The cult of King Jan III in Polish culture and tradition

The excellent Polish historian of the early modern period, Władysław Konopczyński, wrote in 1921: “To which of us Poles at an adolescent age does the Hetman-King from the epics not speak to? That armoured Polonus, moustachioed, kontusz-wearing and so wonderfully colourful, whom does he not charm with the rattle of armour, the wave of the mace, the waving of the banners in the wind, the flutter of thousands of Hussar wings? Who of us more mature ones is not moved by the lyricism of one of the most cherished loves that the history of Polish hearts knows? Which one of the most mature researchers is not moved by the tragedy of the fall of his eagle wings after his lofty flight?” It is no surprise then, that the figure of Jan III Sobieski holds a special place in Polish culture and tradition, so strongly affecting the imagination of his countrymen living in different times. It is therefore worth finding out how King Jan III was perceived by his contemporaries and what the following generations of Poles worshipped him for. The background and social conditions in which the cult of the conqueror of Turkish power was born and later developed should be noted.

Equestrian portrait of Jan III Sobieski, Charles (Carl) de La Haye, based on a drawing (painting?) by Jerzy Eleuter Szymonowicz-Siemiginowski; picture from the collection of the National Library of Poland.

Undoubtedly, King Jan III Sobieski can be considered as a type of Sarmatian knight, personifying the best national values of the 17th century – that turbulent era in which he lived – but at the same time being a reflection of more than one of his faults and shortcomings. This man, born into a senatorial family, with a highly educated personal culture, having knowledge of the wide world, which he gained during his travels to Western Europe and Turkey, speaking excellent Latin and French, and better or worse Italian, German and English, as well as Tatar and Turkish, felt himself above all to be a Polish nobleman. He proved to be the most perfect type of the nobleman-Pole, with all his vices and virtues. Elected to the throne in 1674, he became the personification of the ideals and hopes of the Polish society, plagued in the 17th century by numerous devastating wars. As the victorious Hetman from Chocim (Khotyn) in 1673, and then the victorious king, conqueror of the Turkish power in Vienna in 1683, Sobieski was considered a national hero and a leader fighting in defence of the Christian faith and his homeland. Gradually, around his person, a legend was born.

It must be noted, however, that the king himself contributed to the legend himself to some extent. It was no accident that almost immediately after the Battle of Vienna, Jan III saw to it that his victory was given the widest publicity. To this end, he sent to Pope Innocent XI, as well as many European monarchs, letters and detailed reports of the course of the battle. All of civilised Europe knew the first words of the letter to the Holy Father: Venimus, vidimus et Deus vicit (we came, we saw, and God won), which were a paraphrase of the words once spoken by Julius Caesar. Similarly, his letter to Queen Marysieńka, written in the vizier tents the day after the battle, began with the words “God and Our Lord, forever blessed, gave victory and glory to our nation, of which kind the past centuries never heard” and instructed Marysieńka to spread the news to the entire world as the best kind of newspaper, so that as many people as possible could learn about the Vienna victory. It is known that the famous letter of Jan IIII, already in 1683 translated into many languages and published in print, circulated in nearly all European courts.

The triumphal entry of Jan III into Krakow took place after the end of the military campaign on 23 December 1683. During his entry to the Wawel cathedral, a thanksgiving “Te Deum” was sung, and the King hung at the tomb of St Stanislaus the great banner of the vizier that he acquired at Vienna. Similar celebrations were held throughout the Commonwealth. The famous Gdańsk astronomer Johannes Hevelius (1611–1687), in order to pay homage to the king, named a new constellation he had discovered the Shield of Sobieski (Scutum Sobiescianum). In Jesuit schools, as well as protestant middleschools, numerous dramas were staged, dedicated to the victory of the Polish monarch.

The victory at Vienna had wide repercussions in the contemporary Polish literature. In a particular way, a whole range of writers and not entirely top-flight panegyrists contributed to the creation of the legend around the king by – in a more or less successful way – sang the praises of the conqueror of Islam in verse and in prose, in Latin and in Polish. Through their works, they created an aura of heroism around Sobieski. Considered to be the greatest hero of his time, he reached the heights of Olympus while he was still alive. He was compared to various heroes of antiquity and the Bible, such as the Roman god of war Mars, or Moses, stating that the Polish king, as the Jewish patriarch in his time, saved his people from the armies of the pharaoh, that is the Turks. Often, Jan III was set alongside such prominent leaders as Alexander the Great, Pompey and Julius Caesar. Wespazjan Kochowski (1633–1700), who took part in the Vienna expedition as a royal historian and described it in the poem The Work of God or Songs of Liberated Vienna (1683), saw in Sobieski a superhuman greatness, a new Messiah, to whom Providence had entrusted the mission of defending Christianity. Often, in contemporary reports and works composed for the occasion, the relief of Vienna was compared to the crusade wars, as a natural continuation of the great tradition of the war of the cross with the crescent moon. Therefore, the conqueror of Turks was bestowed the title of the new Polish Gofred, comparing him to the popular 17th century figure of Godfrey of Bouillon (1061–1100), the leader of the First Crusade and ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Thus, when King Jan III Sobieski died on 17 June 1696, the event was treated as a national tragedy and the promise of disasters which, as it was believed, the country was protected from by the very name of the monarch. That day in all of Poland, bells in church towers rang out over the fresh royal grave; they played a death knell not only over the mortal remains of the heroic warrior king – they mournfully proclaimed that along with him, the size and splendour of the Jagiellonian Republic was going into the grave as well.

It therefore seems that one of the basic reasons for the longevity of the cult of Jan III Sobieski in Polish culture and tradition was the fact that he turned out the be the last kind who, after the disasters of the Swedish Deluge in mid-17th century and before the period of humiliation in the 18th century as well as the dark post-partition times, let the nation feel the breath of greatness. It is no wonder then that after the death of the famous monarch, his person was heroicised more and more, emphasising the triumphs of the Polish military triumphs, and overlooking the shadows of the reign of King Jan III.

One of the leading proponents of the legend and cult of Jan III Sobieski in the 18th century was the royal postmaster, councillor and burgrave of Toruń Jakub Kazimierz Rubinkowski (cf. the article about him).

Reminding the public about the figure of King Jan III and his Viennese victory were the numerous calendars published in the 18th and 19th centuries, literature that was very popular in wide circles of society and playing a significant role in the shaping of the views of its readers. The descriptions they contained of the Vienna victory emphasised the personal valours of Sobieski – his military prowess and ability to command. The Pan-European importance of this great event was also emphasised. It was, among others, through the calendars that the figure of the Sarmatian king began to acquire a permanent place in the collective memory of Polish society. The cult of Jan III, propagated by the representatives of official culture at the time – writers, panegyrists, or calendar authors – hit on susceptible social soil. As Julian Krzyżanowski pointed out: tales of King Jan were told where writings of his royal glory did not reach, in noble manor houses, in court cottages, in small-town monasteries, and even in inns and crooked Jewish homes. In the noble and folk tradition, it was particularly emphasised that Sobieski was a compatriot king, the most Polish of all monarchs who had sat on the throne of the Piast and Jagiellonian dynasties. Examples of his familiar behaviour, and the ability to associate with ordinary noble and even simple people were often cited.

Legends and tales about Jan III, which sometimes contained elements of the truth, were created and propagated not only by the nobility, but also by the people from the country, especially in the regions where the king had stayed during his life. In the oral tradition, locations of springs and wells where the king had watered his horse were passed down, as well as paying attention to stones and trees where he rested. His hunting adventures were also widely known, as was the fact that he had participated in a peasant wedding in Jaworów. Many stories and anecdotes from various regions of Poland clearly show how deeply the character of Sobieski was etched in the collective memory of the nation.

Similarly, the relief of Vienna reverberated powerfully through folk art. Soldiers happily coming back from war sang about their leader, his glory was often proclaimed at indulgence fairs. Facts were often transformed and events were switched around in these songs, adding many attractive and picturesque details, and even miraculous motifs. It can be thus noted that already in the 18th century, two basic legends concerning the victorious king existed in the awareness of Polish society – one accenting his heroism, and the other extrapolating the familiar, Sarmatian features of his personality.

Often the cult of Sobieski was used for political purposes. King Stanisław August Poniatowski tried to revive the memory of the conqueror of Turks in the 1780s in order to precipitate an anti-Turkish sentiment in society due to his plans for the Commonwealth’s participation in the war against Turkey alongside Austria and Russia. Despite their fiasco in 1783, the 100th anniversary of the Victory at Vienna was celebrated. The National Education Commission commanded that in its subordinate schools celebrations were to take place on the occasion. In numerous speeches, homilies and literary works, Jan III was presented as the ideal of the highest virtues, the paragon of knighthood and command, worthy of imitation by the youth. It was no accident that in 1787, King Stanisław August Poniatowski visited the royal tombs at Wawel and ordered a marble sarcophagus for the Vienna victor, on which he placed an inscription composed by himself, proclaiming Sobieski’s glory. The last king of Poland was also the initiator of the equestrian statue of King Jan III, made by Francis Pinck. In the end, the monument, presenting King Sobieski as a triumphant knight on a rearing horse with a defeated Turk lying at its feet, was placed on the bridge in Łazienki and unveiled on 14th September 1788. Along with the unveiling of the statue, a great patriotic and cultural celebration took place, which evoked various reactions from the public. Shortly after a malicious couplet appeared: A hundred thousand carousels, three times I would give, / to see Stanisław die, and Jan III live. Another poet at the time said:

Let us surround the king like a father’s children
Saying: You, Stanisław, are like Jan III.

The heroic legend of Jan III Sobieski found the most fertile social ground in the period when the Polish state disappeared from the map of Europe, and its territory was divided between three invaders. In the divided Polish society, threatened with disintegration, the cult of Sobieski began to serve a compensation function, becoming one of the essential elements co-creating a proud tradition of patriotism. This is clearly evident in the pages of, for example, Pan Tadeusz, whose characters, nostalgically recalling the reign of the victor of Chocim (Khotyn) and Vienna as a time of power of the Commonwealth, are anxiously awaiting the rise of a new Jan III, the saviour of the motherland.

When after the disasters of the November and the January Uprisings, it seemed that there was no hope for Poland regaining its independence, Polish society had only reminiscences about the bright past left. The occasion for this were, among others, the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the Vienna victory in 1883. They did not have an elite character, but included broad circles of society in all three partitions, as well as in exile. Sobieski as the last knight in Europe, the last Hetman in Poland and its last true king became a symbol of national unity and freedom. Numerous literary works were composed in his honour, as well as songs, hymns and marches. Splendid paintings were created, commemorative medals were minted, and monuments were erected.

We can thus conclude that in the times of partitions, Jan III Sobieski was generally regarded as a heroic figure, almost statue-like, a symbol of heroism. In no small measure, great writers contributed to this view of the hero of Vienna, with Henryk Sienkiewicz at the forefront. In Pan Wołodyjowski, the third part of his Trilogy, Sobieski appears as an invincible Hetman, a hero without blemish and the Salvator of his homeland. We must, however, note that in the 19th century, the first attempts to debunk the myth of Jan III appeared in literature.

Summing up, it may be said that many different factors contributed to the creation and consolidation of the cult of Jan III Sobieski in Polish culture and tradition. Undoubtedly, there was a specific social need for this type of cult, which is why the victor of Vienna was judged differently regardless of the time period and environment. His chivalry and heroism were always emphasised, and he was seen as the last victorious king before the partitions. It seems, however, that the cult of Sobieski resulted not only from his immortal deeds, but developed mainly thanks to the fact that the ruler was an outstanding personality, a type of hero both monumental and familiar, with whom the masses of nobility could identify, as well as future generations of his countrymen. Thanks to the Battle of Vienna in 1683, Jan III Sobieski inscribed himself next to Nicolaus Copernicus, Marie Curie-Skłodowska, and recently also John Paul II, on the short list of Poles whose names mean something to Europe, or even the whole world. Wanting to understand the source of social fascination with the figure of King Jan III, we need to constantly deepen our knowledge of the Sarmatian era and culture, from which he came, in order better understand the complex personality of its distinguished representative.

Translation: Lingua Lab

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