Kościuszko’s Mound

Image of Kościuszko's Mound in the distance surrounded by trees

Contributor: Monika Coghen

Location: Sikornik Hill, also known as the Hill of Blessed Bronisława, Kraków, Poland

Description: Kościuszko’s Mound (constructed 1820-1823) is an earthen barrow built on the hill called Sikornik in the west of Kraków (1). Following Kościuszko’s death in 1817, it became a matter of national urgency to construct a memorial to honour his memory. Kościuszko was recognized not only as the commander of the last military effort aimed at preserving Polish statehood, but also as a national spiritual leader urging progressive social reform. Kraków, where Kościuszko’s Insurrection broke out in 1794, was an obvious choice for the location of the monument. Wawel Cathedral, the burial site of the Polish kings, was the most appropriate place for his remains. Its role as a shrine for national heroes was inaugurated in 1817 by the funeral of Prince Józef Poniatowski, the commander of the Polish troops under Napoleon. Kościuszko was buried beside him in 1818.

At the time, celebration of Polish freedom fighters in Kraków was possible thanks to the short-lived liberalism of Tsar Alexander I, who approved the construction of the monument. After the Congress of Vienna, Kraków was granted the status of the neutral Republic of Cracow, albeit under the control of Russia, Prussia and Austria. The alleged independence of Kraków, linked to the fact that it was the ancient capital of Poland, offered additional reason for locating the monument there.

The Senate of the Republic of Cracow chose the form of a tumulus over a conventional statue because it followed the tradition of ancient burial mounds. Two such mounds are located in the vicinity: Krakus’s Mound believed to be the tomb of Krak, the legendary founder of the city, and Wanda’s Mound, supposedly the grave of Krak’s daughter. Thus, as argued in the Diary of the Constuction of Tadeusz Kościuszko’s Monument, Kościuszko’s Mound would contribute to the creation of the symbolic triangular pattern of the three mounds surrounding the city, ‘linking the present with the past, and with its peak seemingly opening the future’ (2). Moreover, ancient barrows had survived centuries, whereas buildings and statues had been destroyed, so the mound would be more lasting than any other form of memorial and was to be the work of the whole Polish nation, and particularly the people, of whom Kościuszko was the champion. The construction was supervised by the Committee for the Construction of the Tadeusz Kościuszko Monument, which has continued its custody of the Mound up to the present.

The semiotic potential of the Mound has been widely explored. Referred to as Kościuszko’s Grave throughout the 19th century, it was a site of Polish national pilgrimages, symbolizing the struggle for freedom and social justice. It was usually seen as a sign of resurrection and incorporated into the iconography of Polish Romantic millenialism.

In Romantic literature the image of the indestructibility of the Mound constantly recurs. It is often associated with the power and resilience of common folk and a need for their participation in the re-establishment of Polish statehood (3). Kornel Ujejski’s poem ‘Kościuszko’s Funeral’ (1853) contrasts the official funeral ceremony in Wawel Cathedral, which links Kościuszko with the kings of the past, and the construction of the mound, which is seen as an expression of commoners’ will and social solidarity, where ‘Masters and priests, peasants and soldiers /All together, all equal’ work’. At the close of the poem the mound becomes symbolic of Hope accompanied by Charity and Faith. The closing words of the poem, ‘Wawel will fall, but Kościuszko’s Grave will remain!’ point to Ujejski’s democratic sympathies (4). A more radical view of the mound emerges in Ryszard Berwiński’s ‘Kościuszko’s Grave’, where during a flood which destroys the corrupt race of Cainite landowners, the protagonist finds unexpected rescue at the top of the barrow, where common people are holding counsel. An old peasant explains that the place is both the hero’s tomb and the world’s cradle, which will give rise to a new society (5). For the modern reader this millennial vision may appear ridiculous as the mound from the very beginning was prone to erosion. In 1997 it was seriously damaged by heavy rains and had to be reconstructed between 2000 and 2002.

The volcano-like image of the mound is hinted at in several poems. In Edmund Wasilewski’s ‘Lines written in the album at Kościuszko’s grave’, the mound is an altar with eternal fire burning at the top (6). The most memorable volcanic simile appears in Adam Mickiewicz’ Forefathers’ Eve, Part 3:

Our nation is like a living volcano:
The top is hard and cold, worthless and dried,
But boiling, fiery lava seethes inside.
One hundred years of cold won’t cool its breath:
Spit on the crust – come, we’ll plunge to the depths. (7)

Though there is no explicit reference to Kościuszko’s mound, lava symbolizes the nation’s potential for resurrection and belongs to the trope of the Romantic idealization of the volcano as a symbol of hidden potential (8).

The image of Kościuszko pointing towards a new future is not limited to Polish Romanticism. In Book 10 of Don Juan Juan travels through Poland, ‘[f]amous for mines of salt and yokes of iron’(10.58.457) (9). The narrator reflects on the destruction of Napoleon, to whom he opposes the fame of Kościuszko:

Alas! that glory should be chilled by snow!
But should we wish to warm us on our way
Through Poland, there is Kosciusko’s name
Might scatter fire through ice, like Hecla’s flame.(10.59.469-472)

Byron may have read accounts of the construction of Kościuszko’s monument in periodicals such as the French Revue encyclopédique at the time of writing Canto 10 in 1822 (10). Byron’s verses draw on the trope of the volcano as a symbol for revolution common in the literature of the time. Thomas McLean views these lines as referring to the Polish Constitutional Reform of the 3rd of May 1791 in view of the fact that Juan travels across Poland in 1791 according to McGann’s commentary (11); this may refer to the libertarian ideal of Kosciuszko awakening the enthusiasm of Polish people.

Date: 1820-1823

Creator: unknown

Subject: Tadeusz Kościuszko

Object type: memorial; mound

Format: earthen barrow

Media rights: Photograph courtesy of the Kościuszko Mound Committee

Publisher: the Kościuszko Mound Committee

References

  1. For the history of the Mound, see Mieczysław Rokosz, A Memento from the Kościuszko Mound (Kraków, 2007) ; Kościuszko Mound in Kraków http://kopieckosciuszki.pl/en and M. Rokosz, ‘Kościuszko Mound in Kraków – A Historic Monument. Maintenance, Management, Promotion’, Ochrona dziedzictwa kulturowego, December 2019.
  2. Pamiętnik Budowy Pomnika Tadeusza Kościuszki (Kraków, 1826), pp.70-71. All translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.
  3. On symbolism of Kościuszko’s Mound, see Maria Janion and Maria Żmigorodzka, Romantyzm i historia (Warszawa, 1978), pp. 268-271
  4. ‘Pogrzeb Kościuszki’, Poezje vol. 1 (Poznań, 1912), pp. 103-107 (p. 106;107).
  5. ‘Mogiła Kościuszki’, Poezje, Part II (Brussels, 1844) pp. 53-70.
  6. ‘Z pamiętnika na mogile Tadeusza Kościuszki’, Poezje, ed. Emil Haecker (Kraków, 1925) p. 105.
  7. Dziady (Forefathers’Eve): Dresden Text, trans. Charles S. Kraszewski (Lehman, PA : Libella Veritatis, 2000), scene 8, p. 99.
  8. On the image of the volcano in Polish Romantic literature, see Maria Janion, Kuźnia natury (Gdańsk: słowo/obraz, 1994) pp. 64-69.
  9. Quotations from Don Juan are from The Complete Poetical Works, vol. 5, ed. Jerome McGann (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).
  10. A note on the construction of the mound, mentioning the lightening of fires on neighbouring hills, is mentioned under ‘Nouvelles littéraires et scientifiques’ in Revue encyclopédique, October 1820, vol. 8, p. 621.
  11. The Other East and Nineteenth-Century British Literature: Imagining Poland and the Russian Empire (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 105-106. McGann p.745.
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