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The Portrait of Sigismund I the Old is one of the very few preserved painted portraits of the ruler. The researchers suppose that it was a prototype of the portrait hanging above the entrance to Sigismund's Chapel, attributed to Andrzej, the painter unknown by his surname.

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The Portrait of Sigismund I the Old depicts the king indoors, shown frontally in a standing pose, and wearing a red overcoat lined with dark brown fur with a broad collar. The king's head is covered by a fur cap. On the right, in the background, a table can be seen covered with light brown fabric (shown rather ineptly, foreshortened), on which a crown is placed, being a symbol of royal power. On the left, the depiction also contains a brown curtain drawn back.
The Portrait of Sigismund I the Old is one of the very few preserved painted portraits of the ruler. The researchers suppose that it was a prototype of the portrait hanging above the entrance to Sigismund's Chapel, attributed to Andrzej, the painter unknown by his surname (probably Andrzej Jungholcz of Bavaria, as there exists a bill issued to this artist's name for the king's portrait painted in 1546). It is supposed that the painting was created at the beginning of the 17th century. In terms of its style, it resembles German portraits of the 3rd quarter of the 16th century.

Elaborated by Joanna Winiewicz-Wolska PhD (Wawel Royal Castle), editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums, © all rights reserved

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Did the Jagiellons have a wash?

Historical films and TV series set in the Middle Ages and in the early Modern Age, have accustomed us to an image of unimaginable dirt. Bad teeth, suggesting terrible mouth odour, dirty nails, rags, impetigo and ulcers or, at best, a face smeared with mud, are the leitmotifs of the make-up worn by actors embodying our ancestors.

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The tombstone of king Jan I Olbracht, 1502–1505,
The Wawel Royal Cathedral, public domain

Historical films and TV series set in the Middle Ages and in the early Modern Age, have accustomed us to an image of unimaginable dirt. Bad teeth, suggesting terrible mouth odour, dirty nails, rags, impetigo and ulcers or, at best, a face smeared with mud, are the leitmotifs of the make-up worn by actors embodying our ancestors.

The views of medieval Europeans were significantly influenced by the ascetic doctrines of the Church Fathers, respected theologians and saints, who preached contempt for corporality and thus for any attention to hygiene. It is also a fact that, after the political and economic collapse of the Roman Empire, great complexes of baths were no longer built, and the overall hygiene level was worse than among their pagan ancestors, including those whom the Romans called barbarians. It is not true, however, that every Roman was fresh and fragrant, while the folks of the Middle Ages stank beyond imagination, did not know public baths and were scared of bathing, like the devil of holy water. Baths were common in medieval towns. You could take care of hygiene in them, relax and relish bodily pleasures. The popularity of these establishments declined only in the fourteenth century, after the plague, and the two following centuries brought an end to them, as they were associated with the spread of syphilis. The brother of King Sigismund I the Old, John I Albert, is believed to have succumbed to this very disease. The king, considered a picture of health, was supposed to have become infected with syphilis during raucous night-time outings around Kraków.

Not only townspeople used bathhouses. Kings and aristocrats also knew how to keep themselves clean. One of the most important seats of Charlemagne, who suffered from rheumatism, was located near the healing hot springs of Aquae Grani, i.e. the waters of Granus (the Roman god of hot springs). The name Aachen (in Latin: Aquisgrana) was derived from them. There are also records of bathtubs that the kings kept in their residences or took on trips.

Exemplary spur wheel from the windmill in Grądzkie,
phot. Semu, CC BY 4.0, source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Jagiellons are a special example. They were considered to be cleanliness-crazy in their era. According to Jan Długosz, Władysław Jagiełło bathed “every third day, and sometimes more often”, and the chronicler strongly condemned such exaggeration. It is also known that the king took his favourite horse-shaped bathtub with him when travelling. Did Jagiełło bathe so often? Of course: often for those times. Długosz did not like Jagiełło and used to be ill-willed and spiteful towards the king. Perhaps he deliberately wanted to attribute attention to hygiene – so strange in those times – to the monarch. The fact is, however, that Jagiełło’s relatives and successors were also considered overly enamoured with bathing. The hygienic habits of Jagiełło’s youngest brother, Bolesław Świdrygiełło, who bathed every day, were extreme, despite being fairly standard from our point of view. 

A special place in the history of hygiene in the lands of the former Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is held by the royal residence on Wawel Hill during the times of the last Jagiellons. Sigismund I the Old and Sigismund Augustus undertook the arduous task of rebuilding the old and overly cramped residence thoroughly. The new castle was equipped with the latest technical solutions.

Access to water was of key importance. The royal castle had its own pipeline, which pumped water onto the Wawel Hill. At its feet, from the north, by the Rudawka River, was a rurhaus or rurumus – the house of the supervisor of the Wawel water and sewage installation – called water craftsmanship. The creator of the Wawel pipeline and its first supervisor in 1502 was a Czech, Jan of Dobruszka. After him, in 1555, the function was taken over by Italian-born Mateusz Morano. Water for the pipeline was sourced from a well next to the rurhaus and filled the cistern with water. Then, the water was pumped through metal (iron, lead and copper) pipes leading to the top of the hill. The pumping mechanism was powered by the current of the Rudawka stream moving the spur wheel in the same way as in watermills. Hot water was also pumped to the castle through copper pipes. Thanks to the Wawel Castle accounts, we know that the pipes used for this purpose had valves and taps, which probably facilitated operating the water pipeline.

Portrait of Sigismund I the Old, Wawel Royal Castle – State Art Collection, public domain

In the area of the Wawel residence of the last Jagiellons, there were two baths serving the royal couple. The queen’s bath was adjacent to her apartments in the west wing of the castle, built already by Aleksander Jagiellonian and intended for his own palace. Water was pumped to the bath through a pipeline from the rurhaus. The king’s bath was outside the castle, at the feet of the eastern wing of the castle. A roofed walkway, which was marked out through the castle gardens, led to the bath. In addition, the royal apartments in Kurza Noga (the tower in the north-east wing of the castle) contained a small royal bathroom. Most courtiers could not, however, enjoy the luxuries reserved for the royal couple and their closest entourage. Officials and servants used bathtubs filled with water from numerous Wawel wells.

The demand for water was enormous, because the royal court at the time of the last two Jagiellons numbered several hundred, and periodically even over a thousand people. Guests with their servants and petitioners constantly arriving at the castle should be added to this number. Wawel was then the residence of the monarch and the seat of several important offices and courts of law. In exceptional cases, the Sejm (Polish Parliament), which normally held sessions in Piotrków, was also convened there. The water to meet the needs of so many people was collected in cisterns on the castle floors and in tubs in the kitchen. In addition to those, there were 19 copper fire cisterns in the attics.

It is well known that the Wawel royal castle was equipped with numerous privies.  The king, as well as the chamberlain (an official managing royal apartments), living in the apartment next to the monarch, had their own locus secretus. Sewage from the privies was discharged in two ways: it fell into sewage pits, which had to be periodically emptied at a significant cost, or through the sewage system to the rivers, the Vistula and Rudawka. Most of the castle’s inhabitants, however, used buckets and chamber pots, whose embarrassing contents had to be carried outside the hill in vats.

There were also other installations in the Wawel residence, thanks to which the life of its inhabitants was comfortable. It is known that, apart from the fireplaces and tiled stoves, an installation called hypokaustum was also used for heating. However, this does not denote the underfloor heating known from ancient Rome, but a system of ventilation ducts channeling warm and dry air heated by stoves in the queen’s bath and kitchen to some of the castle rooms.

The accounts of the construction, equipment and maintenance of Wawel castle testify to admirable care for hygiene at a time when sanitary facilities were a luxury, and a bath required careful preparation. It is easy to imagine that, when the king wanted to take a bath, someone had to be sent to the house of the pipeline supervisor with orders. Then, the water in the cistern had to be topped up, the fire lit, and time had to be allowed for its warming and triggering the spur wheel. Only then could the king’s servants turn on the hot water tap. However, the overwhelming majority of contemporaneous Europe could not hope for such amenities.

Elaborated by Adam Spodaryk (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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Painting “Portrait of Sigismund I the Old”

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