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The gravestone of Władysław III of Varna is shaped as a tomb, with the figure of the ruler dressed in full armour on the top slab. The giasant has a youthful face with idealised features and holds a bare sword against his chest – Szczerbiec – which serves the purpose of styling the King as an ideal Christian knight. The introduction of a particular object known to all Poles, in this case the coronation sword of polish kings, into the composition had been adopted a number of times in the culture of the 19th century, especially in Jan Matejko’s paintings. It served the purpose of making past events and figures more probable by linking them to particular items or works of art that were considered national relics. Such combinations were not always justified from a historical perspective, but they were used consciously, according to the rules of philosophy of history, which in the distant past allowed for an insight into God’s plans and some general principles governing the history of the country divided by the three partitioning powers.

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The gravestone of Władysław III of Varna is shaped as a tomb, with the figure of the ruler dressed in full armour on the top slab. The giasant has a youthful face with idealised features and holds a bare sword against his chest – Szczerbiec – which serves the purpose of styling the King as an ideal Christian knight. The introduction of a particular object known to all Poles, in this case the coronation sword of polish kings, into the composition had been adopted a number of times in the culture of the 19th century, especially in Jan Matejko’s paintings. It served the purpose of making past events and figures more probable by linking them to particular items or works of art that were considered national relics. Such combinations were not always justified from a historical perspective, but they were used consciously, according to the rules of philosophy of history, which in the distant past allowed for an insight into God’s plans and some general principles governing the history of the country divided by the three partitioning powers. This is the case as regards Władysław III’s gravestone, because ‘Szczerbiec’ is a ceremonial sword dating back to the mid. 13th century, used to perform rituals of justice and never used in actual battle. In 1320 it was used during the coronation of Władysław I Łokietek and, in the so-called Kronika Wielkopolska [Chronicle of the Wielkopolska Province], it was linked to Bolesław Chrobry, who was to receive the sword from an angel and hit it against the Golden gate in Kiev during his excursion to Rus. Thus, Władysław III does not hold an ordinary sword but an artefact associated with a number of symbolic meanings, insignia of royal power and the only Polish regalium that survived the partitions.
The King’s historical mission is also referred to in the heraldic composition on the sides of the tomb – multiple coats of arts of the two kingdoms of Poland and Hungary, and a short inscription in gothic letter type engraved along the edge of the slab. It strongly emphasises that the King of Poland and Hungary met an honourable death in a terrible battle in which he defeated Christianity:

“Laduslaus III poloniae et hungariae Rex nat[us] a[nno] D[omi]ni mccccxiv / pro christiana inclytam / ad warnam pugnam acriter pugnans mortem gloriosam p[er]petuit an[n]o Domini mccccxliv”.

The structure of the gravestone, which is covered with a free-standing canopy, clearly refers to the local medieval tradition of the commemoration of kings. However, the way Władysław III is depicted as a ‘man of arms’ is not exhibited in any earlier tomb in Wawel Cathedral. It reflects rather an idealised perception of the Middle Ages and Poland’s past at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. The tomb also lacks images of mourners so typical of the Wawel necropolis. However, a number of detailed solutions refers to local Kraków works of art from the 15th century. The most obvious example consists in the “hatching” motif repeated at the top of each column supporting the canopy. Geometric decoration covering the pillars’ shafts and creating zigzagging grooves was commonly used in Romanesque art.

The tomb was ordered from Antoni Madeyski in 1903 and placed there in 1906. The agreement was signed by the then Kraków ordinary, Cardinal Jan Puzyna.

Elaborated by Marek Walczak, PhD (The Institute of Art History), editorial team of Małopolska's Virtual Museums,
Licencja Creative Commons

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

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King Władysław’s III of Varna tombstone

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