History of the Sigismund Bell
The year 2021 marks the 500th anniversary of the hanging of the Sigismund Bell (“Zygmunt”) on the Wawel Cathedral tower. This anniversary is worth noting not only because it is the largest historic bell in Poland, not even because it is a valuable monument of artistic craftsmanship, but primarily because of the momentous role it plays in Polish culture and national awareness.
Thanks to an extensive note, contained in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, we have a lot of detailed information about where the bell was made, how it was transported, as well as when and how it was hung at the Wawel Cathedral tower. The bell was cast in Kraków, on the city canal, within the city walls, near Biskupie (a suburb and juridiction between Garbary and Kleparz, now Biskupia and Krowoderska streets, where the Visitation monastery is located), i.e. close to the Sławkowska Gate and the city arsenal. The finished bell was transported through the streets of the city to the castle, and placed on beams (valky), which were rolled like rails over two long logs. Additional two logs were placed in front the bell as it moved through the city streets, from the Sławkowska Gate to the Wawel Castle. Many young peasants were employed for this work.
The bell was lifted up the Sigismund tower very efficiently and quickly, in just one hour, using a large number of ropes, four blocks (rope pulleys) made of bronze and wood, and a chest filled with stones as a counterweight.
King Sigismund I the Old and Queen Bona, as well as numerous onlookers gathered to watch the technically difficult installation of the bell at the tower. The author of the archival record emphasised that it took place before the St Margaret’s Day, whose liturgical commemoration was celebrated on 13 July. Marcin Biem, a Kraków astronomer and theologian, professor of the Kraków Academy, noted that this event took place on 9 July.
Undoubtedly, the hanging of the bell was a great event in the history of Kraków. Not only was it commissioned by the king, made by a bellfounder from Nuremberg, but its size, weight and decoration were also a source of awe. Paradoxically, before 13 July was the last opportunity to see the bell in all its glory. After that date, it was to disappear inside the cathedral tower. From then on, only its deep tone would echo over the city. To this day, Zygmunt remains the largest historic Polish bell. According to contemporary estimates, it weighs 12,700 kg (excluding the clapper). The original clapper, 218.5 cm long, weighs 323 kg. The full height of the bell is approximately 258 cm (207 cm without the crown). At its bottom it measures 8 metres in circumference, and the diameter of the bottom is about 242 cm.
The artistic decoration of the surface (body) of the bell consists of inscriptions, coats of arms, figural representations, maker’s emblems and ornamental motifs.
Around the upper part of the waist runs runs a majuscule Renaissance Latin inscription with abbreviated words and interjections: DEO . OPT[IMO] . MAX[IMO] . AC . VIRGINI . DEIPARAE . SANTISQVE . PATRONIS . SVIS . / DIVVS . SIGISMVNDVS . POLONIAE . REX . CAMPANAM . HANC . DIGNAM . ANIMI . OPERVMQVE . AC GESTORVM . SVORVM . MAGNITVDINE . FIERI . FECIT . ANNO . SALVTIS . / M . D. X . X .
(TO THE GREATEST AND BEST GOD, AND TO THE VIRGIN MOTHER OF GOD, THE ILLUSTRIOUS KING SIGISMUND OF POLAND HAD THIS BELL CAST TO BE WORTHY OF THE GREATNESS OF HIS MIND AND DEEDS IN THE YEAR OF SALVATION 1520.)
Below the inscription there are two portal-shaped plaques with images of saints Sigismund and Stanislaus. At the saint’s feet kneels knight Piotr (Piotrawin). On the sides of the niches there are shields with the Polish Eagle and the Lithuanian Pahonia.
Below the image of St. Sigismund, the bellfounder placed his name signature in German, in two lines, in the middle with a stem-shaped house mark with three leaves: HANS . BEHAM / VON NVRMBERG. Below the representation of St. Stanislaus there is a two-line inscription with the name of the engraver in Latin, also punctuated with a house mark: IOANNES BOHEMVS / DE NVREMBERGENSIS. The artistic decoration of the bell is completed by ornamental motifs.
The bell was made by Hans (Johannes) Beham (Behem, Beheim, Bohem), who came to Kraków from Nuremberg. He was born around 1480 in Nuremberg and was the son of the blacksmith Hans Behem the Elder, who died in 1498. His son took over his father’s workshop and probably initially worked as a blacksmith, and later on began casting barrels and cannon balls, as well as bells. He worked, among others, for Bamberg and Torgau, for the Prince Elector Frederick of Saxony, Count von Mansfeld, and for the church in Bayreuth. In 1517 he delivered to Kraków 35 bombards weighing 290 centum weights, i.e. large calibre cannons that fired stone balls. Later his name appears several more times in the Kraków city books. He probably arrived in Kraków in 1518. He is credited with the making of a bell, dated 1518, commissioned by the Kraków Cathedral Chapter and intended for the church in Raciborowice. After the casting of the Sigismund Bell he was accepted into the royal service in 1522 as the supervisor of the royal red brass founders and the head of the arsenal. In 1527 his contract was extended for another ten years. Beham lived in Wawel, and in his foundry he mainly made cannon barrels. He died in Kraków probably in 1533.
The bell’s founder, as the inscription testifies, was the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismund I the Old, reigning in 1507-1548. Unfortunately, apart from a pious intention to The Greatest and Best God…, we do not know the king’s other motivations for this ambitious and costly undertaking. The annual date on the waist of the bell coincides with the birth of the heir to the throne, Sigismund Augustus, who was born on 1 August 1520. Perhaps the complex political situation was the reason for the foundation.
Before the bell was placed in the tower, it had to be consecrated, which is not mentioned in the sources. Bells belong to a special kind of sacred utensils, whose introduction into the church required the anointing with holy oils by the bishop or a specially appointed clergyman.
Initially the bell, gifted to the Cathedral church by King Sigismund the Old, was not christened with its own name. 16th-century sources referred to it as campana magna (the great bell). Only with time did the name of the royal founder and his patron saint appear on the waist of the bell.
The bell hangs on the highest tier of the tower, now known as the Sigismund Tower. The tower was erected in the second half of the 14th century as a tower forming part of the defence walls of the Wawel Castle. In 1412 it was given to the Kraków Cathedral Chapter. In the years 1514-1521, after being partially destroyed, it was renovated by masons Łukasz and Stanisław, raised by a second storey and covered by a spherical dome. The internal wooden structure carrying the bells and stairs was also modified at this time.
Undoubtedly, the steel bell clapper was delivered to the castle separately, hoisted into the tower and hung on a leather strap on a loop placed inside under the bell crown. The bell gave its first sound on the feast day of St Margaret, Saturday 13 July 1521.
According to medieval custom, the cathedral bells were rung by the so-called sacristans, peasants from the villages belonging to the cathedral chapter. However, it turned out that due to an excess of duties and probably lack of strength, they were not able to cope with ringing the Sigismund Bell. Therefore, the King entrusted this function to members of the carpenters’ guild, who at the same time took care of the ties holding the Sigismund Bell and were supposed to repair any damage to this wooden structure.
Thanks to the document of King Sigismund the Old, preserved in its original form, issued at the beginning of November (on the octave of All Saints’ Day) in 1525, also known from copies and in Polish translation, we know when the sound of the Sigismund bell resounded over Wawel and the city. The members of the Kraków, Kazimierz and Kleparz carpentry guilds, by virtue of a special contract with the King, were obliged, for an annual fee of one grzywna, or 48 silver Prague groschen, to ring the bell for services and holy masses on the following feasts: Christmas (24 December), St. Stephen (26 December), St. John Evangelist (27 December), Epiphany (6 January) and Purification (2 February) and Annunciation (25 March) of the Virgin Mary. Zygmunt was also to convoke for masses on Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday, and for services on Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, as well as – on the day of commemoration of St. Adalbert (23 April), St. Sigismund (2 May), St. Florian (4 May), St. Stanislaus (8 May), and on the day of movable feasts – Ascension Day and Pentecost, the feast of the Holy Trinity and Corpus Christi. The members of the carpenters’ guild were to ring the bells several times a day also on the occasion of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (24 June), St. Peter and Paul (29 June), the Visitation (31 May), the Assumption (15 August) and Nativity (8 September) of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Transfer of the relics of St. Stanislaus (27 September), St. Wenceslaus (28 September), All Saints (1 November) and the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary (8 December). In total, Sigismund was to “ring out” 120 times, on the occasion of 29 feasts and solemn days during the liturgical year. Soon, however, it was also ringing for secular and ecclesiastical events, such as coronations, royal entries and funerals, bishops’ ingresses and funerals, and the death and election of the Pope, among others. With the permission of the cathedral chapter, it was permitted to ring the Sigismund Bell for other reasons, such as the deaths and funerals of representatives of wealthy families.
According to accounts contained in bishop’s visitations, twelve strong men were needed to ring the Sigismund Bell. It is worth remembering that the bell was rung by swinging it with strings, and this required great physical strength, teamwork and experience. After the loss of Poland’s independence, the order of ringing did not change. However, with time, the number of occasions on which the Sigismund was rung increased. In the 19th century, bells were no longer rung by carpenters, but by cathedral sacristans or even occasional strong men occasionally engaged for special remuneration. It was not until the 1960s that an informal group of people of various professions, people connected to Wawel Castle, sometimes socially or familially, came into being and took on the honourable duty of bell-ringing. They sometimes refer to themselves as the brotherhood of bell-ringers. During the almost sixty years of its existence, Wawel Castle bell-ringers have included many well-known Kraków citizens, women, and sometimes fathers and sons.
After the loss of Poland’s independence, during the existence of the Free City of Kraków (1815-1846), Kraków began to be perceived by Poles in all annexed territories as the spiritual capital of Poland and a treasury of national memorabilia. In this context, the Sigismund Bell, as a witness to momentous moments in the history of Poland, acquired the status of a national symbol. According to legend, at the sound of the Sigismund Bell on Christmas Day, Easter and Midsummer Eve, Polish kings wake up from their sleep and gather in the underground Wawel Hall, and knights sleeping at Giewont are also awakened to the sound of the bell. The Sigismund Bell found its way not only into legends and fairy tales, but also into popular culture and became the motif of proverbs and sayings. Interest in the Sigismund was also heightened by major national events, on the occasion of which the bell was rung, as well as technical problems and repairs to the clapper or ties. Of course, all this was reflected in the literature, poetry and fine arts of the time.
The earliest poetic work written about Sigismund Bell is a poem by the Kraków poet Edmund Wasilewski (1), Dzwon wawelski. A poem about the bell was also written by the poet and playwright Lucjan Rydel (1870-1918), who included it in his Guide to the Wawel Cathedral. The Zygmunt Bell plays a unique role in the works of Stanisław Wyspiański. In Wesele [The Wedding], the poet puts in the mouth of Stańczyk, concerned about the fate of his homeland, a description of the hanging of the bell on the tower and its first ringing. In Wyzwolenie, the Sigismunt Bell itself calls out to the nation and augurs resurrection. Also in Akropolis, Zygmunt’s voice is heard in the play’s climactic scene. The motif of Sigismund Bell also appeared in the works of Wincenty Pol (1807-1872), Teofil Lenartowicz (1822-1893), Maria Konopnicka (1842-1910) and other poets and writers. The Kraków playwright Konstanty Krumłowski (1872-1938) is the author of the patriotic song Jak długo w sercu nasze, the second stanza of which begins with the familiar words: “Jak długo na Wawelu / Zygmunta bije dzwon”. According to various sources, the song was written at the end of the 19th century or around 1920. Already in the 1920s, its text became an inspiration for the anthem of the “Wisła” sports club, which began with the famous phrase: “Jak długo na Wawelu”.
The Sigismund Bell was also a graceful and catchy subject for painters. Sigismund had to appear in the works of the leading Polish painter of the historicist era, Jan Matejko (1838-1893). As early as in 1861, he made a sketch for a monumental painting of the Sigismund Bell. Unfortunately, this work was not realised, and the sketch itself has not survived. In 1862, the painter started work, which was not completed until 1883, on a small picture of Sigismund the Old listening to the Sigismund Bell. The king is shown in the company of courtiers, in the light of the bell aperture on the first floor of the Zygmunt tower, with the swaying bell visible above their heads. This imaginary scene of symbolic significance was meant to encourage reflection on the “Sigismund times” and the power of the past.
The best known depiction of the Sigismund Bell, permanently etched into the collective consciousness, is Jan Matejko’s painting The Hanging of the Sigismund Bell at the Cathedral Tower in 1521, painted in 1874. In the right part of the composition, in the foreground, the painter has placed the scene of the bell being taken out of the pit in which it was cast. The left-hand part of the painting depicts the royal court with King Sigismund the Old and Queen Bona in the middle, watching the efforts of the craftsmen. In the middle of the composition, we see a bishop in pontifical attire, surrounded by assisting clergymen. With his right hand raised, he blesses the bell and the working people. In 1875, the painting was shown at exhibitions in Kraków, Vienna and Paris. In 1878 it was presented in Warsaw and again in Paris at the World Exhibition. At the same time it was popularized thanks to reproductions and engravings published in “Tygodnik Ilustrowany”, “Kłosy” or “Wędrowiec”. Today, the painting is exhibited in the National Museum in Warsaw. However, in the Matejko House, a branch of the National Museum in Kraków, studies of drawings of the Sigismund Bell, made by Matejko during preparations for the painting’s composition, are kept.
Sigismund was also immortalised by the painter and book illustrator Piotr Stachiewicz (1858-1938) in a painting entitled The Sigismund Bell. Today, this painting is held in the collection of the Stanisław Fischer Museum in Bochnia. The same motif, similarly depicted, also appeared in the work of the painter and watercolourist Stanisław Tondos (1854-1917), and was reproduced on postcards.
Grabowski A., Starożytnicze wiadomości o Krakowie, Kraków 1852, s. 24-25.
Polski słownik biograficzny, t. I, Kraków 1935, s. 398-399.
Szydłowski T., Dzwony starodawne sprzed 1600 na obszarze b. Galicji, Kraków 1922, s. 59.
Bochnak A., Mecenat Zygmunta Starego w zakresie rzemiosła artystycznego, [w:] Studia do dziejów Wawelu, t. 2, Kraków 1960, s. 138-202.
Katalog zabytków sztuki w Polsce, t. IV, Miasto Kraków, cz. 1, Wawel, red. J. Szablowski, Warszawa 1965, s. 104-105.
Corpus inscriptionum Poloniae, t. VIII, Województwo krakowskie, red. Z. Perzanowski, z. 1, Katedra krakowska na Wawelu, Warszawa 2002, s. 66-67. Rokosz M., Dzwony i wieże Wawelu, Kraków 2006.