Old, yes, but still 'as sound as a bell'. King Zygmunt’s 1521 bell celebrates 500th birthday
Five hundred years ago today, a bell founded by King Zygmunt the Old was hauled up onto the tower of Wawel Cathedral.
Four days later, it rang out over the city for the first time. The Zygmunt Bell has become one of Poland’s national treasures and has tolled during the largest church and state ceremonies.
Today, it is difficult to imagine important events in Poland without the sound of the Zygmunt Bell resounding from the Wawel Cathedral tower. It has become one of the most treasured national symbols.
Many events have been taking place in Kraków to mark the bi-millennial anniversary under the slogan Sub una campana (Under one bell).
To mark the occasion, the painting from 1874 by Jan Matejko of the bell’s mounting atop the belltower at the Wawel Cathedral has been put on display at Wawel Royal Castle.
Kraków Mayor Jacek Majchrowski said: “Today, it is the only bell in Europe that is so powerful and still moved by human muscles. While other bells are controlled by modern mechanisms, Zygmunt, set in motion by bell-ringers, swings and rings just as it did half a thousand years ago. And just as centuries ago, its voice resounds at the moments most important to us.”
The Zygmunt Bell is celebrating an exceptional birthday this year.
Weighing nearly 13 tons, cast in Kraków in 1520 by Nuremberg bellmaker Hans Beham, it was hung on 9 July 1521 in a specially erected defence tower of Wawel Royal Castle, known as the Zygmunt Tower.
After casting, the bell cooled down for three weeks. It arrived at Wawel Castle at the end of June 1521 after travelling from the workshop at Sławkowska Street, which the King had put at the disposal of the bellmaker, through the Market Square and then along Grodzka Street.
It was made from about 20 per cent tin and 80 per cent copper, a typical recipe for bells at the time. It sounded for the first time on 13 July 1521, on the anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald, the first Polish national holiday.
On its first ringing, the ropes were pulled by 12 bell-ringers, 6 on one side of the bell, 6 on the other, a tradition which continues to this day. Its ring lasts eight minutes, as tested in 1888, and has a range of up to 30 kilometres.
For many years, the Zygmunt Bell was the largest bell in Poland. Currently, in terms of size, it is second only to the bell of the Basilica in Licheń.
There are many legends connected with the bell. One says that its voice dispels clouds and brings sunny weather, and that a young maiden who touches its clapper will soon marry and be happy in love.
According to another, the king had silver royal plates thrown into the mould, and the court musician of Zygmunt the Old, Valentin Bakfark, threw a string from his lute into the heated mass.
Yet another story tells that the bell was cast from the cannons of Moscow Prince Vasyl III captured at the Battle of Orsha in 1514.
In one charming story, a 13-year-old boy called Staś, who lived near the Wawel Castle, loved the sound of the bell. Once he and his friends climbed the tower and by some miracle rang the bell.
Churchmen caught the boys and took them to the bishop. Staś explained that he only wanted Zygmunt to ring just for him. The bishop explained that the bell rings only for distinguished men. The boy turned out to be Kraków art legend Stanisław Wyspiański
Over the centuries, Zygmunt has rung during the biggest church and state ceremonies and accompanied Poles in all of the nation's special moments. This has earned the bell a special place in the hearts of Poles.
Until the Partitions of Poland in the late 18th century, Zygmunt was rung about 120 times a year on a host of religious occasions and state holidays connected with the royal family, such as coronations, royal births, weddings and deaths. The last royal occasion was for King Stanisław August Poniatowski in 1787.
After Poland lost its statehood in the partitions, the bell began to acquire new symbolic meanings. It rang on Christmas Day and at the Resurrection of Christ at Easter, raising hopes for the resurrection of Poland.
It also rang at funerals in Kraków of the nation's great sons, leaders, heroes, for example Prince Józef Poniatowski in 1817, and later for Tadeusz Kościuszko in 1818.
On 6 December 1855, when news came from Paris that Adam Mickiewicz had died in Constantinople, Zygmunt rang out in mourning.
In 1869, after the tomb of King Kazimierz the Great was opened for research purposes, the reburial of the monarch took place to the sound of Zygmunt.
In September 1883, when the 200th anniversary of the Victory at Vienna was celebrated, Zygmunt rang out at memorial services for the fallen and thanksgiving for the victory.
In 1929, the voice of Zygmunt resounded for the first time on the airwaves, when Henryk Sienkiewicz's coffin came from Switzerland to St John's Cathedral in Warsaw.
It rang in May 1935, during the funeral of the father of Poland’s regained independence Józef Piłsudski.
Zygmunt fell silent during the Second World War and the occupation, when the Germans captured Wawel Castle and the cathedral. It remained silent in January 1945, when the Germans fled and the Soviets entered Krakow.
It rang on 9 March 1953 on the occasion of Stalin's funeral, perhaps out of joy.
From 1980 it began to be rung on 11 November, and from 1981 on 3 May. It rang when Karol Wojtyła became Pope and on each of his returns to his beloved Kraków.
The bell rang a mournful note on the morning of 10 April 2010 when Lech and Maria Kaczyński died along with 94 other passengers and crew when attempting to land at Smolensk.
Its constant chiming has taken its toll on the bell over the years. In the 19th century, Zygmunt’s clapper broke three times. The first record of this occurred at the beginning of 1860. The next time the bell's clapper broke was in 1866, then in 1876. It also broke at Christmas 2000. Zygmunt gained a new clapper in 2001.
The painting by Jan Matejko, the Suspension of the Sigismund Bell, which can be seen at Wawel Royal Castle, has been brought to Krakow from the National Museum in Warsaw, where it is permanently located.
In the scene depicted by Matejko, the hoisting of the bell is supervised by Nuremberg bellmaker Hans Behem, and its consecration is performed by the Bishop of Kraków, Jan Chojeński, and the Canon of Gniezno, Grzegorz Lubrański.
The figures immortalised in the painting include the King, Queen Bona Sforza (portrayed by the painter's wife, Theodora), Prince Zygmunt August (portrayed by Matejko's son, Jerzy) and Princess Isabella (portrayed by the artist's daughter, Helena).
The painting will be on display from 8 July to 31 August on the ground floor of the Castle in the Grand Hall.