The first one presents Bolesław Chrobry, welcoming Otto III on a pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Wojciech/Adalbert in year 1000.
Let us ask: what does this moment mean in the history of Poland and Europe? In 962 the institution of the empire had been renewed, and this was supposed to unite Christian Europe. The restorer was the German King, Otto I, the grandfather of Otto III. Four years later, the founder of the Polish state, Mieszko I, the father of the second hero of the painting, Bolesław Chrobry, was baptized. His authority thereafter became an element of the recognized structure of the eastern frontiers of Latin Europe. On the other hand, this element grew in strength dangerously. Poland worried the Saxon brothers of the Emperor with its successes, the strengthening of its state, one they wished to consider a naturally subordinate area. Is the state ruled by Mieszko and his successors to be part of the European, Latin community, the universal Empire, or rather a territory subject to the German kingdom and to the expansion and dominance of the Saxon margraves and bishops? This was a practical question at the time – one that recurred over the next centuries in new forms. This is the question about the possibility of reconciling the wider European structure with the sovereignty of its member states. Young Otto III (emperor from 996) and the new – from 992 – Polish ruler Bolesław found a wise answer in Gniezno in the year 1000. This discovery had the patronage of the hidden hero of this meeting and of the painting by the Lukians: Saint Wojciech. Hailing from the powerful Slavnik family of the Czech lands, Wojciech chose a spiritual path. He became the bishop of Prague. Discouraged by the unrelenting sins of his Czech “flock”, he left his diocese, wishing to devote himself to spiritual improvement. He stopped in Italy, at the monastery of St. Benedict at Monte Cassino, and then at the Benedictine monastery on the Roman Aventine. From there he was called in 992 to return to the Diocese of Prague. Nonetheless, he again suffered a pastoral disaster. He could not come to terms with the continuing practice of trade in Christian slaves in Prague. He again left the capital of his diocese. He cast a curse on Prague’s inhabitants and returned to the convent in Rome. The following year, most of Wojciech’s family was murdered at the behest of the Czech ruler Boleslav II. Wojciech then met Otto III in Rome. The young emperor, fascinated by the saintly bishop from Prague, took him with him on his return journey to Germany. With the consent of the Pope, after talks with Otto and in agreement with the Polish ruler Bolesław, Wojciech then accepted a new mission. He and his brother Radzim-Gaudenty headed off to Poland to convert pagans. Bolesław Chrobry (the Brave) offered him as a mission area the lands inhabited by the pagan Prussians at the north-eastern edge of his realm. From Gniezno, where he arrived at the beginning of 997, Wojciech set off without delay in the direction of Gdańsk, which was on the border of Bolesław’s realm and the land occupied by Prussians. There, having baptized “throngs of people”, he and his brother Radzim-Gaudenty then crossed to the Prussians near today’s Elbląg. And there, on April 23, he suffered a martyr’s death at their hands. The Polish ruler Bolesław ordered the purchase of the martyr’s body from Prussia and buried it solemnly in the church of the Mother of God in Gniezno. Poland now had a martyr, and not just any, but rather one known in almost all of contemporary Latin Europe – indeed, a personal friend of the emperor, a man admired by the Pope, and by the abbots of the most eminent monasteries of Italy, France, and Germany. Wojciech, expelled from the Czech lands, having undertaken to launch a mission from Poland, became in death the perfect patron of the country of Bolesław the Brave, and thus powerfully strengthened Bolesław’s position in the Christian world. Suitably aired far and wide, Bolesław’s generous gesture – i.e., the purchase of Wojciech’s body from pagans for its weight in gold – showed that this ruler understood what a treasure the relics of the famous martyr were. Not even the archbishoprics of Magdeburg and Hamburg had such relics. But Gniezno did. Bolesław could thereby win a separate, full church structure for his country – one that even the Czechs did not yet have. He could achieve new, great prestige for himself and for his realm.
Otto III, deeply anguished by the death of his friend, by all means wished to elevate the standing of Wojciech’s testimony. At the same time, he wanted to renew the onetime splendor of the ancient Roman Empire in a new Christian spirit and a new geopolitical shape. This novelty involved the expansion of Otto’s empire beyond the former Roman limes (the borders of the Roman empire) to the lands inhabited by the Slavs. The latter, however, were not to be merely conquered, as was still practiced by Otto III’s father and grandfather and all their predecessors back to Charlemagne. The idea of “restoring the Empire” in the year 1000 was different. Under the patronage of the Slavic martyr, Wojciech, the Slavic ruler Bolesław of Gniezno was to lay the eastern foundation of the new order of Christian Europe. In addition to Italy, Gaul, and Germania, it was Sclavinia – Slavdom – that was to form the fourth foundation, the fourth pillar of this order.
At the synod in Rome in the middle of 999, the first decisions may well have been taken to bring this beautiful vision closer to reality. It was probably then that Wojciech was officially recognized as a saint-martyr. Pope Sylvester II, with the consent of the emperor, may also have dealt then with the preparations for the changes to the ecclesiastical organization in the east of Latin Europe – namely, the creation of a new archbishopric in Gniezno, independent of any church authority in Germany. Important organizational details of the new archbishopric were to be resolved at the new synod to be convened in Gniezno, to which the Pope delegated his cardinal, Robert. At the Summit in Gniezno, the most important matter, because it was unprecedented, was the presence of the emperor himself. Otto III traveled the road from Rome quickly. He left at the end of December 999. Passing through Ravenna, then Bavaria and Thuringia, he reached the eastern border of his empire in February. No emperor has crossed this border before him. Bolesław left for the encounter with the young emperor to take place at the Bóbr River, and thereafter led the two retinues all the way to Gniezno. For Otto, it was primarily a penitential pilgrimage, which is why the last stage of the journey to the grave of Saint Wojciehc/Adalbert took place on foot, with a prayer on his lips. At the Summit held in Gniezno, which probably lasted from March 8 to 10, 1000, the archbishopric established there was entrusted to the saint’s brother, Radzim-Gaudenty. At the same time, three new bishoprics were established subordinate to Gniezno: in Kraków (bishop Poppon), Wrocław (bishop Jan), and Kołobrzeg (bishop Reinbern). From March 10, 1000, the Church in Poland had a full structure and hierarchy independent of any of its neighbors and embraced the entire state. Moreover, the Church connected Polish lands directly with Rome, with the successors of Saint Peter. It was a huge achievement from the point of view of the sovereignty and cohesion of the state in Christian Europe. Unlike an “ordinary” bishop, the archbishop could crown the king. And this opportunity would be one that the daring rulers of Poland would take advantage of in favorable circumstances – starting from Bolesław the Brave himself.
According to the first chronicler of Polish history, the Anonymous Gall, after the great reception that Bolesław prepared for him, Otto was to do even more: “Given his [Bolesław’s] glory, power, and wealth, the Roman emperor […] spoke to everyone: ‘It is not fitting that such a great man and ruler, as if but one among the dignitaries, be called a prince or count. Rather, it behooves us to laud him and raise him to the throne of king and be crowned’. Then taking off his emperor’s crown, he placed it on Bolesław’s head to signify their covenant and friendship, and as triumphal emblems he gave him a nail from the cross of the Lord together with the spear of Saint Maurice, in return for which Bolesław offered him the arm of St. Adalbert. And on that day they joined together with such a great love, that the emperor appointed him a brother and an ally of the empire [cooperator imperii] and called him a friend and ally of the Roman people”. The gesture of placing the diadem on Bolesław’s head undoubtedly meant admission to the family of Christian rulers who recognized the authority of imperial power. The titles of “friend” and “ally of the empire” were a beautiful rhetorical framing of this distinction, just as its symbol was the copy of Saint Maurice’s spear handed over by Otto along with the relic – namely, a fragment of a nail from the Holy Cross. The spear, which was to have belonged to a Roman centurion and martyr of the 3rd century, was the ceremonial weapon of the rulers of the German Kingdom, and then of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation from the beginning of the Ludolfing dynasty. Copies, evidence of the highest recognition and distinction for the most important “allies of the empire” went almost simultaneously to Bolesław Chrobry and Stefan the Great of Hungary. The tip of “our” spear is still kept in the treasury of Wawel cathedral. And it is also found, along with the royal diadem, in the center of the painting by the Lukians, right next to the main characters: Otto and Boleslaw the Brave. This symbolizes both sovereignty and concord at the same time, matters which Poland and Europe were to yearn for over the ensuing centuries. As they did in 1939, when the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler sought nothing less than absolute domination over other European nations, rejecting completely the Christian, universalist vision of Otto, Wojciech, and Bolesław.