Tomb of Kazimierz III Wielki

Tomb of Kazimierz III Wielki (1333-1370)
Esztergom red limestone, Pińczów limestone, c. 1370
Kraków, Wawel Cathedral

King Kazimierz III Wielki [Casimir the Great] (1333-1370) was buried opposite his father in the eastern arcade of the southern wing of ambulatory in Wawel Cathedral. Before the king’s death, a tall base with stairs was erected in the eastern span of the chancel, while pillars were joined by a wall topped with a grille which separated this part of the chancel from the ambulatory and turned the arcades in quasi-chapels. The gravestone of Kazimierz III was adjacent to the Feast of the Cross altar founded by the king as early as in 1359. This dedication may be perceived as typical of the cult of instruments of torture and crucifixion widespread in the Middle Ages among royal courts. It had been especially important for the Piast dynasty’s court since 1340, when Kazimierz III during his expedition to Rus [Ruthenia], acquired in Lviv: numerous spoils in silver, gold, and precious stones, taking a treasury of ancient princes, in which there was, among others, a grand gold cross with a large piece of wood from the Holy Cross enclosed inside it.
Kazimierz III’s tombstone was sculpted in red limestone from the Hungarian town of Esztergom, which has been traditionally called ‘marble’. It may be assumed that the type of material was consciously selected, since the colour red had been associated with power and reserved for rulers since the time of the Roman Empire. The king’s tomb was sculpted on three sides only. On the top slab, there is a gisant supporting his legs on a lion, which most often symbolised valour in medieval times and was frequently used to propagate royal virtues. Comparing the ruler to a lion is one of the most recurring topoi of medieval culture. The king was depicted as an old man with long hair and a beard styled in tight curls. Works on this subject mistakenly claim this depiction to be a realistic study of the king’s face. In fact it is an example of a physiognomic type typical of the Middle Ages, which aimed at presenting the ruler as a wise and strict old man modelled after depictions of great ancient sages, Old Testament prophets, apostles, and other venerable figures from the past. The king was portrayed in a leather tunic and a loose cloak, garments which were characteristic of court fashion in the third quarter of the 14th century. Especially of note is the magnificent belt comprising elements shaped as fortified buildings. It may be assumed that it carries an eschatological message via reference to the Heavenly Jerusalem (the city where all the saved reside). This piece of art also reflects the love for realistic costume studies so typical of sepulchral art from the second half of the 14th century onwards.
The tomb’s sides were divided by arcades in which there are images of eight laymen sitting on stools. They face one another and seem to be having an agitated conversation in which body language plays a major role. Placing these figures in the arcades was copied form 12th-century chest reliquaries from the region of the Meuse and lower Rhine, from where the motif was borrowed by sepulchral sculpture. The earliest examples include the tomb of archbishop Hugh of Amiens in the Rouen cathedral, dating back to the end of the 12th century, whose sides are decorated – like Romanic reliquaries – with images of seated apostles. Seated monks engrossed in reading, two of whom are bareheaded and four hooded, were sculpted for the first time on the sides of tomb for the heart of Theobald II of Navarre, count of Champagne, in the Dominican church in Provins (c. 1270). Some of the men depicted on the tomb of Kazimierz Wielki wear fashionable court costumes (mostly the pourpoint type of tight-fitted tunics), which were severely criticised. A French Chronicle by Guillaume de Nangis describes them as ‘so short that they did not cover buttock nor private parts of the body’, while a Czech chronicler, Beneš Krabice z Veitmile, wrote that ‘the chest of a man dressed in pourpoint resembles women’s breasts and the garment makes people similar in appearance to greyhounds’. All the remaining man are tightly wrapped in loose-hooded cloaks trimmed with fur. As they did not take part in a religious ceremony, they cannot be thus considered as traditional mourners. They are, most likely, the high and mighty, well-educated advisors who enjoyed a very high status at Kazimierz’s court.
The tradition of presenting figures in conversation dates back to the art of the late ancient and early medieval times, but it became widespread via illustrations for scientific works in the late Middle Ages. According to the rules of academic disputes, such images often depicted groups of adversaries arguing back and forth. Especially worth noticing are the French city seals from the 13th century (among others from Saint-Omer, Peyrusse-le-Roc, and Maurs), which show members of the city councils eating next to one another and immersed in an animated discussion. Works of art key to the iconographic concept used for Kazimierz’s tomb are the ones in which clerical or lay advisors were depicted as symbolic ‘supports’ of power. A key role was played in this case by an allegory formed by Heinrich von Würzburg’s treatise on the role of electors – De septem Germanie columpnis – which was then represented, among others, on a miniature with seated electors facing one another in the Codex Balduini by Trier’s archbishop, Baldwin of Luxembourg (Koblenz, Landeshauptstaatsarchiv, c. 1320/1340). It may be thus assumed that the Krakow composition depicts the monarchy – the Kingdom of Poland restored under Władysław Łokietek and strengthened under his son and heir. It may be interpreted as corpus rei publicae (the body of the republic), which is comprised of certain ‘limbs’ that ensure its proper operation. Such a thought appeared for the first time in 1195 in John of Salisbury’s work (Policraticus, vol. V, VI), who claimed that subjects form the res publicam on the territory ruled over by a prince, while the prince, as a public authority, should act as the head which maintains the status of the republic, understood as the body. The most outstanding Parisian intellectuals from the circle of Charles V de Valois described royal power as a process of collegial building that aims at forming the structure of an ideal state founded on incorporeal values – knowledge and wisdom. Such a state of affairs was presented on a unique miniature from the mid-14th century in the manuscript of Avis au roys (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, M. 456, fol. 5, il. 20), depicting a naked crowned figure with speech scrolls attached to individual body parts which decode their symbolic meaning. Thus, the king is the head and seneschals, bailiffs, advisors, and judges are his eyes and ears. Advisors and wise men are joined by the function of the heart. Knights, as defenders, are the ruler’s arms, while tradesmen, who are constantly travelling, are his legs. Finally, there are the labourers who work in the fields and support the body and, as such, are linked to the king’s feet.
The canopy over Kazimierz III’s grave was placed directly on the top slab of the tomb, because the aforementioned wall that connected the pillars made a free-standing structure impossible to be erected. The source of such a solution can be traced back to a tomb–reliquary of St. Augustine in San Pietro Ciel d’Oro in Pavia (1362), which served as inspiration for canopies over the graves of St. Coloman in the Benedictine abbey in Melk and Archduke Rudolph IV and his wife’s in St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna. For Poles, the role of an important ideological model could have been played by the grave of the only canonized member of the Piast dynasty – Jadwiga Śląska [St. Hedwig of Silesia] – in the Cistercian church in Trzebnica. Unfortunately, it has not been preserved to our times and is known only from a code written in 1353 for Ludwik II Brzeski [Duke Louis II Legnica and Brzeg] (currently housed in the John Paul Getty Museum in Malibu). The canopy of Kazimierz Wielki exhibits such features of the Austrian works as an emphasis on slender proportions, a compact, block character and, above all, consistent detachment from the sectioning of the tomb and canopy supports. It was executed by introduction of a wide profiled cornice that, in the Krakow example, tapers towards the top. However, the grave of Kazimierz III stands out due to the division of the structure into two cuboids of different proportions, a significant shift of the axis of supports in two sections of the gravestone, and the lightness and immaterial character of the canopy’s structure. This dematerialisation results from the use of eight slim columns joined at the top by lancet arcades, which were filled with rich, multidimensional tracery. Above the arcades there is only a profiled cornice pierced with slender pinnacles at the column’s axes. As a result, a spectacular ‘grille’ was created and its dryness and linearism is amplified by the fact that the pinnacles are rotated so that their corners align with the planes of the tomb’s sides. Such positioning of the pinnacles gives the effect of a widening of the top parts of the column capitals, which even separates the corner capitals into two separate parts. The external ones resemble keystones decorated with human heads hung upside down. Also, the fact that the canopy was sculpted in local white stone adds to the dematerialisation of its form. Older sources suggested that this showed a lack of homogeneity within the structure; however, the stylistic consistency of the details proves otherwise. It is, however, possible that the tomb was sculpted abroad, brought to Kraków in thirteen pieces that are still visible, and joined with the topping sculpted in situ. In such a case, the composition of a brown-and-red base with a light, almost white canopy, would signify that the designer of the entire structure had a deep understanding of the rules of ‘material polychrome’ and thus was an exceptionally skilled one. Unfortunately, the original ceiling decoration of the canopy has been destroyed. Three spans of the ceiling were painted in the 19th century (1869?) in navy blue with gilded stars, while the keystone, located above the king’s head with the image of manus Dei, was most likely re-sculpted as early as in the 17th century.
Kazimierz III’s gravestone was created under the influence of the Hapsburg court style shaped by the so-called prince’s workshop in Vienna. However, the king’s bearded type, for example, was modelled after noble men in the royal gallery of Reims cathedral (mid-14th century). The foundation of the monument is most often attributed to Kazimierz’s successor and heir – the King of Hungary, Louis the Great (1326-1382) – who would have legitimised his power in Poland in this way. In 1338, Kazimierz Wielki entered into a succession agreement with the husband of his sister Elizabeth – Charles Robert d’Anjou. According to the treaty, in the case of an heirless death of a Polish king, the throne would pass on to one of Charles Robert’s sons. In 1355, in Buda, Louis of Hungary issued a document which guaranteed the Polish knighthood all their rights if he took over power in Poland. Despite these efforts, an anti-d’Anjou opposition existed, centred mostly in the Wielkopolska region. Upon Kazimierz’s death on the 5th of November 1370, dignitaries of the kingdom buried his body immediately before Louis’s arrival, although he managed to travel to Kraków within two days. Unable to fulfil his duty of burying his predecessor, the Hungarian king held a symbolic funeral ceremony – exequiae – modelled after funeral traditions of the d’Anjou dynasty. The splendour of these celebrations, strange to the Piast tradition, attracted the attention of even the most adamant political opponent of Louis. The legitimisation process is believed to include the foundation of the gravestone, whose shape referred to the local tradition, with its source being the tomb founded by Kazimierz III Wielki for his father – the restorer of the Kingdom of Poland – Władysław I Łokietek.

– P. Mrozowski, Polskie nagrobki gotyckie, Warszawa 1994
– A. Sadraei, The Tomb of Kazimir the Great in the Wawel Cathedral of Cracow, “Acta Historiae Artium,” 42, 2001, pp. 83-115
– A. Sadraei, Art, Death and Ligitimacy. The commission and artistic provenance of the tomb of Kazimir the Great in Cracow Cathedral, [in:] Artifex doctus. Studia ofiarowane procesowi Jerzemu Gadomskiemu w siedemdziesiątą rocznicę urodzin, ed. W. Bałus, W. Walanus, M. Walczak,  vol. 1, Kraków 2007, pp. 363-373
– E. Śnieżyńska-Stolotowa, Nagrobek Kazimierza Wielkiego, “Studia do Dziejów Wawelu”, IV, 1978, pp. 63-79
– M. Walczak, “Per testudinem adornatum”. Canopies over the gothic royal Tombs in Poland, [in:] Mikroarchitektur im Mittelalter. Ein Gattungsübergreifendes Phänomen zwischen Realität und Imagination, hrsg. von Ch. Kratzke, U. Albrecht, Leipzig 2008, pp. 161-188
– M. Walczak, Postacie na bokach tumby nagrobka Kazimierza Wielkiego. Z dziejów ikonografii odrodzonego Królestwa Polskiego, [in:] Narodziny Rzeczypospolitej. Studia z dziejów średniowiecza i czasów nowożytnych, ed. W. Bukowski, T. Jurek, Kraków 2012, pp. 1057-1079
– M. Walczak, The Gothic Tombs of the Kings of Poland in the Wawel Cathedral, [in:] Italien-Deutschland-Polen. Geschichte un Kultur im europäischen Kontext vom 10. bis zum 18. Jahrhundert, ed. W. Husschner, E. Bünz, Ch. Lübke, Lepizig 2013, pp. 531-552
– M. Walczak, The Figures on the Sides of the Tomb-Chest of King Casimir the Great: A Reassessment of the Iconography of the Polish Kingdom Reborn, [in:] Medieval Art, architecture and Archaeology in Cracow and Lesser Poland (The British Archeological Association Conference Transactions, XXXVII), London 2014, pp. 48-75
– 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. 1370
długość: 200 cm
szerokość: 375 cm
wysokość: 488.5 cm
Typ obiektu
Rzeźba, kamień
czerwony wapień z Gran, wapień pińczowski
Data pozyskania
ok. 1370
Miejsce powstania
Miejsce przechowywania
Właściciel praw
Królewska Katedra na Wawelu

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