Welcome to 'Lost in the Myths of History'

It often seems that many prominent people of the past are wronged by often-repeated descriptions, which in time are taken as truth. The same is also true of events, which are frequently presented in a particular way when there might be many alternative viewpoints. This blog is intended to present a different perspective on those who have often been lost in the myths of history.

Monday, 8 August 2011

A Royal Artist

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:

Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, designed for the King in 1624 by Giovanni Trevano. (Photo: Marek and Ewa Wojciechowscy)
Virgin and Child, by Palma il Giovane, created in 1618 for the King.

St Peter and Paul Church, Krakow, established by Sigismund III ca. 1595. (Photo: Marek and Ewa Wojciechowscy)


Christina said...

What an interesting post, Matterhorn! Thank you. I must confess I had never heard of Sigismund Vasa until I read your post and, once again, it shows the extent of fascinating people who have been 'lost in the myths'. It is very lovely that you have written of him; thank you for this and for the great photos! Now I want to know more of this man and the times/places in which he lived! That is the amazing thing with discovering 'new' interesting people of the past...it leads to more and more avenues of discovery. It's never-ending and ever new....

(Incidentally - the design of this blog has gone a little awry for n known reason! The template seems to move things around without cause and makes other things disappear?? I hope to rectify this asap!).

Val said...

Matterhorn - thank you for my introduction to Sigismund! He sounds like a fascinating man, and who can't appreciate someone who tried his best to bring beauty, through art, to his realm? There are so many people forgetten by history and lost in myth. Thank you for uncovering a new one for me!

Christina - I noticed the same about the blog. It seems to happen whenever we post something new? I'm sure we will work it out in time!

Matterhorn said...

Thank you, Christina and Val! The religious/political feuds in the Vasa family remind me of those of the Tudors and Stuarts- only they are less well known.

I've also noticed the same problem with the blog layout. Strange...