The Byzantine Fantasies of the Skarulskis Family

The Skarulski, Kantakouzenos, and Palaiologos. Who were they? Other older GDL family names are more familiar to our ear, such as the Radziwiłłs, Sapiehas, Chodkiewicz, and Pac. One rarely hears about the Skarulskis family. They did not have important positions and did not play a significant role in the country’s political, social or cultural life. However, the Skarulski were clever – they used the useful marriage of their family member Jan Skarulski with high society royal Liudvika Ciechanowiecka with great effect. There was a legend in her family that they came from the Kantakouzenos family on her mother’s side, who said they were from the Palaiologos family. If we employ the use of mathematical terms and call the Skarulski family an “x”, then the Kantakouzenos family and Palaiologos family would be “y”, because it is only researchers of history that know these names. Let’s get to know these families.

How Kaunas district came closer to Byzantium

In all periods of history, marriage was not only an important step in the life of young couples but were also an object of interest in society.

Marriage became a significant occasion to show the good qualities of family members and boast of famous and ancient ancestors.

If they didn’t have any members like that, they would often “borrow” them from the family they were marrying into. Wedding epithalamiums were written to elevate the virtues and origins of nobles. They were celebratory speeches, the history of which stretched back to Antiquity. During the Middle Ages, epithalamiums were forgotten, but they were revived once again in Italy during the Renaissance. The d’Este, Aragon and Sforza families employed humanists who would write texts that would honour their families. The wedding epithalamiums became a tool of propaganda for the nobility and way of expanding their influence and entrenchment of their status in society. Soon afterwards the genre of writing epithalamiums that had spread in other European countries reached the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where it garnered a particular amount of popularity among the nobility in the 17th century. Epithalamiums often were illustrated with the coats-of-arms of the noble families, and sometimes an entire page of the publication was taken up by an ornate frontispiece. This not only showed the financial power of the person that ordered it, but also a desire to flaunt oneself and emphasize one’s status in society. This was done on the occasion of the marriage of Kaunas Marshal Jan Skarulski and GDL noble family member Liudvika Ciechanowiecka. The epithalamium created by Stanisław Ksawery Rodkiewicz was decorated with a wonderful copper engraving, which together with the text reflects the Byzantine fantasies of the Skarulski family.

Do You Know?

The writing of wedding epithalamiums became extremely popular to elevate the virtues and origins of the nobility in the GDL in the 17th century. Epithalamiums were festive speeches, the history of which stretched back to Antiquity. Epithalamiums often were illustrated with the nobles’ coats-of-arms. Sometimes an entire page of the publication was taken up by decorative illustrations called frontispieces.

Stardust on the marshal’s żupan

The author of the wedding epithalamium, in speaking about Jonas Skarulskis, emphasizes his contribution in the Battle of Khotyn in 1673 and the Battle of Bar in 1674.

Keeping in mind the young age of Jan Skarulski and the fact that he did not hold any kind of position did not yet allow him to make his mark in society.

Thus he, as a person having many talents, was the object of glorification, employing the use of a visual poetic language. What were most accentuated were his deeds for the good of his homeland. The following metaphor was employed in the text: “a throne in the centre of the palace, supported by columns of sapphire, decorated from within by golden upholstery, which glory itself embroidered with pearls using a Phrygian needle.” Let’s take a closer look at the “Phrygian needle.” In speaking about Jan Skarulskis and his metaphorical throne, it is mentioned not once, but twice. It is precisely the throne metaphor and Phrygian style of decoration that allows us to better understand the reference to the tie of Jan Skarulski’s wife Liudwika Ciechanowiecka with the Kantakouzenos family, who were the descendents of the Palaiologos family. One version of the origin of the Palaiologos dynasty of Byzantine emperors says that the Palaiologos family comes from Phrygia. Thus, the author subtly emphasized the usefulness given by the bride’s origins to the changed status of Skarulski to demonstrate the view of the Skarulski toward the origins of Liudwika Ciechanowiecka.

In the left corner of the frontispiece that graces the epithalamium, there is a tent that is decorated with plant-like ornaments, the cupola of which bears the Latin inscription Domus Honoris. In the tent, which is the house of honour, there is a man with Eastern-style clothing and a crown of laurel leaves on his head who is sitting on a raised seat, holding the stamp of time and a marshal’s stick in his right hand, while on his lap one can see a royal crown, sceptre, prince’s cap and a mace. In his left he is holding a split arrow with two crosspieces, which shows that this man symbolises the Skarulski family, because this symbol is on the family coat-of-arms.

All of the venerable insignias that are depicted on the copper engraving are figures that symbolise the Skarulski family, and not the Ciechanowiecki’s family.

The shine and glory of the Kantakouzenos family that was received thanks to marriage with Liudwika Ciechanowiecka seemed to become a quality that the Skarulski family had for centuries already, which they could boast and be proud of.

Many noble families would link themselves to their legendary ancestors, wanting to raise their status in society, where there was a resilient cult of ancient and famous origins (this was characteristic for nobility of high rank). Thus, the fantasies of the Skarulski family were a rare and interesting exception that decorates the treasure of the variety of GDL history.

Literature: A. Railaitė, Jonas Skarulskis ir jo ryšiai su Kantakuzenais: Kauno maršalaičio vestuvių epitalamijo tyrimas, Istorijos šaltinių tyrimai, t. 3, Vilnius, 2011, p. 153–166.

Agnė Railaitė