Representation of the Polish Sejm in Łaski’s Statute

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.

A woodcut showing the Polish Sejm (Parliament)

    A woodcut sized 27.1 x 32,5 cm. It shows a monarch sitting on a throne surrounded by lay and clergy dignitaries and a wreath of Gothic shields with coats of arms. In the corners of the woodcut are four little angels supporting the image. This is an allegorical way of presenting the sitting of the Polish Sejm.

    During the 1505 sitting of the 1505 Sejm in Radom (when the Nihil Novi constitution was adapted thanks to King Alexander Jagiellon), a decision was made to publish key laws and then send them to local authorities and selected churches. The task was performed by the then chancellor Jan Łaski. In January 1506, the Krakow-based Haller's printing house published The Universal Privilege of the Famous Kingdom of Poland of Publicly Adopted Decrees, Authorisations and Ordinances known as Łaski’s Statute. Its importance was highlighted by the fact that the copies given out to state dignitaries were executed on parchment like medieval hand-written codes. The hardship of the work was well rewarded: the type-setter was exempted from all the taxes and charges due to be paid on his work in Poland.
    This is the first-ever printed official collection of laws, and so all the miniatures contained therein had to be prepared very carefully and their selection could not be random. The four miniatures show the sitting of the Polish Sejm. This unusual woodcut was made on a double parchment sheet (in copies for dignitaries) or on paper.
    In the centre, the monarch is sitting on a gothic throne with a back. What and who surrounds the ruler (persons, heraldic shields, small angels supporting the image) carries three circles of meaning: realistic-historical, heraldic and cosmographic.
    In his right hand the monarch is holding a sceptre, propping it against his shoulder and an orb in the left hand. The monarch is covered by a long cloak lined with fur (a garment reaching as far as the feet reclining on the footrest). His attire is identical with what we can find in other representations, so it reflects ceremonial robes of Polish kings.
    At the bottom of the throne, there is a gothic shield with the Korab coat of arms (of the Łaski Family). Next to it, to the left (to the right from the monarch's perspective), Chancellor Jan Łaski is standing. The woodcut has been made so meticulously that even the chancellor's crooked nose can be seen. Łaski is wearing a long loose garment and a cap on the head.
    In a semi-circle around the throne clergy and lay dignitaries are sitting on benches. Below are representatives of the nobility. Closest to the king are representatives of the clergy, identifiable by their pontifical robes. To his left are archbishops (there were two in old Poland, of Gniezno and of Lviv), and crosses above their heads. On the other side of the throne representatives of bishops are sitting. This time round, there are crosiers above their heads (two bishops symbolically represented all the ordinaries of the dioceses sitting in the Senate, which was consistent with the medieval fashion of showing a piece instead of a whole). The last dignitaries are three magnates in long coats, sitting on the either side of the clergy. They are sporting well-arranged locks or hair covered with coifs, one is wearing a beret with a rigid brim (such details of the clothes reflect the fashion of the time).
    The gestures play an important role. The posture of the archbishops suggests that they approve of the decision taken by the king and those in the assembly (the right hand's fingers arranged as if for a benediction). On the other side of the throne, the bishops are discussing the contents of the resolutions, which is highlighted by a gesture of extended arms. Those sitting around the stool are solemnly debating the decisions,  radiating stateliness. All this lets us guess that they make the circle of the king's closest advisers, the Royal Council from which the upper chamber of the Sejm developed, the Senate. Their behaviour is much different from that of the people shown in the lower section of the woodcut.
    Below the throne, a sizable group is shown, standing out not just because of their clothes but also the dynamic presentation: real chaos reigns here. They are engaged in a lively discussion and looking in various directions. There are even violent scenes: naked swords can be seen, fists are being used. A single dignitary stands out here not just by his size but clothes as well. He is wearing a long robe similar to that worn by senators. There is a coif on his head and he is wearing a fur-lined coat. In his hands is a long staff – the attribute of the authority of the court marshal whose task was to manage not just the course of the proceedings but also order in the most immediate vicinity of the monarch. The marshal was also a master of ceremonies. Carrying the marshal’s staff, he preceded the king. He took care of the proceedings, presented foreign envoys, and dealt with penal courts at the time the king was present at a given location. Keeping order, he had marshal’s guard service at his disposal, shown next to him, in the form of two menials, one of whom is holding a two-handed sword (as tall as himself). Marshal’s guards will need to pacify one of the noblemen who is charging at them with his clenched fists. What is worse, the aggressor has a curved sword attached at his waist.

    The group in front of the throne is highly dynamic. They are engaged in a lively debate, gestures fly, marking a departure from the solemnity of the Senate. One is scratching his head, some other the armpit. The noblemen are also clothed differently. Some are sporting short hair, thick moustaches and abundant facial hair instead of long well-arranged locks. They are wearing pointed hats: tall caps adorned with fur (known as Wallachian), typical of the eastern fashion. The MPs are wearing clothes characteristic of both East and West.
   The size of individuals characters is of interest, too, with the sovereign the tallest , followed by slightly shorter members of the Senate and the marshal. The representatives of the nobility are much shorter and the smallest person is the troublemaker.
    This miniature of the Łaski’s Statute is the oldest such representation in Polish art. It has the most extended iconographic agenda. Later works do not feature such precision and attention to detail, are rather static, devoid of dynamics and action visible in the lower section of the miniature. Likewise, they are not composed as an arrangement of concentric circles. This particular woodcut is also the first monument showing so many provincial coats of arms. They are shown on the back of throne and their composition begins with state coats of arms. What brings them together is the figure of the monarch at the centre of the entire image.
    Directly above King Alexander, on the back of the throne, a crowned Eagle is presented, here playing the role of a coat of arms of the entire country as well as the Lithuanian Pogoń (the Chase or the Charge), initially the coat of arms of Vilnius province. Since the times of Władysław Jagiełło it has had the function of the coat of arms of the entire country, also a symbol of supreme power. The arrangement of the coats of arms highlights the union between the two states of Poland and Lithuania.

The coats of arms will be described clockwise, starting from those presented in the upper section.
A crowned white Eagle with its head turned to the right (the heraldic left) refers to the capital province of Krakow.
The “Columns”: initially that coat of arms belonged to Tatar khans, later it became the emblem of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
The Eagle without a crown: the coat of arms of the Duchy of Mazovia.
The coat of arms of the Order of Teutonic Knights: – the emblem of Teutonic Prussia: a black eagle on the intersection of the arms of the cross, on a golden gothic shield.
A winged griffin without a crown: the coat of arms of the Duchy of Słupsk.
The coat of arms of Sandomierz province: the field of the gothic shield has been divided into two parts; the right one features stars, the left one four stripes.
A crowned bison’s head with a spike in the nostrils; the shield field adorned with a  chessboard: the coat of arms of Kalisz province.
A jumping deer with a crown on its neck: the coat of arms of Lublin province.
A two-headed crowned eagle: the coat of arms of Przemyśl province.
A crowned griffin the coat of arms of Bełz province.
Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) with a chalice: the coat of arms of Wieluń province.
A crowned black jackdaw: the coat of arms of Halych.
The sun: the coat of arms of Podolia.
A crowned head of a bearded man: the coat of arms of Dobrzyń province.
A black eagle with a crown on its neck, an arm holding a sword instead a right wing: the coat of arms of Royal Prussia, created as a result of the victorious Thirteen Years’ War, from the abatement of the Eagle and Pogoń.
A bear on a hill among trees: the coat of arms of Chełm province.
A crowned rampant lion, turning to the right (heraldic left): the coat of arms of Lviv province and Ruthenia.
A half-eagle and a half-lion share a common back and are shown under a common crown: the coat of arms of Łęczyca province. It is identical with the successive representations referring to Kujawy province. Both emblems differ only when in colour. Kujawy province
A half of a black eagle and a half of a lion; their heads crowned, the animals share a common back, the heads looking in opposite directions: the coat of arms of Sieradz province.
An eagle without a crown, its head turned to the right (the heraldic left): the coat of arms of Poznań province.
The coat of arms of Wallachia: a double cross; Poland’s first heraldry scholar and an eminent historian called it Bojucza. The emblem featured in coins minted in Władysław Jagiełło's times as a personal coat of arms. King Władysław Jagiełło used it next to the Pogoń, while Great Prince Witold used the Columns.

    The coats should be discussed in another alternate sequence – known from the sphragistics of the Jagiellonian seal. Excluding the Jagiellonian family coats of arms, the presentation should begin with the capital province of Krakow, followed by the coat of arms of Poznań province, then feudal territories of the Kingdom: Moldova, Mazovia, Prussia of the Teutonic Order and Pomerani. The pairs in succession: Sieradz voivodeship – Sandomierz province – Brześć - Kujawy province - Kalisz province; Łęczyca province – Lublin province, Ruthenia – Przemyśl province, Chełm province – Bełz province, Royal Prussia – Wieluń province, Dobrzyń province – Halych province, Podolia voivodeship.
    The composition of the coats of arms of individual territories is a unique expression of the state propaganda of the time. It features both lands which were part of the Kingdom and fiefs. The layout is not random and testifies to the priorities of the then foreign policy. The fiefs include (clockwise):

  1. Mazovia (ruled by the Piast dynasty; after the death of Duke Konrad, in 1503, King Alexander planned to incorporate this lands to the Crown, yet pursuant to the agreement concluded with Duchess dowager Anna, those territories were transferred to her underage sons).
  2. Teutonic Prussia (pursuant to the provisions of the Second Peace of Toruń of 1466 the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order became a vassal of the Polish King; starting from the 1470s, Grand Masters tried to undermine that provision of the Toruń accord. As a result of legation, the eminent diplomat at the service of King Alexander, Erazm Ciołek, secured a papal brief ordering homage to be paid by the Grand Master).
  3. West Pomerania – The Duchy of Słupsk (one should mention here the famous marriage of Anna, daughter of Casimir Jagiellon and Elżbieta Rakuszanka, with the Pomeranian Duke Bogusław X; Pomerania was then within the orbit of Poland’s contemporary policy and influence).
  4. Wallachia (featuring here because of a recent and failed expedition of Duke Olbracht to Suceava; Moldova was progressively slipping out of control of the Jagiellonian dynasty).

The woodcut comprises three circles, the last one delineated by little angels in the corners. According to Barbara Miodońska the circle supported by the angels is the sphere, a symbol of the universe. The content and layout of the miniature can be interpreted as a representation of the cosmic order, so important in astronomy and astrology.
    It is worth repeating Zenon Piech’s words that all the motifs making the composition in question featured in earlier Jagiellonian iconography. Consequently, the woodcut was put together as if from the existing elements ready to use. This is true not just for the set of coats of arms but also the dignitaries accompanying the monarch and the angels propping the oval that closes off the entire composition (...) Importantly, in no way does the woodcut maker’s use of “ready-to-use” elements long known in the iconography of the Jagiellons, weakens the originality of the composition thus created since the motifs used have been developed and combined into a composition which none of the earlier monuments can match.

A woodcut showing the Polish Sejm (Parliament)