Tomb of King Jan Olbracht

Tomb of King Jan Olbracht (1492-1501)

Esztergom red limestone, Pińczów limestone, 1502-1505

Kraków, Wawel Cathedral


Since the burial of Sophia (Sonka), Władysław Jagiełło’s fourth and last wife (d. 1461), in Kraków Cathedral, a tradition of placing royal tombs in chapels was formed. Kazimierz IV Jagiellończyk’s third son and immediate successor to the Kraków throne, Jan I Olbracht, was buried in John the Evangelist Chapel. It was created after the king’s death (1501) by the separation of the western part of the two-span burial chapel of Bishop Jan Grotowic (1326-1347). The original late gothic lierne vault with cantilevers and low relieved bosses and a lancet arch window in the southern wall were preserved. The above-mentioned vault is one of the earliest examples of such a ceiling in Poland and most likely refers to the architecture of the State of Teutonic Order, for example the vault in the chancel of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist in Toruń (c. 1305).

Unfortunately, we know very little of the furnishings of Olbracht’s burial chapel. A description of the cathedral’s chapels from 1732 mentions that both walls and the ceiling in John’s mausoleum were covered in paintings, with the ceiling decorations in the form of gold flagellum against a blue background. These polychromes were created most likely during a late gothic refurbishment of the interior for the purpose of the King’s burial chapel. The sources mentioning a reliquary stored in the chapel, in the shape of a monstrance, made of pure gold, decorated with pearls, diamonds, rubies, and sapphires, in which a thorn from Christ’s crown was enclosed, are significant. It must have been similar to a reliquary that contained the same relic of the passion ordered for the Świętokrzyska chapel, which was decorated with numerous gemstones (in fixed setting and as pendants), with six rubies below and five more above reservaculum. These were the only two reliquaries made of pure gold, apart from the chest for St. Stanisław’s head made by Marcin Marciniec, founded in 1504 by Elizabeth of Austria on behalf of her sons, Jan Olbrachta and Cardinal Fryderyk Jagiellończyk. The expensive material and relation of the relic to the Passion of Christ suited the character of burial chapels very well and points to the royal source of these foundations. It may be assumed that these reliquaries were similar to contemporary Eucharistic monstrances, because the ostensoria used for exhibition of sacramental bread and relics share common origins.

The altar that is nowadays located in a former chapter house (later on, the Czartoryski family burial chapel) comes originally from Jan I Olbracht’s burial chapel where it was situated under the cathedral’s clock tower. The image of a kneeling ruler along with St. Stanisław who commends him to Christ placed inside the altar constitutes a unique example of epitaph reredum (Ger. Epitaphaltar), not to be found elsewhere in the Jagiellons’ lands. The composition adopted here, in which the founder becomes a righteous participant in biblical events, is a rarity. There is only one other such example in Europe, absolutely exceptional and isolated, found in Zygmunt I Stary’s [Sigismund I the Old] Book of Prayer illustrated by Stanisław Samostrzelnik (1524, London, BL Ms. Add. 15281) where, in the Communion scene, the King takes it from the hands of the tormented Christ.

The tomb of Jan I Olbracht is a milestone piece not only for Kraków artistic circles but for the entire country. It was sculpted in the years 1502-1505 and consists of two parts executed by two different artists of different backgrounds, education and experience. From the local tradition of commemorating dead rulers derives the tomb sculpted in red stone from the Esztergom quarry, placed in a very deep niche carved into the western wall of a chapel. The tomb is decorated on the front side only (the sides are not exposed), while figural representations were replaced by a rectangular inscribed plaque. This simple and sophisticated solution clearly refers to the art of ancient Rome, in which inscription plaques were the basic element of commemoration of the deceased (Lat. tabulae ansatae). The long inscription was carved in the humanist capitals that had been created based on ancient Roman letterforms and is one of the first instances where such a font was used in Poland. The inscription is long and expresses, apart from general praise of the deceased that is typical of sepulchral art, a number of important messages:



The above-quoted inscription emphasises, amongst others, the war achievements of the King (who, in fact, was badly defeated in 1497 in the woods of Bukovina by combined Tara and Wallachian forces). It is pointed out that the ruler, who died away in Toruń on the 17th of June 1501, passed away prematurely at the age of only 42 years, leaving behind his grieving brothers Władysław – King of Hungary and Bohemia, his immediate successor Aleksander, and his mother Elizabeth who, along with her youngest son, Zygmunt, founded the tombstone. Interestingly, Elizabeth was described in the inscriptions as coming from “a long line of emperors”, the daughter, sister, and mother of kings. The latter epithet was often the German and Austrian King, Albrecht II Habsburg, and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of the Hungarian King and Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund of Luxemburg. She gave birth to thirteen of Kazimierz’s children, four of which were crowned as kings, one was canonised a saint (Kazimierz) and one (Fryderyk) who became the Bishop of Kraków and Archbishop of Gniezno, as well as a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church.

One of the most important innovations used in Olbracht’s gravestone consists in the placement of the top slab on the tomb at a certain angle, as if to make it easier to admire the king’s figure in coronation robes on the top of it. The image is an artless emulation of the top slab from Kazimierz IV Jagiellończyk’s tomb, but written sources unfortunately do not state the author. Many years ago, Jan Białostocki put forward an intriguing thesis that the tomb was created by Jörg Huber of Passau, who accepted the city laws in 1496 and hence became a full citizen of Kraków. The hypothesis is probable in as much as Olbracht’s figure was modelled after Kazimierz IV’s statue on his tomb and this very work bears (capital in the northern part of canopy) Jörg Huber’s sign. Kraków did not have a tradition of figural sculpture in stone, and carving into a difficult and hard material required very high qualifications. If Jan Olbracht’s image was really sculpted by Huber, the artist must have had very mediocre skills and even a more mediocre talent. This would confirm his status as a helper or journeyman during the works on Kazimierz Jagiellończyk’s gravestone.

The niche into which the tomb was squeezed was lined with Pińczów limestone tiles and framed with a wide arcade of the same materials. The creator of this magnificent setting was the King’s stonemason, Francesco Fiorentino, who introduced the theme of a Roman triumphal arch and a wide scope of solutions aimed at extolling all antica (among others, the panoply and references to imperial triumphs) in this piece. The firs Renaissance work of art in Poland soon drew a wave of imitations. Olbracht’s successor, his younger brother Zygmunt I Stary, whose services regarding implantation of the new style in Central Europe were crucial, ordered his own tombstone in an arcade of the burial chapel (1529-1531). However, when he decided to commemorate his grandfather and founder of the dynasty, he chose a canopy tombstone and thus inscribed himself in the two-century-long tradition of sepulchres of Polish Kings from Władysław I Łokietek to Kazimierz IV Jagiellończyk. On the said canopy (designed by Bartolomeo Berecci, 1519-1524), the same motivfs as on Olbracht’s tomb were used, that is elements praising the victor of the battle of Grunwald expressed in antique forms.

Jan Olbracht’s tomb is one of many works of art related to that ruler. In his time miniature painting also started to play an especially important role. The king’s gradual, stored in the Metropolitan Cathedral Library on the Wawel Hill (1501-1506) begins with an image of the kingdom’s coat of arms; a shield with the White Eagle also appeared by the feet of the King adoring Mary in a sunburst halo. Olbracht’s gradual also features a famous image of the Enthronement of the Polish king, while a rich iconographic programme of this manuscript served to emphasise the divine origin of the ruler (Rex regum and Rex Poloniae) and was deeply rooted in a medieval tradition of political iconography.

The introduction of Italian forms to the Jagiellon court in Kraków is most often related to inspirations from Buda and the huge prestige of Mattias Corvinus, while prince Zygmunt’s stay at the Hungarian court is believed to be a turning point. North of the Alps, Italian forms were usually used alongside gothic ones, the best example of which consist in the works of Benedikt Rejt in Bohemia and Benedykt from Sandomierz in Poland. The works of these two court architects completely differed, however, in their approach to tradition and innovation. Rejt consistently used the gothic construction system, while in the elevations, window frames, and portals he adopted architectural orders using a very expressive stylisation of forms (curved ribs, pilasters twisted round their exes, etc.). He also used references to Romanesque tradition (e.g. column bases with leafed crockets). Benedykt from Sandomierz (clearly strongly attached to late gothic masonry), created hybrid structures that consisted of fancifully curved piers and modern ornaments, whose sources resulted from his knowledge of southern-German art, especially that of the Augsburg region. The Wawel Castle he erected shows submission to the founder’s wish who referred to stylistic traditions in a very well-thought manner, because gothic frames were used in the first and second storey only, while piano nobile has a purely Italian character exhibited by the frames made by the stonemasons of Berecci’s workshop. Aleksander Jagiellończyk already consciously differentiated the forms of his foundations, funding simultaneously St. Anna’s Church in Vilnius and the Wawel Palace rich in Florentine-styled detail. Such an approach was typical of the times and best expressed by Mattias Corvinus, who promoted Italian Renaissance at the Buda court and late gothic forms across a huge part of the Kingdom of Hungary. It should also be reminded that the Jagiellons used Italian forms almost exclusively in architecture and stone sculpture, while their foundations within the scope of wooden sculpture, painting and crafts referred to northern tradition.



– J. Białostocki, The Art of the Renaissance in Eastern Europe: Hungary-Bohemia-Poland, Oxford 1976, pp. 10-11

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. 21, pp. 61-62

– J. Kowalczyk, Triumf i sława wojenna “all antica” w Polsce w XVI w., [in:] Renesans, sztuka i ideologia. Materiały Sympozjum Naukowego Komitetu Nauk o Sztuce PAN, Kraków, czerwiec 1972 oraz Sesji Naukowej Stowarzyszenia Historyków Sztuki, Kielce, listopad 1973, Warszawa 1976, p. 295

– A. Fischinger, Grabdenkmäler der Könige aus der Dynastie der Jagiellonen in Dom auf dem Wawel in Krakau, [in:] Polen im Zeitalter der Jagiellonen 1386–1572. Ausstellung auf der Schallaburg vom 8. Mai bis 2. November 1986, Wien 1986; Polska Jagiellonów 1386–1572, ed. A. Gieysztor, Warszawa 1987, pp. 139-141

– L. Schultes, Polen und Österreich im 15. Jahrhundert – Facetten einer künstlerischen Beziehung, [in:] Die Lände der Bömischen Krone und ihre Nachbarn zur Zeit der Jagiellonenkönige (1471-1526). Kunst-kultur-geschichte, hrsg. von E. Wetter, Ostfildern 2004, pp. 423-424 (Studia Jagiellonica Lipsiensia, Bd 2, hrsg. von J. Fajt, M. Hörsch, E. Wetter)

– W. Walanus, Późnogotycka rzeźba drewniana w Małopolsce 1490-1540, Kraków 2006, p. 139


NR Inwentarzowy
Franciszek z Florencji, Jörg Huber
długość: 452.75 cm
szerokość: 164.5 cm
wysokość: 657.5 cm
Typ obiektu
czerwony wapień z Gran, wapień pińczowski
Data pozyskania
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