Sir Lancelot of the Lake in Siedlęcin
Since my lady of Champagne wishes me to undertake to write a romance, I shall very gladly do so, being so devoted to her service as to do anything in the world for her, without any intention of flattery. But if one were to introduce any flattery upon such an occasion, he might say, and I would subscribe to it, that this lady surpasses all others who are alive, just as the south wind which blows in May or April is more lovely than any other wind.... I will say, however, that her command has more to do with this work than any thought or pains that I may expend upon it. Here Chretien begins his book about the Knight of the Cart. The material and the treatment of it are given and furnished to him by the Countess...
Thus began Chrétien de Troyes in the opening lines of his Le Chevalier de la charrette [Lancelot, The Knight of the Car]. The Countess he mentioned was Henry the Young King's elder half sister Marie of Champagne (1145-1197), who not only comissioned the work, but also supplied Chrétien with material [or plot] and interpretation. It just so happened that yesterday marked the 817th anniversary of Marie's death. You can learn more about this exceptional lady here.
Sir Lancelot fighting the lions and leopards (from Bibliotheque nationale de France)
Chrétien, whose contribution to the flowering of Arthurian romance is unsurpassed, compeleted Le Chevalier de la charrette before 1181, which means that the Young King must have had the occasion to "meet" Sir Lancelot. Let us not forget that it was Chrétien who developed the character of Lancelot and his are the first surviving literary portraits of King Arthur's greatest knight. Neither Marie nor Chrétien could have foreseen that Lancelot's fame was to reach as far as the Lower Silesia District [today Poland] where in the first half of the 14th cantury Henryk I Jaworski [Henry I of Jawor] had the walls of the Great Hall of his ducal tower in Siedlęcin painted with the scenes of the life of Sir Lancelot of the Lake. The curious thing is that today Siedlęcin is the only place in the world where you can still see the wall paintings depicting the legend of Sir Lancelot of the Lake. To learn more about Sir Lancelot in Siedlęcin Ducal Tower, I have invited Dr Przemysław Nocuń of Jagiellonian University [Cracow] to our humble abode. He has kindly agreed to answer a few questions.
Thank you for accepting my invitation. I am deeply honoured. Could you tell us what treasure can be found in the Ducal Tower in Siedlęcin?
No straight answer to your query I am afraid, for the tower is a treasure house of different artefacts and a treasure itself. It is an exceptional building, one of the best- preserved medieval residences of this type in Central Europe, practically unchanged since the 14th century. Thanks to dendrochronological research we were able to determine that the trees used for ceiling construction had been cut in 1313 and 1314, so 700 years ago! Which makes the ceilings themselves extremely valuable. The most priceless treasure, however, can be found in the former Great Hall - the mural paintings depicting the story of Sir Lancelot of the Lake [Lancelot du Lac] are unquestionably of greatest value. The recent research revealed that they were created in the second or third decade of the 14th century. They are the oldest surviving profane paintings in Poland and the only ones in the world depicting the story of Sir Lancelot of the Lake preserved in situ.
Are the Siedlęcin paintings really unique and there are no other of this type in Europe and in the world?
It depends what we mean by "unique". Looking at the paintings as an ilustration of the Arthurian legends which were immensly popular in the Middle Ages, we have to admit that there are more than ten surviving in Europe. But if we take into consideration only the main theme - that is the history of Sir Lancelot of the Lake - the Siedlęcin murals are absolutely ones of a kind. There were similar paintings at the castle of Frugarolo in Northern Italy , but in the 20th century they were taken down from the walls and placed in the museum in Allesandria near Turin, which means they cannot be admired in the interior of the medieval castle they had been originally created in. This makes the Siedlęcin paintings absolutely unique.
Could you tell us a few words about Duke Henryk himself? What do we know about him?
Henryk I of Jawor was a fascinating figure. Born in the last decade of the 13th century as the third son of Bolko I Surowy [the Strict] and Beatrycze of Brandenburg, he was a little boy when his father died. It was not until 1312 that he assumed formal control of his inheritance, the Duchy of Jawor. Shortly afterwards he comissioned the building of the Tower. Henryk was an acute politician which helped him to retain independence from Bohemia when all other Silesian dukes swore fealty to King Jan Lucemburský [John the Blind]. He joined anti-Luxembourg coalition and in 1316 married Anežka Přemyslovna of Bohemia, daughter of the former King Wacław II of Bohemia and Poland and Queen Dowager Ryksa Elżbieta, and granddaughter of King Przemysł II of Poland. Unfortunately their marriage proved childless. By 1335 there were only two Silesian dukes powerful enough to oppose the Luxembourgs. These were Henryk and his nephew, Duke Bolko II Mały [the Small] of Świdnica.
Lancelot sleeping underneath the apple tree (courtesy of Hannibal Smoke: Emplarium)
Were the Arthurian romances popular in Poland and Silesia at the time? Or was Duke Henry the first to introduce them?
Preserved monuments and names of the Arthurian characters given to the sons of the Silesian noblility indicate that the Arthurian legends were known at the courts of medieval Poland and Silesia. However, most of the preserved monuments with Arthurian motifs come from the second half of the 14th or from the 15th century. Zielona Komnata [the Green Chamber] at the Castle of Legnica, for example, with the representations of the Nine Worthies introduced into late medieval literature by Jacques de Lomnguyon and Guillaume de Machaut, was created in the early 15th century. King Arthur - one of the Worthies - was depicted in the paintings.
Henryk I of Jawor was not only the first to comission Arthurian paintings in one of his seats, but he might have founded an order of chivalry based on the legend of the Knights of the Round Table as well. There was a similar order founded at the court of King Charles Robert of Hungary in the early fourteenth century called the Knightly Order of Saint George Martyr. We know that in Silesia the flowering of similar groups dates back to the early fifteenth century, for example Rudenband at the court of Bishop Wacław II of Legnica. If we assume that Henryk did initiate a similar group then he fully deserves to be called a pioneer.
What do the paintings tell us about everyday life in the tower and the tower itself?
I think there ar two factors that should be taken into consideration. The construction of the tower itself and decorating the walls of its Great Hall with Arthurian paintings suggest close ties with the western court culture and high cultural awareness of the ducal couple. I am sure that the tower furnishings were rich and luxurious as well. Courts of Silesian dukes, especially the ones of Jawor and Świdnica, had close and permanent ties with royal and ducal courts of western Europe. Duke Henryk's financial problems indicated by the historical sources might have stemmed from his too high aspirations. However, to draw conclusions of what the life in the Tower must have looked like we should rather focus on the building itself than on the paintings in the former Great Hall. The storey and room layouts speak for themselves and make it clear that all had been carefully planned. The chambers of the ducal couple were placed above the second floor with the Great Hall and had the highest ceilings. Today we can only guess how the original room division must looked like and how richly decorated and furnished the chambers must have been.
While browsing your official website I have come across the information about the Swiss connections of Dukes of Jawor and Świdnica. Could you tell us about them? Did they have anything in common with the paintings?
In his book about the decoration of Siedlęcin Great Hall, a Wrocław based art historian dr Jacek Witkowski, who is considered a leading expert in Siedlęcin Ducal Tower and European court culture, directs our attention to the close painting analogies existing around Zurich and Konstanz, and links them to Agnes, the wife of Henryk's nephew, Bolko II Mały [the Small] , duke of Świdnica. Agnes was the daughter of Duke of Austria, Leopold I from the House of Habsburg, and Catherine of Savoy, which meant close ties with Switzerland. If we assume that the authors of the paintings came to Silesia with Agnes, then we have to accept that the murals were created as late as 1338. It seems, however, that the Swiss connections might have been established earlier. Linear-idealistic style flourished in Switzerland already in the first decade of the 14th century - analogical in style, narration and completion were the paintings in the cathedral and one of the patrician houses in Zurich. Zurich was also the place where the Manesse Codex was completed in the early 14th century, one of the portraits in it depicting Duke of Wrocław, Henryk IV Probus [the Righteous].
Henryk IV Probus, Duke of Wrocław in the Codex Manesse (Wikipedia)
Let me ask you how you have come to take such an avid interest in the Tower and its history?And what is your role as a member of the Ducal Tower of Siedlęcin Society?
I think that all those who have a chance to see the Tower will remain under its spell. At least this is what happened to me when being a primary school student I went to Siedlęcin on a class trip. Many years later I became one of the founder members of the Chudów Castle Fund (the Upper Silesia District, Poland). which has been owner of the Tower in Siedlęcin for more than ten years now. Working for the society I had an opportunity to conceive a few successful projects aimed at important works in the Tower, namely preservation of the paintings and plasters in 2006 and 2007. Also around this time, the Tower with the tourist information centre was opened to visitors. Being the scientific worker of the Institute of Archeology of Jagiellonian University I have been in charge of the archeological research in the Tower since 2008. Due to growing interest, a few years ago we established a society meant to support all the Tower future projects. Members of the society with the assistance of the students of Jagiellonian University, who worked as volunteers, all helped to organize and enrich the archaeological exhibition over the years. I hope that we can also count on volunteers' help in our upcoming projects, which include, inter alia, medieval music concerts and further preservation works. It would be wonderful to encourage volunteer cooperation from other European countries.
Thank you for the fascinating and insightful answers to my questions. I do hope that our today's conversation will make people flock to the Tower. Not only as visitors but also as the active supporters. Best of luck with all your forthcoming projects.