Classical images In the dissemination of Royal Imagery in Early Modern Poland

Oleksii Rudenko | Jagiellonian University and Glasgow University
Issue 01 - September 2020

Figure 1: Arras with the coats of arms of Poland and Lithuania and the figure of Victoria, produced in Brussels by the workshop of Jan van Tieghem, c. 1555.


    ixteenth-century Poland is still somewhat neglected in popular English-language literature, although its connection with the early modern English and Scottish republican traditions and political thought can be indeed surprising. In the age of absolutism, Polish parliament (Sejm) tightly controlled the Jagiellonian Kings and prevented any attempts to suppress the rights of the nobility. Despite that, since the late fourteenth century, the Jagiellonians were one of the most expansive monarchies in Europe, ruling the Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and for a while Bohemia and Hungary. At the same time, the renascence of the classical culture in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries contributed to the development of the early modern potestarian imagology. This recent term in history-writing defines the methods of creating the ruler’s popular image, in this case in the medieval and early modern epochs. In particular, it is interesting to observe how these classical images (the revived figures and motifs of the ancient Greek–Roman past) were used in the states that did not possess direct historical continuity with ancient Rome and Greece—like Poland or Lithuania.

      The Renaissance imagination, however, provided a possibility to establish such links. Renaissance Polish culture and arts were drawing inspiration from profoundly Italian practices, transferred through Hungary and the Holy Roman Empire. The imagery of the Polish kingship in the sixteenth century was represented and disseminated using different ways. During the reign of Sigismund I the Old (Zygmunt Stary, 1506–1548) some new practices of royal image representation appeared in Poland, including medals, coins with the king’s portrait, and woodcuts with emblematic poems. This fascination with classical culture continued during the reign of the last Jagiellonian King—Sigismund II Augustus (Zygmunt August, 1548–1572)—and early seventeenth-century literature praised the reigns of Sigismund the Old and Sigismund Augustus as ‘the Polish Golden age’.

      The central question is not why the Renaissance royal representation used the classical images, but rather why did it attach particularly those figures of the ancient past, and how were created representations disseminated? Importantly, there was no integral approach in the creation of these images. This provides historians of the period with a huge amount of visual and textual sources as well as with the references to the classical antiquity that contribute to our understanding of the era.

Early Seventeenth-century 

literature praised the reigns of Sigismund the Old and Sigismund Augustus as

'The Polish Golden Age' 

      Such references, by their symbolism and importance, can be compiled in several groups. First of all, I should mention the context. The Polish Renaissance can be characterized by its high level of politicization of arts and literature, and this implied persistent involvement of the authors and artists in political life of the state. Hence, almost every created sample of poetry, emblem, medal or treatise could reveal hidden political senses. Educated Polish nobles, whose school’s curriculum in the sixteenth century included reading ancient authors, easily understood this ‘code of antiquity’.

      This was the case of Jan Kochanowski, a royal secretary and a prominent Polish Renaissance poet, known for his broad preparation in the Classics and history. His poem ‘Satyr or a Wild Man’ appeared soon after Augustus’s court in c.1563 received several arrases (tapestries) with the satyrs and royal initials ‘SA’. This happened during the period of a noble reformist ‘Executionist movement’ which demanded further implementation of the law, tax reform, returning to the good ancient noble traditions, and strengthening the positions of middle and low nobles. By the mediation of the Satyr, a Greek mythological creature, the poet acquired a unique ability to express his views during the meeting of the Sejm. As a waggish orator, Satyr could express the radical critics of the nobility, support King Augustus in his endeavours, and blame the magnates for their ignorance of the customs. The poem called for the revival of the ancient noble customs and instructed the King using the writings of ancient authors, e.g. Seneca, Sallust, Cicero, Plato, and Isocrates.


      Jagiellonian tapestries lead us to the second point, crucial for the royal image in the sixteenth century—attachment of the classical motifs and heroes as an attempt to belong to the European Renaissance fashion. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were not the only examples in European history with a revived interest in the antiquity. However, by the level of dissemination across Europe and its impact on society and education, it was the most striking one.

Figure 1: Arras with the coats of arms of Poland and Lithuania and the figure of Victoria, produced in Brussels by the workshop of Jan van Tieghem, c. 1555.

Tapestries (also called arrases due to the specific method of their creation) became an element of the royal representation during the reign of Sigismund Augustus, who became an owner of the largest collection of arrases in Europe (over 160 items), exceeding the collections of the Habsburgs and other dynasties. The splendour of the arrases was based on the richness of decoration in the royal residences, especially in Cracow. The visitors (the nobles, clergy, diplomats) could see the arrases there and make their conclusions regarding the financial wealth of the Jagiellons. Augustus also took his arrases during his voyages and parliament meetings. Another dimension comprised of the classical figures. Although the first series of arrases concerned the Biblical stories (Noah, the Tower of Babel), the heroes were depicted using the Renaissance techniques, and their creator, Flemish master Coxius, drew his inspiration from the prominent Italian examples (Piwocka 2007). Furthermore, a few dozen arrases attached the classical images and goddesses (Ceres and Victoria) to the Polish and Lithuanian coats of arms while the former one also acquired the aforementioned royal initials ‘SA’, implying the royal name (figure 1). The saturation of the royal residence with the Renaissance artworks made Sigismund Augustus’s court Renaissance-oriented and presented him as a notable promoter of the classical art in early modern Central–Eastern Europe.

Figures 2–3: Medal of Sigismund II Augustus. Made by Giovanni Padovano, 1532. Held in the National Museum in Cracow.

Medals were another tool for promoting the royal image in early modern Europe. Similar to the tapestries, they were commonly created to represent the royal image within the noble stratum using the ancient figures and motifs. Although, given their size, the number of classical references was smaller. As an element of the royal propaganda, medals appeared in Poland during the reign of Sigismund the Old. The sources confirm that they were the gifts for the visitors at the royal receptions, thus their amount was limited to a particular number. Among those medals (about a dozen attributed with the reign of Sigismund Augustus), several acquired ancient reminiscences. The one from 1532—made by Italian master Giovanni Padovano—embraced connections with Virgil’s Aeneid through the inscription ‘parcere subiectis et debellare superbo’ (figures 2–3). The lion depicted authority, strength, and justice according to the Renaissance tradition, and some scholars consider this medal as the political programme of young Sigismund Augustus who promised to be ‘a king at war and during times of peace, that is as the ideal ruler’ (Morka 2008). Similarly, Polish coins—the most distributed element of royal propaganda—started to depict the crowned royal initials, first ‘S’ (Sigismund I), and then ‘SA’ (Sigismund Augustus) as a marker of royal dignity and presence in the particular artwork or coin (figures 4–5).

Figures 4–5: Lithuanian coin półkopek. Tykocin, 1564. Held in the National Museum in Cracow.

The third essential point embraces the comparisons of the Jagiellons with the notable rulers of the antiquity with a particular focus on Alexander the Great, the most popular literature hero of medieval romances. In the popular imagination, he was competing with Persian Cyrus the Great and famous Romans—Octavianus Augustus, Caesar, Scipio Africanus, Cato the Younger, Cicero, and Pompey. The sixteenth-century Polish literature (especially poetry and political treatises) was the chief source of the classical reception and transfer. The works by prominent authors as Stanisław Orzechowski, Andrzej Modrzewski, Mikołaj Rej, Jan Kochanowski, regularly incorporated the classical figures or stories. For instance, specific instruction for the King (specula principum), written by Stanisław Orzechowski in 1543 and edited in 1548, guided young ruler Sigismund Augustus based on the examples of Alexander the Great, Octavianus, and Cyrus. Military preparation, education, modesty, courage, and other virtues that had to be acquired by Sigismund II focused on the successes and experience of the notable rulers of the antiquity.


      The identical approach of comparing the Polish Kings with the ancient rulers and gods was present in the printed depictions and emblematic poems. Emblematic poetry in Poland started to involve the classical figures for the royal depiction since the first images of Sigismund the Old which commemorated the victorious Battle of Orsha in 1514. Since then Sigismund was interchangeably compared with and praised as the new Jove and Alexander the Great (Fabiański 2017; figure 6).

Figure 6 (above): ‘Sigismund I as Jove’, woodcut from Statuta Serenissimi Domini Sigismundi, 1524. Cracow, Biblioteka Jagiellońska. Reproduction permitted by M. Fabiański.

Figure 7 (left): Sigismund Augustus. 'Jodocus Ludovicus Decius, ‘De Iagellonum familia liber II’, 1521.

      Several emblematic poems directly linked Sigismund Augustus to Octavianus Augustus. This link was based on the second given name of Sigismund II—Augustus—most probably chosen by his Italian mother Bona Sforza to enhance the positions of the Jagiellons within Poland and Central-Eastern Europe. Interestingly, this name was also bearing Roman connotations, among them deduced from the Latin word augere (to enlarge, to strengthen). A year after Augustus’s birth, a poem by German humanist Philipp Gundelius sketched the history of the Jagiellonian family and emphasized the name of the royal heir in the title and beginning of the poem (figure 7). The poem was later widely copied and disseminated in the manuscripts, contributing to the creation of Augustus’s image. Forty years later, the poem from 1560 likewise linked Sigismund Augustus with Octavianus by telling the reader that ‘You call him Augustus deservedly: for he, like Augustus, increases the strength of the ancestral kingdom’ (Rudenko 2020; figure 8). The success of the book prompted the emblem to be included in the following year’s edition, and these are merely two examples of such artificial connection.

      Importantly, these types of sources (books and woodcuts) were not limited to a particular social stratum and were, at least theoretically, accessible to all educated people, including early modern intellectuals, members of Cracow Academia and other universities, and burghers (citizens).

Figure 8: Portrait of Sigismund Augustus, Stanislaus Hosius, ‘Confessio catholicae fidei christiana’, Vienna, 1560. National Museum, Cracow.

      The reasons for the selection of particular heroes from ancient history were based on several foundations. Firstly, the recognisability of a hero attached. Alexander the Great did not face any obstacle with that being the most popular hero of the medieval legends. Neither did Octavianus Augustus or Cyrus, praised in the works of Suetonius, Plutarch, and Xenophon (the latter was rediscovered during the Late Middle Ages). Jove (Jupiter) was well-known from Roman mythology. Thus, Sigismund I and his son were now associated with particular noble virtues of these Greek–Roman heroes.

      Secondly, the magnates and nobility since the very beginning of the sixteenth century threatened the positions of the royal power in Poland. The Polish–Lithuanian–Ruthenian nobility gained the right to freely elect their King after the death of the previous King, yet Sigismund I and his wife Bona Sforza managed to secure the accession of their son Augustus to the throne as vivente rege. This ‘republic of nobles’ was frequently compared in political pamphlets with the ancient Roman Republic by making parallels between Roman aristocrats and szlachta (nobility), and Roman Senate with the Polish–Lithuanian Sejm. Early modern art in a specific way helped to strengthen the royal authority in the popular imagination. Needless to say—this approach was effective.


      Each of the images obtained a specific reference to the particular historical period when it was commissioned and created. Some of the references were quite transparent: to commemorate the coronation, the battle, or the birth of the heir. Some others, however, acquired specific context of emergence worthy of inquiry at another time.

      Ultimately, referring to the ancient history and figures provided the Jagiellons with the justification of their territorial and dynastical demands. In a lasting ‘hidden’ competition with the Habsburgs (there was no war, rather a hostility that periodically manifested itself) the Jagiellonian rulers were portrayed as dignified kings, comparable with the notable figures of the antiquity. The same path was common for other early modern European royal dynasties, thus the Jagiellons simultaneously enhanced their royal prestige.


      The classical world constituted a significant part of the images devoted to the royal authority in sixteenth-century Poland—as elsewhere in Renaissance Europe—but with some peculiarities when compared to Italy, France, or Flanders. Although the ancient heroes were not the only figures employed, they symbolized the aspirations of the Jagiellonian dynasty and shaped the royal image in Poland–Lithuania. The images selected and the platforms where they were placed primarily oriented to the higher strata—nobility, intellectuals, and diplomats. However, in the case of early modern Poland–Lithuania it was justified: it is counted that the nobility could comprise up to 10 per cent of the state population. The typical figures of the classical antiquity used were the rulers of ancient Rome (Octavianus, Caesar, Scipio Africanus), those associated with mythology, ancient Persia, Greece, and Macedonia (Jupiter, Cyrus, Alexander the Great, Pyrrhus of Epirus). Selection of the figures that either represented or instructed the royal authority in sixteenth-century Poland–Lithuania considered several factors: the recognisability of those figures, and the necessity to strengthen the royal authority and represent its positions. The usage of the classical images and motifs intensified in the 1560s during the eloquent discussion regarding the future Polish–Lithuanian Union and continued in the seventeenth century. However, it is this period, that of the last Jagiellonian Kings, that earned the dignified name of the ‘Golden Polish Age’ for its cultural achievements and practices that shaped the royal image of the last Jagiellonians for the following decades.



Further Reading: 

  • Fabiański, M., ‘The Beginnings of Woodcut Portrait in Poland. The Images of King Sigismund I against their Literary Background’, Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 38, No. 36, (2017) pp. 259–289.

  • Frost, R., The Oxford History of Poland–Lithuania. Volume I: The Making of the Polish–Lithuanian Union, 1385–1569, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

  • Morka, M., ‘The Beginnings of Medallic Art in Poland during the Times of Zygmunt I and Bona Sforza’, Artibus Et Historiae, Vol. 29, No. 58, (2008) pp. 65–87.

  • Niekrasz, C., Woven theaters of nature: Flemish tapestry and natural history, 1550–1600 (Ph.D. Thesis, Northwestern University, 2007). (

  • Piwocka, M., The tapestries of Sigismund Augustus, Kraków: Wawel Royal Castle (2007).

  • Rudenko, O, ‘Creating the Image of the King: the Early Modern Woodcut of Sigismund Augustus from ‘Confessio fidei’ by Stanislaus Hosius’, Text and Image: Essential Problems in Art History, 1 (2020), pp. 54–68.


This article is based on my Master’s thesis, titled ‘The Classical Reception, Royal Image and Strengthening the King’s Power in Early Modern Poland (1520–1572)’ (supervisors: Prof. Jakub Niedźwiedź and Dr. Vladimir Unkovski-Korica) that is expected to be published online after its defence in 2020.

Oleksii Rudenko is a postgraduate student at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow and the University of Glasgow. He is finishing his thesis on the classical reception and the royal image in early modern Poland, focusing on the cultural, political, and art dimensions of Jagiellonian representation. He is particularly interested in the late medieval and early modern making of ethnogenetic myths and impact of the classical tradition in Central–Eastern Europe.

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