One of the oldest Churches in Cracow is Salvator Church, which gave its name to the whole neighbourhood. Inside one may find a retable with rather a surprising painting: it depicts crucified Christ dressed in a long robe, droping his golden shoe towards a fiddler playing by the cross. The painting is signed “CK” and dated 1605; it was likely painted by a Cracow artist Kasper Kurcz.
The painting depicts a crucifix that was said to have been in this church in the Middle Ages. It was a Volto Santo type: a copy after a widely worshiped figure from Lucca, Italy. I have already written about Volto Santo, which was a source of quite a peculiar legend about St Wilgefortis: crucified bearded woman (post available HERE). The legend about dropping valuable shoe to a poor fiddler was originally related to the Volto Santo, and later became associated also with the images of St Wilgefortis. Apparently it was also attached to the crucifix worshiped in medieval Cracow. Today we have only the 17th century image of it – but what happened with an actual crucifix? Well, that is one of the most interesting mysteries regarding medieval art of Cracow.
In 1603 there was an interesting “guide” published here, called “The description of Cracow churches…”. It includes some information on the crucifix in Salvator Church: apparently there was an image that was believed to have been “a memento” of a crucified Christ, dressed in a embroidered robes and golden crown, brought from Moravia and given to “Mieczław” the first Christian ruler of Poland, who was supposed to dress it in those precious clothes. The publication also mentions that this sculpted Christ is said to have given his shoe to a fiddler. It seems that at the beginning of the 17th century it was believed that the original crucifix dated back to at least 10th century. What happened with that figure? Well, there is another information in a book by Piotr Hiacynt Pruszcz, published in the mid-17th century: he wrote that this crucifix was taken to Sirolo near Loreto.
And now the most interesting part: there was indeed a medieval crucifix in Sirolo in Italy, and by 1566 it was moved to nearby Numana, where it survived and is available today! Some scholars date it to the 11th century, some think it may be older; according to the local legend it was once possessed by Charlemagne. In any case, it is believed to have been brought to Italy from the Northern Europe. May that be from Cracow? That is not known.
Clearly, the Numana crucifix is not exactly a Volto Santo copy, and it differs also from the Cracow painting by Kurcz. Christ does not wear a long robe there, although he does wear a crown. But the most significant detail is that the Numana Christ does not have characteristic for Volto Santo beard (or mustache)! This, however, does not exclude the possibility that it is indeed the crucifix once worshiped in Cracow: he may have been dressed in a long robe (not necessarily sculpted), and we can’t be sure if he had that beard, even if he does in the painting by Kurcz. The latter was created at the beginning of the 17th century, most likely at least 200 years since the actual crucifix left Cracow, so we can not be sure it is a faithful image.
So, let us assume that there is a grain of truth in that particular legend; and so let’s say that the crucifix now in Numana may have come from Moravia and could have been in Cracow in the Middle Ages. If so, then we may draw an interesting comparison between it and some murals in today’s Northern Poland (Pomerania). There is a gothic fresco in the cathedral in Kwidzyń and another in a church in nearby Nowe: they both depict Volto Santo but with no beard! Some of the scholars thus claim that they should be identified as depictions of St Wilgefortis, but in both cases the crucifixes are surrounded by semi-circular decorations, characteristic specifically for Volto Santo in Lucca. The painting in Kwidzyń is actually inscribed “…von Luca”, which is still visible above the image.
Also, both frescoes very distinctively place the crucifix on an altar, which does not entirely fit the depictions of St Wilgefortis’ martyrdom. Another Volto Santo element is a chalice by Christ’s feet, present in many Volto Santo’s copies. However crucified person (especially in Nowe, below) does indeed seem a bit feministic in features, we should remember that Wilgefortis was actually supposed to have been a woman with beard. On the other hand, there were indeed sometimes beardless images of Wilgefortis (the example of which may be a figure in Wambierzyce, Silesia).
So, what are those Pomeranian frescoes, after all? Are they images of St Wilgefortis? Are they – as some scholars claim – interesting proves of how wide was the cult of Italian Volto Santo of Lucca? Or perhaps Pomeranian artists knew the Cracow version of Volto Santo, which may have been the beardless one?
It is very likely that this mystery will never be solved. The medieval legends had so many versions that it is sometimes impossible to recreate all of them and understand exact sources for every survived image. But isn’t it fun at least to try to follow them and speculate a little bit now and then?
I talked about the Cracow crucifix in the broadcast “Tropem Sztuki” in Radio Cracow; it is now available on-line, although only in Polish: http://www.radiokrakow.pl/audycje/tropem-sztuki/audycja-z-dn-30062017-r/