When the Respect for an Image is More Important than the Honesty of a Forefather

It is said in stories about the image of Our Lady of Kodeń, famous for its miracles, that Mikołaj Sapieha (1581-1644), who was the Great Standard Bearer of Lithuania, the voivode of Minsk (later Brest), and castellan of Vilnius, stole a famous painting of the Gregorian Mother of God based on the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe from a Papal Chapel of Pope Urban VIII. He took the painting together with bodies of martyrs from Rome to Kodeń. Sapieha was sorry for his sin. The pope graciously gave him the stolen painting as a gift together with relics.

A god-fearing thief

One source for this story is a book devoted to the image of Our Lady of  Kodeń called Historia przezacnego obrazu Kodeńskiego published in Torun in 1720 (in 1721 it was published in Latin, and in 1723 the Polish version was supplemented and published with the name Monumenta albo zebranie starożytnych ozdób Przenajczystszej Bogarodzicy Maryi Panny w dawnym wielce obrazie kodeńskim). The author of the book was Jan Fryderyk Sapieha (1680–1751), who was the castellan of Trakai, and later the grand chancellor of Lithuania. He was responsible for the crowning of the image of Our Lady of Kodeń. He described the theft by his great-great grandfather almost 100 years later, basing his work on the archives of the church in Kodeń and home archives. According to him, Mikołaj Sapieha went to Rome as a pilgrim due to illness, and miraculously recovered there. Upon meeting with Pope Urban VIII, he requested “a holy body of some kind to decorate the new holy temple on his holdings in Kodeń.” The pope praised Sapieha that he took great care of the decoration of his house of God, and kindly agreed to satisfy his request and promised to give him his blessing before he departs.

Being invited to a private chapel of the pope to attend Holy Mass, Sapieha “saw the painting of the Mother of God, and could not take his eyes off it for the entire Mass.”

The painting, which he fell so in love with, weakened Sapieha’s mind. He planned on bribing the sacristan of the chapel and carry out the theft: “having counted out the agreed-upon sum, which the immoral hands [i.e. of the sacristan] touched, already with covetous eyes while looking at it… the following night was devoted to carrying out all of this. The night is the mother of crimes, the cover of theft, shrouding the city streets, catacombs, cemeteries, basilicas, allowed one to take holy relics from the most secret places of the Lord, collect all the most important decorations of a painting, the oldest “monuments” of the papal chapel. (…) There the image was taken from the altar carefully in the refuge of the night’s darkness, rolled into a tube and with other holy treasures were brought as agreed to the constantly fearful Mikołaj.” He continues with describing the dangerous journey home for Sapieha, the accusation against him and the court decision of the nunciature to excommunicate him, and required him to return the painting and holy relics, make a pilgrimage to Rome on foot and ask forgiveness from the pope.

Is a stolen relic more valuable?

In 1633, Sapieha sent his son to Rome with an apology, penitence, and request to look over the court decision. According to the story as told by Jan Frydrich Sapieha, his journey to Rome and the fat that M. Sapieha supported the nunciature’s position against marriage with people of another faith in the Sejm, prompted the pope to change his decision.

In 1636, Mikołaj Sapieha travelled to Rome and once again asked for forgiveness from the pope. The pope forgave him and gave the stolen painting together with the holy relics as a gift to the repentant GDL noble.

There have never been any documents found that would confirm this theft by Mikołaj Sapieha. His travels to Italy in Spain in 1612 and 1625 are well-known, during which he may have bought the painting that depicts a small statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe dated to the beginning of the 17th century that is located in the church of Kodeń. That would confirm the short message that was heard during the sermon of the funeral of Sapieha’s wife in 1642 about the miraculous image of the Our Lady of Guadalupe brought from Spain, for which Mikołaj Sapieha had built the chapel.

Stories of theft, especially by a person of such high rank as Sapiega is rare in GDL documents. However, the origins of images and relics that are considered miraculous most often bear witness to the legend-like nature of these stories.

The regular and legal receiving, purchase or creation of relics were masked by legends about these relics being stolen.

The purchase of risky and unusual holy relics increased their value. In the case of the miraculous images of the Mother of God, it was important to verify their age and ties (which could be as closed as possible) to the authentic images of her painted by St. Luke, which were mediators for heavenly grace and might, the copies of which, as was believed, would also acquire the power to act as merciful mediators  from the latter. However, the creation of a copy of a miraculous image, just like the appearance of the original image, had to be accompanied and marked by heavenly grace.

This is why in stories of the origins of miraculous images that one rarely finds everyday facts about the purchase of an image or the commissioning of an artist.

Exchange: for the official recognition of holy relics – a stain in the biography of a forefather

The story of Jan Frydrich Sapieha fused this awkward medieval behaviour in stealing holy relics and the accepted model of feelings and actions for a person during the Baroque period, when a passionate piousness is permeated with the shame of sin, and human weakness exists alongside courage and devotion, noble religiousness is exchanged for a limitless love that obscures the mind and pushes one toward sin, and fear is replaced by heartfelt repentance, and anger by forgiveness.

Why did Jonas Frydrichas Sapiega have to make up a story that compromised his noble and honourable forefather? The occasion of the crowning of the image of the Our Lady of Kodeń appeared in the last issue of “Monuments” in 1723, which was overseen by Jan Frydrich Sapieha.

One of the conditions for the official recognition of the image as miraculous and crowning of it with papal crowns was its age and exceptional origin.

The theft allowed for a reason to consider the painting held by the Sapiehas as having a special identity and value: if the Our Lady of Kodeń was the same Gregorian Madonna that was painted by Benedictine abbot St. Augustine on the order of Pope Gregory I, following what was known as the statue of Guadalupe that was made by St. Luke, and which had been worshipped by Roman popes in a private chapel in the Vatican for 500 years before Mikołaj Sapieha’s fated visit to Rome.

Would Jan Frydrich Sapiega have received permission to crown the image of Our Lady of Kodeń without this story? Most likely. A more realistic story of the origin of the image could have taken the place of this myth. However, at the time the story raised no doubts and August 15th, 1723 in the Sapiehas’ town of Kodeń, which was called a Little Rome, Lutsk Bishop Stefan Rupniewski decorated the Spanish image of Mary, which was surrounded with holy relics, with crowns. 

Tojana Račiūnaitė