The tomb of King Władysław I Łokietek

The tomb of King Władysław I Łokietek of Poland (1320-1333)
Pińczów limestone, c. 1333
Kraków, Wawel Cathedral

In 1320, the Duke of Kujawy, Łęczyca, and Sieradz, Władysław I, called Łokietek [the Elbow-high or the Short] (b. 1260/61, d. 1333), was crowned King of Poland, an event which closed the age of the provincial division of the country that had lasted continuously since 1138. A combination of circumstances, of which the claims of the Czech King, John of Bohemia (1296-1346) were the most significant, resulted in the fact of Łokietek’s coronation taking place (against a long established tradition started by Bolesław Chrobry [the Brave] in 1025) in the capital of Małopolska, Kraków, and not in Gniezno, the capital of Wielkopolska. Łokietek’s coronation act put an end to Czech succession plans and serious attempts from John of Bohemia to gain Polish crown. The decision to move the location of the inaugural ceremony of the royal reign changed the status of Krakow’s St. Wacław and Stanisław’s cathedral and some propaganda activity – which would, in the language of fine arts, praise the glory of the reborn kingdom and elevate the coronation cathedral to the status of royal church – became necessary. Most probably, soon after 1320, a decision to locate a royal necropolis in the cathedral was made and immediately upon the king’s death in 1333, a stone gravestone was erected over his grave, which is a milestone piece of art for the history of gothic sculpture in Małopolska.
A chronicler contemporary to Kazimierz the Great, the author of the so-called Kronika katedralna krakowska [Kraków Cathedral Chronicle], a portion of which was included in Kroniki [Chronicles] by Jan of Czarnków, mentions that Władysław Łokietek was buried “in Kraków cathedral, to the left of the chancel, opposite the main altar”. The King’s body was placed under the floor, in the first arcade from the left in the northern half of the ambulatory. The tomb was visible and accessible both to the praying canons (from the chancel) and to the congregation (from the ambulatory). Such a location refers to the French tradition, the first example of which was the necropolis of Louis IX’s family in a defunct royal Cistercian abbey in Royaumont. London’s Westminster Abbey is an even more significant example – a vast Plantagenet necropolis, in which, during a construction campaigned initiated by king Henry III (d. 1272), tombs began to be erected between the chancel pillars, around the reliquary of England’s most important patron – St. Edward the Confessor.
The circumstances in which Władysław I Łokietek’s gravestone was founded remain unknown. The artistic form of the tomb was mentioned for the first time as late as in Roczniki sławnego Królestwa Polskiego [Annals of the Famous Kingdom of Poland] by Jan Długosz (1415-1480): his body is buried in the cathedral church by the main altar, to the left, in a tomb of white marble adorned with sculptures and a canopy, in front of St. Władysław’s altar, which he, in his lifetime, ordered to be built and furnished. St. Władysław’s altar mentioned here was actually founded by Łokietek’s son – Kazimierz the Great – most likely soon after 1333. This is proven by a royal document dated in 1367 which mentions the spending on: St. Władysław’s altar in the cathedral’s ambulatory opposite the sacristy entrance, which we had erected and furnished. Długosz, in his Księga uposażeń Diecezji Krakowskiej [The Book of Spending for the Krakow Diocese], linked this statement to the foundation. He wrote: The altar of St. Władysław, king and man of faith, has no separate chapel in the Kraków cathedral church, but is situated next to the chancel, opposite the sacristy, by the altar of King Władysław Łokietek, the first ruler of the reborn kingdom. The said altar was founded by Kazimierz II, King of Poland and the only son and immediate successor of the said Władysław, for the salvation and eternal commemoration of the said father, in the Year of Our Lord 1367. The altar, along with the adjacent tomb, were mentioned in subsequent inspection reports of the cathedral, including Wizytacja [Inspection] by Andrzej Trzebicki (1670-1672), in which Łokietek’s tombstone was mistaken for Jadwiga d’Anjou’s grave. We learn from this document that the figure on the tomb of white stone was so severely damaged already that it was impossible to recognise the face. After Trzebicki’s death (in 1679), St. Władysław’s altar was moved to the St. Catharine’s chapel next to the cathedral and a massive stone buttress was erected in the ambulatory to support a bishop’s heavy tombstone hung on a pillar. The figure of the king on the tomb was ‘repaired’, most likely at that time by re-sculpturing and intuitional recovering of the erased details. In 1761, the tomb underwent another repair, proven by a payment of three florins made out to a stonemason: for cutting the stone at the bottom under king Łokietek and making a groove from the top. Similar works were carried out in August of 1838, when the cathedral chapter ordered the removal of benches adjacent to the tomb which revealed a damaged base that had to be repaired. According to an account from Ambroży Grabowski, as soon as an opening was cut out so that a piece of new stone could be inserted: a narrow gap opened under this tomb […] and when a thin candle wrapped around a bar was slipped into that gap […] a spacious grave sunk in the vaults of the cathedral church was visible and a body placed in it … . It is situated under King Władysław Łokietek’s gravestone as if a chest under a chest […] Inside, a person of small height is buried […] It is extraordinary that the body has no coffin inside this stone chest and it is unknown to whom these mortal remnants belong…. Several years later, bishop Ludwik Łętowski noted that while a moulding was being replaced, the inside of the tomb was inspected where a royal person was found inside a stone chest. The works in 1838 involved some more thorough restoration of the gravestone and included re-sculpting the king’s statue by Paolo Filippi.
Władysław I Łokietek’s gravestone consists of a cuboid tomb in which the king’s body is buried (Fr. gisant), not sunk into the top board, unnaturally straight and stiff, as if it was standing on the corbel that supports the feet. The features of the head lying on a cushion are slightly swollen, with a walrus moustache. The ruler is dressed in a loose cloak, he wears a crown on his head and holds, in his right hand, the stone handle of a sceptre with a hole at the top, which proves that the insignia was made in at least two parts joined together with a metal bolt. It was, most likely, a sceptrum-type one with a very long handle which got destroyed over the course of time. By the king’s side there is a weapon with a double-edged blade, described by specialist sources as a ‘type of falchion’, while by his right side there is a slightly deformed dagger similar to the balisard type. However, the condition of the weaponry shows that their contemporary shape results from reforging and the king was most likely buried with a sword by his side. The bottom part of the extended corbel under the king’s feet was adorned with an openwork head with a crown of leaves, probably of eschatological meaning (constant rebirth of life, indestructible vital force). The idea originates from French art, e.g. the tombs of Louis of Évreux, Blanche of Castile – the mother of Louis IX (c. 1260) in Saint-Denis Abbey near Paris and Isabeau du Créus in Saint-Gervais church in Pompoint (Oise). The Kraków tomb is contemporary to the tomb of Joan II of Navarre, Countess of Evreux and Queen of Navarre (d. 1349) in Saint-Denis abbey, where the motif of a leaved-head occurs several times on the canopy supports.
The tombs walls were sectioned by lancet arch arcades in which figures of clergymen (western and eastern side), laymen (southern side), and laywomen (northern side) were sculpted. They create the so-called Cortège funèbre, i.e. a group depiction of court members participating in the king’s funeral procession. This solution is of French origin (e.g. the tomb of Louis of France, the son of Louis IX, who died in 1260 in Royamont abbey). However, unlike in the Western examples, the Krakow mourners are differentiated in a very clear and distinct way which may be linked to their social status. A number of conventional gestures signifying sadness and despair, such as supporting their cheek on their hand, pulling their hair out, tearing their robe across the chest, clinging one hand to the wrist of the other, are depicted here. The closest example (in terms of geography) of such gestures occurred in the tomb of Blanche of France (d. 1305) erected later in the Franciscan church in Vienna which has not been preserved, and in some portrayals of the Doom’s Day (e.g. images of the damned from the portal of St. Marys church in Mainz, also non-existent today). The literary tradition was also crucial, especially the description of the royal funeral in Kronika Polski [Chronicle of Poland] by Wincenty Kadłubek (c. 1190-1205), in which the behaviour of the mourners was differentiated into beating their breast, clapping their hands, pulling their hair, scratching their face, wild crying, and both sincere and insincere lament. Whereas in the older Kronika [Chronicle] by Gallus Anonymous (c. 1112-1116), the image of Poland crying after the loss of King Bolesław Chrobry was presented. In a rhymed Pieśń o śmierci Bolesława [Song of Bolesław’s Death], enclosed to that historiographic work, all states and social groups mourning the king are described. The same author, in his description of the tragic death of the young Mieszko, Bolesław Śmiały’s [the Brave] only son, noted that: all of Poland mourned for him like a mother mourns for her son’s death – her only child. And not only those to whom he was known were plunged in despair, but also those who had never seen him walked behind his bier crying. Peasants abandoned their ploughs, shepherds their herds, craftsmen their duties, workers put their chores away for pain over the death of Mieszko. And boys and girls, even servants and maids, honoured the funeral with tears and weeping.
A very important element of iconography of Władysław I Łokietek’s tomb consists of the canopy, whose remnants were discovered at the turn of the 19th and 20th century by a Kraków-based architect, Sławomir Odrzywolski, during extensive restoration works within he cathedral. Odrzywolski found fragments of two full-stone stone pillars and the remains of two other supports of the gothic canopy in between them. Taking these elements as a model, a new structure was erected, whose height as well as spacing and profile of supports repeat the essential characteristics of the original one. The canopy is comprised of eight tall pillars placed directly on the floor, joined together with arcades at the top; the tomb was covered with a coved vault, most likely consisting of three spans separated by transfer ribs. Nothing can be stated on the construction or decoration of the canopy’s upper part, but sculptures and mostly rich architectural decoration and ornamentation (tracery, wimpergs, pinnacles, crockets etc.) seem probable.
Canopies occur in sepulchral sculpture of the 14th century between Avignon and Kraków and mark burial sites or especially important persons – saints, popes, and rulers. The idea to cover graves with extended architectural structures originates from altar ciborium and their main function was to protect and decorate the burial sites. Amongst the three types of canopies – free-standing, adjacent to the base, and supported on the tomb – the first one is the oldest. Canopy supports were placed on the church floor and were not fixed to either the tomb or the slab underneath. The oldest examples of such a solution include the tombs build for Sicilian rulers in the Palermo and Monreale cathedrals as early as in the 12th century. The next stage on the evolution of these structures consisted in their adoption and rapid popularisation in the French art of the 13th century. Among the first ones is the tomb of Philip Dagobert (died in 1235 in the Royaumont Cistercian abbey. Papal canopy tombs represent the largest group, the earliest amongst which is the structure over John XXII’s grave (d. 1334) in the Nôtre-Dame church in Avignon and the d’Anjou’s tombs in Napoli (c. 1323-1337). The most exceptional one in England is that of Archbishop Walter de Gray’s (c. 1255) tomb in York cathedral, where a three-span canopy is placed on a low tomb base and column bases are integrated with the slab. The canopy has the shape of a huge cube, sectioned with arcades supported on columns and topped with wimpergs decorated with massive finials. The canopies over the tombs of Bishop Giles de Bridport in Salisbury (d. 1262) and Peter of Aigueblanche (d. 1268) in Hereford cathedral also have rich forms.
Władysław I Łokietek’s tomb was sculpted by highly-skilled stonemasons who made keystones in the chancel vault of the Kraków cathedral (before 1346). They were familiar with the art of Lower Rhineland and Hesse, especially works of the workshop that made the choir stalls (1308-1311) and main altar in Cologne cathedral. The tombs of landgrave Henry I and his son Henry Younger in St. Elizabeth’s church in Marburg, and especially the sculptures on the sides of these structures – harmonious figures of sad ladies in veils, as well as Gottfried’s von Bergheim’s tomb in Münstereifel, could have been adopted as models for the sculptures on the Kraków tomb. Some wooden sculptures from Cologne, made before 1330, also might potentially have served as models.
Łokietek’s tomb was sculpted in indigenous limestone mined near Pińczów in the Małopolska region and has probably never been polychromed. This rarely-used solution may also be traced back to Lower Rhineland, where in c. 1300 a tendency to expose the ‘truth’ and the material’s natural beauty (Ger. Matierialsichtigkeit) began.

– M. Walczak, Rzeźba architektoniczna w Małopolsce za czasów Kazimierza Wielkiego, Kraków 2006 (Ars vetus et nova, vol. 20, ed. W. Bałus)
– The Tomb of King Ladislas the Short (1320-1333) and the Beginnings of the Royal Necropolis in Cracow Cathedral, [in:] Epigraphica et Sepulcralia, ed. J. Roháček, vol. 2, Praha 2009, pp. 359-385
– M. Walczak, Topografia nekropolii królewskiej na Wawelu w średniowieczu, [in:] Procesy przemian w sztuce średniowiecznej. Materials from Conference of Art Historians Association in Wrocław on 21–22 November 2013, ed. R. Eysymont, R. Kaczmarek, Warszawa 2014, pp. 147-161


NR Inwentarzowy
ok. 1333
długość: 218.5 cm
szerokość: 384.0 cm
wysokość: 581.5 cm
Typ obiektu
wapień pińczowski
Data pozyskania
ok. 1333
Miejsce powstania
Miejsce przechowywania
Królewska Katedra na Wawelu
Właściciel praw
Królewska Katedra na Wawelu
Rzeźba, kamień

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