Famous for their legendary exploits, notable for their valour, the Nine Worthies were a group of nine powerful rulers and the greatest conquerors who ever lived. They included three classical pagan heroes (Alexander the Great, Hector, and Julius Caesar), three Jews (David, Joshua and Judas Maccabeus), and three Christians (Charlemagne, Arthur and Godfrey de Bouillon). In medieval art, architecture and illuminations the Nine Worthies motif became enormously popular. Some of the finest examples have survived until today, most notably in Italy, but also in Central Europe.
A series of murals preserved in Castel Roncolo, near Bolzano, in the Tyrolean Alps, for instance, where in the late 1380’s the wealthy Vintler brothers had their walls decorated with scenes from romances, depicting next to other Arthurian characters the classical and Christian Worthies. A ‘unique expansion of the Nine Worthies topos’ was painted there on the loggia which connects the so-called Summer House to the palace.
In Piedmont, King Arthur himself features in a fresco cycle in the castle of La Manta where the baronial hall was decorated with an elaborate programme. One wall carries a depiction of a varied group of pilgrims who make their way to the Fountain of Youth; the opposite wall carries a series of images showing eighteen exemplary men and women. The identity of the painter of the Worthies remains elusive, but the artistic value of a cycle is unquestionable.
King Arthur himself has been shown on a French tapestry from c. 1400, now in the Cloisters in New York. With all probability the tapestry was originally one of a series of tapestries depicting the Worthies.
And most recently, in December 2016, a remarkable discovery was made in one of the burgher houses in Toruń, Poland. Toruń is a remarkable city with medieval wall paintings preserved in almost every church and even more exceptionally in burgher houses where numerous secular examples survive. The latest sensational discovery was made by chance, during major repairs in the house at 16 Żeglarska Street. In the past the house had been owned by the Reusse family. The paintings were created c. 1400 and represent the International Gothic. They depict the Nine Worthies, King Arthur himself among them. Major conservation works were carried out and completed in the early 2017.
The murals in Toruń are not the only example of medieval Arthurian wall paintings preserved in Poland. Other remarkable survivors can be found in the Lower Silesia region. And although not a single Arthurian manuscript survives there, the historic monuments and names of the Arthurian characters given to the sons (and daughters!) of the local noblility indicate that the Arthurian legends were known at the courts of medieval Poland and Silesia. Most of the preserved monuments with Arthurian motifs come from the second half of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Zielona Komnata [the Green Chamber] in St Hedwig’s Tower at the castle of Legnica, for example, with the representations of the Nine Worthies, was created in the early 15th century and in many ways resembles the chamber at Windsor Castle where the members of the Order of the Garter hold their meetings. The paintings were comissioned by Ludwik II of Brzeg (Louis II of Brieg), the worldly duke who founded the chivalric order of Rudenband. The paintings have been restored and displayed to the public in 2013.
A truly remarkable survivor can be found in Siedlęcin, an obscure little village near Jelenia Góra, Lower Silesia. There, on the bank of the River Bóbr, sits a medieval tower-house, one of the largest and best preserved in this part of Europe. Its fabric dates from the early fourteenth century, with the present roof added in the sixteenth century. Its greatest glory, however, comes from elsewhere.
The tower was built in 1313 – 1316 probably by Duke Henry I of Jawor. In the 1320’s/1330’s, the said duke commissioned what is considered its greatest treasure. According to recent research it was then that the southern wall of the Great Hall was adorned with paintings depicting the marvelous exploits of Sir Lancelot of the Lake. Today, being the only Lancelot wall paintings preserved in situ, they rank among the most outstandingly complete and well preserved medieval wall paintings in Europe. The story of Arthur’s greatest knight, his glittering career, adulterous love for Guinevere and subsequent downfall has been told in two registers and should be ”read” from the lower to the upper one, from left to right (as in case of many other examples of medieval cycles).
The lower register shows Sir Lancelot and his cousin, Sir Lionel, claiming the world shortly after they had been knighted. They set off for their first big adventure to prove their valour and knightly skills in hand-to-hand combat. Weary of their wanderings they decide to take some rest. Lancelot falls asleep underneath the apple trree. Lionel is supposed to keep vigil, but falls asleep as well, a negligance he will pay for dearly, for he is attacked and imprisoned by Tarquin. The latter is a knight hostile to Lancelot, who slew his brother Carados. His hatred for Lancelot already had led him to kill a hundred good knights and maim as many more. When Lancelot wakes up and realizes Lionel is missing, he encounters Tarquin, defeats and kills him, their duel being depicted in the paintings. Thanks to Lancelot’s victory – sixty-four knights including, next to Lionel, Sir Kay, Hector de Maris (Lancelot’s half-brother) and Gaheris (Gawain’s brother) – obtain their freedom.
In the upper register we can see fair Guinevere with her ladies before the walls of Camelot. Lancelot accompanied by other members of the court presents himself to her. The next scene shows the wicked knight Meleagant as he carries the queen away. As we remember he is going to be ultimately slain by Lancelot. The latter hurries to his lady’s rescue, suffering – among many hardships – a total humiliation of riding in a cart, a form of travelling reserved for criminals. He rescues the queen in the end, the sinful nature of their love being shown in a depiction where they hold their left hands – a clear symbol of their adulterous affair.
In addition to the Lancelot story, wall paintings at Siedlęcin display strong Christian symbols. Put together the central depiction of St Christopher combined with the scene called Memento mori and the Lancelot set carry a clear moralistic message. A knight should be, in opposition to Lancelot who betrayed his sovereign, as faithful and obedient as St Christopher, who carried the infant Christ across the water on his shoulders.
The Siedlęcin set has never been finished, perhaps due to its founder’s death or for more down-to-earth reasons such as lack of means to continue the expensive work. The unfinished portion on the western wall of the Great Hall shows the duel between Lancelot and Sagramour le Desreez and Lancelot healing Urry de Hongre.
The survival of a set of early fourteenth century wall paintings within a tower of about the same date is unusual. Even more extraordinary is the fact that the preserved ceiling timbers also date from this period. Being the oldest surviving wooden ceilings in Poland. The fabric of the tower dates from the 1320s, with the roof added in the 1570s. Upon Duke Henryk’s death in 1346, the Tower passed through the hands of several different owners, mostly knightly families. In the 1530s it was revamped and modernized, with a fireplace inserted on the first floor and new staircases added. No substantive changes, however, were made in the 17th, 18th, 19th or 20th centuries. At some date – we do not know when exactly – the paintings were covered over with whitewash. They were rediscovered in the late 1880s and have now been cleaned and conserved.
Further reading: Allaire G., Psaki F.G. The Arthur of the Italians: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Italian Literature and Culture; Lupack A. Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend; Nocuń P. Wieża mieszkalna w Siedlęcinie w świetle dotychczasowych badań; Witkowski J. Szlachetna a wielce żałosna opowieść o Panu Lancelocie z Jeziora. Dekoracja malarska wielkiej sali wieży mieszkalnej w Siedlęcinie