Monday, March 4, 2013

Saint of the Month: Saint Casimir!

Icon of St. Casimir in Vilnius Cathedral
Saint Casimir

AKA: Kasimir, Kazimierz, Kazimieras.
Feast Day: March 4.

Really Existed? Without a doubt.
Timeframe: October 3, 1458 – March 4, 1484.
Place: The Kingdom of Poland (and Lithuania)

Credentials: Canonized by Pope Adrian VI in 1522. On June 11, 1948, Pope Pius XII named Saint Casimir the special patron of all youth.
Martyrdom: None, although some sources imply that his death by TB was probably linked to his asceticism.

Patron Saint of: Youth, Poland, Lithuania.
Symbolism: Wearing or with a crown, holding a lily, with two right hands.

To late medieval Eastern Europe this month, where we meet St. Casimir, the third son of the King of Poland. Six years the elder of St. Jean of Valois and of the same social rank, it seems at least theoretically possible that they could have ended up a couple if that’s the way the statecraft had worked out. It might have made a good match, as they had at the very least a shared strong interest in religion.

As a young man, Casimir was put in charge of, or perhaps just “embedded in” (as we say) a Polish army heading for Hungary, where a clique of dissident nobles had invited Casimir (Junior) to assume the crown. He never became king of Hungary, however, because his unpaid soldiers were deserting in droves and because “the Hungarian king had assembled an army to fight them,” an explanation that is not altogether flattering to Polish arms. Accounts of St. Casimir couch this fiasco as a big disappointment, but I notice that it is treated somewhat differently in accounts of the life of King Mattias Corvinus “the Just” of Hungary. In any event, a leading saint website’s contention that
Hungarian nobles prevailed upon Casimir’s father to send his 15-year-old son to be their king; Casimir obeyed, taking the crown, but refusing to exercise power
…is simplistic, wrong on a key point, and perhaps a bit naïve.

Returning to Poland, we’re told that he was “banished to Dobzki,” and that he made two ultimatums: he would no longer take part in a military campaign against a Christian country (like Hungary) that was fighting the Turks, and he would not marry the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, “preferring a life of celibacy, devotion, and austerity.” Then, suddenly, we’re told he was ruling over Poland “with justice, prudence, and firmness” from 1481-83, before dying of tuberculosis at 26. Which is confusing, because wasn’t he banished and being all sassy?

Well, there’s a bit of a discrepancy between the temporal and the hagiographic sources. The traditional histories have father and son brushing themselves off after the Hungarian adventure, and Casimir junior heading back to Warsaw to continue his studies. Only hagiographic sources say that the father blamed his son for the failure of the mission and banished him to the Castle of Dobzki. It’s tough to tell from this distance, but I note with interest that the “Castle of Dobzki” seems to exist, as far as a leading internet search engine can tell, only as the place that St. Casimir got banished to. In any event, the father/son split couldn’t have been too severe, because both men traveled together to Vilnius when the Lithuanian half of the Lithuanian/Polish Empire required attention in the late 1470s. Casimir Junior did indeed end up ruling Poland from 1481 to 1483 under his dad’s aegis, while Casimir senior stayed in Lithuania.

Did he indeed refuse the hand of Kunigunde of Austria? Could be! Consider, however, that her father the Emperor had previously refused the suit of King Mattias Corvinus “the Just” of Hungary, who would probably have been thought as at least as desirable a match, and that Kunigunde (who incidentally sounds like a pretty cool girl) eventually defied her father’s wishes anyway and married a fellow of her own choosing. So, whether or not Casimir Junior was willing to play ball, it seems fairly likely that Casimir Sr.’s attempt to contract the alliance wouldn't have panned out.

Casimir died of tuberculosis at age 25; some say that he had been in the habit of praying on his knees at church gates before dawn during long fasts, which certainly could lead to health problems in the Polish climate. “Miracles soon appeared near his tomb,” reports the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, a description that leaves one wishing for more detail. Reverend Alban Butler, the ubiquitous 18th Century English hagiographer, is here to help:
The miracles wrought by his body after death fill a volume. The blind saw, the lame walked, the sick were healed, a dead girl was raised to life. And once the Saint in glory led his countrymen to battle, and delivered them by a glorious victory from the schismatic Russian hosts.
Butler also reports that Casimir’s body was perfectly intact 122 years after his death, when it was moved from its original tomb to a specially constructed chapel.

In the 1940s, Casimir was proclaimed the patron saint of youth, and a recent press release from the Catholic News agency discusses the reasoning:
“His witness of great faith and fervent piety continues to have special meaning for us today,” the Pope [John Paul II, in 1984] said, noting especially the “challenging call” he offers to young people. “His life of purity and prayer beckons you to practice your faith with courage and zeal, to reject the deceptive attractions of modern permissive society, and to live your convictions with fearless confidence and joy.”
The same article mentions some of the devotions ascribed to Casimir:
The young prince had a distaste for the luxury of courtly life, and instead chose the way of asceticism and devotion. He wore plain clothes with a hair shirt beneath them, slept frequently on the ground, and would spend much of the night in prayer and meditation on the suffering and death of Christ.
Particularly if you accept the notion that Casimir’s devotions sent him to an early grave, his choice as a role model for the young is perhaps a little surprising. A moral exemplar should be challenging, certainly, but it may be possible to overdo it.

Often, Casimir is portrayed as having two right hands, after a painting in Vilnius Cathedral. One school of thought is that the second right hand appeared miraculously and that the painter was unable to cover it up. The more prosaic version is that the doubled right hand is symbolic of generosity.


mrs.5000 said...

I like Butler's vague citation (presumably unfootnoted) that Casimir's miracles "fill a volume," followed by a list that could have been cranked out by any pious third-grader. Except for the military victory, where he made up for his army's shameful performance on the way to Hungary. That's kind of a nice touch. Maybe a Paths of the Dead sort of deal would work in the screenplay?

Michael5000 said...

I edited the Wiki article on Vilnius Cathedral to celebrate the day...