Polish seals

The following descriptions have been contributed by Dr Wiktor Szymborski from the JU’s Institute of History.
The tactile graphics have been prepared by Lech Kolasiński, a painting artist. Thanks to the graphic adaptations, blind and partially sighted persons can become familiar with the exhibits through touch.


King Casimir the Great’s seal of majesty


    A round two-sided seal with a diameter of 116 mm, belonging to King Casimir the Great. On the obverse, the monarch is sitting on a chest-like throne, on the reverse is a crowned Eagle with its wings spread out. Around the seal runs a legend, a Latin inscription featuring a number of abbreviations: “KAZIMIRUS D(E)I GR(ATI)A REX POLONIE C(RA)COVIE SA(N)DOM(IRIE) SIRAD(IE) LANC(ICIE) CUYAU(IE) POMORA(N)IE”. The image of the Eagle is encircled by the following inscription: “KAZIMIRI D(E)I GR(ATI)A REG(I)S POLONIE C(RA)COVIE SA(N)DO(MIRIE) SIRAD(IE) LANC(ICIE) CVYAV(IE) POMORA(N)IE”.
    The king used the seal since his coronation. It was most frequently one-sided and diplomas were authenticated with an imprint of the obverse only, with both sides used only for documents of special importance.
    The obverse shows the sovereign on the throne. Interestingly, this kind of representation also featured on the royal seal of King Przemysł II, yet it was not that rich in detail. Casimir the Great is shown sitting here. He is wearing a long robe with loose elbow-length sleeves, with a cloak over it, clasped on the right shoulder. In his right hand, the monarch is holding a sceptre adorned with a plant motif. Extended to the side, his left hand is holding an orb topped with a cross. On the royal head rests an open gothic crown from under which long locks of hair can be seen falling on the sides of his face.
    The gothic chest-like throne where Casimir is sitting featured a footrest so that the feet did not touch the earth, a sphere of the profane. The stool is adorned with motifs characteristic of gothic art: an arcade frieze and pinnacles. Underneath the royal feet, the coat of arms of Kujawy province can be seen, a crowned half-lion, half-eagle, to underline the king’s family heritage. The extraordinary quality and attention to detail can be appreciated looking at the background to the throne: in the upper sections of the seal two little angels are supporting a chequered drapery.
    The reverse is filled with one of the most beautiful and impressive representations of the coat of arms of the Polish State: a crowned Eagle with its wings spread out and the head slightly lifted. The bird is looking to the left, that is the heraldic right.

King Casimir the Great’s seal of majesty


A photograph of a cast of a seal from the collection of the department of the Auxiliary Sciences of History at the Jagiellonian University.

 

Seal of King Władysław Jagiełło


    A seal of Władysław Jagiełło, round, with a large diameter of 122 mm (the biggest of all the seals used then), a highly important fact given that in the Middle Ages importance was also reflected by size. Around the seal runs a legend executed in gothic minuscule listing the territories controlled by the monarch.
 
   This is a seal of majesty, i.e. showing the monarch sitting on the throne surrounded by provincial coats of arms. Importantly, the object features the most extended iconography among all sphragistic monuments from the territories of Poland and Lithuania of the time.
    At the very centre, the king is shown sitting on a large gothic throne with an extensive canopy. Interestingly, he is shown with a number of power attributes: a crown, an orb topped with a cross and a robe (cloak). On Jagiełło’s head rests a crown, there is a sceptre in his right hand and the lifted left one is holding the already mentioned orb with a cross. The fact that the individual royal robes can be distinguished shows the great attention to detail on the part of the seal maker. A cloak is placed on the king’s shoulders, under which a knight’s jacket with trouser legs can be seen; a knight's belt is running around his hips and he is wearing shoes with elongated tips (following the courtly fashion of the time). The king’s feet are resting on a throne footrest and so the sphere of the sacrum, where the king clearly belonged, did not touch the profane earth. The back of the throne is adorned with the heraldic motif of the Eagle. On both sides of the monarch are figures supporting the back of the throne; their garments suggest that they represent squires or knights. The canopy of the throne is decorated with gothic wimpergs and pinnacles. Around King Jagiełło there are seven coat-of-arms shields held by six little angels (the shield shown at the bottom of the throne is not supported by an angel as showing it would have disturbed the layout and symmetry of the seal). The coats featured on the shields should be read alternating the rows: the first pair being Eagle-Pogoń (a charging knight on horseback); then: the coat of Kalisz-Sandomierz province and Kujawy-Dobrzyń province; the Ruthenian coat of arms is placed at the foot of the throne. The ideological aspects are reinforced by the fact that the king is sitting here surrounded by the coats of his territories representing the constituent parts of the kingdom. The fact was duly noted by his contemporaries and the allegorical description of the seal, a unique monument which Rafał Jaworski calls a Figura sigilli regis  (the shape of a royal seal) is a convincing proof of that.

The composition of the coats of arms:

  1. The coat of arms of Lithuania - Pogoń (the Charge or the Chase) – a knight on horseback galloping from right to left; a raised sword in his right hand and a shield in the left.
  2. The coat of arms of Sandomierz province – the field of this gothic shield has been divided into two parts: the right-hand side featuring stars and the left one four stripes. The coat made a reference to West European heraldry, most probably Angevin.
  3. The coat of arms of Dobrzyń province – a bearded man with a crown from which horns grow out; another crown, upside down, is shown in the place of his collar. The coat most likely refers to King Casimir the Great. He was supposedly approached by the local knights thankful for the reintegration of the land with the Polish Kingdom and asking the monarch for the permission to use his image in the coat.
  4. The coat of arms of Ruthenia – a crowned rampant lion. The coat has its origins in a representation featuring on a seal used by dukes of Halych and Volodymyr and the last ruler of Ruthenia, Yury Troydenovich. As Casimir the Great asserted his control over Ruthenia, he followed the patterns of West European heraldry and together with the title to the territory he assumed its coat of arms making it nobler by adding a crown to it.
  5. The coat of arms of Kujawy province – a rampant half-lion and a half-eagle, united under a common crown. This representation featured on seals used by Kujawian dukes. A unique hybrid was created to distinguish and add nobility to their family line, a combination of the Piast dynasty’s eagle and the noblest of all animals, the lion.
  6. The coat of arms of Kalisz province – a head of an aurochs with a crowned head and a spike in the nostrils.
  7. The coat of arms of the Polish Kingdom, the White Eagle – a personal and dynastic coat of the Piasts, as well as of the capital province of Krakow.


The contents and importance of King Władysław Jagiełło’s seal are discussed in the monument mentioned above known as Figura sigilli regis. This is an allegorical description of Jagiełło’s seal of majesty found in a Wrocław document-copy collection kept in the collections of the Library of the Polish Academy of Crafts and the Polish Academy of Sciences. Researchers attribute the authorship of the treatise to writer Jerzy who in 1402-1412 was present at the royal court acting as a notary.

The Pogoń coat of arms (a charging knight on horseback): according to Rafał Jaworski its description is the starting point for a contemplation of the ruler’s duties towards his subjects. An ideal monarch should not have any vices, in particular he should steer clear of excessive love of hunting since that was supposed to divert his attention from the key task of caring for his country and subjects [this was a clear allusion to Władysław Jagiełło himself as he adored the pastime].
The coat of arms of Sandomierz province: the stars featuring there were read as a call for efforts to become better, extending the range of one’s virtues, a prelude to the list of virtues an ideal ruler should have.
The coat of arms of Dobrzyń province: the bearded man was a reference to the story of the biblical King Nebuchadnezzar from the Book of Daniel, in particular the penalty he met. The author of the allegorical description of the seal saw the presence of the biblical king’s image as a clear warning for the king not to become too proud.
The coat of arms of Ruthenia: the rampant lion was read as a reference to Resurrected Christ. The Lion, being the noblest and dignified animal in medieval bestiaries, was interpreted as a Christological animal. As the lion brought to life its dead offspring with its breath and roar, the ruler was supposed to call on his subjects to improve their ways, become better and defend their country. Also, the monarch should have two advisers at his side, uniquely upright men not afraid to point out to the king’s mistakes.
The coat of arms of Kujawy province: according to the author of the seal description, the eagle-lion hybrid represented features preferred in kings – as the lion belongs to the earthly sphere and the eagle to the sky, the ruler should combine in himself both rigour and piety, he should be unmoved and severe, but also tender and merciful, concludes Rafał Jaworski.
The coat of arms of Kalisz province: as an animal shunning human contact and living in remote forests, the aurochs is supposed to suggest to the king that he should avoid excessive familiarisation with his subjects.
The coat of arms of the Kingdom: in this case the catalogue of royal virtues was built on the assumption that the eagle provides special care for its hatchlings, particularly those looking at the sun. Following the eagle’s example, the monarch’s special rewards and care should be for those subjects who – according to Rafał Jaworski – lift the eyes of their spirits towards the light of the truth, exercise justice, perform their duties without hesitation, radiate faith, bravery and graceful manners as well as stand out from others with the charm of the appropriate advice they provide. Further, just like the eagle lowers its flight in search of food, the king should meet his people looking for best candidates for official posts or for his advisers.


Seal of King Władysław Jagiełło

A photograph of a cast of a seal from the collection of the department of the Auxiliary Sciences of History at the Jagiellonian University.

Seal of the Polish King Przemysł II


A seal of King Przemysł II: round and two-sided, with a diameter of 90 mm. The monarch used it from his coronation (26 June 1295), up until they day he was killed (8 February 1296). Three damaged specimens have survived until today. The legend (inscription) running around the obverse reads: “S(IGILLUM) PREMISLII DEI GRACIA REGIS POLONORVM ET DVCIS POMORA(NIE)”, i.e. “the seal of Przemysł, by God’s grace King of the Poles and Duke of Pomerania”. Another legend runs around the reverse: “REDDIDIT IPSE DEVS VICTRICIA SIGNA POLONIS”, i.e. “God Almighty himself has restored signs of victory to the Poles”.
    The obverse features the monarch sitting on the throne wearing a robe with very wide sleeves going below his elbows, and a cloak over it. In its right hand, he is holding a sceptre whose shaft is resting on his shoulder. In the left hand, extended to the side, he is holding an orb topped with a cross. An open gothic crown is sitting on the king’s temples from under which abundant locks of hair are falling to the sides of his face. The king is sitting on a cushion placed on a simple chest-like throne. His feet are resting on a footrest adorned with gothic architectonic motifs: an arcade frieze and volutes. On the throne, to his left, a helmet is lying with a precious stone on top.
    The reverse: at the centre of the image is a gothic shield with a crowned Eagle, raising its head and turning it to the left side (i.e. the heraldic right). Around it runs a legend which had a very important role to play in the unification propaganda of King Przemysł II. It was first mentioned in the Annals by Jan Długosz. The most eminent medieval historian himself made a manual entry in the “autograph” of the Annals with a description of the seal, written around 1464 when he was travelling to Pomerania in connection with the talks in the context of the Thirteen Years’ War. The phrase used in the legend, i.e. “the signs of victory", should be linked to inspirations from reading the Chronicles by Master Wincenty known as Kadłubek. In the description of the 1182 battle of Brześć, we read there that a sign of victory was seen. Master Wincenty was referring to Virgil. The motif can be also found in the works by Lucan, Venantius Fortunatus or Saxo Grammaticus. It can be assumed that the seal designer was a knowledgeable man.
The eagle shown on the obverse should be understood as a symbol of the reborn Kingdom. The contents of the legends clearly spell out the unification agenda of Przemysł II, who at the time of his coronation controlled Greater Poland and Gdańsk Pomerania. His territories did not include Lesser Poland with the capital town of Krakow. To the list of such symbols as the crown and a crowned eagle the insignia of royal power should be added as the king is holding them on the obverse. According to Wojciech Drelicharz, the “signs of victory”, should be interpreted in the context of Poland’s symbolic regaining of independence from the empire: the insignia were retrieved thanks to the favours of divine providence.

Seal of the Polish King Przemysł II

A photograph of a cast of a seal from the collection of the department of the Auxiliary Sciences of History at the Jagiellonian University.

Seal of Przemysł II, Duke of Greater Poland


A round seal with a diameter of 80 mm, used by the ruler of Greater Poland Przemysł II. A legend (inscription) runs around it which reads: “SIGILLVM PREMISLONIS SECVNDI DEI GRA(TIA) DVCIS POLONIE”, i.e.  “the seal of Przemysł II, by God’s grace Duke of Greater Poland”. It was used in 1289-1290 when, after the death of Henryk IV Probus, Przemysł changed the seal modifying the image of the Eagle on the shield and adding a band on its chest, to signify territorial claims to the estate of the Silesian duke (In his last will, Henryk IV bequeathed Lesser Poland to Przemysł II).
    The monument is one of “on-foot” seals. In the central field, the duke is standing, wearing  chain armour and a chain coif. The engraver integrated the duke’s feet into the inscription-legend. In his right hand, Przemysł is holding a double heraldic flag, and his left arm, bent at the elbow, is holding a gothic shield with an image of the Eagle. Just above the duke, God’s hand emerges from heavens in a gesture of benediction. On his either side, stands an identical two-storey tower, each with a battlement, from where trumpeters are blowing horns glorifying the ruler’s name.
    The symbolic contents are similar to those found in other standing representations: care for the subjects and the fate of his territory, highlighting the majesty of the duke. The seal of Przemysł II, who made a series of modifications in its appearance, played an important role in the unification ideology of the monarch. Initially, he had been using the coat of Great Polish rulers, then the Eagle, and after the death of Henryk IV he added a band on the Eagle’s chest, to ultimately, because of his coronation, develop a new seal template.

Seal of Przemysł II, Duke of Greater Poland

Seal of Przemysł II, Duke of Greater Poland and Krakow


A round seal with a diameter of around 95 mm, made for the Great Polish and Krakowian Duke Przemysł II. A legend (inscription) runs around it which reads: “SIGILLVM PREMISLONIS SECVNDI DEI GR(ATI)A DVCIS POLONIE ET CRA(COVIE)”, i.e. “the seal of Przemysł II, by God’s grace Duke of Greater Poland and Krakow”. It was used in the period of 1290-1295.
    The seal’s imagery represents Przemysł’s unification aspirations as he strived to recreate the Polish Kingdom by merging the hereditary authority with the ancient senioral province. That is why the monarch modified the previous seal, underlining the fact of his taking over the legacy of Henryk IV, who used to rule in Lesser Poland and bequeathed that province to Przemysł in his last will. The monument is one of the manifestations of the complicated diplomatic and military strategy since the Czech King Wenceslas II also claimed the rights to Henryk IV’s estate.
    The centre of the image shows the duke standing on a dragon, wearing chain armour and a sleeveless tunic tied at the waist. His head is protected with a chain coif and conical helm. In his right hand, he is holding a triple gonfalon (a type of a banner with three bands), featuring an image of a crownless Eagle. Bent at the elbow, his left arm is supporting the upper edge of a gothic shield from behind which a sword pommel can be seen. The shield features an image of a crowned Eagle with a crescent, or a band, on its chest, which signified the will to take over the estate of Henryk IV. On his either side, stands an identical three-storey tower, each with a battlement, from where trumpeters are blowing horns glorifying the ruler’s name and achievements. On the right-hand side of the seal, a hand emerges from heavens above the trumpeter in a gesture of benediction. Above the duke’s head, in the middle, a dove is shown.
    The ideological contents of the seal, with the exception of stressing the right to Henryk IV’s estate, reflect on the reception of the knightly culture of the time, state ideology, as well as features of the monarch’s power - with God as its source. An important role was played by the dragon shown at the duke’s feet, a symbol of the victory over the beast in defence of the subjects and a triumph of the good over the evil (the dragon was often the devil’s envoy; already works by Origen included symbolic representations of Satan and according to St. Augustine the dragon was a demon which served the devil).

Seal of Przemysł II, Duke of Greater Poland and Krakow

Seal of Bolesław the Pious, Duke of Greater Poland


A round “on-foot” seal of Bolesław the Pious, ruling in Greater Poland; diameter: 69 mm. The duke used it in 1253-1279. A legend runs around it, which reads: “S(IGILLUM) BOLEZLAVI DEI GRACIA DVCIS POLONIE”,  i.e. “the seal of Bolesław, by God’s grace Duke of Greater Poland”.   
    The seal is an interesting type of a standing representation with a battle scene. Presentations of brave rulers fighting a winning battle with such wild beasts as lions, griffins or dragons very explicitly showed their knightly virtues: strength, bravery, courage, caring for their subject and territories they controlled. The seal’s imagery is also a proof of how knightly culture and ideology was received in 13th-century Poland.
    At the centre of the seal is an image showing the duke fighting with a dragon. In his right hand, he is holding a sword piercing the beast. With his left hand, he is holding a shield (featuring an outline of a lion, as the coat of arms of Greater Poland). The ruler is wearing chain armour, over which a coat is placed; his head is protected with a knight’s helm. On the left-hand side, stands a two-storey tower with a battlement. Just there a trumpeter is blowing a horn glorifying the duke’s defeat of the dragon. Above the trumpeter, a hand emerges from heavens in a gesture of benediction.
    Such a selection of symbols (a horn, a dragon, a blessing hand) also shows the reception of the notion of knightly culture. The symbolic piercing of the beast with a sword is not just a defeat of a monster threatening the ruler’s subjects, it is also a victory over the evil as the dragon was associated with evil forces, temptation and the devil. By defeating it, the duke is confirmed as a Christian and a just ruler. The image is complete with a trumpeter glorifying the ruler’s name as well as the hand blessing the deeds of Bolesław the Pious.

Seal of Bolesław the Pious, Duke of Greater Poland

Seal of Henry the Bearded, Duke of Silesia


A round “on-foot” seal of the Silesian ruler Henry I the Bearded; diameter: 60 mm. It is known from documents issued in 1203-1204. A legend runs around it, which reads: “SIGILLV(M) hENRICI DVCIS ZLESIE”, i.e. “the seal of Henry, Duke of Silesia”.
    The seal belongs to “on-foot” representations showing the ruler standing. It comes from the early stage of seal development, hence its relative simplicity and lack of later additions in the form of architectonic motifs like towers or walls or trumpeters glorifying the duke’s name. The on-foot representation of Henry I, carrying the attributes of a monarch, was a clear reference to the ideology of the time which identified the ideal ruler with the ideal knight.
    Henry takes up all the seal surface. He is wearing chain armour, under which is a long ankle-knee tunic. On his head is a helm with a visible nose protector. In the right hand, he is holding a quadruple flag well composed into a circular legend. In his left hand is a sizeable shield, from which a belt is running all the way to around the shoulder. The shield features a crescent with a cross in the middle. That was the ruler’s coat of arms at the time.
    Although the duke is presented here in a relatively modest fashion, the seal is of note as it makes an interesting example of an early on-foot presentation of the duke. His feet are integrated into a circular legend. In further monuments of this type the ruler is standing on a footrest or trampling beasts. Most typically, the feet of the ruler who belonged to the sacred sphere, were not in contact with naked earth which was seen as profane. Another interesting feature is the coat of arms placed on the duke’s chest, a crescent. Henry the Bearded’s descendants combined it with an image of an eagle and so a distinguishing feature of the “Silesian” eagle was not just the colour (black) but also that band, a crescent on its chest.

Seal of Conrad I


A round seal with a diameter of 70 mm, used by Conrad I (the ruler of Głogów in 1248-52) until his death in 1273. A legend (description) runs around it, starting with a cross: “CONRADVS DEI GRA(TIA) DVX ZLESIE ET POLONIE”, i.e. ”Conrad by God’s grace Duke of Silesia and Poland”.
    This monument belongs to “on-foot” seals showing rulers standing. Most frequently, they hold attributes of power with knightly symbols; in the background, architectonic motifs were often shown like sections of fortifications or town walls. This type of seals facilitated a fuller presentation of the ruler’s majesty. The standing posture shows some aspects which underline the ruler’s features as a knight: garments (e.g. a ducal mitre), armour, a sword or hand-held banners.
 The architectonic components play an important role highlighting care for the subjects and the majesty of the ruler. The seal shows Conrad I standing, a three-storey building to his right. He is wearing chain armour, his head is uncovered, a sword at his waist, in the right hand he is holding a triple gonfalon (a type of a heraldic banner), featuring the Eagle. In his left hand is a gothic shield also with the Eagle. On the tower of the adjacent building a lady is standing holding in her hand a bucket helm topped with a precious stone – the Eagle with a band on its chest. At the top floor of the tower a trumpeter is standing blowing a horn.
    The seal presents a series of highly important aspects constituting the ideology of chivalric culture. It underscores the majesty of the ruler. This case, however, is a relatively rare example embodying knightly culture in the Polish culture of the Middle Ages. Extending his care over the town and his subjects, the ruler performs his duty as an ideal knight. Additionally, the sound of the horn was intended for his ears only, glorifying him and praising his achievements. The woman refers to the very centre of chivalric culture: tournament battles and principles of medieval heraldry. It was after all on behalf of women and for them that knights battled fellow knights in such contests. In compliance with the relevant principles regulating the skirmish, just before its beginning the herald (in charge of the organisation and course of the tournament) accompanied by ladies performed a verification of the participants. If they concluded that one of them somehow piqued their pride, he would be barred from the contest. The precious stone shown on the seal (crowning the helm) is one of the constituent parts of old coats of arms. They were placed on the shield above which was a helm with narrow strips of fabric (known as mantling, an adornment of the coat of arms but in real battle a protection of the knight’s head in an iron helm against excessive heat); the precious stone used to be placed on the top of the helm.

Seal of Conrad I

Seal of Leszek the Black

A round seal with a diameter of 72 mm which belonged to Leszek the Black, Duke of Krakow, Sandomierz and Sieradz provinces. The monument is an example of a seal with a cult scene.
Medieval objects of this type can be divided into several categories:

  1. “on-foot” seals – showing the ruler standing, often against a background of architectonic motifs;
  2. “on-horseback” seals – very expressive, showing the ruler on horseback, sometimes in full gallop riding down a dragon symbolising the evil;
  3. battle scene seals – showing the ruler fighting a lion or a griffin;
  4. seals of majesty – showing the king in full majesty sitting on a throne;
  5. seals with various religious scenes, known as cult scenes – showing the ruler on his knees paying homage to Christ or adoring the crucifix, or taking part in a religious service.

    Leszek the Black used the seal from when he started his reign in Krakow until his death in 1288. The oldest known specimen has survived in a document written in 1281.
    Around the seal runs a legend, or an inscription explaining the titles of the ruler: “S(igillum) Lestconis Dei Gra(tia) Dvcis Cracovie(nsis) Sandomirie(nsis) (et) Siradien(sis)”, i.e. “the seal of Leszek, by God’s grace Duke of Krakow, Sandomierz and Sieradz Provinces”. The beginning of the inscription is marked with a cross.
    In the centre of the seal stands an altar mensa covered with a tablecloth. Above it, a Latin inscription reading “S(anctus) Stanizla(us)”, or “Saint Stanislaus”. On the altar stands a cross with a lit candle. On the left, a bishop in liturgical robes (a mitre, to be precise), holding a chalice in his raised hands. To the right side of the altar, Leszek the Black on his knees with the hands arranged for prayer. The fact he belonged to the knightly estate is underscored by his clothes: chain armour with a sword, the key attribute and a distinctive feature of knights, attached to his waist. Behind the duke’s back is a banner with the coat of arms of rulers of Kujawy province: a half-lion, half-eagle.
    The main character shown in the seal, Leszek the Black, is participating in the mystery of a holy mass. He is shown in a humble position full of obsequiousness, on his knees in front of the altar, with his arms raised. This representation stands out when compared with other seals with cult scenes as the duke is not adoring Christ passively but is taking part in the liturgy celebrated by Saint Stanislaus. The combination of these two persons somehow brings together two dimensions: earthly-lay and immortal-spiritual. Also, it explicitly refers to the bishop’s martyr death as he was to be murdered while celebrating a service. The ruler is not just participating in the mass but also adores Stanislaus himself. In this way, the seal maker shows harmony and agreement between the bishop and the duke, the embodiment of the Piast dynasty. The ruler behind the saint’s murder, Bolesław the Brave, came from just that dynastical line. The symbolic agreement was of extraordinary importance for the promotion of the unification ideology implemented by Leszek the Black. Just like in works by Wincenty of Kielcza, known to the elites of the day, the saint’s body reintegrated miraculously by God’s will, here a symbolic integration and rebirth of the Polish Kingdom is suggested.

Seal of Leszek the Black

Seal of Leszek the Black, featuring a battle with a griffin

A round seal with a diameter of 62 mm, used by Leszek the Black, Duke of Sieradz province; the surviving specimens are from 1273-74. Researchers conclude that the ruler had it made upon his taking over of the Duchy of Sieradz, i.e. in 1263-64. The object represents the battle-scene  seal type, where defending his subjects the ruler fights a dangerous beast.
    In the centre is the right profile of Leszek the Black fighting with a griffin. Dressed in armour, he is wearing a bucket helm topped with a crown on his head. In his right hand is a sword with which he is piercing the beast. He is covering himself with a shield held in the left hand featuring the Eagle.
    The right half of the seal is taken up by a rampant griffin; it is attacking the duke with its upper paws clutching the edge of his shield. The left half features the defensive walls of a town or a castle as well as a high tower with a battlement. There, next to a trumpeter blowing a horn, a banner is planted. From heavens, just above the duke, an angel appears with a thurible.
    Seals showing rulers wrestling with wild beasts were supposed to underline the rulers’ chivalric features: strength, bravery, courage, as well as caring for their subjects and territory. The duke fighting a wild beast embodies a defender. In this case, the meaning of the motif is amplified by showing the town walls. Leszek the Black is defending his people symbolically, performing the duties of a knight and a ruler. His victory over the griffin is proclaimed by the trumpeter. Much attention was attached to sounds in the Middle Ages, some of them being as if reserved exclusively for rulers as they glorified their achievements. The qualities of the ruler are highlighted by the sword, the attribute and symbol of the knightly estate while at the same time the oldest insignia of ducal power, and an angel, highlighting links with the sacred zone, the presence of God.
    The representation of the griffin merits some comment. According to medieval sources, it should be a hybrid, i.e. a combination of features of several animals: the talons, beak and wings coming from the eagle; the trunk from the lion and the ears from the cat. Initially, the griffin was seen in a positive light. As a solar animal, it would fly up towards the sun in the morning like an eagle, in order to collect its rays and so it combined two elements: earthly and divine, the strength of a lion and the energy of an eagle. Its pointed ears stood for extraordinary attentiveness. It was considered the killer of the basilisk, as well as snakes, seen as envoys or even embodiment of Satan. The duality of its body referred to Christ’s two natures, divine and human. With time, however, the griffin started to be seen as a devilish animal, an embodiment of the evil and unholy forces. It was presented as such, for example, on the rim of the Gniezno Doors, where it symbolises the devil attempting to impede the dissemination of the Gospel among the pagan Prussians. Shown in heraldic scenes, as an opponent in a fight, it refers to battles of Christian rulers with the forces of evil but also fights with political opponents.


Seal of Leszek the Black, featuring a battle with a griffin

Seal of Przemysł I, Duke of Greater Poland

A round seal with a diameter of 70 mm belonging to Przemysł I. Around it runs a legend (inscription) reading: “S(IGILLUM) PREMISLONIS DEI GR(ATI)A DVCIS POLONIE”, i.e. “the seal of Przemysł, by God’s grace Duke of Greater Poland”. The oldest surviving impression was attached to a document issued in 1247.
    The monument is one of horseback images characteristic of Greater Polish and Mazovian dukes, which highlighted the rulers’ chivalric features. They were supposed to be strengthened by expressive presentations of the horses riding over ominous beasts in gallop. The ruler on horseback was carrying a sword and a spear, ready to fight in defence of his subjects.
    The seal shows Przemysł on horseback riding from left to right. He is wearing chain armour and a tunic over it. In his right hand is a banner or a spear (the condition of the specimen does not allow for certainty). His left hand is holding a gothic shield with three lilies, a coat of arms used by rulers of Greater Poland. Such details as spurs at his shoes suggest that the seal maker was meticulous at work.
    The duke’s horse is jumping over a dragon, a reference to the age-old fight between the good and evil. By defeating the beast, the ruler becomes an embodiment of knightly virtues. In the left section of the seal, at the level of the ruler’s back, a six-pointed star can be seen.

Seal of Wincenty Kadłubek

The seal of Bishop Wincenty Kadłubek has a pointed oval shape, typical for seals of the medieval clergy. Around it runs a legend (inscription) starting with a cross sign: “SIGILLVM VINCEN[CI]I EPI[SCOPI] CRACOVIENSIS”, i.e. “the seal of Wincenty, bishop of Krakow”. It was attached, for instance, to the document issued in Borzykowa in 1210. During a congress there the Church was granted immunity and the ius spolii law was abolished (the ruler’s right to the movable assets or private estate of the ordinary of a diocese after his death.
    The monument shows the bishop sitting on a throne wearing pontifical robes, with a mitre on his head. In his left hand is a crosier with its curved top (curvature) turned towards the inside (towards the bishop). His right hand is raised in benediction. The throne armrests are decorated with animal heads, a common custom in medieval Europe highlighting the stature of the person sitting on the stool of majesty. Such a representation is characteristic of medieval church seals. Just like in the case of Wincenty Kadłubek’s seal, they also followed a schematic representation of the persons shown: the right hand raised in benediction, the left one holding a crosier, the attribute of a bishop or an abbot.
     The seal of Kadłubek represents an earlier style. The iconographic message is not yet extensive, it was enriched only from the mid-thirteenth century onwards. It was then that below the bishop’s image additional symbols were placed like stars, lilies, crescents, etc. That stage was preceded by the replacement of symbols with the family coat of arms used by the ordinary. Jan Muskata in the metropolis of Gniezno was the first bishop to have introduced a family coat of arms (the seal from 1296).


Seal of Wincenty Kadłubek

Seal of St. Wenceslas’ cathedral church

A round seal of Krakow’s cathedral chapter of the early 1200s. It shows a two-tower church. Interestingly, this is a presentation of the cathedral which was being erected back then. The oldest specimen comes from 1212. Around it runs an inscription which begins with a cross: “SIGILL[UM] CRACOVIENSIS ECCL[ESI]E S[AN]C[T]I WENCEZLAI”, i.e. “the seal of Krakow’s St. Wenceslas’ cathedral”.
    The church towers are shown to the left while the chancel with an apse on the right-hand side. The chancel is adorned with a cross placed on the church roof and there is another one in the Romanesque arcades of the church.
    The humble image was then extended and enriched. Another seal used by Krakow’s St. Wenceslas cathedral also shows the building, yet this time around the tower has already five storeys and not one as is the case on the 1212 specimen. The 1234  seal is decorated with a triple banner, with a cross and a star on the roof. More developed are some architectonic details, i.e. the Romanesque windows. In the thirteenth century, the chapter’s seals were enriched with an image of the Holy Virgin Mary with the Child, and later also an image of St. Stanislaus the martyr (after his canonisation in 1253).

Seal of St. Wenceslas’ cathedral church

 

 


The fourth edition of the “To Touch Culture” event featured a presentation of historical seals and their adaptations made to suit the needs of persons with sight disability. We recommend a fascinating essay by Dr Wiktor Szymborski entitled “History enchanted in seals”.

"What stories does a seal hide? What is its symbolism? What information is conveyed by the seal surface? Can one study a historical monument with no reference to the document to which it should be attached? What was the seal made of? Who was responsible for making seals and who could be a disposer of a seal? These are just a handful of questions that can be asked when analysing sigillographic monuments.
Sigillography (sphragistics), or the study of seals, one of the auxiliary sciences of history where researchers conduct critical analysis of a historical source, focuses on just such questions. Students and graduates in History alike are obliged to engage in a course devoted to such sciences as diplomatics, the study of documents; heraldry, the study of arms imagery; paleography, the study of old writing and writing techniques; epigraphy, the study of writing engraved in hard material like stone or iron; chronology, the study of old ways of measuring time; historical geography; numismatics; legal archaeology; vexillology, or the study of flags; and phaleristics, the study of distinctions. These sciences make the background and point of reference for today’s meeting which offers the history of various sphragistic monuments, secrets of a certain woodcut, reading old Latin, and even an epigraphic puzzle hidden in a monument which has been specially adapted for the purpose."

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