May 3; Poland’s Constitution Day

The 3rd of May is Constitution Day in Poland. To mark the occassion, Soane Exhibitions Curator Jerzy J. Kierkuć-Bieliński has been looking at one object in the Museum's Collection which has a particular significance on this day, and will go on display as part of the forthcoming exhibition Peace Breaks Out!


Since 1791 the 3rd of May has been celebrated in Poland as Constitution Day. This public holiday marks the adoption of Europe’s first written constitution on 3 May 1791 (the world’s second constitution after the American one). Unsurprisingly, Sir John Soane never visited Warsaw or Cracow. However, there are some notable works in the collection which have a Polish connection or provenance. These include a series of drawings from the Adam office for an unexecuted villa, dated c. 1787, for Princess Izabela Lubomirska (1733/36-1816), for the Castle of Łańcut. Other unusual items associated with Poland include a Polish nobleman’s karabela (a type of curved sabre worn with a nobleman’s national costume). The sword, which probably dates to the 18th century, bears an engraved portrait of Stefan Batory (1533-1586), King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, and is implausibly described as having belonged to the King. More significantly, the Museum also possesses a manuscript volume of drawings by Giovanni Battista Gisleni (1600-72). He was court architect to three Polish Monarchs of the Vasa dynasty in succession, Sigismund III (1566-1632), Ladislaus IV (1595-1648) and John Casimir (1609-72). Gisleni’s designs, which included both executed and unexecuted designs for the Royal Castles in Warsaw and Cracow, palaces, manor houses, churches, altars and funerary monuments are an incredibly important source for the understanding the baroque architecture and court culture in the seventeenth-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

G B Gisleni, Varii disegni, frontispiece showing the so-called ‘Vasa Forum’ Warsaw, pen and ink, c.1649 (SM Vol. 121, f. 1, Sir John Soane’s Museum)

However, I would like to focus on one small item of Polonica, in the Museum’s holdings that is not normally on display and that could be easily overlooked. It is a particularly appropriate object to focus on as its subject matter and the reason for its creation are intimately bound up with the question of Polish Statehood which is, after all, the reason why the 3 May is celebrated in Poland. The object I refer to is a bronze Napoleonic medal, struck to mark the creation of the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807 following the signing of the Treaty of Tilsit by Napoleon, Prussia and Russia.


G B Gisleni, Varii disegni, the Castrum Doloris of Ladislaus IV, the Wawel Cathedral, Cracow, pen and ink, c.1649 (SM Vol. 121, f. 115, Sir John Soane’s Museum)


Engraved by Bertrand Andrieu and Nicolas Brenet, it was designed by Jean-Baptiste Lepére and shows a ‘gothic’ throne on which has been placed the Crown of Boleslaus the Brave – the coronation crown of the Kings of Poland. To the left is a representation of the so-called ‘Notched Sword’ – the coronation sword of the Polish kings – whilst to the right is the coronation sceptre used by King Sigismund III. The representations of all three items of regalia are extremely accurate despite the miniscule scale deployed. However, Lepére could not have based his design on the actual crown jewels. Having been looted by Prussian forces occupying Cracow in 1795, they were taken to Berlin. Following Prussia’s defeat by the French, the bankrupted Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III gave the order to melt down the Polish crown jewels (the coronation crown included) in order to mint coins from the gold bullion thus obtained. The jewels were removed beforehand and sold on the open market. Lepére must have based his design on the detailed inventory drawings of the crown jewels commissioned by the last King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – Stanislaus Augustus (1732-98) – in 1764, the year of his coronation. Stanislaus Augustus, as monarch, signed the 3 May Constitution. The failure of the Constitution to unify the nation would, ultimately, lead to the three partitions of Poland and the loss of its statehood. It would be Napoleon’s creation of the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807 that would offer the hope of a unified and independent Poland once more. The inscription on the reverse of the medal alludes to this. It refers to the ‘granting’ by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III of a royal crown – purportedly the very crown depicted on the medal – to Poland’s first King in 1000. Now, Napoleon, as ‘heir’ to the Holy Roman Emperors, metaphorically gives back that ‘crown’ – in other words statehood.  It is ironic that Napoleon’s revival of a Polish state, following the defeat of the Prussians, resulted in the loss of the most precious, physical symbol of that very statehood – the crown depicted so precisely on the medal by Lepére.


La duché de Varsovie, reverse, designer: Jean-Baptiste Lepére, engravers: Bertrand Andrieu and Nicolas Brenet, bronze, 1807 (SDR  1-140, Sir John Soane’s Museum)


This medal forms part of an incomplete set of the Histoire Méttalique de Napoléon which Sir John Soane purchased thinking that the medals had once been in the possession of the Empress Joséphine. Later this summer, along with other items of a Napoleonic provenance or connection, this medal will be shown as part of our forthcoming exhibition Peace Breaks Out! London and Paris in the Summer of 1814 which will look at the events surrounding the defeat of Napoleon and his first exile, to Elba, in 1814.


Peace Breaks Out! London and Paris in the Summer of 1814 opens at Sir John Soane's Museum on 20 June 2014 and is part of the London Festival of Architecture 2014Entry is free. For more information please click here

Posted on 03 May 2014 in Exploring Our Exhibitions
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