St. Casimir, Pray for Eastern Europe!

SAINTS & ART: This famous painting of St. Casimir (whose feast day is March 4) is considered miraculous because Casimir is three-handed.

Unknown, “St. Casimir,” ca. 1594
Unknown, “St. Casimir,” ca. 1594 (photo: Public Domain)

It’s somewhat harder to comment on a saint’s feast during a particular week in Lent because, with few exceptions, almost all saints’ days during Lent are optional memorials. The logic of the liturgical season is that the individual days of Lent take precedence over most feasts. 

St. Kazimierz (Casimir, 1458-1484) was a Prince of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He was the grandson of Władysław Jagiełło, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, whose marriage to Jadwiga, “king” of Poland [the ruler of Poland was “king,” irrespective of sex] brought the two countries together and brought Lithuania — the last pagan country in Europe — into the Catholic fold. 

Tradition speaks of Casimir as a pious and charitable young man who never married. His early education, including in statecraft, was entrusted to Father Jan Długosz (in the West, sometimes called Johannes Longinus), a pious priest who was also secretary to the Archbishop of Kraków and a diplomat. Długosz is primarily remembered as a historian: his 12-volume Latin Annales seu cronici is a vital work on the history of Central Europe from 965-1480. 

Casimir never became king, dying at 25 probably from tuberculosis. He was offered the throne of Hungary at age 13, but although he made his way to Budapest, that accession never came to pass. One of his brothers became king of Bohemia and, for five years, Casimir was practical administrator of Poland while his father attended to affairs in Lithuania. His administration was regarded as loving and Christian. During a trip to Lithuania, Casimir fell ill in Grodno (Hrodna, in today’s Belarus) and died. His remains are buried in the Catholic cathedral of Vilnius.

That is also where today’s painting is to be found. It is considered miraculous because Casimir is three-handed. Some try to explain it by saying that the painter wanted to repaint the saint’s hand, but the original reappeared. Others say that the threesome (or its reappearance) bespeaks the charity, generosity and liberality for which Casimir was known throughout his life. His “right” right hand holds a rosary, indicative of his piety and Marian devotion. His left hand (and his left “right” hand) hold lilies, the Christian symbol of purity and continence. Casimir is depicted in an age-appropriate manner in royal garb, his glance off to the left rather than face on, noting his humility. On the painting’s left is the white eagle, the state symbol of Poland. One the left is the vytis or pogoń, a mounted knight in armor with a sword, the state symbol of Lithuania. Both coats-of-arms symbolize the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth launched by Casimir’s grandparents. Casimir is already depicted with a halo while, on the lower left, is a text from Psalm 92:12 and adapted by various texts in the Latin Mass: “The just man will flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar of Lebanon.” 

Casimir’s reputation for sanctity (he is said to have knelt in inclement weather at night outside the locked doors of churches) spread rapidly and, by standards of his day, he was quickly canonized. Pope Adrian VI, the last non-Italian pope before St. John Paul II, canonized Casimir in 1522.

The painting, like Casimir’s body, is in a side chapel of the Catholic cathedral in Vilnius. Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is an attractive city with many beautiful churches and the Marian shrine at Ostra Brama (“Bright Gate”). It was in Vilnius that the first depiction of the Divine Mercy image was displayed.

St. Casimir, pray for peace and justice in those lands!