known foundations were of religious character, because the queen was renown for passionate piety in the sense of devotio moderna. The fact that she cared for the Wawel cathedral’s equipment is proved by the rationale of Krakow bishops (an element of liturgical clothing that emphasises a special status of the Krakow diocese in the Church hierarchy), which is whole embroidered with pearls, and scyfus (Dresden, Grünes Gewölbe) – a representative cup (originally for layman use) with an inscription dedicated to St Wenceslaus. Jadwiga’s religious needs and high culture are also expressed in the Psałterz Floriański [St Florian Psalter] (Krakow, Jagiellonian Library), which was made on her request, richly illuminated, Including Latin version of the psalms along with their translations into Polish and German. The queen also possessed one of the oldest preserved manuscripts of the Visions of St Bridget of Sweden, decorated with miniatures and ornamental initials, made in Naples (Warsaw, National Library). The most interesting works of art in Central Europe include a huge wooden mystic-type crucifix (with exposed and even exaggerated traces of suffering, originally covered in realistic polychrome), preserved in Krakow cathedral. It was most likely imported from Italy. Queen Jadwiga played an important role in bringing Slavic Benedictines (who celebrated liturgy in the Slavic language) from Prague to Krakow. She founded the Holy Cross church (not preserved until present times) for them. She also supported the Carmelites, for whom she founded – together with Jagiełło – huge churches in Krakow and Poznan (in the latter one, a beautiful stone console with a carved Anjou coat of arms was preserved). Numerous works of craft mentioned in written sources were related to her court. It is known, for example, that a new crown was made for her coronation because the royal insignia founded for the coronation of Władysław the Elbow-high were taken to Hungary by king Louis the Great and were returned to Krakow only as a result of Władysław Jagiełło’s efforts in 1412.
Although the pouch was exhibited in two exhibitions in Krakow in 1883 and 1884, it had not been known to researchers and it had not been discussed in specialised sources. It was not even mentioned in catalogues, including the basic Katalog zabytków sztuki w Polsce [Catalogue of Monuments of Art in Poland]. It was described for the first time in 1991 in a monograph on medieval textiles written by German researcher in this field, Leonie von Wilckens. However, even such an event did not encourage Polish researchers to study this unusual work of art. As late as in 2000, a comprehensive catalogue entry was devoted to the pouch by Magdalena Piwocka, however, we still lack a thorough monograph study on this subject.
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