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Gesture in the Coronation Ceremonies of Medieval Poland

Aleksander Gieysztor

As a mode of expression at once simple and full of underlying connotations, gestures are a subject worthy of research.[1] The context in which we will be dealing with them in this study, royal ceremony, is in no way defined by any real or pretended spontaneity, but rather by a ritualistic and theatrical geometry that can be demonstrated on particular examples. The anointing and coronation of the kings of Poland, ritual and spectacle at the same time, had been nourished by a centuries-long tradition of programmed dramaturgy of gestures and words appropriate to the sanctifying elevation of a new sovereign. As throughout Europe, these ceremonies transmitted ideas and concepts of a learned and literate elite through the words and gestures of another culture, that of political government, to a popular culture; the receptivity of these transmitted ideas was rooted above all in the logic of symbols. To what extent the culture of the people knew how to adapt, enrich, or select from these concepts and thus influence the initiators of the ideas must remain an open question.

The royal funeral, the consecration of the new king, and his solemn entry form a set of public displays of supreme power. The sacred elements of these demonstrations are expressed in an appropriate liturgy. Sovereign power is most vividly manifest in the coronation and the funeral, but is by no means absent from the royal entry either, even if its French name, joyeuse , emphasizes its play-like aspects. All these ceremonies belong to a domain of structured social activities which have been studied by historians for some time but discussed primarily in reference to the symbolism of objects.[2] However, the functioning of these signs and insignia will form a coherent system of communication only if other elements are also considered. To these belong the gestures, the words, the spatial and decorative framework including light and colors, the music, the public—in fact the entire mise en scène of a


minutely regulated collective show. All these elements had a role to play in the coronation ceremony in order to express in a kind of synthesis the many relationships that existed in the community. The aim was the preservation of the social order by enacting a symbolic and sociopsychological drama, just as it is sometimes done in our days on similar occasions.

The present study is based on the perception that the entire complex of rituals reveals a latent mental structure far more durable than the more or less rapidly changing social or political situations. Those elements of the Polish ordines which relate to gesture or bodily movement have to be placed in this totality of a ritual context.[3]

A study of these rites is possible from the late thirteenth century onwards when anointing was resumed under King Przemysl I of Great Poland and continued until the last coronation, that of Stanislas Augustus in 1764.[4] Our research is based on different types of evidence: on more or less detailed descriptions; the ordines themselves (compiled in the official version for the coronation of Wladislas III as Ordo qualiter eligendus in regem induatur ); the ceremonials, of which the oldest dates of 1530; monuments (see fig. 9.1) and objects connected with the rites; and images from the coronations (see figs. 9.2 and 9.3). Analyzed typologically, they permit us to reconstruct the typical procedures of a coronation observed under different reigns. Such an approach appears all the more justified since these rites were part of a cyclic pattern that required that each monarch use the same common stock of words and gestures to assure the legitimacy of his sacred right to power. Certainly, some changes could occur; a major one was the introduction of a political oath, the Articuli Henriciani et pacta conventa at the coronation of Henry of Valois in 1575, but we shall not discuss these in the present inquiry.[5]

Following the chronology of the rituals to be studied, our enquiry begins a few days before the coronation ceremony itself. It is noteworthy that Polish custom placed the official royal funeral at a date fairly close to the coronation of the new king, often as close as the Friday preceding the Sunday of the coronation. Actually, the political doctrine in Poland knew the principle of the "king's two bodies," as expressed, for example, by Joachim Bielski in the sixteenth century: osoba  image umiera, korona nie umiera (the royal person dies, the crown dies not).[6] As soon as elected, either from among the members of the dynasty or from another family, the king of Poland was, even before being crowned, entitled to perform a variety of perfectly legitimate political acts. There is, however, one domain that was restricted to a king who had been duly crowned: it is the sphere where the sacred is always present, that of justice. Official, regular jurisdiction went into effect in the name of the king only after his consecration.

In the deliberate juxtaposition of funeral and coronation we may also detect a profound belief in the existence of a connection between the death and the life that succeeds it. Between a man's physical death and his social


Figure 9.1.
Cracow, Wawel Cathedral. Holy Cross Chapel. Tombstone of
Casimir IV Jagiello, 1492–1494, by Veit Stoss.


Figure 9.2.
Cracow, National Museum. Czartoryski Library. Pontifical
of Erasmus Ciolek (1507–1510). Coronation scene.

obliteration it is necessary to give him a suitable pompa funebris , a ritual farewell and a reconciliation with the dead person, whose stiff body is no more capable of human gestures and is until its burial surrounded by an aura of sacred horror. Before being placed in the crypt of the cathedral, the king's body natural had symbolically to escape its rigor mortis . Ever since 1370 when Casimir the Great was solemnly reburied (after a funeral held by the Polish lords and prelates) by his successor Louis of Anjou, King of Hungary, until the last royal funeral, a mounted knight would appear in the cathedral with the visor of his helmet closed. It is specifically stated that he represented the dead king. The horseman then collapsed with great noise on the pavement and broke the wooden shaft of his lance, while at the same time the royal seal was broken. This figure recalls the theme of the living corpse who must be appeased by appropriate rites. This rite of the "faceless knight" was wordless; a mimed drama was sufficient to convey the end of the power of the deceased and move the emotions of the audience.[7]


Figure 9.3.
Cracow, National Museum. Czartoryski Library. Pontifical of
Erasmus Ciolek (before 1507). The king in maiestate.


The Polish ceremony of coronation, elaborate and archaic, stood in a tradition, both European and local, of the magic nature of royal power. On the eve of his consecration, the king had to fast, give alms, and make confession. He also undertook a pilgrimage on foot within Cracow, from the royal castle to the church of St. Stanislas in Rupella, the patron saint of the kingdom. This act, during which the king remained silent and performed only with his body, represented the preparation of the initiate, necessary for his passing from an ordinary lay state to a sacred one, reserved to the initiated. The ritual movement of the king-elect walking from his residence to a sacred place preceding the consecration can be neatly contrasted to his joyful entry into town on horseback on the day after the coronation. The procession on the eve of the coronation, viewed at the time as a gesture of humility and composure, was a highly public display, accessible to the masses and aimed at filling them with amazement through visual contact with the rex coronandus . In contrast, the rest of the ceremonies restricted the number of participants: they were selected from the elite, for only they were admitted to the cathedral, just as was the custom elsewhere, for example, in Reims or Westminster.[8]

On the night before the coronation, the king's sleep acquired a symbolic significance as reflected in his ritual waking on the next morning. Sunday morning a procession left the cathedral and made its way to the king's bedroom. The king awaited them lying on his bed, dressed in episcopal vestments: sandals, humeral, alb, maniple, stole, dalmatic, pluvial, gloves, and amice.[9] (In the eighteenth century a mere armchair was used for the king in this ceremony.) The metropolitan in pontificalibus approached him, sprinkled him with holy water, and burnt incense. He then stretched out his hand and helped the king to rise. Although a prayer was said in this phase of the royal initiation, it was the series of gestures and not the words which assured its success as a part of the whole complex of ceremonies.[10]

In the subsequent procession from the castle to the cathedral other gestures are to be noted: the king was borne by two bishops; the regalia (scepter, orb, sword) were displayed by secular lords who held them up high on cushions or gilt trays; the grand marshal carried his staff pointing downwards, and the standard-bearer kept the banner of the kingdom still furled, signifying that the king had not yet come into the fullness of his power. This symbolic grammar was simple and effective, without need of any verbal explanation whatsoever.[11]

Like any other spectacle, the liturgy of the coronation required a well-defined scene: there was to be a stage and an audience. The clergy as the primary source of sacred power was on the stage, and the lords, representing political power, were the audience. Once the procession entered the church and the royal insignia were placed on the altar of St. Stanislas, in the center of the cathedral, the king-elect was seated on a low chair next to the altar. The first phase of the rite, in Cracow as elsewhere, was the royal oath with


texts both spoken and sung, questions asked by the archbishop and pledges given by the king and completed by the triple acclamation of clergy and people: Radzi, radzi, radzi! (We will!) The well-designed choreographic composition, aimed at attracting the attention of the spectators, was performed by the three officiating bishops, who repeatedly removed and replaced their miters blessing the king as he left his seat to kneel before the altar.[12]

The next phase takes us directly to the climax of the ceremony, the anointing itself. It began with a procession of two mitered abbots carrying from a side chapel a large golden chalice filled with holy oils while a canopy was held above them. The gestures of the archbishop were accompanied by formulae of unction and benediction, but the importance of the action derived from the sacred materials and the movements whose magical character is obvious: with a single sway of his right hand (uno contextu) the archbishop anointed the king's head, chest, shoulders, and arms. In modern times anointing was confined to the hands, the right arm, and the shoulders, but the symbolic core of the sacred anatomy was retained. The unction was followed by a brief silence, specifically stipulated in the ordo coronandi , accompanied by the absence of any gesture. It was to suggest to the collective imagination the moment of supernatural intervention which transformed a layman into an anointed person, a christus domini , in many ways equal to the bishops.[13]

The third phase of the rites, the investiture with the insignia of royal power, was performed between Epistle and Gospel. One of the peculiarities of the Polish coronation was the extent to which it was integrated into the mass in medieval as well as modern times down to the eighteenth century. The archbishop sat in front of the altar; the king was led there by the bishops and knelt at their feet. The coronator first handed him a naked sword. This sword, called Szczerbiec (Jagged), used at all Polish coronations, originates from the late twelfth century and has been preserved to our own days. (After having spent some time in Canada during World War II, it was finally returned to its original home, the royal castle of Wawel in Cracow, in 1962.) The king took the sword from the metropolitan and brandished it, tracing a cross in the air pointing to the four cardinal directions, another aspect of the ceremony which seems to be peculiar to Poland.[14] He then placed it on his left arm, whence it was taken by the sword-bearer, replaced in its sheath, and returned to the archbishop who now girded the king with it while reciting the formula, Accipe gladium . While the preceding rites had emphasized the king as judge and as priest (rex et sacerdos), this part highlighted his role as warriorking. Although the archbishop's actions were accompanied by liturgical texts, it were once again the gestures that seem to have been the most important. The medieval ordo specified in addition the presentation of armillae and a ring, but these had disappeared from the ceremony by the sixteenth century.[15]


In the next phase, the coronation itself, the king knelt down; two bishops held the crown above his head; with their help the archbishop placed it on the king's head. Thereafter the king was given orb and scepter, with the pertinent formulae. Pictorial evidence (see, for example, fig. 9.4) points to the silent participation of the magnates of the realm. They had kept the royal insignia and passed them now in silence from the lay sphere to the sacred, that is, to the officiating archbishop. Since the significance of the gestures and of the symbolic objects was immediately understood, the accompanying explanations in liturgical Latin were, in fact, unnecessary both to participants and witnesses alike. Ritual gesture always has a magical quality, and the memorableness of the ceremony was related to gestures and objects, the crown being the most important among them for the perpetuation of the concept of kingship. Ever since 1320 the crown was considered to be something of a relic attributed to Boleslaw the Brave's coronation in 1025. According to an eighteenth-century text "superstition blames misfortunes of some Polish kings on the fact that they preferred to use other crowns for their coronation."[16]

The fourth and last phase of the coronation ceremony may be called the enthronement. During the mass the king partook of bread and wine, and at the Pax tecum kissed a crucifix proffered by the archbishop.[17] After the mass, the king mounted the steps to the throne assisted by the bishops; the archbishop placed him on the throne in majesty, pronouncing the Sta et retine , gave him the kiss of peace, and after the Te Deum proclaimed him king by repeating three times Vivat Rex , which was echoed in chorus by those present. Then followed the first sovereign act of the new king, the creation of knights, by touching them three times with a drawn sword. Despite the military aspects, knighting should be seen essentially as an act of justice, coming from the throne, which is one of its eminent symbols.[18]

Thus ended the rites performed within the sacred space.[19] Two more important ones took place outside, however. One of these was the coronation feast. The images of the king as judge, as priest, and as warrior were thereby augmented by that of the king as host, the preserver of plenty.[20] A final ceremony led the king, this time on horseback, into the main square of the city, where he sat on a raised seat in front of the town hall and received the homage of the townspeople. According to the fifteenth-century author, Jan  image,[21] this mass scene also had its vetustus ritus , which regulated the public spectacle of the king's "joyful" entry.[22]

Clearly, all these rites belong to that category of social drama by which, through symbols, gestures, and words, people express their collective experience. Actors and spectators form a unity to accomplish this purpose. Dramas of this kind express and satisfy genuine needs and emotions and address significant problems of the participants. The social drama of the coronation ceremonies focuses on different levels of consciousness: from the principal


Figure 9.4.
Benedictine nunnery, Staniatki near Cracow; coronation of King John Casimir, 1640.


one, that of a religious system, which the king reaches during his consecration, to others, even profane ones, which intermingle with the sublime. Besides the immutable magical forms, applied to the raising of the king to the divine order, there are other signifiers and signifieds, such as a mutual contract, something like a marriage of king and people. Other elements, though nonreligious, are not entirely bereft of the sacred, for example, the brandishing of the sword, the knighting, the feast, or the homage of the townspeople in the capital.

What are the implications of all this for the history and anthropology of gesture? The first observation is that the gestures we have been dealing with have to do with ritual in the strict sense of the word, that is with actions intended at directing invisible forces toward a defined goal. In the liturgy gesture was organized in a set and rigorous manner definitively embodied in a coherent language. By way of suggestions for investigation, one need only mention: postures of prayer, standing or kneeling, arms open in the expectation of grace, or hands symbolically tied; the kiss of peace and kissing the crucifix; ritual burning of incense; benediction; the liturgical procession, which has its own rhythm and is composed of people who by their gestures express the sense of being a group engaged in a solemn cultural act; the quasi-divine "epiphany" of the king seated on his throne, resting, yet alert. All these gestures and bodily motions can be found in other ceremonies as well.[23] Their particular importance here, as well as that of the symbolic objects used, is determined by their place in the syntax of the coronation rites. This syntax also contains gestures rarely if ever encountered elsewhere in religious rites, such as the presentation of a symbolic object and its symmetric acceptance; ritual awakening; and ritual anointing.

The second observation concerns the character of the long sequences of gestures which form the totality of the rite and spectacle of a Polish coronation. It is easy to establish parallels to a theatrical representation, inasmuch as their similarities concern the most superficial and external aspects of both. Precisely in the gesture the relationship between the two seems most profound. Unlike other symbols, gesture must be immediately comprehensible. Its relative rapidity does not allow reflection and analysis in contrast to symbolic objects or words, whether spoken or written. Within a framework of fictitious actions, religious or theatrical gestures illustrate things that are not present and do so in a way that is highly visible, comprehensible, emotionally engaging, and instantaneous. Everyday gestures are chosen meticulously for the purpose of the rite or representation, sancified and systematized, and eventually presented over a brief time in specially selected spaces. The consecration and the coronation belong to a global cultural system of royal rites, which, although it may have many connotations, is ultimately based on the central theme of power. In the social environment that produced the actors and directors of this psychodrama, the expression of this theme solely in


verbal language would have been unproductive, incomprehensible, even impossible. To understand the fundamental meaning of royalty through gestures and movements, enriched by their auxiliary languages, seems all the more in accord with common sense since, as Aristotle put it in the Poetics, "Man is the animal most given to mime."

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