The Europe of Jan Sobieski: Baroque and Poland
Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów

Passage to knowledge

Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów

The Europe of Jan Sobieski: Baroque and Poland Jarosław Krawczyk
Wilanowski widnokrąg

This article is a fragment of book published by Museum of King Jan III's Palace at Wilanow in 2010

Fuit homo missus a Deo, cui nomen erat Johannes (There was a man sent by God, whose name was John) – with these words from the prologue to the Gospel of John Vienna welcomed our King after liberation from terrible siege. Not only the inhabitants of Vienna saw in him a man sent by the Providence – the victorious Polish King was a change for numerous and multilingual nations. Norman Davies, currently the most popularly read British historian in Poland, expressed very accurately the dimension of Sobieski's success in his God's Playground:

Sobieski is one of the very few names from Polish history to be widely known to the world at large. He has been eulogized by contemporaries and historians alike. According to John Milton, he was 'the first of the Polanians to show that the terrible, main battalion of the Turk might be broke at one stroke.' His military skill was specially praised by Clausewitz who named him as one of the greatest generals of all time. A household name in Poland, he has been remembered throughout Europe as the King who saved the Empire and Christendom from the Infidel. This is why it is not easy to paint the face hidden under the mask of glory or – more importantly – to describe problems of the kingdom overshadowed by the glorious deeds of its monarch1.  

This is indeed the case, as the glory of victories and "the mask of fame" have always embarrassed Polish historians. It should be drawn aside, but nobody wants to overshadow the final sparkles of the military glory of the old Commonwealth. After all, Jan Sobieski, despite his significant achievements in other areas, was first of all a master of battlefields and the grandest "master of the sword" in the country's history. Even Wilanów, his beautiful residence near Warsaw, is to a large extent a product of his Vienna victory.

Truth to tell (or perhaps this is only natural) there exist in Poland two disproportionate narrations about Sobieski: one "golden" and heroic and the other – not so much "black" as "grey," eagerly presenting the King's ordinariness. The most eloquent advocate of the first was Henryk Sienkiewicz, who in his Colonel Wołodyjowski book put up a grand monument to Sobieski as a hero and leader of the holy squad of desperadoes who, despite the indifference of their compatriots – shielded their homeland with their own chests. We can remember the final scene of Colonel Wołodyjowski with Sobieski entering the collegiate in Stanisławów to pay posthumous tribute to his favourite soldier:

All the eyes turned to him and a shiver passed through people as he walked, his spurs clanking, towards the hearse with a face of a Roman emperor, huge... A line of iron knights followed him – Salvator! – shouted a priest in rapture.

On the other hand, the most emphatic supporter of the other narration was Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, who in his charming Marysieńka Sobieska pulls Sobieski down from the highest pedestal in Poland. And it is not without reason or benefit, as we need such books in Poland very much: the hero's coat covers his body so tightly that it might seem that the Polish national Pantheon is populated by almost bodiless figures.

It does not mean, however, that Sobieski's golden legend is false. This is not the case and it is always worth reminding other reasons for his glory, not only Vienna. Let us try to imagine what "St. Martin's summer" in the Commonwealth would look like if it was not for Sobieski's determined and indefatigable protection of its borders. Sobieski presented by Boy as a great letter writer, an always disappointed lover and a man full of human weaknesses should not overshadow someone whose will and talents liberated masses of people from the ordeal of Turkish slavery. How to express the dimension of saved human lives? It is a very "human" observation point for the life and deeds of Jan Sobieski. Thus, the most impressive is the fantastic expedition of 1671, when Sobieski's brain and sword helped annihilate an exceptionally painful Tatar invasion at its very beginning. Nobody had done that before. Effectively, if only once, blocking bloodshed in the country's borderlands is the most reliable certificate of Sobieski's heroism. Unfulfilled tragedies, saved people and happy end with Sobieski's cavalry entering the scene in the nick of time – is a ready scenario for a feature film with a borderland and western story. Moreover, according to the German historian Leopold von Ranke – this is what really happened.

Unfortunately, he was the last great leader of the old Poland, which, among the flapping of Hussar wings, was heading straight towards the partitions. The Polish King's decisive role in the Vienna ordeal was undermined in many ways from the very beginning. This was partly the effect of Habsburg propaganda (not surprisingly) and partly... Polish propaganda. Publication of the king's famous letter to his wife "from Vizier's tents," where he colourfully described the trophies won "by his sabre," resulted in speculations that Sobieski was not so much the leader of united Christianity but an "Oriental warrior" who went to war in hope of lavish loot (which by the way suited his "Levant" tastes). Any book from Western Europe (not necessarily German) will tell you that our king should share his triumph with Charles of Lorraine and even the heroic defender of Vienna, Count Ernst Starhemberg. German engravings of the epoch often present Jan III in the background as only one of the few authors of the victory.

Nonetheless, Jan Sobieski had excellent press coverage among outsiders. It took the Polish Slavic scholar 438 densely printed pages to list (together with short descriptions) the literary publications in various languages devoted to Sobieski. However, we must not be deceived by panegyrics. Undoubtedly, bells immediately started ringing in Christian capitals, flowers were thrown and cheers were shouted, with brave Vienna inhabitants in the lead, welcoming the Polish Kings with the exclamation: "Ach, unzer brawe Kenik!" At least this is what King Jan wrote in the staggering German language of his pretty letters to Marysieńka.

However, the ecstasy of joy was alarmingly quickly replaced by post-battle frustration that did not spare Sobieski himself, who complained, for example, about the way he was received by the Emperor. After all, he was the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. As if the king overestimated his own role and the role of the state – not so much in what had happened but what should happen. Somehow, this frustration stayed in us, co-creating the deeply rooted conviction of Poles that they often fight "for your freedom" rather than for their own national interest.
The final collapse of Jan's reign is also the offspring of Vienna. One does not have to be an expert psychologist to realise that the ambitions awakened by the triumph over Mustafa pushed the King to the disastrous Moldova expeditions whose political reasons are limited almost entirely to dynastic illusions. It is a truly tragic image: a great commander, one of the grandest in his epoch, with his own hands breaks the weapon of his victories that he had been with so much effort creating for many years. As if he lost sight of the most ravenous enemy of the Commonwealth – Russia. Russia is responsible for pushing his state into a humiliatingly defensive position. Pursuant to the Eternal Peace Treaty of 1686, which confirmed and deepened the Polish defeat of the Truce of Andrusovo of 1667, the Commonwealth definitely gives away to Russia Left-Bank Ukraine with Kiev and Smolensk – an area that determined the position of power in East Europe. Moreover, it gives Moscow the right to protect the Orthodox church in Poland, which is poorly balanced by the right to Polish protection over Catholics living in the Tzar's state. The symmetry was only apparent, as very few Catholics lived in Russia. The latter knew how to make a good use of it. By allowing the neighbouring superpower to interfere with its internal affairs, the Commonwealth practically resigned from its full sovereignty.

The great impotence ("escheat" as Tadeusz Łopalewski called it in his famous novel) was to stay for good in the Commonwealth. Claude Carloman de Rulhiere, the influential French historian and diplomat (for example, he wrote books to educate the French heir to the throne), was the author of two books where he blames Sobieski for Poland's partitions. Was he right?

The problem is that both the laurels and the miseries of Sobieski's times were deeply rooted in the condition of the state that he took the lead of after his brilliant military and official career. After all, both one and the other are the effects of the same cause, the inefficiency of the state that exceeds its possibilities, the weakness of the state whose borders must be protected by a handful of desperadoes. Jan Sobieski, Jan III, the great commander, talented statesman and exceptional cultural patron, came at a time that was unfavourable for his homeland.

Let us look at the dates of his life: 1629-1696. Sobieski was born when the beautiful era of Renaissance had already been gone and 30 years after the death of Jan Kochanowski. The illusion of superpower was also finished – 15 years earlier, Russians had chased away the last of the Polish garrison from the Kremlin. However, a few years after the birth of the future king and the brilliant victory in the Smolensk war, the area of the Commonwealth came close to one million square kilometres! And that area was inhabited by appr. 10 million people only. Meanwhile, during his lifetime, the area of the Commonwealth shrank by 25% and trade on the Vistula River (very important) reduced by half, while the import of luxurious goods increased by almost 60%. It was not Sobieski's fault, but these numbers are alarming. The condition of Polish economy was emphatically described by the Swiss economist Philip Oldenburger: “Poland is lying sick. Will any Ascelpius come and find a cure for such disease?”2

And not long ago it was an authentic superpower. The best times for the Commonwealth are best symbolised by the dates of birth and death of Jan Zamoyski (1542-1605). The son of a non-significant Chełmno Castellan studied in Paris and Padua, where he even received the title of rector, which was not the head of a university, but rather of student self-government. This is an important information: Sobieski, much younger, did not study anything during his trip to the West: he only went on a typical magnate educational voyage. By the way, at this time, studying abroad, especially in Italy, was no longer so popular among Europeans, as domestic universities developed and they could stay at home to study. The problem is that in Poland education did not develop on a high level.

Zamoyski's career developed in an impressive way. First Zygmunt August's secretary, then tribune of the noble people during interregnum, informal Vice King, Grand Hetman and Chancellor during Batory's reign and finally a leader of the opposition during Zygmunt III's reign. Jan Zamoyski was one of the authors of the political system of the Commonwealth, constructor of the ideal town of Zamość, great patron of culture and victorious leader in numerous campaigns. He was the one who captured a Habsburg duke during the Battle of Byczyna, which could be considered as a visible sign of the power of the Commonwealth. The House of Sobieski started its splendid career at Zamoyski's side.

He was a truly Renaissance personage, even though he was not free of strong Baroque contrasts. It is hard to draw a sharp line between what was of the Renaissance and what was of the Baroque in Poland: both in human behaviour and in architecture or the art of politics. In this period, various styles freely mixed with one another: Renaissance, mannerism, Gothic and Baroque forms hat to coexist in our cultural landscape in relative harmony. It is enough to have a look at the townhouses in Kazimierz Dolny.

Also, the state was a multicultural and multireligious and each national group in the Commonwealth greatly contributed to the common heritage. On the other hand, architecture Baroque entered Poland at an express pace: only 5 years after consecration of the Jesuit church Il Gesu in Rome, the first in history fully Baroque building, Jan Maria Bernardoni erected in Nieśwież a temple in Jesuit Baroque style. One can but admire the efficiency and energy of Jesuit fathers in creating a network of their own shrines that popularised the new style of architecture and religiosity. It was a new and huge communication rout of the culture of the West – a line of Jesuit churches still determines the Eastern border of the Latin Europe.

In literature, too, a "self-conscious" Baroque demeanour started developing in Poland relatively early. The best example is the poetry of Mikołaj Sęp Szarzyński (1550-1581), which clearly contrasts the harmonious visions of Jan Kochanowski. The humanistic apology of peace and quiet (the "holidays in the countryside" of Jan of Czarnolas) is juxtaposed by Sęp with a new kind of humanism strongly oriented at "fighting for superior values," both "internal" and "external." "Peace is happiness but fighting – our aerial existence."3 Shortly after, the great Piotr Skarga (1536-1612), the herald of Polish counter-reformation, wrote:

You, the Polish nation, having enjoyed a long period of peace (...) have accumulated wealth: gold, silver and silk, unknown to your ancestors. God grant us more and spare us from being spoilt by your peace...4 

Naturally, Skarga moves lofty philosophical assumptions to an entirely practical level, as he firmly says: war! War to have faith in self-perfection towards redemption, but also was for the faith – sword in hand. War against the Crescent.

This type of militant pursuits also troubled crowned heads. Stefan Batory wanted to invade the Ottoman Empire via the defeated Russia, and similar ideas were cultivated also by Władysław IV, which is strongly related to the Khmelnytsky Uprising (1648), so catastrophic for Poland. In a moment that was crucial for the noble state, the mother of Marek and Jan Sobieski ordered her sons to return from abroad and go to bloody battlefields with Cossack rebels. Jan was particularly brave in a Battle of Berestechko (1651), where he was seriously wounded in his head.

This is perfectly compliant with the heroic and educational history of the Sobieski brothers' childhood. The mother takes her sons to the grave of the honoured great-grandfather, the "funeral Hetman”, Stanisław Żółkiewski (1547–1620), who, sword in hand, sacrificed his life for the faith and homeland on the Cecora battlefield. On his Renaissance tombstone in Zółkiew was engraved a quotation from one of Horace's Odes: O, quam dulce et utile est pro patria mori. It is a splinter of the sacrificial chivalric epic of the Polish Baroque that was probably best expressed in early 17th century by the poet Jan Jurkowski (1580-1635) in his poem bearing a characteristic title: Tragedy of the Polish Scylurus and three royal sons of the Polish Homeland(1604). Of the three sons presenting here the models of life, the closest to the author is the one who chose the way of the sword – Hercules, the brave borderland knight, who "wades stomach deep in blood on his horse" and "treats Podolia like Padua."5 The Padua whose rector was Jan Zamoyski, the Hercules who would later be represented on the Wilanów façades as a mythical embodiment of Jan III.

The heroic vision with Sobieski as the main figure penetrated deep into the broadest stream of domestic culture, mainly due to Stanisław August (1732-1798), the restorer and – partly – author of Polish royal myths. But another driving force, which is never said too often, was Sienkiewicz with his talent. Probably, the vision would take Jan III even higher, if it was not for the catastrophe of the second trilogy that was supposed to be devoted to his times. Jan Sobieski was perfect for his role, not only because he desperately defended the borders of the Commonwealth, but also because of his family blood shed at Wild Fields. Sobieski: the Polish Hercules, borderland knight, always sword in hand. This theme was to recur many times... But let us now have a look at a non-Hercules portrait of King Jan drawn by one Robert South, an English clergyman who knew well both Sobieski and Poles in general.

He is a Prince of large face and round eyes: he always dresses like his subjects, his hair is trimmed around his ears like a monk's, he wears a fur hat, profusely decorated with diamonds and gems and a large moustache; he wears no scarf on his neck. His coat-like robe is heel-length, underneath he wears the same length tunic belted tight at the waist. He never puts on gloves and his long coat is made of thick scarlet cloth, sumptuously bordered with fur in the wintertime and edged with silk in the summertime. Instead of regular boots, he wears – both at home and outside – Turkish leather shoes with very thin soles with hollow heels made of silver plates the shape of half-moon. He always has a huge sabre at his belt in a flat sheath that is of the same width from the hilt to the tip of the blade and artfully set with diamonds...6 

Every Polish eye more or less familiar with the domestic culture will discover in this colourful figure an ideal Sarmatian – Jan Sobieski focuses in himself, like a lens, all the glows and shadows of Sarmatism. Moreover, his is the best recognisable form of Sarmatism – with visible Oriental undertones.

Sarmatism is also to a large extent the effect of Sobieski's victories that flooded the entire noble Commonwealth with Turkish loot. The Oriental objects perfectly matched the lifestyle of the Polish nobility that previously had also fancied military accessories of the East: horse tacks, corrazinas, kalkans, quivers and what not. After all, in order for a foreign fashion to develop (and fashions are mostly "foreign"), a large amount of items of certain origin must suddenly materialise before the eyes of a given society. Khotyn and Vienna effectively awakened the appetite for Turkish chic and splendour – the loser in a way

defeated the winner. If we were to believe an old but still nutritious book by Władysław Łoziński, the horse that King Jan was riding during his entry to Krakow for the crowning ceremony had a tack made of pure gold (with around 2,000 rubies and emeralds on it), which was a loot taken from Hussein Pasha's steed at Khotyn. This tack is in a way a "signature of the Polish taste of these special times – ironically writes the author – fond of a thick effect and mistaking wealth for beauty and splendour for art."7 Jan III gave the magnificent tack to the Duke of Tuscany, which, at his aesthetically refined court, was supposedly commented with these words: "cosa del barbaro lusso" – an instance of passion for barbarian luxury. Whether or not this was true, it looks like the biggest "revenge of Kara Mustafa”.

In her great memoirs, Françoise de Motteville, the parlour made of Anne of Austria, remembering with admiration the magnificent garments of the Polish legacy for Marie Louise, could not prevent feeling certain reluctance.

Scythians never indulged in pleasures and their descendants, currently near neighbours of Turks, tend to imitate the wealth and grandeur of the Turkish sultan. They still manifest traces of former barbarity8  

Whichever way we read it: Scythians are us. Alexander Blok, the great Russian poet of the turn of the 20th century, and author of the famous poem "Scythians", a modernist manifesto of the Asian nature of Moscow – "These are us, Scythians, with dangerously slanting eyes...," would be greatly surprised by her words.

But let us put jokes aside, because in fact Sarmatism, the only one in history indigenous Polish (or that of the "Commonwealth") formula of culture, cut Poland away from its Western sources and pushed the noble lifestyle further on to the East. Naturally, the fascination with Turkey was not limited to the citizens of the Commonwealth. Let alone the Turkish impact in countries conquered by the High Porte, France, its ancient ally in numerous political and military undertakings, was also excited about the Bosphorus climates. In 1669, Louis XIV (1638-1715) received the famous Suleiman Aga's legacy: chevalier d’Arvieux writes in his memoirs that the King commissioned him, Molière (1622-1673) and Lully (1632-1687) to write an elegant pièce de théâtrepresenting the costumes and manners of the exotic guests. The effect was more than elegant and in October 1670 the super funny The Burgeois Gentleman was staged in Chambord, with superb Jourdain dreaming about the dignity of a grand mamamusci at the Sultan's court:

Mahameta per Żurdina – Ja se modli każdhodina – Bende czyni Paladina – Con galera, brigantina – Per obrrrona Palestina – …dara dara dara dara – bastonara, bastonara9

(translation by Tadeusz Żeleński-Boy)

Two years later, the great Jean Racine (1639–1699) would write Bajazet, a tragedy about a love affair at the Turkish court that in fact took place several dozen years earlier in Istanbul and became a popular topic of Baroque operas. The 17th century, the age of Corneille, Racine, Molière, Descartes, Pascal and Lully, was in the history of the French culture the âge classique, the age of standards and proportions, although sometimes on a gigantic scale, nonetheless, it had nothing to do with the barbaro lusso.

The cultures of Poland and France juxtaposed to the Turkish culture, now that is an interesting field for interpretative manoeuvres. This is where the figure of Sobieski – the ideal Sarmatian, starts to transform with alarming dynamics. After all, our hero is a declared francophile, even when the Polish politics dramatically changes its direction towards the Habsburg party.

True, Sobieski probably did not read the constellation of classical French writers. It is hard to imagine the tough officer (which he indeed was!) pondering about the work of Descartes or Pascal in the camp. Our hero was formed in another, much less lofty stream of French literature: the pastoral romances the like of Astreaby Honore d‘Urfé, which was the source of inspiration for love codes for him and Marysieńka. It is, by the way, a strongly epigonic trend rooted in the culture of late Renaissance Italy, such as Guriani's famous Pastor Fido. However, Sobieski's attitude to France was exceptional: while others continued to modify old Polish language with Latin, he started writing letters in French. He was probably the only one to do so with such charm and on such a scale. Given the huge role of Latin language in the Sarmatian culture, the use of French adds new wings to his epistolography, which swiftly raise it above the old Polish literature towards much later times. As years passed, the subtle scar on the portrait of the "ideal Sarmatian" became increasingly pronounced.

And Sobieski was not the only one. France's popularity in Polish culture is foretold in another, perhaps even more expressive way, by the great talent of Jan Andrzej Morsztyn (1621–1693; note: in the 17th century, there were as many as four quite good Polish poets named Morsztyn!), whose poetic virtuosity may easily compete with any poet from Paris. But he was not a Sarmatian.

He serves as a good example of the obvious thesis that in the 17th century, Sarmatism, though the most "proper," was not the only form of old Polish culture. Soon after, an open battle started between local Sarmatians-traditionalists and Occidentalists, which dramatically stigmatised the Polish culture of the next century. The spiritual rebirth of the nation would not come from Sarmatism, but it would rather be the effect of "the age of lights," also co-created by the notion of "Sarmatism" as the "villain of culture." Earlier, only Sarmatia and Sarmatism were mentioned, with which the noble nation eagerly associated its origin and traditions.

The obvious fact that Sarmatism was outdated even then is partly explained by its Mediaeval roots: even before Miechowita's treaty about two Sarmatias, various proto-Sarmatian intuitions had been wandering about in Polish culture. But probably those are right who claim that Sarmatism acquired its complete intellectual outfit between 1578 and 1587 as a result of the following three compositions: Aleksander Gwagnin's (Sarmatiae Europeae descriptio), Maciej Stryjkowski's (Która przedtym nigdy świata nie widziała, Kronika polska, litewska i wszystkiej Rusi) and Stanisław Sarnicki's (Annales sive de origine et rebus gestis Polonorum et Lituanorum libri octo)10. An "intellectual costume," because it was a quite coherent complex of notions about the origin, genesis and social order of the state of the Polish nobility or – as others prefer to call it – the noble republic, the Commonwealth. In its basic form, it would last to the times of King Jan, or even longer. Unlike the "costume-outfit" that would strongly evolve – Jan Zamoyski would wear Hungarian-style clothes at the times of King Batory. It is up to garment scientists to determine the actual Turkish impact here.

Experts, depending on their – more or less eligible – ideological attitude, highlight various elements of the Sarmatian system of beliefs. Some focus on its civic and democratic content – the love of freedom so typical of Polish nobility. Others emphasise its clannish features – a deep and almost obsessive attachment to the long history and traditions of a family. Yet others eagerly speak of the idea antemurale, which is in harmony with the spirit of Counter-Reformation, but also the heroic truth and legend of the borderlands. On top of all this is the deep belief that the governance of the chosen noble nation's state has been given to it by God, like it has fallen from heaven, which means that it must be perfect and as such – it must remain unchanged. It would not be right to claim that any element of this ideology is new or originally Polish. However, all of them effectively support and illuminate one another, creating is effect something very identical and "proper."

It is undoubtedly the power of Sarmatian ideology that still affects our imagination. This is of course to a large extent due to Henryk Sienkiewicz, who knew how to exaggerate various shortcomings and peculiarities of the noble nation in a way that invariably attracts subsequent generations of Poles. Earlier historical novels were rarely set in the 17th century. Józef Ignacy Kraszewski (1812–1887) preferred the times of the respective Houses of Piast and Jagiełło. Nota bene Jan Matejko, did too. His only large scale 17th century vision wasSobieski at Vienna, a painting that still takes by surprise crowds of visitors to the Vatican Museums. In the order of Polish historical imagination, Sobieski the victor is inevitable. However, Sienkiewicz aroused our interest in the earliest years of the Commonwealth. His Trilogy starts in 1648, when the Polish-Lithuanian state, catastrophically beaten by Khmelnytsky's rebels, almost invited its enemies to invasion.

We should not wonder at Polish paradoxes – the old Commonwealth was a state full of extreme contradictions. Sometimes it seems that its driving force is a resultant of a constant conflict of its main elements. The republican and liberal spirit vs. tough traditionalism, the clan vs. the state, the cult of chivalric bravery vs. the idyllic charms of rural life, militarism vs. pacifism, the cast system vs. multiethnicity, the family pride vs. the lordly doorknob, etc. It could be concluded that for ages, the Commonwealth was a state on a balance beam and it was doomed to fall off it sooner or later. It seems miraculous that it stayed on it for so long, sometimes despite making acrobatic manoeuvres. It is partly true, but such metamorphosis dangerously brings to mind the idea of the balance of power, so characteristic of a state of modern democracy. Even though this idea was not foreign to some ideologists of the state of the Polish nobility, it is hard to speak of balance given the dramatically growing influence of decentralising factors that – equally importantly – were opposed to any broader-scale modernisation. Trying to find there the roots of democratic modernity leads nowhere.

Truth to tell, Jan Sobieski was one of the representatives of the magnate elite who were determined to streamline the state's mechanisms. Their centre was the court of King Jan Kazimierz (1609-1672) and the main driving force of major political campaigns – Queen Marie Louise (1611-1667). When forming her party, she used, probably imitating Catherine de' Medici, very feminine arguments and she married her French maids to influential magnates. Such arguments may be extremely effective, and Sobieski is the best example, since Maria d’Arquien de la Grange, primo voto Zamoyski, remained the love of his life till the very end. She acquired her in scandalous circumstances (the first husband had only just died) together with the mace of the Grand Marshal and the baton of the Grand Hetman of the Crown. He took the two important offices from Jerzy Lubomirski (1616-1667), his former commander and good friend, when he set off on a rokosz rebellion. The rebellion, against centralised reforms of the state, was a catastrophe for them. The defeat comes in the Battle of Mątwy (1666), where Sobieski played a not very glorious role. For the rebelling nobility, the idea of reforming the state was inevitably associated with an attack against their basic noble rights in order to introduce the French absolutum dominium.

The triumphant rebels sang a song that is known to us through Sienkiewicz in an anti-Swedish form:

Slash the French, slash.
Take a sharp sword.
Beat the French beat.
Impale them...

This is hardly surprising, as the Polish-French relations had been extremely complicated over the last few decades. In 1573, the virtuosic diplomacy of Catherine de' Medici brought a French prince to the Polish throne. It was not only a dynastic movement but also an element of a broader political plan. Paris still remembered the horror of being "clamped" from the East and from the West by the Austrian House, the permanent rival of the Capetian Dynasty. Placing Henry of Valoise (1551-1589) on the Polish throne gave a chance for French-Polish "reverse clamps" that could strangle the Empire surrounded by kingdoms ruled by French princes. King Henry of Valoise was fully aware of that. As we know, his short reign ended with the King's tragicomic escape from the Wawel castle and mutual French-Polish animosities. The great poet Philippe Desportes dedicated to Poland the following insulting farewell poem:

Goodbye obscene Poland, the land of longing
Forests and deserts are your utmost delight (...)
Since you live in peace, you fight with the game,
Since you are poor, your neighbours don't care about you,
Your poor cities have hardly enough food...

The grudge on the Polish part was much deeper, grounded deep in the noble soul that loved the supposed perfection of its state. The more so that France, if only it wished, could painfully punish Poland without any sentiments. For example, in 1638 Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) imprisoned the Polish Prince Jan Kazimierz, who, on his picturesque and absurd sea voyage for Portuguese Vice Kingdom, imprudently stepped on French land. Instead of obtaining the Habsburg dignity, the future Polish King spent two years in French prisons and the helpless Polish diplomacy threatened France with a... war. This was another offence, as royal blood of the Jagiellonian family (Jan Kazimierz was the grandson of Katarzyna Jagiellonka) was saint for the noble fraternity.

Moreover, after the disaster with Valoise, the political climate did not stimulate France's popularity in Poland. In line with its anti-Habsburg doctrine, Paris supported the military powers of Sweden and Turkey, which were constant enemies of the Poland of the Waza Dynasty. Sweden was its rival for dominance over the Baltic Sea (which coincided with a dynastic dispute within the Waza family) and Turkey – for control over Wallachia and Moldova, which were only a stone's throw from the Black Sea. There were also the Cossacks, too, whose regular raids on the properties of the High Porte exasperated its leaders. It does not mean, however, that Poland was entirely passive. The two Kings preceding Jan Kazimierz – Stefan Batory (1533-1586) and Władysław IV (1595-1648) planned large-scale anti-Turkish campaigns. In their dreams, the Polish antemuralebesieged Istanbul. Jan III in Vienna was the heir of those dreams.

On the other hand, Jan Sobieski had for a long time been attached to France – understood as a model of national reforms and a cultural model, even despite the disrespectful gestures of Louis XIV, who did not intend to give Jan III a proper place at the "table of monarchs." In 1675, soon after the election, Jan III concluded an agreement with France in Jaworów, whereby France, in exchange for an alliance with France and Sweden against the Empire and the Elector of Brandenburg, promised to give Poland Silesia and the Duchy of Prussia, as well as support in peace agreements with Turkey. However, one year later, Poland was once again invaded by Turkey, whom the King managed with great effort to resist at the camp near Żórawno. France as if overslept it: this was a mistake and soon, Habsburg and British armies appeared near Paris. Perhaps stakes at Poland would be a sensible solution?

All the same, Jan III stuck to his alliance with France: a breakthrough only happened after an unimportant dispute set up by the French diplomacy. The King finally had enough and in 1683, he accepted the offer of the Empire, which at that time was on the brink of a catastrophe. The antemurale for the first time after a prolonged break, actually went to attack. The Polish wall set off to Vienna.

The question of the rationality of this endeavour continues to excite Polish historians. And not only them. It is evident that the military success was brilliant – but the political success – minor. Nonetheless, politics is about movement: those who stay still, sooner or later lose. The march to Vienna was in fact the only possible political activity that the Poland of Sobieski could undertake.

Naturally, despite Austrian grants and the military talents of the king unbeaten in his struggles with the Crescent, the risk was high. The Ottoman Porte, even though it was already past its best times, still remained in quite a good condition. After the terrible defeat suffered by Turkey from the brave Venice in 1656, the power in the empire that was slowly but inevitably going down, was captured by the Albanian Mehmed Köprülü. Using cruel measures, he restored order in the administration, the treasure and in particular the army, in the fully liberated janissaries corps. The ruling of the Köprülü family, which lasted until 1667, is considered to be the renaissance of Turkish imperial ambitions. Paweł Jasienica once compared the Porte to a predator with too short intestines that, in order to live, needs to constantly devour something. The mechanism, as it seems, applies to every empire comme il faut, the Roman Empire including. Franco Cardini, professor at the Florence University, in his lively written cook about Europe and Islam, reminds an old legend about the Red Apple, that pushed steppe riders and their descendants towards the cities of their dreams:

Ottoman Turks also had their dreams and prophecies. Nations refer to their distant past and draw from the depths of their histories. The history of the Ural-Altaic people is associated with two mythical archetypes that struggle with each other in a fierce dialogue: for one, the reference point is the Wolf, a huge primeval beast that has existed from the beginning of time; the centre of the other is the eternal object of desire and the source of happiness – the Apple (...). The term "Red Apple" with reference to a city was interpreted (in the casual language) as a huge golden cupola; for the descendants of Osman and his people, these were Hagia Sofia in Constantinople, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and, in subsequent ages, Buda and Vienna...11 

In 1663, twenty years before Sobieski's victory, Ottoman Turks, having defeated the Tzar's army had Vienna within easy reach (from today's Bratislava). The dramatic appeals for help were heard even by the Sun King and one year later, Louis XIV's corps supported the Emperor's army in the famous Battle of Szentgotthárd on the Rába River, where Raimondo Montecuccoli effectively defeated the Turks. However, in 1669, the Turks conquered Candia and returned to their former positions. The chance to consume the "Red Apple" was once again realistic. God knows whether that would satisfy the High Porte's appetite. Would Krakow be the next apple?

We can only guess or, if you prefer, discuss "historical alternatives." On the other hand, the history confirmed by sources tells us that by the end of Jan III's reign, the political formula of the Commonwealth was exhausted and no victory could pull it out of apathy. Besides, after the terrible 17th century, the country damaged by wars needed to take a breath and it could not afford great events or great transformations. And all the Vienna victor could do was to cultivate his beloved apple – Wilanów.

An Antique hero by the River Vistula – codes and symbols

A piece of art manifests itself to a viewer as a harmony of forms of meanings. It has been long said that paintings, sculptures and architectural creations may speak through symbols or allegories, or even a code of various signs, or sometimes through the written language, such as inscriptions that often contain a "key" to understanding the whole system. As it is, various great and culturally important architectural creations are accompanied by entire sequences of meanings, usually arranged in such a way as to present the founder's splendour.
The European culture that we are authorised to call our own has for ages had two main catalogues of meanings, their two huge reservoirs that have provided input for a multitude of works of art. The first is the tradition of the still pagan Antiquity, which in the period rightly called the Renaissance once again ornamented the imagination of Europeans with themes from the Mythology and Ancient history. The other is the tradition of the Old and New Testaments (that could be collectively called Judeo-Christian), whose themes were the main point of support for religious thinking and manifestations. These are the two main pillars of the spiritual structure that we call Europe.

It is pointless, and it could even destabilise the entire construction, to put one before the other. Rather, it should be admitted that despite the two dimensions of the European heritage were in open conflict, they continually inspired and illuminated each other. In Middle Ages, the ancient figures were almost completely removed from Europe, and they had to wait until the beautiful times of the Renaissance to return here in large numbers and for good. However, it should be noted that even in the "darkest" centuries of the Middle Ages sparkles of the Antique genius continued to glow here and there – especially in France and Italy. Alexander, Caesar or August never died completely, and they found a convenient refuge in the names, titles or nicknames of monarchs. Plato's philosophy illuminated the early Christian theology, whereas the great Aristotle (with much help from Arabs) settled down for good in its most characteristic form – the scholasticism. The classic authors of Latin literature were never forgotten, either.

A new synthesis (as it should probably be called) took place in the Renaissance, when Christian temples once again incorporated the Antique systems, and Greek gods changed from devils and demons into servants at monarch and aristocratic (or even merchant) courts, those of the clergy including. After the first boom of the Renaissance in Florence, Vatican took the lead as the greatest patron of the new art. After all, Raphael's stanzas and Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel were created in the papal residency and were financed by popes.

In those times, almost entire Italy was seized by a fascination for everything Ancient that had been developing for a hundred years. Apart from historical monuments, various Ancient texts were also the object of interest. In Dante's Divine Comedy, Virgil is the guide through Hell and Purgatory. That was only early 13th century, but between 1460 and 1600, various works by Virgil were published in Europe as many as 546 times! Most of them were of course published in Italy, whose elites were very familiar with Antique poets: Virgil, Horace, Homer, Hesiod and Ovid, whose Metamorphoses were an inexhaustible source of themes for countless written and painted stories. Statius and Lucan were popular, too. Cicero and Latin historians were commonly read, probably the most popular of them being Titus Livius (59 BC – 17 CE), author of The History of Rome.

Subsequent waves of mythological iconography passed through graphic arts. A good "trademark" of these exceptional times for art could be for example the theme of the three Graces dancing for numerous Renaissance painters of different ages and styles: e.g. Botticelli, Raphael, Correggio. Dukes commissioned entire complexes of mythological paintings to decorate their residences. In Ferrara, the ruling House of d'Este had two such complexes: one in Palazzo Schifanoia, decorated by local masters and the other in Palazzo del Te, built and painted with Ovid's Metamorphoses by Giulio Romano (1499–1546), Raphael's talented disciple. The astrological meaning of the first frescos is so complicated that it was only deciphered in early 20th century by Aby Warburg (1866–1929), the great German scholar whose works gave rise to a new research method in the history of art called the iconology. In fact,. some of the Renaissance topics are quite ridiculous in their "Antique" erudition, for example the painting Scipio introducing the cult of the Cybele by Felice Feliciano of Verona12. Here, the passion for Antiquity is in radical conflict with Christian Iconography. Sometimes, Latinisation led to laicisation.

Another symptom was the fashion of the elites for giving Ancient names to children. In the abovementioned family d'Este, the name Hercules (Ercole) became a dynastic name, and Pope Alexander Borgia called his son Cesare and his daughter Lucrezia. The latter name comes from Livius – Lucrezia was a Roman lady who preferred death to the advances of King Tarquinius Superb.

Even more interesting is the fact that the famous painter Sodoma – in line with the history of his profession – called his son by the name of the Greek painter Apelles, and the architect Seregni – by the name of the Roman architect Virtuvius. Some names were quite amazing, for example the ruler of Milan called his daughter Polyxena, regardless of the macabre destiny of the mythical Polyxena, daughter of Priam and Hecuba, who ended her life on the sacrificial table. Moreover, the tragic name was "exported" to Slavic states: for example, it was given to the daughter of Jan Ostroróg, Polish Voivode and law theorist, as well as the daughter of the Czech magnate Vratislav of Lobkovice. The fathers of those Polyxenas, the same as Pope Borgia, could not believe in the fatal meaning of names. The names of living people vividly demonstrate the impact of Antiquity of Renaissance life.

Life, at least among the elites, who were the recipients of works of art, took a new pace: according the creator of the modern history of culture, Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897) their life itself became a humanistic work of art13. Sometimes they were immortalized in a way that is more proper of God (or gods) than as human being. At least one Renaissance duke – Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta – believed to be a god or at least demigod. In 1446, the tyrant of Rimini started rebuilding the local church of Saint Francis into a temple of his own glory, which was also supposed to be a posthumous monument of his art patronage. The places next to him were occupied by scholars and poets who had served him with his talents during their lifetime. Moreover, Malatesta transformed the church into a shrine of his self-love, extremely mundane and sinful. "He built a great temple to the glory of Saint Francis, as Pope Pius wrote (or, if you prefer, the humanist Enea Silvio Piccolomini) but filled it with so many pagan works that it seemed the shrine of not so much Christians but rather infidel pagans who worshipped daemons." There, he also built a tomb for his mistress, where he engraved the following pagan inscription: "DEVOTED TO A DIVINE BEING."

The "divine being" was his bloody and ruthless lover and later wife, Isotta degli Atti. The initials of the lovers are ostentatiously intertwined inside the church and an angel on the tomb has her facial features. Apart from all the evident differences, the Wilanów palace is also a structure of people in love.

Major changes took place in the European culture in the Baroque era, but the huge luggage of antique heritage did not get any lighter. Renaissance forms smoothly transformed into so many basic forms of Baroque art that it is hard to define some works of art with a single stylistic feature, especially if they were created over a longer period of time. There were painters, some of them great, such as for example Jacopo Tintoretto (1518–1594), whose art may be classified into three different stylistic categories: Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque. By the way, for some scholars, Mannerism is a late phase of Renaissance, for others – a separate style and yet for others – a trailer of Baroque. On the provincial soil of Polish culture, a culture of various speeds (in Masovia, Gothic structures were still created!), stylistic purity was blended more easily that elsewhere.

However, it is possible to identify the milestones of the development of Baroque art and breakthrough moments whose dynamics definitely limited the retreat from newly acquired forms. As far as the sacred architecture was concerned, the most important was the Il Gesu Jesuit church in Rome, whose structure was designed by Giacomo Vignola and façade – by Giacomo Della Porta. Even though all the individual elements of the new church existed in the Renaissance architecture, they were arranged according to a new system that unified the building's space. The great illusive Baroque theatre begins, full of playing with screens and veils, "false" distances and other complicated optical tricks. Only a few steps away from Il Gesu stands its "offspring", the San Luigi dei Francesi church, whose façade almost entirely obstructs the dome. Its vaults are covered with figures painted with such illusionistic artistry that sometimes it seems they could fall down on your head. Pietro da Cortona in Palazzo Barberini, Il Baccicia in Il Gesu, Andrea Pozzo in San Ignazio – they were probably the grandest masters of the wild flight of Baroque paintings.

However, there was also a deeper and more austere side to it. In the same church, San Luigi Michelangelo (a great name for a revolutionary painter) Merisi (1571–1610), better known as Caravaggio, painted, from 1597 to 1602, in Cardinal Matteo Contarellis chapel three pictures from the life of Saint Matthew the Evangelist. In his paintings, important roles in the history of Christianity are played by simple and common people, and even sometimes by characters from disreputable backstreet. In defiance of the refined heroes of the paintings of Renaissance masters, these people have tough facial features and hands, and often dirty feet. Sometimes, they were cruel people, because Caravaggio's brush turned the martyrdom of saints into barbarian executions.

Carravaggio, gifted with rare intuition, seized the grand historic moment for the Christian world, which was the Council of Trent between 1545 and 1563. Under the pressure of the quickly spreading Protestantism, an iconography of new, extremely dramatic emotions was decreed there: first of all martyrological: the martyrdom of saints was supposed to strike the hearts of the faithful with a straightforward and moving message. On the 15th century paintings of Fra Angelico (appr. 1387–1455), "the most pious painter of the century," even crucifixion is shown with elegance and flowing blood forms ornamental spots. Now, it was to gush out for real.

The new post-Trent martyrological iconography also affected, at least to some extent, the old gods. Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652) in his famous painting Apollo and Marsyas (1638) presented the scene of Marsyas' execution with unprecedented cruelty. The sun god flays his rival mad with pain with the cool precision of a sadist torturer. But Ribera was an artist who revelled in the macabre of martyrdom. In this competition, he was almost matched by the great Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), glorifier of the sensual joy of life. Between 1610 and 1611 he painted the amazing Juno and Argus, where streams of blood mix with fountains of milk springing from a female breast. When choosing an extremely sophisticated theme from Ovid's Metamorphoses, the most Baroque of painters behaved like a Renaissance artist that is in a downright mannerist way, fondly proving his mythological erudition.

A considerable role in preserving this knowledge was played by various compendia or allegorical templates, the like of Cesare Ripa's Iconography published in late 16th century. They offered an unequivocal and universal system for coordinating various types of content with specific figures of evidently Ancient origin. When an educated person saw such a figure, he or she would immediately know: this is Justice, this is Modesty and this is Virtue.

The system was lay, but if necessary, it could become a perfect medium for religious messages. In this sense, the allegory is a very handy bridge between the Ancient and Christian worlds. Ancient gods, goddesses, muses and heroes could walk the bridge quite unconstrained, providing support to Christ's religion. This is what the Baroque was like: on the one hand austere, sometimes striking realism and on the other – an Olympic world of book figures. The tension between the two poles is certainly what defines it; such contrast never existed before. The Renaissance realism, although at times emphatic and charming, never gets so expressive as in Caravaggio and a great many artists whose work would be unthinkable without his "lessons." One of them was also the great Rembrandt (1606–1669).

Probably the most extinguished master of the bright side of Baroque paintings was Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), a Frenchman who spent most of his adult life in Rome. His vision, full of stories of ancient authors, remains in a state of almost perfect calmness – the dream of an ideal Arcadian world undisturbed by any dramatic gestures, embodied in painted forms. Poussin, the great classic, had a perfect understanding of the contemplative aspects of the Antiquity. Sometimes it seems that if Virgil was a painter he would paint exactly this kind of pictures: calm and monumental. However, this very literary master believed that painting is subject to the same laws as architecture and that it is governed by the same orders and divisions. In the history of Baroque art, his works somehow balance Caravaggio's darkness. Poussin called the latter a pest and claimed that his goal was to destroy the art of painting.

Poussin was also a court painter, and he even worked for Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, and he painted The Labours of Hercules in the Louvre Grand Gallery. However, he managed to stay there for two years only: royal courts and complicated intrigues were not the best place for lofty spirits.     On the other hand, this is where the mythological Baroque developed the most. Virtually every European rules wanted to be Hercules or Apollo, like Jan III in Wilanów.

Sobieski was not the first in Polish to dress up in Antique and heroic costumes and attributes. According to Jerzy Banach, the leader here was Zygmunt III, who, during a tournament organised in 1592 in association with the King's marriage with Anne of Austria,

at the beginning appeared in the company of Atlas and Hercules. The latter reappeared later during the ceremony, in a different situation. This was the first public appearance of a Polish monarch in the company of an ancient hero...14 

Because of the two heroes, the King was considered fit to undertake similar work and efforts like them, holding up the celestial spheres including. Juliusz Chrościcki wrote in his book Sztuka i polityka (Art and Politics):

The iconography of the Polish Waza family contains antique motifs, for example Zygmunt III was presented as Hercules. Antique heroes – Aemilianus Scipio or Alexander the Great were Władysław IV. This King was the "Polish Mars," Apollo (like Louis XIII and Louis XIV) and Ganymede, like French kings. Jan Kazimierz was referred to and presented as Hercules, Apollo, Jupiter or Zeus15

defeating giants (like Henri IV or Rudolph II). Mary Louise was associated with the myth of Ariadne and Astraea and presented as Diana, Juno and Minerva, like French queens.  

The same author says that Jerzy Ossoliński liked to call himself Odysseus, and Prince Jarema – Atlas and, of course, Hercules, and after Zbarazh – Mars.

This trend existed in the whole Europe, but in Poland it was evidently of French provenance, or, more strictly speaking, of Versailles provenance, as Louis XIV probably outdid all his numerous rivals in mythological personifications. On the one hand, the Versailles palace is a great place but, to put it mildly – peculiar and paradoxical. Its gigantic form blended with almost endless gardens to some extent developed (20 kilometres away from Paris) from a modest hunters' pavilion, where the immortal Duke de Saint-Simon concluded that it had no views, no trees and no water. Construction lasted for decades and it engaged 22 thousand workers. Across the entire width of the main body of the building extends the amazingly glittering Hall of Mirrors with the monumentally spacious Peace and War Rooms on its sides... And yet, the place was crowded.

The reason was quite simple: the Monarch lodged on his court almost all the French nobility, who hurried to the hand of their lord. Outside the Versailles spring of grace, one was nobody; grand magnates almost literally sat on one another's heads in a peculiar pyramid of larger and smaller rooms, walk-in closets, tiny rooms or even gloomy cubicles. José Cabanis, the great French writer, wrote in his wise essay about the abovementioned Saint-Simon that:

it was a structure where each individual room strengthened and controlled all the others and where nothing could be disregarded: the relationship that united them was so tense and fragile that removing a single stone would endanger the whole construction16 

After all, the hierarchy and etiquette shaped and rationalised the Versailles world. The famous rituals accompanying the king getting up and going to bed show it very clearly: a crowd of courtiers had each a very precisely defined function. It should be noted that the centre of this world was the royal bedroom and the royal bed, where subsequent members of the Capetian dynasty, united by a mythical bond with its nobility and its people, were conceived and where they died. The bond remained not split: Louis XIV, although a king of light and reason, was supposed to have, the same as his ancestors, the power to cure with his hands For example, on the eve of the Pentecost in 1715, shortly before his death and despite sweltering heat, he touched as many as 1,700 "patients."17 The difference between the lord of Versailles and the lord of Wilanów is not only in the scale and numbers. It is also the question of the nature of power itself.

However, both of them dress up in almost identical garments of Antique heroes. Hercules is a recurring allegorical theme in the Versailles palace. For example, the front façade on the eastern side of the building featured a sundial guarded by figures of Hercules and Mars. In the sun-arched niches of the Ambassadors Staircase stood other sculptures featuring the same hero and Le Brun even planned to paint frescos with Hercules as the main character in the Grand Hall. In the centre, he planned to paint the scene of the hero's reception by gods on Olympus and in less prominent fields – his twelve works. There are more examples like that: The Sun King was very much like Hercules18.  

This, however, did not prevent him from assuming other personalities, from example on Jean Nocret's painting of 1670 presenting Louis' family as inhabitants of Olympus. Louis dominates the picture as Jupiter surrounded by figures with similar faces. It is not a masterpiece: the Bourbon family is not very convincing in modest Olympic clothing. These figures do not look any better than as if they were painted by Jerzy Eleuter Siemiginowski (appr. 1660–1711), the court painter of Jan III, for whom Versailles was something like Olympus. In his letters to his wife, he called it a palais enchanté, enchanted palace. There is some white magic in Nocret's painting, too: the world of royal Olympic gods-dolls somehow tames the dangerous aspects of Baroque. The moon in Diana's – the Grande Mademoiselle – hair shines in full daylight. It is the beneficial impact of Antique gods.

This impact is equally strong in our Wilanów. As soon as you stand in front of the palace's façade, our imagination is trapped in the world of meanings of the Greek and Roman heritage. Your attention is immediately attracted by two triumphal arches surrounding the side entrances. It is a pity that the central portico modelled on a Greek temple is now missing, but you can still recognise old signs and forms of Antique culture. And you can admire its incredible liveliness. Although the Renaissance is long gone, the language continues to develop and modify, expanding to new fields of European culture. Paradoxically, the times of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Borromini and the Asam brothers see another triumph of the Antiquity. Mythological figures involved in interweaving intrigues populate the librettos of Baroque operas. Façades, porticoes, friezes and colonnades of Baroque architecture humbly follow the triumphant chariot of Antique tradition. Forms are followed by a long line of meanings: the myths of Olympic gods and heroes, the works of Homer, Virgil or Ovid, the lives of famous men. A great anthology of the Antiquity in stucco, sandstone and marble.

Baroque was another but not the last triumph of the Antiquity. Its many voices reach us from much later times: from the Classicist Polish court to a New York bank, as if the magic of Ancient forms guaranteed power and stability.

The iconography of Wilanów façades is extremely complicated, even too abundant given the relatively modest size of King Jan's residence. A natural disproportion exists between the form and the content: Wilanów seems to be covered with meanings – obviously Antique ones. What you have to do is find the leading motif of the programme, the Ariadne's thread that will take you deep into Wilanów. Seems banal but it is true... a golden thread, because golden rays indeed illuminate the central part of Sobieski's villa whose iconography sometimes really "follows the sun," as Barbara Milewska-Waźbińska prettily described it in her book Słońce na tarczy19.

The sun is the ancient sign of grand states and grand monarchs. The sun of Pharaoh Akhenaten, but also the sun of Roman emperors, closer to us and to Wilanów, the sun of the great Aurelian and the sun of Constantine the Great. Naturally, the sun that rises above Wilanów is first of all the sun of Louis XIV, the sun from the centre of meanings in Versailles. Not everybody squinted their eyes before its shine: proud Dutch artists fondly created pamphlets, engravings and medals with dimmed or humiliated sun of King Louis. They would form quite an amusing artistic and literary anthology.

But Jan III, King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania and Russian noblemen of the coat of arms Janina was not one of them. Enchanted by the sun of France, he had its rays reflected in his own escutcheon. Fascination with Versailles splendour and Sarmatian pride at the same time. In the centre of the palace's façade at the side of the yard, the conflict was solved with a large dose of ingenuity and fantasy.

Just above the main entrance to the palace you can see a golden sun that casts its rays to the sides. The rays are reflected in slightly convex and curved escutcheon of the Sobieski family's coat of arms, supported by two pairs of putti. Truth to tell, the shield of the Janina coat of arms has a peculiarly suitable form in this respect: empty in the middle, it reflects golden rays like a mirror. It has no image that would resists sunshine. It is simply empty, which is why it was called a "shield within a shield," a "field within a field," or a "summit within a summit."

Of course, the Sobieski's escutcheon symbolises Jan III's protection over the Commonwealth, which – given the achievements of the great leader – seems a relevant "idea for a metaphor." Jan Pisarski wrote in a dedication to his collection under the long title Mówca polski albo Wielkich senatorów powagą i ojczystą wymową oratorów sejmowe i potrzebowe mowy (Collection of Polish speeches), in 1668, the year when Sobieski received the grand baton:

Farewell worries,
You will not suffer
Any harm my homeland
as long as you are shielded
by Sobieski.

The authors of the iconographic programme made sure to root this motif in the authority of the Bible and added the following inscription above the Janina escutcheon: REFULSIT SOL IN CLIPEIS. This is a quotation from the Book of the Maccabees, which is an account of a liberating rebellion against the Seleucid empire. The full context is as follows:

When the sun shone upon the shields of gold and brass, the hills were ablaze with them and gleamed like flaming torches20.

Thus, the sunshine falls on the Sobieski's shield straight from the Bible and grows into a truly mystic light effectively guarding Jan III's dominion. However, one cannot help but read a family and dynastic allusion in it, reflecting the King's pampered dream. All the elements of the content are extremely artfully intertwined or – to use the luminous terminology – bound into a single strong bundle of messages. It is hard to identify the author of the idea. The architect Agostino Locci, the learned librarian Adam Adamandy Kochański or the king himself? One thing is for sure that they all had their say in the iconographic design of the villa.

Whoever that was, he made a small mistake in the field of... Roman arms science. Regardless of the allegorical meaning of the term clipeus, it also has its purely historical significance. Clipeus was an oval shield and what we see on the façade in Wilanów are rather fantastically transformed 16th or 18th century shields known from Renaissance visual art tradition. But there was also a scutum, a Roman buckler slightly curved to the sides. However, the power of the Biblical quotation prevailed.

Scutum also functions in Sobieski's apotheoses. Inasmuch as he protects his state with a clipeusem in religious skies, he extends his hand towards the scutum in astronomical skies. Johannes Hevelius dedicated to him one of the seven constellations he discovered – the Scutum Sobiescianum. This is not the only sign of Polish kings on the sky. In 1777, the astronomer Poczobutt-Odlanicki placed there, in honour of King Stanisław August, the Poniatowski family's Ciołek – the coat of arms of the last Polish King.

Sobieski's shield also has a certain historical dimension to it. In 1679, in the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Wawel was found a shield with a depiction of Constantine's battle with Maxentius. Constantine's army won under the monogram of Christ, who appeared to him in his dream the night before the battle. In hoc signo vinces (In this sign you will conquer) – said the prophecy. Sobieski was given the shield – as a good omen when he was setting off to Vienna.

In the centre of the façade – with a tympanum of a temple portico – used to stand the no longer existing monument of Minerva, who as if guarded the entire space of the façade. The Roman goddess identified with the Greek Athena was fond of various intellectual exercises, but she was also a keen warrior. He loyally supported various heroes, including the first among them – Heracles. Her huge shield, the aegis, functions in Polish language as a symbol of effective protection. We say, for example, that this or that happened "under the aegis." It would be hard to find a more suitable mythological patroness for King Jan – a warrior and intellectual whose aegis shielded the entire kingdom.

Two side entrances are in the shape of triumphal arches, which (although it was a common architectural feature of those times) has a clear significance in the palace of the Vienna victor. Particularly meaningful are bass-relieves on the supraporta of the southern arch, often referred to in literature as male, as the King's bedroom was located in this part of the villa. It is a presentation of Jan III's triumph in three scenes: Picking laurel leaves for a wreath, Jan III's triumphant march and the March of Turkish captives. A medallion below the second scene, on the entrance's axis, displays the bust of a huge man with his head dressed in lion's skin. Wojciech Fijałkowski believes that

this medallion, featuring Alexander the Great represented as Hercules, who is the personification of virtus heroica, metaphorically presents Jan III, both as the second Alexander, the famous monarch, ideal commander and fearless warrior and the Polish Hercules, who was taken to heaven by his fiery heroic virtue. It should be noted that the verse from Virgils' Aeneid included in the triumphant composition was used by the Roman poet with reference to demigods whose virtus heroica made them immortal. One of those demigods was Hercules21.

Another indirect reference to Hercules are the figures in niches, in Cesare Ripa's glossary called Fortitudo andValor. Undoubtedly, Sobieski is Hercules, the favourite of Athena-Minerva. This is in complete harmony with the European Antique tradition and at the same time the Sarmatian tradition, to remind for example what Jan Jurkowski wrote in 1604 about the Polish Hercules of the Borderland.

The northern arch, with the Queen's apartments hidden behind it, the female arch, Marysieńka's arch. Presentations, relevant to those from Jan's arch, try to present symbolically the "idea" of femininity, her beauty, good humour and fertility. The first of these presentations shows Horae (at first goddesses of the Seasons, later – of the Hours of the Day) and Charites, goddesses of beauty that bring joy to the world. They also took care of the art, crafts and all kinds of intellectual activity. No wonder they can often be seen alongside Athena. The second presentation displays the dawn, the seductive Eos-Aurora, who managed to wrap around her rose fingers even the terrible giant Orion, whose constellation is easy to find on the sky map, the same as constellation of Arion who is riding a dolphin on another bass-relief. In the meaningful background of Wilanów's façade stars continue to shine – and not only the biggest one among them.

The myth of Arion, the musician from Lesbos, who was saved from sea depths by dolphins is not easy to associate with the other content of Marysieńka's arch, as it is hard to find any attributes of femininity in it. However, one must remember that iconography is not the same as mathematics. Barbara Milewska-Waźbińska claims that Arion, who changed into an allegorical figure in the Early Modern period, "symbolised virtue that is often easier to find among strangers than in one's own homeland. Thus, the songster could be a hint at Marysieńska, who was born in France."22 In a medallion corresponding to Hercules' medallion in the male arch was sculpted a graceful female head in a rose chain. According to Ripa's allegorical glossary, this ought to beVenustas, the personification of grace. This is probably the case, even though the style in which meanings were formed on Wilanów's façades would suggest its association with a figure bearing a specific name. Milewska-Waźbińska sees in her Dido the Queen of Cartyhage, who accepts in her house Aeneas lost on the African coast. The problem is, however, that Dido, who committed suicide after the hero had left her, is bitterly tragic and in contrast to the radiant harmony of Jan and Marysieńka's house.

The façade on the side of the garden is less crowded with meanings and the most eye-catching element is the monument of Apollo, a counterpart of the lost monument of Minerva. This was another symbolic proof of the King's role as a great patron of art and science. Jan III, previously presented as Hercules, again "follows the sun," as he transforms into a sun god... With a large dose of literary probability, one could say that this transformation makes him similar to mythical heroes who changed or were changed with miraculous easiness. After all, myths are of a transformational nature, like in Ovid's Metamorphoses. By the way, Ovid was one of the "authors" of Wilanów's depictions.

No wonder we are promptly brought back to Hercules. Above the door, in a place corresponding to the place in the façade on the side of the yard displaying the royal sun, hangs the skin of a huge lion that – by virtue of the myth – belonged to Hercules. On its sides are two national symbols: the Polish eagle and the Lithuanian Pahonia. The eagle is holding in its claws the Janina escutcheon – the same as the knight from Pahonia is carrying on his arm. To the right are scenes from the Odyssey – the rich programme could not do without a strong dose of Homer. Naturally, there is also a pinch of symbolic astronomy: the old Saturn pondering above a sundial.

And not only that: the attic's relief feature a review of Sobieski's military dominance, plus a scene from the royal election and entry for the crowning ceremony. The attic is crowned with beautiful statues of the Muses with relevant attributes, visible from a long distance,. After all, Jan and Marysieńska's villa was supposed to be their shrine, the Polish Helicon.

Apart from everything else, this was their authentic house, which is much more evident in its interiors. It is enough to say that within the palace's walls reigns Apollo, whose favourite book was Virgil's Georgics. Thus, the Baroque spring is at full swing, swallows are making their nests, bees are buzzing and shepherds are playing their pipes. Unfortunately, the future of Wilanów turned out to be not quite idyllic.

The royal sons, Aleksander and Konstanty (the oldest son, Jakub, was born when Sobieski was still the Hetman) proved to be poor landlords, much worse that the Saxons on the Polish throne. The palace owed the second period of its prosperity only to Elżbieta Sieniawska. She added new wings to the villa with countless relieves modelled on Ovid's Metamorphoses. Everybody is there: Pygmalion, Arachne, Orpheus, Ganymede and others.

This is how the almost final metamorphosis of the unsightly village of Milanów into the palace of Wilanów took place. However, it was not its last transformation, which was to of happen by the end of the 18th century with the arrival of Stanisław Kostka Potocki.



[1] N. Davis, Boże igrzysko, Kraków 1999, p. 440.
[2] Z. Wójcik, Jan Kazimierz, Wrocław 2004, p. 514.
[3] M. Sęp-Szarzyński, Sonet IIII, in: Rytmy abo wiersze polskie, Warsaw 1978.
[4] Cz. Hernas, Barok, Warszawa 1972, s. 23.
[5] Ibidem, p. 101.
[6] N. Davis, op. cit., s. 441.
[7] W. Łoziński, Życie polskie w dawnych wiekach, Krakow 1978, p. 161.
[8] F. de Motteville, Anna Austriaczka i jej dwór, Warsaw 1978, p. 90.
[9] Molière, Mieszczanin szlachcicem. Komedia w pięciu aktach z baletem, Kraków 2003, p. 133.
[10] Cz. Hernas, op. cit., p. 7.
[11] F. Cardini, Europa a Islam. Historia nieporozumienia, Krakow 2006, p. 121.
[12] P. Burke, Kultura i społeczeństwo w renesansowych Włoszech, Warsaw 1991.
[13] J. Burckhardt, Kultura odrodzenia we Włoszech, Warsaw 1965.
[14] J. Banach, Hercules Polonus. Studium z ikonografii sztuki nowożytnej, Warsaw 1984, p. 103–104.
[15] J. Chrościcki, Sztuka i polityka. Funkcje propagandowe sztuki w epoce Wazów 1587–1668, Warszaw 1983, p. 163.
[16] J. Cabanis, Ten wspaniały Saint-Simon, Warsaw 1978, p. 97.
[17] M. Bloch, Królowie cudotwórcy, Warsaw 1998, p. 298.
[18] J. Banach, op. cit., p. 82. 
[19] B. Milewska-Waźbińska, Słońce na tarczy czyli tajemnice pałacowej fasady, Warsaw 2008.
[20] 1 Bok of Maccabees 6, 39. 
[21] W. Fijałkowski, Wilanów. Rezydencja króla zwycięzcy, Warsaw 1983, p. 36.
[22] B. Milewska-Waźbińska, op.cit.

Translation: Lingua Lab

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