The Curse of King Casimir IV Jagiellonian

Dec 13, 2022 0 comments

Casimir IV Andrew Jagiellonian was one of the most successful rulers of Poland, who, having defeated the Teutonic Knights in the Thirteen Years' War, reclaimed one of Poland’s most important cities off the coast of the Baltic Sea, the city of Pomerania. It was under Casimir’s tenacious rule that the Jagiellonian dynasty became one of the leading royal houses in Europe. Upon his death in 1492, Casimir’s wife, Elizabeth of Austria, commissioned the German sculptor Veit Stoss to carve a tomb for the dead king. Casimir was interred in the Wawel Cathedral’s Holy Cross Chapel, and in 1496, Stoss completed the tomb. Elizabeth herself was interred in the same tomb beside her husband when she died in 1505.

The sarcophagus of King Casimir IV Jagiellonian. Photo: Virtual Museums of Małopolska

King Casimir IV’s tomb is one of the most spectacular pieces of late gothic art. The sarcophagus is made from mainly red marble from Adnet, near Salzburg. Over this is a canopy of ornate arches made from limestone, supported by marble pillars, whose capitals are decorated with biblical scenes. On top of the sarcophagus is a full length sculpted effigy of Casimir. Stoss sculpted Casimir as being in agony and dressed him in a clerical cloak only used at coronations. The sides of the sarcophagus bear the arms of Casimir's kingdoms and territories.

In 1973, the Archbishop of Krakow, who would later become Pope John Paul II, gave permission to open the tomb of Casimir and Elizabeth. Shortly thereafter, a team of twelve scientists entered the royal vault for the first time in nearly five hundreds. The goal was to examine the contents of the tomb in order to assess how best to restore and preserve them. Inside, they found rotting wooden coffins and the remains of Casimir and Elizabeth. The restoration work was then carried out and, once it had been completed, Casimir and Elizabeth were re-interred in a ceremony held in the cathedral on 18 September 1973.

King Casimir IV Jagiellonian.

In the months following the opening of the tomb, a mysterious disease began plaguing the researchers who entered the tomb, and they began to drop dead one by one. The first victim was an architect from Wawel, who died of a stroke in the spring of 1974. Soon after, the main specialist in the conservation work died. The cause of death was similar. Other premature deaths soon followed, and within months ten of the twelve-man team were dead. The deaths continued for an extended period of time and up to fifteen workers who entered the tomb for restoration work began to experience health problems and passed away.

The mysterious deaths at Wawel drew comparison to the famous Egyptian curse of Tutankhamen from the beginning of the 20th century, when several people who desecrated the tomb of the pharaoh died within a few years. Despite rumors of an apparent “Jagiellonian curse”, researchers pointed out that the deaths could be caused by a fungus called Aspergillus flavus that is known to thrive in moisture-damaged buildings. Aspergillus flavus secrete numerous toxic chemicals known as aflatoxin which can lead to acute hepatitis, immunosuppression, cancer, and neutropenia. It was suggested that the conservation team members had inhaled the toxic spores of the fungus when they entered the tomb and fell ill.

The sarcophagus of King Casimir IV Jagiellonian. Photo: Virtual Museums of Małopolska

Aspergillus fungi are known to live on dead bodies and decaying matter and have been detected on other Ancient Egyptian mummies. Dr. Ezzeddin Taha, an Egyptian physician, claimed that the health records of many of the workers who were exposed to the “mummy’s curse” were compatible with infection from Aspergillus. However, researchers had a hard time tracing any death back to a microorganism coming from a mummy or a tomb. If the workers had received lethal doses of the toxin, death would have followed quickly, and not delayed by the months or years as reported among the victims of King Tutankhamen’s curse.

In fact, F. DeWolfe Miller, professor of epidemiology at the University of Hawaii said "Given the sanitary conditions of the time in general, and those within Egypt in particular, Lord Carnarvon would likely have been safer inside the tomb than outside." Lord Carnarvon was the patron who financed the excavation of Tutankhamun's tomb. He was the first to die.

Researcher’s believe that the evidence connecting the deaths to the Aspergillus fungi is tenuous. The clinical symptoms in those who were affected were often vague and poorly documented. None of these people had any autopsies and no pathological evidence exist that could prove Aspergillus invasion in the tissue.

Despite the lack of evidence, the fungus theory is still propagated by many authors. In 1989, Kraków journalist Zbigniew Święch published a book titled Curses, Microbes and Scholars, where he told the story of the opening of Casimir’s tomb and investigated the mystery surrounding the deaths. The book went on to become a best seller.

References:
# Jo Marchant, “The Shadow King”
# Gdy otwarto grób królewski, zaczęła działać klątwa Jagiellończyka, Gazeta Krakowska
# The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and Its Link to Aspergillus, antimicrobe.org
# Brian Dunning, “King Tut's Curse!”, Skeptoid

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