Ivory casket decorated with scenes from chanson de geste
Paris, 2nd Q. of the 14th c.
Ivory, silver, gilding, champlevé, engraving
26 x 14. x 8.5 cm
Krakow, the Wawel Cathedral treasury
The casket is cubical in shape and consist of six rectangular ivory plates bound together with metal nails and fittings. The top plate is fitted with hinges and serves as the lid. The front side is fitted with a rectangular lock decorated with an image of a tower and two persons: a woman with a large key in her hand and a man on his knees with his hands joined together. On the lid, there is a metal handle engraved in a diagonal checked pattern filled with simplified flowers. On the side plates, there are twelve figural scenes from medieval chance de geste, while on the lid, there are three court scenes. Narration in all of these images follows from the left to the right. The front side features the following images: Conversation of Alexander the Great with Aristotle, Phyllis and Aristotle, Thisbe and lion, Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, while the back side features: Lancelot fighting a lion, Lancelot crossing the Sword Bridge, Gauvain on the Dangerous Bed and Damsels freed by Gauvain. The left side features: Tristan and Iseult’s Meeting in the Garden, the Hunt of the Unicorn, while the right side features: Enyas’ fight with a savage and Old Porter Welcomes Galahad. The lead features a Knight Tournament in the centre, flanked by two scenes which together depict the motif of Siege of the Castle of Love.
In the inventory of the Wawel cathedral of 1563, the casket was recorded as a storage box for relic of various saints which needs to be repaired, carried on a portable altar during processions on the so called cross days (three days prior to Ascension). It was then placed inside a bigger casket – a reliquary. It was hidden aside, in Krakow cathedral, along with two other reliquaries, in unknown circumstances, most likely after the year 1620. It was found by coincidence during an inspection carried out by Krakow bishop Albin Dunajewski on March 18th, 1881. It was then placed in the main closet of the cathedral treasury, which was rearranged thanks to father Ignacy Polkowski, who was appointed as junior curate of the cathedral in 1877. This new closet, designed by Polkowski, inspired by the architecture of the Sigismund’s chapel, enabled exposition of the most valuable objects from the treasury to interested visitors. It must be mentioned, that it was the first and the only church treasury in Poland at that time, made available for „tourist” purposes – on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 10.00 a.m. in groups of at least twelve people. Thanks to Polkowski, who also compiled a catalogue, surprisingly modern for that times, of the Wawel treasury, the casket became known outside Poland as well. In 1986, it was restored in Krakow-based studio of Wojciech Bochnak, it was also lent for a number of exhibitions in Poland and abroad.
The history of studies on the Wawel casket is long and complex. It was introduced in academic literature by father Ignacy Polkowski, as an Italian piece from the 13th century decorated with scenes from a poem by Ekkehart I of St. Gall, Waltherius manu fortis, known in Polish language version delivered by a Poznań bishop Bogufał (died in 1253). Jan Bołoz-Antoniewicz, a philologist and art historian employed at the Lvov University, in 1885 published a model and still up-to-date monograph on the literary sources of the scenes depicted on the casket. He identified correctly most of the scenes and described the piece as a French craft from the 14th century. It must be emphasised that this was a breakthrough work for the development of art history in Poland and showed a huge potential of modern approach to research on the content of works of art. Apart from that, the study made this work of art famous internationally; the monument has been well-known and discussed in works by the most important experts on court art of the 14th century and ivory sculpture. Findings of Bołoz-Antoniewicz were complemented in the 20th century by a number of researchers, mostly French and German, and recently, by a Polish art historian, Agnieszka Łaguna. Findings of Raymond Koechlin were decisive for the stylistic studies of the casket. He identified the piece as made in Paris in the first half of the 14th century and included in the so called group of complex caskets – with a compilation of images drawn from various literary works. A French art historian of Polish origin, Louis Grodecki, dated the monument more precisely to the second quarter of the 14th century, while Danielle Gaborit-Chopin connected the casket to a Paris-based workshop called Atelier of diptych with arch frieze in Louvre, which operated in the 2nd half of the 14th century.
The Krakow casket is one of seven so called complex caskets, which can be found in world’s most important collections of medieval art: Walters Art Galery in Baltimore, British Museum in London, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence. It is the only one, however, with a beautifully decorated lock preserved in an excellent condition. Due to the structure and composition, it is the closest to the Florence casket, while the style resembles the one of diptych with scenes from the Passion of Christ and the Life of Mary in Louvre and diptych with Adoration of the Magi and Cruxiciction in Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which is connected to the so called atelier of diptych with arch frieze in Louvre.
The Krakow piece is one of the most interesting works of art preserved to-date depicting scenes from medieval chanson de geste. Similar caskets with decorations praising the notion of court love usually belonged to troosseau or were offered as jewel boxes to fiancées after engagement. The most exposed part of the casket – the lid – is decorated with a scene of knights jousting, which was the essence of medieval feudal culture. In the middle, a fight of two knights was depicted in a way typical for iconography related to such celebrations. The knights meet by the podium where young ladies and ladies-in-waiting sit and their favour is undoubtedly the desired prize. The most characteristic element of a tournament armour is a great helm, which became popular in the 1st half of the 13th century and were slowly becoming outdated throughout the next century. When they lost value in battle, there were transformed into elements of a tournament armour and full dress. The most often used great helms, whose bottom ridge rested upon a knight’s shoulders, had to be pierced in the front area for ventilation. Helmets from the 14th century are characteristic for expressive design with a number of broken lines. Also crests decorating tournament helmets were an important element and served to demonstrate the grandeur and high social position of the knights. In court of art of the 13th century, images of armoured men were quite popular. They depicted elements of armour in great detail; thorough knowledge of this field was an important part of “education” in that age. The same scope of court events, but of a more erotic character this time, is represented by the image of the Sieg of the Castle of Love, which was a courtly game consisting in throwing flowers at ladies and capturing a „castle” they were defending. These motif is deeply enrooted in the French tradition, yet it might have been very attractive and clearly understood in Central Europe. The tradition of jousting was brought to Hungary by king Charles Robert d’Anjou and it dated back to the coronation of this ruler (c. 1310). The first tournament of which we know was organised on the wedding of Charles Robert with Beatrix of Luxemburg, while the subsequent tournaments accompanied his marriage to Elisabeth, the daughter of Polish king, Władysław the Elbow-high, in early July of 1320, as well as the first convention of Visegrád in 1335. In 1326, the first knight order in Hungary was established. St George was adopted as its saint patron.
Sides of the casket are decorated with scenes from the most popular chanson de geste, which had been created by travelling poets and singers – troubadours. Some of them settled in courts with time and achieved high status, while their songs were written down and repeated and enjoyed great popularity across the whole Christian world. They gave the most popular stories, e.g of Arthur and the knights of the round table, a sophisticated literary form. This is the source of the „career” of such knights as Gawain, Galahad, and Lancelot of the Lake, Arthur’s companions, who were considered as perfect knights for many centuries. Troubadours often drew their inspiration from ancient times in order to add authority to their stories and make them more universal. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe depicted on the casket originates from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Young lovers from two feuding families met a horrible fate. Due to a misunderstanding, Pyramus believed that Thisbe was devoured by a lion and committed a suicide. The miserable girl followed him soon to the grave. Among these stories, especially popular was the one of Aristotle, the greatest philosopher of the ancient times, and his humiliation by beautiful Phyllis, a mistress of Alexander the Great. When Aristotle tried to persuade Alexander to give up his passionate affair to return to science and warfare training, Phyllis lured the philosopher, with promises known to her alone, to let her ride him around the castle, which entertained the whole court greatly. This story appeared both in collections of exempla – moral stories used by preachers (in Jacques de Vitry’s works for the first time) and in lay literature as a warning against the power of female charm which leads even the wisest and virtuous men to the sin of unchastity. This theme was very popular in the art of the 14th century, including monumental sculpture and architecture. It was used in decoration of, for example, French cathedrals in Rouen – in the transept portal (Portail de la Calende, c. 1300) and Lyon – (façade, c 1310), town hall in Cologne (c. 1360), and on the stalls in the Cologne cathedral (1311). In Krakow, it was presented in 1360s, on one of the southern consoles in the chancel of St Mary’s Basilica at the Main Market Square.
The scene of the Hunt of the Unicorn is especially important in regard to the choice of scenes for the casket. It was believed in the Middle Ages that elephant’s tusks came from the biblical land of Sheba and were mistakenly considered (just like narwhal’s tusks) for the „corns” of unicorns. These mythical creatures had been perceived as symbols of purity (they allegedly preferred to died than stain their spotless white fur with dirt) since late ancient ages. Therefore, a belief that only a virgin was able to capture a timid unicorn was firmly established, which was reflected in numerous pieces of art. Therefore, this animal was associated symbolically with Virgin Mary. The hunt was executed in such a way that a unicorn was driven towards the maiden and when it sensed her presence, it would approach her voluntarily and rest its head on her womb. In reality, ivory was imported to Europe from Africa through harbours in Ethiopia, Alexandria, Acre, or Famagusta.
When the casket was found in 1881, a legendary connection of this item to queen Jadwiga d’Anjou was formed and express in art, for example in the series of pastel drawings Skarbiec katedry wawelskiej [Treasury of the Wawel cathedral] by Leon Wyczółkowski, 1907 (Warsaw, National Museum, inventory no 180841, 180842). It is not, however, supported by any written documents, just like it is in the case of an ivory diptych from the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow. It must be kept in mind that the casket was found at a very particular time. Krakow diocese had no leader for several decades, because after the death of bishop Karol Skórkowski, who was banished for supporting the November Uprising openly, no successor was appointed. An ingres of a new ordinary, Albin Dunajewski, took place as late as on June 8th, 1879, and was perceived as a symbolic rebirth of the „ancient” Krakow diocese. On the patriotic wave, efforts for beatification of queen Jadwiga were doubled and all monuments of Poland’s part and grandeur became memorabilia deer to all Poles under the three partitions. The idea of connecting significant monuments and works of art with famous figures from Polish history was at its height then.
French family connections of the Hungarian branch of the d’Anjou dynasty might speak for the hypothesis that the casket was connected to queen Jadwiga. Presence of luxurious French goods at Jadwiga’s court is highly probable, because written sources confirm her interest in art. 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 in 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 Jagiello – huge churches in Krakow and Poznań (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.
The Wawel casket is a typical example of works of art imported in the Middle Ages because of their high artistic value. Valuable items were assigned a secondary function of reliquaries, regardless of the decorations, whose themes were drawn from sources other than religious art. For example, an Arabic ivory casket from the 11th century, preserved in Burgos (Museo arqueologico provincial), was turned into a reliquary in the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos. Another great example of such practice is related to a casket of silver plate, preserved in the Wawel cathedral treasury, called Saracenic-Sicillian, whose sides are decorated with images of wild animals fighting and knights fighting with wild beasts. It was made in the Middle east or Sicilly, most likely in the 12th century, and after remodelling (lock and hinges were added later, in the 12th/13th century), it started to be used as a reliquary.
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