Unfortunately, historians have often dismissed Sigismund III Vasa, King of Poland and Sweden (1566-1632) as a religious fanatic and a political failure. Due to his ardent Catholic faith and zeal for the Counter-Reformation, he lost the Swedish throne, after a turbulent reign of only seven years, to his Protestant, rebellious uncle, Duke Karl. His stubborn insistence, for the rest of his life, on trying to reconquer Sweden, embroiled Poland in a disastrous series of wars with Sweden and Russia. Nevertheless, is Sigismund not to be admired for remaining true to his faith, for putting his soul before his throne, the Kingdom of Heaven before the Kingdom of Sweden? Furthermore, his insistence on his hereditary right to the Swedish crown was probably not, as some have claimed, merely born of ambition to rule multiple kingdoms. He surely also saw it as a religious duty to fight to reclaim Sweden for the Catholic Faith.
Today, however, I want to focus on Sigismund's contributions to the arts. In the cultural realm, whatever one thinks of his politics, he was a resounding success. Sigismund was a true Renaissance prince, a generous patron of painters, musicians and architects, and a talented artist and craftsman. In 1596, while still King of Sweden, he moved the Polish capital from Krakow to Warsaw. He hoped the change would facilitate ruling the two countries, as Warsaw was closer to Sweden. He soon began to beautify and modernize the city, and, in particular, the medieval Masovian dukes' castle he chose as his new royal palace:
During his reign, the castle was enlarged and given its present pentagonal shape, with an imposing mannerist-early baroque elevation facing the town, and a high tower, called Sigismund's Tower. The palace was modelled on the Swedish palace of Drottningholm, which Sigismund's father, King John III of Sweden, had built for his consort, the Polish princess, Catherine Jagellonica. By imitating the design of Drottningholm, Sigismund wanted to honor his pious and virtuous mother, the one responsible for raising him in the Catholic faith.
Sigismund also encouraged the creation and beautification of many other castles, churches and monasteries. He established Poland's first art gallery, featuring mainly religious art (but also portraits of famous men and historical scenes), and including works by great Renaissance masters such as Rubens, Jordaens and Rembrandt. Most interestingly, Sigismund was himself a gifted amateur draughtsman, painter and goldsmith. Unfortunately, only three of his paintings and drawings, apparently, survive; an Allegory of Faith, a Mater Dolorosa and a Virgin Mary with St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier. Sigismund also enjoyed crafting liturgical tools.
I find Sigismund's efforts to prosper and beautify the Church quite touching, particularly as his Vasa forebears, during the Reformation in Sweden, had plundered Church lands and treasures. Perhaps, Sigismund was trying to atone for this sacrilege. In any case, he left Poland a rich artistic and spiritual heritage. Here are a few works sponsored by Sigismund Vasa:
(Photo: Marek and Ewa Wojciechowscy)
St Peter and Paul Church, Krakow, established by Sigismund III ca. 1595. (Photo: Marek and Ewa Wojciechowscy)