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Finding Sir Lancelot in Medieval Poland

By Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik

Ever since King Arthur and his knights emerged as the unquestioned heroes of the Middle Ages, artists found ways to adapt the vast body of Arthurian tales and characters to various artistic forms. These included illuminated manuscripts, ivory decorations and wall paintings. The latter ones adorned the walls of castles and burgher houses even in the most distant parts of Europe. Today only a few of them survive, but one such depiction can be found, curiously enough in Poland, in an obscure little village of Siedlęcin.

In the early fourteenth century the then Duke of Jawor, Henry I built a tower-house here. A truly remarkable survivor, it has been sitting unchanged on the picturesque bank of the River Bobber for more than 700 years. The walls of its Great Hall carry a set of unique paintings. Initially art historians believed them to be a depiction of Ywain, the Knight with the Lion. Further investigation, however, revealed their main character to be Sir Lancelot. With all probability the paintings were commissioned by the same duke who founded the tower itself.

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Ducal Tower of Siedlęcin sitting on the picturesque bank of the River Bobber. Photo courtesy of Dariusz Sekuła

Duke Henry was an ambitious young man with a newly inherited duchy and eager to heighten his own prestige. And what better way to do that than to have a representative seat built and have its walls adorned with a set of extremely fashionable Arthurian paintings. Duke Henry’s family, the Piasts of Schweidnitz-Jauer, maintained – be it by marriage or other diplomatic ways – close ties with the courts of Western Europe, most notably with the splendid royal court at Prague. That made them up to date with all the fashion trends in art and literature so popular in the west. Their ambitions were reflected on the walls of the Siedlęcin tower’s Great Hall. Considered the tower’s greatest treasure, the paintings were commissioned in the 1320s or 1330s. The anonymous artist working for the duke probably came to Silesia from today’s Switzerland, from such important centres of courtly culture as Zurich and Constance.

Today, being the world’s only Lancelot wall paintings preserved in situ, the Siedlęcin set ranks among the most outstandingly complete and well preserved in Europe. The story of Arthur’s greatest knight, his glittering career, adulterous love for Guinevere and subsequent downfall has been told in two registers and should be ”read” from the lower to the upper one, from left to right (as in case of many other examples of medieval cycles).

The Great Hall of the ducal tower of Siedlęcin with the southern wall adorned with Lancelot paintings. Photo Wikimedia Commons

The lower register shows Sir Lancelot and his cousin, Sir Lionel, claiming the world shortly after they had been knighted. To prove their valour and knightly skills in hand-to-hand combat they set off for their first big adventure. The story goes with the tale of Lionel’s capture and Lancelot’s duel with the knight named Tarquin, whom Lancelot defeats and kills. Thanks to this victory sixty-four knights imprisoned in Tarquin’s castle (including Lionel and four other knights of the Round Table) obtain their freedom.

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The upper register shows fair Guinevere with her ladies before the walls of Camelot. Lancelot accompanied by his entourage presents himself to her. The next scene depicts the wicked knight Meleagant as he carries the queen away. He is going to be ultimately slain by Lancelot. The latter hurries to his lady’s rescue, suffering – among many a hardship – a total humiliation of riding in a cart, a form of travelling reserved for criminals. He rescues the queen in the end, the sinful nature of their love being shown in a depiction where they hold their left hands – a clear symbol of their adulterous affair.

Guinevere with her ladies before the walls of Camelot. Photo Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the Lancelot story, wall paintings at Siedlęcin display strong Christian symbols. Put together the central depiction of St Christopher combined with the scene called Memento mori and the Lancelot story carry a clear moralistic message: a knight should be, in opposition to Lancelot who betrayed his sovereign, as faithful and obedient as St Christopher, who carried the infant Christ across the water on his shoulders never to abandon him.

The Siedlęcin set has never been finished, perhaps due to its founder’s death or for more down-to-earth reasons such as lack of means to continue the expensive work. The unfinished portion on the western wall of the Great Hall shows the duel between Lancelot and Sagramour le Desreez and Lancelot healing Urry de Hongre.

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At some point, we do not know when precisely – art historians generally agree that it must have been at the beginning of the 16th century – the paintings were whitewashed. This saved them for posterity. In 1887 one Wilhelm Klose, the tax inspector from the nearby town of Jelenia Góra, paid a visit to the then owners of the estate. At this point the tower was used as a granary and the powerful Schaffgotsch family built a manor house in front of it on the previous, original outer walls which had been pulled down. Was it just business or perhaps a flair for history that brought Wilhelm Klose to the tower itself? We can only guess. The important thing is that during his stay he uncovered part of the paintings from underneath the layer of whitewash. Obviously, he did not know the true value of his find, but he made sketches and notes and later turned them into a meticulous report on the tower, its closest surroundings and the paintings on the second floor. It took art historians one hundred years to determine the identity of the cycle’s main character.

There is one more cycle of Lancelot frescoes, in Italy, but it has not been preserved in situ. This is the so-called “Cycle of  the Master of Andreino Trotti”. It originally adorned the interior of a fortified tower in Frugarolo, in Piedmont. However, for the sake of the paintings themselves, it was removed and transported to the museum of Alessandria near Turin and thus it cannot be seen in the very place of its creation. This makes the Siedlęcin paintings absolutely unique.

With Siedlęcin Castle unable to open during the COVID-19 pandemic, the site is looking for support – please visit https://wiezasiedlecin.pl/voucher/ to help out.

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Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik is a teacher, amateur historian, freelance writer and volunteer working at the medieval sites of Poland. She works with different magazines and websites on Polish and European history.

Top Image: Lancelot with his entourage presenting himself to Guinevere. Ducal tower of Siedlęcin, ca. 1320s/1330s. Photo Wikimedia Commons

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