The image of Jan III Sobieski in 17th century publicity – royal propaganda vs. the propaganda of the opposition

Even though Jan III enjoyed fame that spread even beyond the borders of Europe, in his own country, he had to struggle with negative opinions about his reign. The most powerful magnates created a faction of his opponents, spread throughout all the parts of the Commonwealth, especially Małopolska, Wielkopolska and Lithuania. It is enough to list their names and the positions they held to understand how strong the opposition to the king was. Among them were Stanisław Herakliusz Lubomirski, the Grand Marshal of the Crown, Jan Wielopolski, Grand Chancellor of the Crown, Marcin Zamoyski, the Crown Under-treasurer, Andrzej Potocki, field hetman, and the powerful Sapieha family – Grand Hetman of Lithuania, Kazimierz Sapieha and his brother, Lithuanian Under-treasurer Benedykt Sapieha. The episcopate, led by the Primate Michał Radziejowski and supported by papal nuncio Opizio Pallavicini, also opposed the king.

Those politicians had extensive estates and numerous clients, whose opinion they could easily influence. They mainly used verbal propaganda, mostly done with the use of pamphlets, circulating in copies throughout the entire country. They were mostly manuscripts, rarely prints, and very often they ended up in home chronicles of the noblemen. The pamphlets were anonymous, which allowed them to use harsh and aggressive tones, as well as slanderous information. S. Ochman-Staniszewska described them as airing out the dirty laundry, as they were devoid of any deeper reflection on the state of the country, nor did they contain any positive program of its repair. Their goal was in fact quite different, they were supposed to create a negative image of Jan III Sobieski, both as a politician and a human being. This image, created with strong aversion contrasted with the image presented by the royal iconography, which referred to the finest European models, created by the powerful hereditary rulers such as Louis XIV and Leopold I.

Like these rulers, the figure of Sobieski was presented on the paintings, engravings and medals all antica as a Roman emperor with a laurel wreath on his head, in a suit of armour and in a Roman cloak (paludamentum). In the eulogies, which glorified his name not only in Poland, but also in the world, he was compared to Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Pompey, Trajan and Constantine. However, his adversaries in the country reminded him that he was just an elected ruler, selected as a result of corrupt political action, not a ruler chosen by God such as the king of France or the emperor in Vienna. They implied that they could disobey him at any time, because he was just one of the magnates, not better than any of them, and therefore he was not protected by the sacrum ascribed to the hereditary monarchs.

Jan III did not, however, slavishly imitate the European models, and instead he drew from the tradition of Poland, with which he strongly identified. He wanted his subjects to see the real Sarmatian, the Piast king, their fellow compatriot, who loved the golden freedom of nobility. In contrast to the Vasa dynasty Jan III was always presented in a Polish attire (wearing a delia or a zapona with a brooch) or in karacena – a Polish armour, based on a myth of ancient Sarmatians, whom the Polish nobility perceived as their ancestors. Even on his all’antica portraits Sobieski was pictured wearing a delia, with a ceremonial mace or a short sword. The Polishness of these depictions was highlighted even further by the national symbols – the Eagle and the Pahonia, intertwined with Janina – Sobieski’s coat of arms.

Meanwhile the malcontents often referred to Jan III as to the tyrant Tiberius or Octavian August, accusing him of seeking the absolute power, absolutum dominum, and the desire to subjugate the nobility. They also accused him of breaking the rules and political rights of the Commonwealth by delaying or changing the place of the sejm meetings, not adhering to the procedures of the sejm, not reading the pacta conventa, editing the constitutions of the sejm, ruling by the senate councils and finally, dissolutions of the sejm. The list of his culpabilities was completed by his behind-the-scenes political activity and succumbing to the “female rule” of Marysieńka.

The heroic theme was also very important in the king’s autopresentation. Sobieski did not forget that he managed to get the crown thanks to his military victories against pagans from Turkey, and therefore he rarely ordered his depictions in his coronation attire or depictions of peaceful events – the intrada, sejm gatherings, receiving envoys, births of his children, etc. preferring his equestrian portraits with battles in the background. He referred in them to heroic virtues, represented by Heracles (virtus heroica) and Mars (virtus bellica). He was most often presented as rex armatus or a great leader, who held the regiment in his hand and led his armies to fight the pagan hydra. The use of regiment – the symbol of the greatest military authority – was not an accident. It was used to emphasise the fact that Jan III became the ruler only because of his personal talents and efforts, appreciated by people.

In contrast to these depictions, very popular among the nobility, the adversaries presented the ruler in their pamphlets as an inept leader, reminding of his military defeats (in the battle of Párkány, as well as in Moldova). After 1683, contrary to the praise to the “Thunder from the East” they tried to undermine the significance of the Vienna victory. They either did not speak about it or, following in the steps of German propagandists, attributed the victory to the Emperor Leopold I (who in fact left Vienna). Additionally, they focused on the negative aspects of the campaign, emphasising the big number of casualties and losses. They pitied the Polish soldier, accusing Sobieski of not caring about the fate of their people and of taking most of the precious bounty for himself. They persistently reminded the king that he obliged to retake Kamieniec Podolski in the pacta conventa, accusing him of collusion with the Tatars – therefore accusing him of treason of the state.

However even the harmful opinions of the malcontents did not stop Jan III from his pursuit of heroisation of his figure. The Saviour of Europe was not afraid to become equal to the gods and ordered apotheoses. One of the best examples was a carving by Karol de la Haye, after the project by Siemiginowski. Such depictions were intended for a more sophisticated viewership, who could read the complicated symbols and allegories without any problem – so they were not for a typical nobleman. The viewership was therefore limited, however, ordering such works served as a confirmation that Sobieski was truly a European ruler, as well as confirmed his distance from the magnates in the country, who tried to imitate his autopromotional actions (for example minted their own coins, ordered own portraits, organized entries into cities).

In a response to the attempts to strengthen the king’s authority in the country and in the world, the opposition tried to depreciate Sobieski, treating him as a normal man, not without vices. The authors of these slanderous pamphlets often accused him of having a weak will (and succumbing to his wife), miserliness and his love for money. They accused him, like a common thief, of stealing jewels from the Crown Treasury, and for taking war bounties for himself. They often reminded him of the embarrassing events from the past, such as bloody Confederation of Golab, the acquisition of the ceremonial mace straight from Lubomirski, who was very popular among the nobility, as well as his participation in the opposition to Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki. They also undermined the merits of his great predecessors, for example by criticizing hetman Stefan Żółkiewski, loved by the nobility, after his defeat in Cecora. They looked for every single weak spot, going for the king, his wife and even his children (especially Jakub, who was supposed to be the heir to the throne).

Despite those vicious attacks Sobieski subtly built his position as the starter of a new dynasty, promising peace and prosperity to the subjects – the so-called Golden Age. The issue of dynasty appeared on the canvasses and paintings by Szymon Siemiginowski-Szymonowicz on the facades of the Wilanów residence or in the decoration of the king’s carriages. The truth was that the state of the country after the wars in the first half of the 17th century was not ideal, however the king fought outside of the country, which allowed for its gradual restoration. However, the propaganda was dominated by the visions of the Commonwealth’s downfall because of a bad ruler, trying to instil fear of losing the golden freedoms and wars. The adversaries of the king tried to convince the nobility that they should look for another candidate for the throne, instead of letting Prince Jakub or his brothers rule – which in fact happened, but it did not save the country from the catastrophic partitions.

Translation: Lingua Lab

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