From Battlefields to Museums: How Poland’s Winged Horsemen Influenced Culture
The Polish cavalry, called the hussars or the ‘winged horsemen’, was among the deadliest army units of 16th- and 17th-century Europe, playing a crucial role in Polish history. Unsurprisingly, they have been immortalised by numerous artists over the years. Here we take a look at some of the most intriguing examples of how the hussars influenced culture, both in Poland and abroad.
Before we start, if you'd like to know more about the history of the Hussars and how their clever design made them so successful, check out our article Poland's Winged Knights: From Glory to Obsolescence.
Arguably, the most famous portrayal of hussars can be found in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s ever-popular The Trilogy – the Nobel prize-winner’s series of historical novels about Poland’s 17th-century armed conflicts. In the 1886 The Deluge, the second of the series’ instalments, you can find one of Sienkiewicz’s most memorable hussar episodes, namely a description of a charge that took place during the 1656 Battle of Warsaw, a fight against Swedish troops invading Poland. During that charge the character Roch Kowalski almost slays the Swedish king Charles X Gustav:
Kowalski rode up and knew Charles Gustav, for he had seen him twice before. (…) They rushed at each other so that the breasts of the horses struck. They raged. ‘I look’, an officer recalls, ‘the king with his horse is on the ground’. He freed himself, touched the trigger of his pistol, missed. The king's hat had fallen. Roch then made for the head of Charles Gustav, had his sword raised; the Swedes were weak from terror, for there was no time to save Charles, when Bogusław rose as if from beneath the earth, fired into the very ear of Kowalski, broke his head and his helmet.
This scene is reminiscent of authentic events when one of the hussars in the battle almost slayed the Swedish king. The monarch was indeed saved by a man by the name Bogusław: the Polish duke Bogusław Radziwiłł, who was fighting alongside the invaders, shot the hussar. The real-life identity of Roch remains unknown. However, we do know for a fact that after the battle, King Gustav, impressed by his valour, made sure he received a grand funeral.
Sienkiewicz’s The Trilogy has been adapted for the big screen by the noted Polish director Jerzy Hoffman whose Colonel Wołodyjowski from 1969 and The Deluge from 1974 are considered classic. Understandably the hussar motifs from the novels appear in these films, although we do not see the Battle of Warsaw. Still, The Deluge, starring Daniel Olbrychski as Kmicic and Krzysztof Kowalewski as Roch Kowalski, does feature a very intense scene of a hussar charge.
Interestingly, there is also an Italian film adaptation of the third Sienkiewicz novel With Fire And Sword (Italian: Col Rerro e Col Fuoco), which was directed by Fernando Cerchio and premiered in 1962. Toward the end of this picture, you can see what appears to be the hussars. However, instead of having their famous wings – wooden slats with attached eagle, falcon or vulture feathers which the riders sometimes fastened to their backs to scare off the enemy’s horses – they have winged helmets, more evocative of Asterix than of the Polish cavalry…
The soundtrack for Hoffman's' With Fire And Sword was composed by famous Polish composer Krzesimir Dębski. One of the pieces on the soundtrack is titled Polonez Husarii (editor’s translation: Hussars’ Polonaise). The title suggests music suitable for dancing the polonaise, Poland’s traditional dance favoured by the gentry of old. However, if you prefer listening to something ‘hussar-themed’ that is a bit less traditional, you can always go with Winged Hussars, a 2016 song by the Swedish heavy metal band Sabaton, inspired by one of the hussars’ last great triumphs, the Relief of Vienna in 1683. The song is in English, here’s a taste of the lyrics:
Then the winged hussars arrived
Coming down they turned the tide
Back in the early modern period, the hussars were rather influential and were behind many popular fashion trends. As the elite of Poland's military, they were free of the obligation of wearing uniforms, so they rode into battle with the skins of different predators such as leopards, tigers or bears over their armour. Not only did they look scary to their opponents but also quite impressive to onlookers. They also often wore cloaks with enormous fur collars which reached all the way down to their waists. Eventually, the cloaks became popular in Poland among non-hussars who wanted to look as dashing as the winged horsemen.
But from today's perspective, it is a different hussar-stylistic influence that is more relevant: the moustache-wearing trend. Said to have been started by the hussars, it grew so popular that it eventually became a symbol of Polishness. Here’s what Rafał Janta has to say on this issue in his 2017 book Na Ostro i Pod Włos (editor’s translation: Sharp and Against the Hair) about facial hair:
The nobility, in love with freedom (almost to the point of anarchy), wore rich, colourful garments, half-shaven haircuts and proudly sported hefty Sarmatian moustaches. The latter became a national symbol of sorts, a refuge of true Polishness. (…) Also, in the centuries to come, the Poles appreciated the moustache (rather than the beard), and you can still encounter followers of this Sarmatian trend today.
Another example of the hussars resonating with modern times are their appearances in video games. They are featured, for example, in the sixth instalment of the famous game Civilisation which lets you rule over a chosen nation throughout history. Released in 2016, the sixth edition lets you play as Poland whose unique unit (no other country in the game can mobilise it) is the ‘Winged Hussar’ which according to the game’s creators, ‘is strong on the attack and can push back defending units’. More hussar characters can be seen in the valued 2006 strategy game Medieval II: Total War and the action role-playing Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword from 2009, inspired by The Trilogy and developed by TaleWorlds, an indie studio from Turkey.
Hussars also appear in the works of the graphic artist Jakub Różalski whose alternative 1920s history world called 1920+ is meant to be the setting of the long-awaited real-time strategy video game Iron Harvest.
The nifty 1920+ universe, first conjured in Różalski’s paintings and digital graphics, features winged horsemen put up against giant mechs armed with what appear to be grenade launchers. If however, these splendidly anachronistic images aren’t to your taste you might want to take a look at some more traditional depictions like Chodkiewicz with the Hussars at the Chocim Fortifications in 1621. This 1936 oil on canvas work by eminent military painter Wojciech Kossak shows the hussars during one of their biggest triumphs – the Battle of Chocim, where they helped save Poland from a massive Turkish invasion. Another traditional depiction comes from the noted Józef Brandt who showed a winged horseman in his skilful piece Husarz or Hussar, created ca. 1890.
Because the hussars won some of the most important battles in Poland’s history, like the Battle of Chocim, many monuments have been put up in their honour. One of them was commissioned in the 17th century by Poland’s King Jan III Sobieski and stands in Hodiw, a village in today’s western Ukraine. The elegant white stone obelisk commemorates the battle that took place there in 1694, dubbed by some historians the ‘Polish Battle of Thermopylae’ due to the huge disproportion in the sizes of the armies fighting: 400 hussars and riders stood against 40,000 invading Tatars. Miraculously, the Poles – aided by the locals – managed to win.
A few years ago it was renovated by a team led by Prof. Janusz Smaza of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, who says the following in an interview on the website of the MOSTY foundation, which helped organise the renovation:
For 25 years I’ve been working in Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Russia too. I deal with cultural heritage. (…) This object says a lot about the history of this land, it's unique, to have a 17th-century wayside object, like a shrine or monument, that’s very, very special.
An interesting form of commemorating the hussars can also be seen in the city of Szczecin in north-western Poland: the 1967 Pomnik Braterstwa Broni (Monument of Brothers in Arms) by Sławomir Lewiński stands in the Central Cemetery. Made of artificial stone, the majestic monument – 18 metres high and almost 14 metres wide – dynamically references the shape of hussar wings. Thanks to the talent of its designer, despite being so large, it is very graceful.
Some, however, may have a problem with appreciating the monument, when they find out that it was erected under the communist regime. According to the official website of the cemetery, the monument is a symbol of the ‘brotherhood of Polish and Soviet soldiers (…) during World War II’. Given that in 1939 the Soviets invaded Poland shortly after the Nazis, that message seems controversial to say the least.
The Polish poet and nobleman Wacław Potocki who lived in the 17th century, the times of the hussars’ greatest triumphs, had two sons: Stefan and Jerzy. Stefan already as a youngster was very keen to become a soldier. His father describes this in one of his poems titled Peryod X or Period X, part of a series dedicated to Stefan:
When a man gets the moss of his first moustache
He starts to anticipate, and his nature he crushes
The fair temple hasn’t yet seen a razor
But already in the name of Mars he’s been chasing
He’s already skilled at handling the shaft
The horse and the sabre as well
The poet supported his son's interests, and eventually, Stefan joined the hussars. In Peryod XII the proud father writes:
Beautiful standards fluttered in the wind
When the hussar drums were beating
Under the king’s general command
My son is going, soon a famous man
But after some initial successes, in 1673, Stefan died of exhaustion during his service. As if that wasn’t enough, in 1690 the poets’ younger son Jerzy was also killed while serving as a hussar. It’s hard to even imagine how the tragedy of losing his two sons must’ve affected the poet. Perhaps his words from the narrative poem Wojna Chocimska (The Chocim War), written in the years 1670–75, may be treated as a commentary to the harsh fate that befell him:
Not with an arrow left by my last son, but with a spear
My heart has been cut in half, I’ve already become blind
I can still breathe, but my eyes are running with tears
I can keep pushing my aged self to the grave, and whine
Recently, also in Szczecin, hussar wings appeared in a far less serious context. Last year in the city’s central Aleja Kwiatowa, or Flower Avenue, the florist Agnieszka Czech set up a pair of wings made of flowers attached to metal stands. The flower-power wings standing in the street boasted red and light-green carnations as well as aspidistra leaves. To make sure the flowers and leaves stayed fresh the florist stuck them into water-soaked sponges hidden within the stands.
When it comes to hussar wings appearing in unexpected contexts, there’s definitely one event that shouldn’t be left out. In 2014, the immensely accomplished Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt was celebrating his 28th birthday in Warsaw at the Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów. As a gift, he received… a nice pair of hussar wings crafted especially for him. In photographs taken during the event, the athletic champion seems to be rather fond of them.
Author: Marek Kępa, Dec 2017