Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Jester

You can never tell when some interesting tidbit of information will find its way into your day. The very last thought or story I could have imagined catching my attention today is Polish history. My knowledge of Poland could fit in a thimble, and the closest I’ve ever come to anything Polish was a brief acquaintance with a Polish man who enjoyed practicing his English on me some years back in Tokyo. One dinner in my memory with him and his wife left me a near zombie from all the straight shots of vodka. But Poland generally calls up images of sausage, Lech Walesa and thoughts of the William Styron book, Sophie’s Choice.

I was sitting talking with a friend today, and she suddenly took from a drawer a postcard-sized piece of art, saying she wanted to give it to me. The reason, she carefully explained, was that she never took it out, never displayed it, and felt it was being wasted. She thought it something I could enjoy.

It is a pewter bas-relief of a Polish historical figure from the 16th century, a court jester named Stanczyk. The word (name) ‘Stanczyk’ is at the bottom of the relief. My friend found it at a garage sale a few years ago, and thought it worth the asking price. The small relief made an immediate impression and I promised I would look up the name molded into the picture.

There isn’t a great deal (in English) about Stanczyk on the Internet, but Wikipedia offers a brief description. He lived from 1480 to 1560 and was court jester to three successive Polish kings. He was apparently more than just the king’s fool, and had the reputation of great intelligence, and of being something of a political philosopher. His jokes often referred to Poland’s current political affairs, or matters at court. Later writers held his name up as one who fought hypocrisy in the name of truth.

One well-known anecdote about Stanczyk involves a bear the king imported for his hunting pleasure. The bear was released in the forest, but when finally cornered by the king and his retinue, it charged, causing panic. The terrified queen fell from her horse and suffered a miscarriage. When the king rebuked Stanczyk for running away, he answered that it was greater folly to let a bear out of a locked cage. The remark was seen as an allusion to the king’s policy toward Prussia.

In 1795, when Poland was partitioned for the third time by Russia, Stanczyk was turned into a symbol for Poland’s struggle for independence. In the imagination of some writers he took on Shakespearean qualities.

I guess you learn something every day. This was my portion for the day.

The painting here, below the bas-relief is one done in the 19th century by the Polish painter, Wojciech Gerson, titled ‘Sigismund the Old with Stanczyk at Wawel Castle.’

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America