Sir Lancelot in Siedlęcin? Poland’s Unique Mediaeval Polychromes
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default, Southern wall of the Grand Hall at the Siedlęcin tower, photo: Marek Bazak, center, #000000, siedlecin-fot-marek-bazak-en_01217050_0406.jpg
A mediaeval tower in the village of Siedlęcin is home to dazzling 14th century polychromes showing the legend of Sir Lancelot. These wall paintings are absolutely unique, as they’re the only artwork of its kind in its original place. Once painted over and forgotten, the polychromes were only discovered in the 19th century – but it wasn’t until the 1980s that a Polish art expert deciphered their meaning.
A duke’s residence
In the picturesque valley of the River Bóbr in southwest Poland, near the city of Jelenia Góra, lies the quaint village of Siedlęcin. Here stands one of Poland’s most interesting mediaeval monuments – the residential tower of Duke Henry I of Jawor, which dates back to the early 14th century.
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The four-storey Gothic building made of stone is topped with a pitched roof and measures over 33 metres high, dominating its surroundings. It was erected on a rectangular plan measuring 22 by 15 metres and is one of the largest mediaeval residential towers in Central Europe.
The residential tower in Siedlęcin is unique in all respects. It has survived in an almost unchanged state since the 1320s. It was subject to very few alterations, and its interiors are amongst the best-preserved mediaeval interiors in Poland. No wonder that it’s widely considered one of the most important monuments of Poland’s and Europe’s Middle Ages.
From ‘Dolnośląski Camelot: Wieża Mieszkalna w Siedlęcinie’ by Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik, niezlasztuka.net, trans. MK
According to historians, the Silesian Duke Henry I had the tower built in 1314. Even though the building is one of the largest of its kind, the most unique feature of this monument can be found in its well-preserved interiors.
One legend, two towers
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Siedlęcin polychrome showing the story of Sir Lancelot: on top – Castle Camelot, Queen Guinevere & her retinue, at bottom – Lancelot & Lionel, Lancelot sleeping beneath the apple tree, Lionel sleeping on watch, Lancelot fighting against Tarquyn, photo: Marek Maruszak / Forum
On the second floor of the Siedlęcin tower, in the impressive Grand Hall, you can find dazzling polychromes whose subject matter makes them exceptional in all of Europe. They depict the story of Sir Lancelot, the famous knight of the Round Table. According to art historians, they were created during the years 1330 to 1350, most likely at Henry I’s request.
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The tale of Sir Lancelot, full of knightly adventures and marked by the illicit love affair with Queen Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur, was immensely popular in mediaeval Europe. It was described in hundreds of beautifully illuminated manuscripts and portrayed in polychromes decorating noblemen’s residences. However, the wall paintings showing the celebrated Arthurian tale have nearly all been lost.
Apart from the ones in Siedlęcin, such artworks have only been found at one site, in northern Italy:
Until the 1970s, at the tower in Frugarolo in Piedmont, you could find wall paintings, almost 70 years younger than the ones in Siedlęcin, also showing scenes from the legend of Lancelot; but due to the poor condition of the tower, they were removed from its walls and taken to the museum in Alessandria, near Torino.
From ‘Sir Lancelot z Siedlęcina', zabytkoznawcy.wordpress.com, trans. MK
Since the Italian polychromes were removed from their original location, those in Siedlęcin are the only historical wall paintings showing the tale of Lancelot which remain in their original location. This makes them a very unique and valuable monument of mediaeval European culture.
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An accidental discovery
Quite curiously, after the discovery of the Siedlęcin polychromes, it wasn’t immediately clear that they showed the legend of Sir Lancelot. To understand the reason for this, one has to go back in time and recount the history of the tower itself.
After the death of Henry I, in 1346, the tower came into the possession of his nephew, Bolko II the Small. After the latter passed away, the building was purchased by the von Redern family, which owned it until the mid-15th century. Later, the tower passed through many owners until 18th century, when it became the property of the von Schaffgotsch family, who held it until 1945. Likely during the Schaffgotschs’ ownership, the building began being used as granary. Also, at some point in the tower’s long history, the polychromes on the second floor were painted over.
They were discovered only accidentally, in 1887, by a tax inspector by the name of Wilhelm Klose, who removed part of the paint concealing them. But by then, nobody had a clue what the forgotten polychromes actually depicted. Further fragments were revealed at the beginning of the 20th century, and then, a theory arose that the paintings show the story of Sir Yvain, another knight of the Round Table. To further complicate things, in the 1930s, a somewhat unskilled conservator carrying out restoration work repainted some of the figures of the ladies and knights in the polychromes as clergymen.
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It was only in 1986 that Dr Jacek Witkowski of Wrocław University’s Institute of History of Art came to the conclusion that the paintings in Siedlęcin are about Sir Lancelot.
I was yet again reading the romance about Lancelot when I understood that I had already seen all of that in the Siedlęcin polychromes. I went there, checked one more time, and it turned out the whole thing forms a very coherent, logical story.
From ‘Lancelot z PGR-u Czyli Arturiańska Legenda Ukryta w Unikatowych Polichromiach’ by Michał Zabłocki, polskiemuzy.pl
A story unfolds
At the Siedlęcin tower, the story of Sir Lancelot is shown on the southern wall of the Grand Hall, in scenes arranged in two rows. Dr Witkowski was able to decipher the paintings’ meaning after he discovered how this pictorial story ought to be read. He found that you should start from the lower left corner and go to the right. Only after viewing the lower row do you proceed to the upper one, and start from the left again.
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Such a way of narrating a story – which might seem somewhat strange from today’s perspective, when most of us are accustomed to reading from top to bottom – wasn’t anything unusual in the Middle Ages. Many wall paintings from that period ought to be viewed in the same order as the Siedlęcin ones.
When you approach the Siedlęcin polychromes correctly, the following story unfolds before your eyes. In the lower row, you see Lancelot and his cousin Lionel heading out on a journey in order to prove their worthiness as knights of the Round Table. Tired from travel, Lancelot goes to sleep beneath an apple tree, while Lionel remains on guard. Eventually Lionel also falls asleep and gets ambushed by the evil Sir Tarquyn, who takes him captive. When Sir Lancelot awakens, he comes to the rescue. He defeats and kills Tarquyn in a fight, freeing Lionel alongside other knights of the Round Table.
The upper row shows the story of Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere:
In the first scene, you can see queen Guinevere, the wife of king Arthur, against a background showing the castle of Camelot. Guinevere, who is portrayed sitting, tells her court ladies and the knights that she wants to go on a ride. Her wish comes true; in the company of her retinue, she goes horseback riding in the outdoors. During the trip, its participants are taken captive by the villainous Maleagant. The brave Lancelot frees the prisoners, but he falls for the charm and beauty of the queen. He commits an act of adultery. He holds Guinevere and takes her by the hand. The lovers’ left hands are clasped – this is a sign that the relationship is ‘adulterous’, as married couples in mediaeval paintings always hold each other by the right hand.
From ‘Opowieść o Miłości, Zdradzie i Śmierci, Czyli Lancelot Śląski’ by Agata Saraczyńska, wroclaw.wyborcza.pl, trans. MK
Also on the southern wall of the Grand Hall, to the left from the story of Sir Lancelot, you can find a depiction of St Cristopher, a patron of knightly fidelity. To the left of this portrayal, two couples are shown – a knight and a maiden who symbolise righteous love, and a knight and a married woman who symbolise adultery. The context of these couples and St Cristopher highlights the immorality of Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere.
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Apart from the aforementioned paintings, the Grand Hall also contains polychromes of prophets and Old Testament kings. These are located in a window niche in the southern wall. The western wall sports unfinished sketches, which probably depict further episodes from the story of Sir Lancelot.
The fact that some of the paintings weren’t completed suggests that the decoration of the room was interrupted. This could’ve been caused, for example, by the death of either Henryk I or the artist making the polychromes.
A wealth of inspirations
The name of the artist behind the Siedlęcin wall paintings isn’t known. However, his or her work is reminiscent of the wall decoration of the Zum langen Keller house in Zurich and the polychromes at the Fortified Church of St Arbogast in the nearby city of Winterthur. Therefore, scholars believe that the artist hailed from that area. Henryk I could’ve invited the anonymous creator to his residence through his aristocratic connections. The duke was a member of the Silesian Piast dynasty, which maintained steady relations with noble families in Western Europe, such as the Habsburgs.
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Dr Witkowski points to another stylistic trait of the Siedlęcin polychromes:
The Siedlęcin paintings […] astonish with their outstanding colourfulness and tasteful colour scheme. […] Our painter was most likely inspired by some illuminated manuscript. Perhaps he or the duke owned a richly illustrated, Western-made manuscript with the story of Lancelot that served as a template. The influence of miniature painting is clearly noticeable here.
From ‘Lancelot z PGR-u’ by Michał Zabłocki, polskiemuzy.pl, trans. MK
Unfortunately, it remains a mystery exactly which book could’ve inspired the author of the Siedlęcin polychromes. An ancient manuscript describing the tale of Sir Lancelot is yet to be discovered in the village or its area.
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Art historians say the anonymous painter may have also drawn inspiration from 13th century French courtly art. He or she highlighted the gestures and costume arrangements of the depicted figures in a manner characteristic of that approach.
As to the technique in which the polychromes were executed, they were chiefly painted al secco (the paint was applied to dry plaster), and only small fragments were painted onto wet surfaces.
Knights causing a fire
Siedlęcin became part of Poland after World War II; earlier, it was part of Germany. In Poland under the communist regime, the tower and its surroundings functioned as a state-owned farm. The building’s ground floor was used as a coal depot. No official sightseeing occurred at the tower, but over the years, a custom arose that the farm’s workers would allow organised groups to briefly visit the Grand Hall to take a look at the polychromes.
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After the fall of communism, the tower went into private hands and… almost burnt down. In 1998, the then-owner of the object organised a ‘knight’s tournament’, during which the participants had so much fun that they accidentally set on fire the building’s top floors. Fortunately, the polychromes weren’t damaged; it was the roof that suffered the worst.
A positive change occurred in 2001 when the tower was purchased by the Chudów Castle Foundation, which is active in the field of monument protection. The organisation began to renovate the building and revamp its somewhat neglected surroundings. It also decided to restore the polychromes.
In 2006, on the initiative of […] the Chudów Castle Foundation, the polychromes, which were in pretty poor shape, underwent a thorough conservation process – thanks to which they not only survived, but also had their chronology assessed, and new fragments of them were revealed. Today, the paintings delight with their sublime execution and richness of colours.
From ‘Sir Lancelot z Wieży Książęcej w Siedlęcinie’ by Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik, wp.pl, trans. MK
During the 2006 conservation, the alterations introduced to the polychromes in the 1930s were removed. Nowadays, the tower is open to visitors, attracting both Polish and international tourists. You can access it every day of the week. If you’d ever like to get in touch with mediaeval European art and architecture at their finest, the Siedlęcin tower is just the place to do it.
Written by Marek Kępa, Jun 2020