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Imaginary animals are not predominant in tapestry presentations but sometimes appear there. Their presence usually has a symbolic meaning. In the tapestry Dragon Fighting with a Panther, this is derived from Physiologus, which is an ancient treatise on animals containing, aside from their description, an allegorical interpretation of animals, plants and minerals. According to it, the panther is loved by all animals, with the exception of the dragon. Such a presentation was interpreted as an allegory of Christ's struggle against Satan. Here, the dragon symbolises the forces of evil, and the panther the forces of good.

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This is one of the most famous verdures in the collection of Sigismund II Augustus. A dragon and a panther fight in a forest clearing. On the left side of the scene, three young dragons crowd together: above them, on an overgrown fallen tree, another panther lurks, possibly hurrying to help the one already fighting. In the bottom right corner, a lizard stands stock-still. Further in the background, by the lake, another predator can be seen, as well as a deer and two fantastic hoofed creatures.
Imaginary animals are not predominant in tapestry presentations, but sometimes appear. Their presence usually has a symbolic meaning. In the tapestry Dragon Fighting with a Panther, the symbolism is derived from Physiologus, an ancient treatise on animals containing, aside from their description, allegorical interpretations of animals, plants and minerals. According to the treatise, the panther is loved by all animals, with the exception of the dragon. A presentation such as this one, would have been interpreted as an allegory of Christ's struggle against Satan. Here, the dragon symbolises the forces of evil, and the panther the forces of good.
The tapestry is part of a small group of five large, rectangular verdures. A wide border with mythological deities, festoons and bouquets of flowers closes the pictorial field of the tapestry along its upper edge.

Elaborated by Magdalena Ozga (Wawel Royal Castle), 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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The history of Sigismund Augustus’s collection of tapestries

Sigismund Augustus probably ordered some of these fabrics around the year 1548. According to Wychwalnik weselny [Wedding praiser] by Stanisław Orzechowski (Panagyricus Nuptiarum Sigimundi Augusti Poloniae Regis, ed. 1553), the three series of tapestries: the History of the First Parents, the Story of Moses and the Story of Noah already adorned the interiors of Wawel Castle on 30 July 1553, for the wedding celebrations of Sigismund Augustus and Catherine of Austria. It is assumed that after this year the king ordered further fabrics, and that around 1560, the entire collection was already in his possession.
 

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Sigismund Augustus probably ordered some of these fabrics around the year 1548. According to Wychwalnik weselny [Wedding praiser] by Stanisław Orzechowski (Panagyricus Nuptiarum Sigimundi Augusti Poloniae Regis, ed. 1553), the three series of tapestries: the History of the First Parents, the Story of Moses and the Story of Noah already adorned the interiors of Wawel Castle on 30 July 1553, for the wedding celebrations of Sigismund Augustus and Catherine of Austria. It is assumed that after this year the king ordered further fabrics, and that around 1560, the entire collection was already in his possession.
In his last will from the year 1571, the heirless Sigismund Augustus stated that his collection of tapestries would be redistributed to his three sisters: Sophie, Duchess of Brunswick; Catherine, Queen of Sweden; and  the future Queen of Poland, Anne. According to the king’s will, after their deaths, the collection was to become the property of the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth. As early as 1572, the tapestries were deposited in the royal castle in Tykocin, and then they were split between the royal residences (Kraków, Niepołomice, Grodno, and Warsaw). In 1578, Anna handed part of the collection to one of the heirs in Stockholm — Catherine — and, by chance, the tapestries returned to Poland in 1587 or 1591, together with the son of the latter, King Sigismund III Vasa.
Traditionally, the tapestries were part of the artistic setting of the most important royal celebrations, even after the death of Sigismund Augustus. The tapestries were used during the king’s funeral ceremony in 1572, as well as during the coronation of Henry III of France in 1574. After these events, they returned to their function in 1592, when they decorated the Wawel chambers during the first wedding of Sigismund III Vasa to Anne of Austria, as well as during his second — with her sister Constance of Austria in 1605. Sigismund’s tapestries were also used as the decorations in St. John’s Archcathedral and in the royal castle in Warsaw, during the wedding of king Władysław IV to Cecilia Renata in September 1637.
During the Swedish Deluge (1655–1657), the collection was moved to an unknown location. Against the will of Sigismund Augustus, the tapestries were treated as private property by King Jan Kazimierz Vasa and became the subject of the political games of the abdicating ruler. The ex-king took a loan against the “Deluge Curtains” (as the tapestries were then collectively labelled), which was handed over to Francis Grattta, a banker and merchant from Gdansk. Then, in 1669, Jan Kazimierz — in order to secure the guaranteed commission for himself — ordered Grattta to hide the tapestries. In spite of this, in February 1670, the collection was borrowed from a “mysterious” storage place in order to decorate the monastery and the church of the Pauline Fathers at Jasna Góra, on the occasion of the wedding of Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki to Eleanor of Austria and for the decoration of the St. John’s Archcathedral in Warsaw, during the coronation of Eleanor. The death of Jan Kazimierz did not solve the problem, because the Commonwealth and the heir of the ex-king both had claims to the tapestries being still subject of lien. In 1673, the Deluge Declaration was passed, according to which only the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania could claim the collection of tapestries, and it was the only entity which could redeem them, as it did in 1724. The recovered collection of fabrics was placed in the monastery of Discalced Carmelites in Warsaw. From then on, the tapestries belonged to the Crown Treasury, managed by consecutive treasurers. They were used, among others, during the Corpus Christi ceremonies, as well as for the decoration of St. John’s Archcathedral and Warsaw Castle, on the occasion of the coronation of Stanisław August Poniatowski in 1768.
Since 1785, the collection was stored in the Palace of the Commonwealth, which performed the function of state archive. Ten years later, in November 1795, during the siege of Warsaw laid by the invader’s army — on the orders of Catherine II — the fabrics were stolen and brought to the storehouses of the Taurida Palace in St. Petersburg. After 1860, the collection of tapestries was separated, some of which were used to decorate the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and the tsar’s residences in Gatchina and Livadia in the Crimea, while others were transferred to the Museum of Court Stables, the collections of the Academy of Fine Arts, and the Theatre Office. Only after one hundred and twenty-six years — thanks to the Treaty of Riga in 1921—were most of the old tapestries recovered from the Soviet Union; the return of the collection was accomplished in instalments by 1928.
In September 1939, at the outbreak of World War II, a decision was made to move all the tapestries, along with other works from the Wawel treasury, outside Poland. The artefacts were moved  to France through Romania, where they were repaired in Aubusson weaving centre. After the French resistance was crushed, the collection was transported by sea to England. The latter also turned out to be a dangerous place, because the Battle of Britain was about to begin. Because of this, the tapestries were transported to Canada on the Polish ship Batory, where they were stored in very good conditions. After the end of the world war, the Canadian authorities delayed returning the deposit, because they were concerned with the political situation in Poland after 1945. Maurice Duplessis, the guardian of the tapestries in Quebec, was the one who resisted that idea with particular vehemence. The threat of the appropriation of the tapestries by the Canadian government caused a huge uproar in the country and among the officials of the Polish government-in-exile. Only after the death of Duplessis in 1959, thanks to numerous interventions and the great efforts of leading Polish figures, were the tapestries reclaimed and returned to Wawel, in February 1961.
Two of the identified tapestries from the former collection of Sigismund Augustusts are outside Wawel. The first fabric — The moral decline of humanity from series the Story of Noah — was found in the Kremlin and returned to Poland in 1977, as a gift of the Soviet authorities for the reconstruction of the Warsaw castle, where it is held to this day. On the other hand, the other one — the only tapestry intended for presentation above windows, preserved in its entire form — for some unknown reason, found its way from Russia to the antiquarian market. It was purchased by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and it has been part of their collection since 1952.

Elaborated by Magdalena Ozga (Wawel Royal Castle), Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums, © all rights reserved

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Theatre of Nature

The complete novelty was an animal and plant landscape, no longer treated as a background or complement to the scene, but as a separate subject matter. This type of textile was called a verdure (French: verdure) from the word verdir, or “to paint in green”, because of the predominance of this colour. It is sometimes claimed that one of inspirations for this kind of woven depictions was the hunting preferences of clients , as they are often also described as tapestries “to admire hunting” (ad venationem spectantia peristromata) or “fighting animals” (pugnae ferarum). The plant and animal landscape as a separate subject matter initially appeared in tapestries, later in paintings (for example paintings by Roelant Savery, 1576–1639). Verdures created between 1553 and 1560 that are part of the collection of tapestries of Sigismund II Augustus are probably among the first examples of this subject matter in tapestry art.

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Nature has always been a very important source of inspiration for fine arts. The original interest in it as a model evolved over time into a real cognitive and documentary passion for the surrounding world. Artists interested in the appearance of animals, diverse in terms of forms and colours, and the way they move, as well as the structure and behaviour of plants, studied their nature with analytical inquisitiveness. This kind of scientific and artistic work contributed to the development of the natural sciences.
Realistic tendencies in the field of weaving art appeared in the late Middle Ages. One example of this can be tapestries of the millefleur type, manufactured in France and Flanders from the beginning of the fifteenth century. They depicted figural scenes and heraldic motifs presented against a background of a flat meadow devoid of perspective, filled with the title “a thousand flowers” and figures of animals and insects (e.g. the series The Lady and the Unicorn of the late fifteenth century). Flora and fauna were shown in textiles in a totally naturalistic manner, which allows us today to recognise the majority of their species.
Somewhat later, a complete novelty was an animal and plant landscape, no longer treated as a background or complement to the scene, but as a separate subject matter. This type of textile was called a verdure (French: verdure) from the word verdir, or ”to paint in green”, because of the predominance of this colour. It is sometimes claimed that one of inspirations for this kind of woven depictions was the hunting preferences of clients, as they are often also described as tapestries “to admire hunting” (ad venationem spectantia peristromata) or “fighting animals” (pugnae ferarum). The plant and animal landscape as a separate subject matter initially appeared in tapestries, later in paintings (for example paintings by Roelant Savery, 1576–1639). Verdures created between 1553 and 1560 that are part of the collection of tapestries of Sigismund II Augustus are probably among the first examples of this subject matter in tapestry art.

Porcupine, Conrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, Vol. 1, 1551, source: Wikipedia, public domain (compare with the over-door tapestry with the Arms of Poland on landscape background with animals - Beaver and Porcupine)

All sorts of collections of patterns available in the sixteenth century, such as sketchbooks (taccuino di disegni), very popular engravings by Albrecht Dürer, zoological atlases or works of animaliers and naturalists such as Pierre Belon and Conrad Gesner, the author of the famous Historiae animalium, provided a rich source of inspiration for artists of that period. Works of this type were included in the range of creative inspiration of weaving workshops and constituted a source of an extensive and relatively unchanging repertoire of motifs, as evidenced by a repetitive nature of certain kinds of animals, for example in tapestries of one series. Tapestries also showed exotic animals from Africa and the New World. This resulted from an interest in contemporary geographical discoveries. In the case of less known or fantastic specimens, creators of tapestries tried to depict them by making use of descriptions, as well as various accounts and legends; that is why their images were often created on the basis of projection. Interestingly, at that time many of the views on the origin, nature and symbolism of plants and animals still constituted a lasting legacy of antiquity and the Middle Ages (Physiologus). Artist used available patterns, in which individual specimens were presented as isolated, devoid of any context because animals and plants themselves were their object of interest. Therefore, they did not take into account realities such as the natural environment of existence, and put them together according to their own invention; that is why an exotic animal, such as a camel, could unexpectedly appear with rabbits in the middle of a broadleaved forest (Tapestry A Camel, a Rabbit and a Peacock).
Verdures ilustrated botanical and zoological knowledge at that time in which the real world interspersed with the imaginary one. Therefore, they can be treated as a “theatre of nature”, in which the setting was a mannerist forest and actors were real and fantastic creatures. Separated from the natural environment and arbitrarily compiled, they resulted in the whole composition creating an image slightly diverging from reality, even though its every detail constituted a fully realistic representation of elements of nature.

Elaborated by Paulina Kluz (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums),
Licencja Creative Commons

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

Bibliography:
Maria Hennel-Bernasikowa, Arrasy krajobrazowo-zwierzęce (Animal and landscape tapestries), [in:] Arrasy wawelskie (The Wawel Tapestries), edited by Jerzy Szablowski, Anna Misiąg-Bocheńska, Maria Hennel-Bernasikowa, Magdalena Piwocka, Warszawa 1994, pp. 173–268;
Magdalena Piwocka, Arrasy Zygmunta Augusta (The Tapestries of Sigismund Augustus),  Kraków 2007;
Magdalena Piwocka, Arrasy króla Zygmunta Augusta: zwierzęta, cz. 1 (The Tapestries of King Sigismund Augustus: Animals, Part 1), Kraków 2009;
Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych (Terminological Dictionary of Fine Arts), Krystyna Kubalska-Sulkiewicz (ed.), Warszawa 2002.

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From Ornament of Late Antiquity to Netherlandish Grotesque

On one of the seven hills of Rome – the Esquiline Hill – caves full of ancient paintings were excavated around 1480 under the foundations of medieval buildings. Their walls were decorated with fantastic, light and symmetrical structures created of figural, animal and floral motifs. La grotte, or caves, were in fact ruins of the villa of the Emperor Nero. It was called Domus Aurea because of the extraordinarily rich decoration of the walls and the inner part of the dome, which were covered with gold and paintings. They were created between AD 54 and 68 and related to the turn of the Third Style and Fourth Style of Pompeian painting.

 

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On one of the seven hills of Rome – the Esquiline Hill – caves full of ancient paintings were excavated around 1480 under the foundations of medieval buildings. Their walls were decorated with fantastic, light and symmetrical structures created of figural, animal and floral motifs. La grotte, or caves, were in fact ruins of the villa of the Emperor Nero. It was called Domus Aurea because of the extraordinarily rich decoration of the walls and the inner part of the dome, which were covered with gold and paintings. They were created between AD 54 and 68 and related to the turn of the Third Style and Fourth Style of Pompeian painting.

Grotesque, Raphael Santi, decoration of the Vatican loggias, 1518, source: Wikipedia, public domain

The term grotesque (grottesche) was derived from the name of the finding (la grotte). The way the ornament is called can also be translated as “weird, weirdness”. In its form, grotesque resembled ornaments of ancient origin popular in the Renaissance, namely arabesque or Islamic moresque. However, they both assumed the shape of a more or less stylised braided plants; on the other hand, grotesque was enriched with numerous additional motifs, and it created a fantastic structure. Formally, the latter was also close to its predecessor – the late medieval braided plants – since characters and animals were entwined in it in the same way. However, in medieval ornament it had an apotropaic or allegorical function.
Renaissance ornamentation was immensely influenced by the discovery of Domus Aurea. The finding was the main source of inspiration for artists, even though at that time there were known examples of other ancient grotesques decorating, for instance, the Colosseum and Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli. The popularity and strengthening of the fashion for Renaissance grotesque was primarily an effect of the influence of works by artists from the early 16th century, which were travesty of ancient paintings. The most important works of art in this field were paintings of the Vatican loggias, the Villa Madama and Palazzo Baldassini – the works of Raphael and his apprentice Giovanni da Udine. They were almost a total novelty in the field of decoration and this contributed to their extraordinary popularity among contemporary artists. Grotesque became a decoration type widely known and used in the 1st half of the 16th century (especially after 1520) thanks to the Italian works mentioned above, as well as widely accessible patterns created by ornamentalists.
Through numerous imitations of ancient grotesque in various art centres, this ornament gained its local variants. Netherlandish grotesque, even though based on the same formula as the Italian one, had a slightly different structure and elements. It gained extraordinary popularity thanks to replicated in graphic arts designs of Cornelis Floris or Cornelis Bos (e.g. The Book of Moresque of 1554), ornamentalists unequalled in their skill and imagination.
Initially, Netherlandish grotesque included mostly floral motifs but in time, because of oriental inspirations, exotic animals and fantastic creatures appeared, as well. The following mythological motifs were depicted particularly frequently: pairs of deities, their frolics, Bacchic processions, and various fantastic creatures or hybrids of human, animals and plants. In their details, depictions of an allegorical nature and even allusions to the exoticism of the New World (e.g. figures of Indians) can be noticed.
Netherlandish grotesque seemed to be, above all, more filled up than the Italian one. It had a much richer repertoire of motifs, and its spaces, separated in a certain way by the structure (scaffolding), were almost entirely filled with ripe fruit garlands and putti, as well as exotic plants and animals. However, horror vacui did not disturb the sense of order, which was controlled by the symmetry of the arrangement of all elements of the decoration. Interestingly, in its expanded form, the scaffolding structure, on which individual elements were based, was similar to metal fittings and fragments of rolled metal sheet, heralding the ferrule ornament that appeared in the art of the Netherlands in the mid-16th century.
The specificity of Netherlandish grotesque was its characteristic dualism manifested in the almost encyclopaedic realism of some depictions of plants and animals (species of which we are able to recognise), as well as fantasy affecting construction of its form, typical of this ornament.

See also:
Borders of tapestries of the Story of the First Parents, Story of Noah and Story of the Tower of Babel series;
Grotesque tapestries of monogram, heraldic and under-window types
Grotesque decoration of a pharmaceutical mortar

Elaborated by Paulina Kluz (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums),
Licencja Creative Commons

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

Bibliography:
Aleksandra Bernatowicz, Niepodobne do rzeczywistości. Malowana groteska w rezydencjach Warszawy i Mazowsza 17771821 (Unlike reality. Painted grotesque in residences of Warsaw and Mazovia), Warszawa 2006;

Magdalena Piwocka, Arrasy z groteskami (Tapestries with grotesques), [in:] Arrasy wawelskie (Wawel Tapestries), edited by Jerzy Szablowski, Anna Misiąg-Bocheńska, Maria Hennel-Bernasikowa, Magdalena Piwocka, Warszawa 1994, pp. 271–348;
Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych (Terminological Dictionary of Fine Arts), Krystyna Kubalska-Sulkiewicz, Warszawa 2007.

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Dragons in medieval art: the profane

The rich culture of medieval Europe was a mixture of ancient (Greek-Roman and Middle Eastern) traditions and the North European beliefs of peoples which the Romans called barbarians. Dragons were present in the myths of all these cultures, so it is no wonder that these fascinating creatures appeared many times in medieval literature and art. The universal nature of dragons means that these beasts could be associated with each of the four elements: according to many legends, dragons lived in water whereas in others they hid in the ground; moreover, they breathed fire and had wings, so they could rise into the air.

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The rich culture of medieval Europe was a mixture of ancient (Greek-Roman and Middle Eastern) traditions and the North European beliefs of peoples which the Romans called barbarians. Dragons were present in the myths of all these cultures, so it is no wonder that these fascinating creatures appeared many times in medieval literature and art. The universal nature of dragons means that these beasts could be associated with each of the four elements: according to many legends, dragons lived in water whereas in others they hid in the ground; moreover, they breathed fire and had wings, so they could rise into the air.

The dragon from the Wawel tapestry

Among the tapestries from the collection of the Wawel Royal Castle there is a fabric depicting a fight between a dragon and panther. This tapestry comes from the collection of Sigismund Augustus, was created in Brussels around 1555 and designed by an artist from the circle of Pieter Coecke van Aelst. The theme of this tapestry refers to a story that we find in medieval bestiaries.

Jagiellonian tapestry “Dragon Fighting with a Panther”, ca. 1555, Wawel Royal Castle – State Art Collection, digitalisation: RDW MIC, public domain


Bestiaries (bestiaria) were books containing descriptions of animals, both real and fantastic. The descriptions were accompanied by explanations of a moralizing nature, explaining the Christian symbolism of each beast. The main reference text of medieval bestiaries was Physiologus (Physiologist – the name comes from the initial words of the text: “The physiologist says that...”). It was an anonymous Greek text, probably written in Egypt (maybe in Alexandria?). Some scholars have dated it to the 2nd century, although nowadays the majority are more in favour of the middle of the 3rd century or the beginning of the 4th. In any case, this text was already widely known in the 4th and 5th centuries, as it was often cited. Its Latin translation already existed in the 5th century.
The author of the Physiologist undoubtedly drew on ancient works dealing with natural history (from the works of Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and Herodotus) and from early Christian writings. The text discussed 49 animals, mainly found in Mediterranean areas, as well as stones and plants. Later medieval bestiaries were enriched with descriptions of animals found in northern Europe.

Dragon, miniature from the Bestiary from 3rd quarter of the 13th century, British Library in London, from the Harley manuscripts 3244, fl. 59

 

Of course, one of the most important beasts described in the bestiaries was the dragon. It was described as the largest serpent, whose strength lies mainly in the tail, although, it was also believed that he could poison by his breath. In the illustrations of medieval bestiaries, dragons are usually winged and have two or four paws; however, they were rarely depicted as fire-breathing. It was believed that the dragon is the enemy of the elephant, and in addition – that it is terribly afraid of the sweet smell of panther breath.

The animals follow the panther’s breath, the dragon hides itself. Miniature from the Rochester Bestiary, England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century, British Library in London, Royal 12 F XIII, fl. 9


In many medieval bestiaries the panther looks like a rainbow dog. The texts stated that it was a beautiful, multi-coloured animal. After a hearty meal, the panther would fall asleep for three days, and when it woke up, it would let out a roar that released a sweet smell from its mouth, attracting all animals, and repelling the dragon. The panther was interpreted as a symbol of Christ, and the dragon was, of course, a symbol of Satan.

   
Details of Jagiellonian tapestry “Dragon Fighting with a Panther”, ca. 1555, Wawel Royal Castle – State Art Collection, digitalisation: RDW MIC, public domain


The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that dragons lived in the east, especially India – hence the interactions with elephants, described in the Physiologist. Pliny the Elder wrote that the dragon suddenly sets upon on an elephant, choking it and drinking its blood, but a dead elephant crushes the dragon as it falls down and as a result both animals die. According to Pliny, from the remains of a crushed dragon, whose blood has mixed with the blood of an elephant, one could obtain a unique dye, called “dragon’s blood”. In reality, this dye was made from the extract of the resin of some trees of the genus dracaena (this name, moreover, comes from a Greek term meaning “from a dragon”), e.g. cornstalk dracena, an endemic species of Madeira and the Canary Islands. Medieval painters used “dragon’s blood” not only as a pigment to make red paint but, above all, to dye varnishes, which covered gilding in paintings or manuscripts, to enhance the warm brightness of the gold. “Dragon blood” was also a component of gold paints or simply a dye imitating gold. It was an expensive pigment, imported to Europe along with exotic spices and fragrances.

The elephant and the dragon, miniature from the Bestiary from 3rd quarter of the 13th century, British Library in London, from the Harley manuscripts 3244, fl. 39v


The Wawel Dragon

Wawel Hill has been associated with the legend of the dragon for centuries – it may not be a coincidence that the cult of saintly dragon slayers flourished in its area. Here, churches dedicated to St. Michael and St. George were located in the middle of the hill, and the erection of the Gothic cathedral commenced in the twenties of the 14th century, starting from the chapel of St. Margaret. Today, the western entrance to the cathedral is decorated with sculptures inserted into the jamb in the 2nd half of the 14th century, probably originating from a stone altar of the former local chapel (converted into a sacristy), depicting St. Margaret and St. Michael with dragons. And above, also at the entrance to the cathedral, dragon bones hang!

        
St. Margaret and St. Michael the Archangel, before 1322, sculptures from the chapel of St. Margaret (now the sacristy),
inserted into the jambs of the entrance to the Wawel cathedral. Wikimedia Commons


Of course, in reality they are not the bones of a real dragon, but the remains of prehistoric animals: a mammoth, a whale and a woolly rhinoceros. These testify to the extremely interesting and widespread custom in Europe to collect various “wonders of nature” in churches. The bone remains of mammoths or cetaceans enjoyed particular popularity, as well as elephant tusks, ostrich eggs and relics considered to be unicorn horns. The bones from Wawel were obtained (excavated?) in unknown circumstances in the Middle Ages and have probably been in the cathedral since at least the 14th century.

Bones at the west entrance to Wawel Cathedral. Photo by Yohan euan o4


Although everyone is familiar with the Wawel Dragon in Poland, not many people know that Dratewka – the figure of a shrewd cobbler, who stuffed sulphur into a sheepskin – was not included in medieval legends but only appeared in modern versions of the story (the first mention of a cobbler Skuba is found in the description of the Abdank coat of arms , in the work of Bartosz Paprocki Coats of arms of Polish knights of 1584). Meanwhile, the oldest version of the legend is a record from the Chronicle (Historia Polonica) by Wincenty Kadłubek (d. 1223). According to him, in the cave there dwelled a monster called olofag, or whole-eater (from which it follows that it swallowed everything whole without munching), which devoured local cattle, and whenever it did not get cattle, it ate people. Finally, the ruler Krak himself, came up with an idea to feed the dragon with sulphur, stuffed into cattle skins (not one, but several). The sulphur was to be set on fire, and the whole-eater suffocated from swallowed flames. Krak’s sons undertook the task of killing the monster, but unfortunately the younger of them decided to get rid of his brother along the way; he killed him, announcing that he had died fighting the dragon. When the fratricide came to light, the murderer was banished, and Krak’s daughter, Wanda, succeeded to the throne. Kadłubek wrote that the name Kraków came from the name Krak (Grakch), but he also mentioned that some call the city Kraków because of the cawing of ravens, which gathered around the dragon’s carrion.

Undoubtedly, one of Wincenty Kadłubek’s sources was the biblical story from the Book of Daniel, about the destruction of the serpent worshiped by the Babylonians (Dn 14:23-27, DRA) – in the Douay-Rheims Bible, the following sentence appears: “Then Daniel took pitch, and fat, and hair, and boiled them together: and he made lumps, and put them into the dragon’s mouth, and the dragon burst asunder.” Wincenty Kadłubek was an erudite and drew not only from the Bible, but also from secular as well as classical literature – he probably knew the legends of Alexander the Great. It is among the adventures of Alexander that we find the story about this hero killing a dragon by giving it a mixture, consisting of plaster, tar, lead and sulphur, sewn into leather and formed like a bait ready to eat. When the dragon swallowed it, Alexander ordered that fireballs be thrown at it, thus exploding the mixture. Such an explanation of the purpose of feeding the monster with sulphur seems to be logical, yet in Kraków version the shooting of the dragon was omitted.

Sired by a dragon

Few people know today that poems derived from ancient literature were very popular in the Middle Ages. Medieval lovers of secular literature knew the Chivalric romance about Troy, written on the basis of the work of Homer, Aeneas based on the work of Virgil, and above all, they were ardent readers of numerous stories, whose hero was Alexander the Great. There were many editions of these stories, they were written from the 4th to the 16th century, both in Europe and the Middle East. The most famous poem, titled Roman d’Alexandre, was a work written on the basis of various earlier texts by Alexander de Berney, a Norman poet from the 12th century. This poem consists of four parts: the first describes the events from Alexander’s conception to the siege of Tire, the second retells the capture of Tire, entry to Jerusalem and the defeat of Darius of Persia, the third contains the adventures of Alexander in India, and the fourth describes his death. In the 13th century a prose version of Aleksander was created, and many of the preserved manuscripts from late medieval times are richly illustrated.
Among the incredible adventures of the hero, there were also skirmishes with various dragons: ones emeralds on their heads, horned beasts, and finally there were two-headed and eight-legged dragons, all covered with eyes. Each of these species can be found in the manuscript decorations.

Alexander the Great fighting dragons with emeralds on their heads, miniature from Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, Paris, around 1420–1425, British Library in London, Royal MS 20 B XX, fl. 73

Alexander the Great fighting horned dragons, miniature from Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, Paris, around 1420–1425, British Library in London, Royal MS 20 B XX, fl. 78v

Alexander the Great fighting two-headed dragons, miniature from Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, Paris, around 1420–1425, British Library in London, Royal MS 20 B XX, fl. 83v


The most important connection between Alexander the Great and the dragon was that... the dragon sired him! To be more precise, Zeus was supposed to have begotten him (in one version of the legend) in the form of a dragon. Stories of the divine origin of Alexander the Great were already circulated in antiquity; as noted by the Greek historian Plutarch (d. after 120), Alexander’s “human” father, King Philip II of Macedon, went to the oracle in Delphi for advice, because he had doubts about the faithfulness of his wife Olimpias (daughter of the king of Epirus). As he saw her lying with a serpent... From the oracle, he learned that he had stumbled upon his wife during intercourse with Zeus-Amon (the Greeks identified the Egyptian Amon-Ra with Zeus), who is the true father of the queen’s child. For having glanced at the god, Philip was supposed to have lost his eye – and indeed, in 354 BC, an arrow struck Philip’s eye during the siege of Metony, a Greek colony. In medieval manuscripts, we find quite literal illustrations of such a scene: here the queen lies with the dragon, and her husband looks on her through the window in the door.

Conception of Alexander the Great, miniature from Les faize d’Alexandre (Quintus Curtius Rufus, translated by Vasco da Lucena), Southern Netherlands (Bruges?), around 1468–1475, British Library in London, Burney 169, fl. 14


Dragon mother

The mother of Alexander the Great was said to have conceived a child with a dragon, but the name “dragon mother” can probably be given to another heroine of the medieval romance, namely Melusine. The most popular versions of the story about this lady were created at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – among them an important item is the text from 1393, by Jean d’Arras, courtier of Prince Jean de Berry. Here, among the many castles that Duke of Berry owned, was Lusignan in the Poitou region, i.e. the ancestral seat of the Lusignans, whose house was said to have descended from Melusine and her offspring. She was a princess and a sorceress; unfortunately, as a result of involvement in the parents’ conflict, she and her sisters were cursed. In the case of Melusine, every Saturday she turned into a snake from the waist down. When the heroine married Raymondin (Raymond of Poitou), she forced him to promise that he would never watch her on Saturdays – at that time she would lock herself in her chamber and take a bath. For some time, the spouses lived in harmony (Melusine gave Raymondin ten sons), but eventually the husband, suspecting that his wife was cheating on him, discovered her secret, peeping at her one Saturday through the hole in the door. When Melusine learned that Raymondin had broken his promise, she left him – she flew away, taking the shape of a dragon.

    
Lusignan Castle, a miniature decorating March in the calendar of The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry,
before 1416 and after 1440 (Limbourg brothers, finished by Berthelemy d’Eyck?), Musée Condé in Chantilly, Ms. 65, fl. 3


In Central Europe, the legend of Melusine became popular thanks to its translation in a form of prose into German, created in 1456 by Thüring von Ringoltingen. After the mid-16th century this romance was translated from German first into Czech and then into Polish.

A coat of arms with a dragon

In the mythology of Northern European peoples (Vikings, Goths, Celts) dragons appeared as dangerous but powerful and admirable beasts which guarded treasures. Embedded in Anglo-Saxon legends dragons became a commonplace sight on West European banners and coats of arms, especially in the circle of Breton culture. It was there that the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, so extraordinarily popular throughout Europe, were created; Arthur himself, as a great ruler, was also supposed to have been called a “dragon”. Western European culture (including Arthurian legends) also reached the Piast [first historical ruling dynasty of Poland] courts; probably mainly through the Czech Republic and Silesia (which is exemplified by paintings of Lancelot’s series of adventures which decorate the 14th century tower in Siedlęcin). In such a positive “Arthurian” sense, the dragon appeared in the 14th century on the coats of arms of the dukes of Czersk (Masovian branch of the Piasts): Trojden I and his sons Siemowit III and Kazimierz I, and became the emblem of the Duchy of Czersk. In turn in Małopolska (i.e. Lesser Poland), we can find it, for example, on the coat of arms of Nowy Żmigród (Podkarpackie Province), a city on the border with the Ruthenian Principality of Galicia–Volhynia, on the route from Sandomierz through the Carpathian Mountains to Hungary. In Slavic culture the dragon also appeared as żmij [viper] (we have to remember that, according to medieval bestiaries, the dragon was a giant serpent), so its presence on the coat of arms of Lower Silesian Żmigród [quite literally: Viper town] is not surprising.

Coat of arms of the Duchy of Czersk, Wikimedia Commons Coat of arms of Nowy Żmigród, Wikimedia Commons Coat of arms of Żmigród, Wikimedia Commons


Every wild beast could personify evil, and at the same time perform a positive role as a symbol of strength and power, especially in the circle of secular knight culture. Dragons, lions or griffins were very common figures in European heraldry, and as decorative motifs in Gothic architecture, illuminations and artistic craftsmanship they seem as popular as they were ambiguous. The griffin and the lion can be both dangerous beasts and symbols of Christ himself. The dragon, however, could appear in the form of a lizard, whereas lizards were interpreted as a symbol of the human soul seeking God, because lizards like to bask in the sun. In addition, it was believed that a blinded lizard could regain its sight by looking at the rising sun, just as the soul of a sinner may be redeemed by turning to God. In Kraków, an interesting example of the representation of two dragons or lizards gnawing at each other is the emblem of the tenement house Pod Jaszczurką [The Lizard] (at Rynek Główny 8).

Emblem of the house “Pod Jaszczurką” [“The Lizard”], 15th/16th century (?), National Museum in Kraków


Today there is a copy above the gate of this house, and the original is held at the National Museum in Kraków. It is a superlative sculpture, dated to the late 15th century, which was created under the influence of the work of Veit Stoss (or maybe even someone from his workshop?). The significance of this emblem remains the subject of speculation among researchers – just as many elements of medieval visual culture. The whole beauty of the symbol lies in its ambiguity, and the dragon is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating examples thereof.

Read also: Dragons in medieval art: the sacred

Elaborated by Magdalena Łanuszka, PhD
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland.

 

Magdalena Łanuszka, PhD – a graduate of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków with a PhD in the History of Art, a specialist in the Middle Ages. She has cooperated with various institutions: in the field of didactics (giving lectures at, among others, the Jagiellonian University, the Heritage Academy, numerous Universities of the Third Age), research work (including for the University of Glasgow, The Polish Academy of Learning), as well as in popularizing science (e.g. for the Polish National Archives, the National Institute of Museology and Protection of Collections, the National Library, Radio Kraków, and Tygodnik Powszechny). She is the coordinator of the project Art and Heritage in Central Europe at the International Cultural Centre in Kraków as well as the editor-in-chief of the local RIHA Journal. The author of a blog on looking for interesting facts related to art: www.posztukiwania.pl.

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