Manors, Sashes & Portraits: How Did Polish Sarmatians Live?
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How Did Polish Sarmatians Live?, Noble manor, Nowy Sącz, photo: Marek Skorupski/Forum, center, dwor-szlachecki-forum.jpg
Tracing Polish ancestry back to the ancient Sarmatians was a prevalent myth that influenced politics, arts and culture from the 16th century onwards. But what was everyday life like during the Sarmatism period in Poland? How did these noble throwbacks live?
Sarmatism is an intellectual trend and an ideology that was most strongly present in the Polish culture of the 17th century (even though it already existed in the second half of the 16th century and lasted until the second half of the 18th). A scholar of baroque culture, Mariusz Karpowicz, wrote in in his book Sztuka Oświeconego Sarmatyzmu (editor’s translation: Art of Enlightened Sarmatism):
The Sarmatian legend in Poland was a symptom of the birth of national identity and of a desire to find a worthy place among European nations. The chivalrous and heroic history of the Sarmatians, praised by ancient writers for their military prowess, suited this desire outstandingly well.
Looking for roots in ancient times and tribes was typical for nations constructing their identity in the Enlightenment era – similar phenomena occurred at that time in France, Germany and Sweden. A family tree which stretched back into the distant past ennobled and bonded communities. Today, we know that the Sarmatian ideology did not influence Poland’s history in a particulary positive way (the awry concept of freedom popular among the nobility contributed to the Partitions), but the trends that began at that time in the arts, architecture and design became an important elements of baroque culture later on.
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How did the Polish nobleman become a Sarmatian?
The Sarmatians were an ancient tribe of nomadic shepherds who, according to scholars, lived in today’s Iran in the 4th and 3rd century BCE. It is believed that in 1st century BCE the brave Sarmatians conquered lands near the Danube river and fought against the Roman Empire. It is precisely this bravery and combative attitude, as well as their love of freedom, that Polish noblemen claimed to have ‘inherited’ from their ancestors and became the foundation of Sarmatian ideology.
Roman Krzywy writes in Kultura Sarmacka (Sarmatian Culture), a publication compiled by the Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów:
The Sarmatian myth is based on an attitude to the past that is characteristic of pre-Enlightenment eras. The times of the chivalrous ancestors are treated as if they were a sacred period. A time where one should look for examples or binding rules. Various distortions of the present can only be corrected by the return to the ideal state, not through innovation. This also applies to the ethical and personal attitudes perfectly embodied by these ancestors.
But the Sarmatian doctrine evolved: at the beginning, it only consisted of a respect for their homeland and traditions and of a readiness to defend them, even militarily if necessary. At first, it did not stand in opposition to tolerance or respect for the multinational character of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – it even served as a way to integrate the diverse society. In time – and as the result of important events, such as the Swedish Deluge – the Polish Sarmatian became a xenophobe and a religious bigot, who preferred to separate himself from the world, holed up in his manor. Late-Sarmatian culture focussed on praising the advantages of the life of the gentry, which was close to nature and family), and moved away from matters of state and politics.
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Where did the Sarmatians live?
Both the moderately wealthy noblemen and the magnates who were richer than kings could have been Sarmatians. The former usually had a wooden manor, situated in the centre of his estate which he usually oversaw. The latter could afford to build an impressive residence. The castles of the Koniecpolski family in Podhorce and of the Lubomirski family in Wiśnicz, as well as Krzysztof Ossoliński’s Krzyżtopór castle in Ujazd are buildings that were designed as a kind of elaborate set-pieces aimed at showcasing the homeowner’s position in society. The Sarmatians were in a way partly responsible for a change in Polish architecture: a shift from fortified residences towards palaces in which the ramparts were substituted with garden terraces. This marked Polish architecture’s transition towards the Baroque.
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What else did the Sarmatians build?
Influential noble families often had their own foundations. And since Sarmatians considered themselves to be deeply religious, they eagerly financed the construction of churches. Thanks to these noble families, Poland now has numerous priceless masterpieces of baroque architecture and design.
Among the magnate contributions of the era, one could list the Church of St. Peter and Paul in Antakalnis in Vilnius (financed by Michał Kazimierz Pac), which is impressive with its grand scale and wealth of ornamentation, as well as the more modest Church of the Holy Trinity in Tykocin. Jan Klemens Branicki financed not only the Tykocin church, but also one of the first secular monuments constructed in Poland – the statue of Stefan Czarniecki, which stands in front of the building. In the 1860s, Stanisław Herakliusz Lubomirski financed the Church of St. Anthony in Czerniaków, a masterpiece designed by Tylman von Gameren and an object not only of great size but also great artistic value.
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What did they wear?
Scholars consider Sarmatian culture to be syncretic, because it was a unique mix of Eastern and Western influences. This is most clearly seen in Sarmatian attire which was an extremely important symbol of their identity. Sarmatian fashion peaked at the turn of the 18th century, when accessories and weapons from Turkey became popular – they were supposed to be associated with loot won during the victorious Battle of Vienna.
In Kultura Sarmacka, Jarosław Dumanowski writes:
During the period of wars against Turkey, the silhouette of a kontusz-wearing Sarmatian was filled with important meaning connected with the defence of faith and chivalrous values.
A true Sarmatian wore a żupan, which was a long, button-down robe shaped like a dress (żupans were usually made of cloth, but festive ones were made using silk or damask). Beginning in the middle of the 17th century, Sarmatians began covering their żupans with a kontusz – a piece of clothing resembling a coat or a vest with long sleeves (cut open below the elbow) and tied with a decorative kontusz sash.
A ferezja was often another element of the Sarmatian wardrobe. It was an ankle-long dress made of a colourful fabric. The delia was also quite popular – a robe (tight near the chest and cut open below the belt) which was worn over a żupan or, when it was fur-lined, as an overcoat or a cloak.
The kontusz sash: a Sarmatian’s ID
The kontusz sash arrived in Poland from Turkey and Persia. At first, they were imported, but a few Polish kontusz sash manufactories were later opened – the most famous ones were in Słuck and Kobyłka (they were known as persjarnie).
A typical kontusz belt was about 40 cm (15.7”) wide and between 3 and 4.5 metres (9.8”-14.8”) long – a nobleman could wrap it around himself a couple times. The belts were most often made of silk and embroidered, usually with a golden or a silver thread. The quality of the decorations on the belt usually marked the owner’s social status and wealth, and the colours or the knot could shed light on the political views or religious denomination of the wearer.
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How to spot a Sarmatian?
In addition to the kontusz tied with a belt, a Sarmatian never left home without his karabela, a kind of sabre that symbolised his bravery, military skill and constant readiness to defend his homeland, faith and values. Sarmatian attire was often rounded out with a feathered cap (it sometimes looked like a pointy Turkish hat called a kalpak). Polish noblemen of the 17th century are often imagined as moustachioed portly men with heads shaven at the sides. And although there were no strict rules about facial hair and hairstyles, this look was definitely the most popular.
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What kind of art did they own?
A Sarmatian needed esteemed ancestors – their portraits took centrestage in every residence. When they lacked authentic forbearers, they had invent them – it was important to have their stern faces on canvas. With a few exceptions, the portrait painting of the era is not highly valued by scholars, as it is amateurishly realistic and rather naïve. Among the artists who deserve some recognition is Daniel Schultz, the Gdańsk-born court painter of king Jan II Kazimierz and later king Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki and king Jan III Sobieski.
The Sarmatians made sure that their ancestors were properly exposed, but they also believed in their own grandeur, which made writing journals and diaries very popular. They documented both great accomplishments and their everyday life. Thanks to the Sarmatian diaries, we now know more about their ways of thinking, their culture and ways of life at the time. The writings of Jan Chryzostom Pasek and Wacław Potocki are even today considered to be very valuable pieces of baroque literature.
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What was their attitude towards death?
The rituals associated with death were very important among the Sarmatians – they were called pompa funebris. Sometimes, funerals were prepared for months in advance and each detail of their rich, almost theatrical, arrangements was highly polished. Their funeral traditions gave us the coffin portrait, a type of painting developed in Poland. Attached to the shorter side of the coffin (hence the characteristic, hexagonal shape of the picture), the portrait represented the face of the deceased in a simplified manner, containing only their most characteristic features. The coffin portrait had to be visible from a distance – during the funeral, the coffin was placed on an ornamental catafalque (called castrum doloris) and carried in a procession. The face of the deceased had to be visible to the mourners.
The Sarmatians thought about death a lot – the idea of memento mori was very important in their religiosity. The depictions of death created in that period are an interesting expression of that.
In the Church of the Holy Trinity in Tarłów, constructed between 1647 and 1655 and funded by Zbigniew Oleśnicki, the is rich stucco ornamentation in the two side chapels. It depicts the Danse Macabre –death can touch any man, regardless of their age, wealth or origin.
Among the decorations of the Tarłów church, one can glimpse an inscription held by two puttos:
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Why do we boast / Is man not merely mud / Of mud man is created / Nobody can avoid death / We make mud out of earth / Earth is like mud / And so we should strive / to make God proud of us.
What happened with the female Sarmatians?
The noblewomen and female magnates did not have such a highly codified way of dressing or styling their hair, and their way of life was not turned into a myth. The wives and daughters of Sarmatians more readily accepted Western influences – the design of their dresses and their hairstyles came from the West. Women did not even help in the organisation of feasts which were so beloved by the Sarmatians. The author of a 17th century guide on the preparation of parties, Stanisław Hercius, advised only to consult one’s wife before organising a feast:
If somebody, predicting some free time in the future, wants to enjoy the company of his friends and invite them to his house, he should first discuss it with his spouse.
The political ideology and the cultural movement of Sarmatism was largely centred around men. To a large extent, this has to be linked to the fact that the role of women in the 17th and 18th centuries was simply insignificant.
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