by Raymond Dabrowski

Visitors to my communication office in Silver Spring years ago often asked me about the meaning of a crafted ornament hanging above a doorframe. They understood that it represented something, but exactly what? At that time many of us were discussing the ministry of and for women in the church. What they saw was a woman’s head with a scarf covering her mouth. It gave her the appearance of being muzzled.

When visiting Krakow and its Wawel Kings Castle a few years ago, I did the tourist thing and went through the castle’s royal apartments, taking note of a ceiling ornamented with dozens of head sculptures by Sebastian Tauerbach and his partner craftsman, Hans Snycerz. They had created 194 masterfully crafted and realistic polychrome heads depicting people who lived in the early 16th century and were the subjects of King Sigismund I the Old. Immortalized in this creative manner, the faces offered expressions of a symbolic poignancy. For me, the head of the “silenced woman” suggested an intentionally stalled communication. When I purchased a replica at the Sukiennice Cloth Hall crafts stall, I asked for the story behind the ornament.

The shopkeeper said that among the many legends was a story that King Sigismund II August, upon hearing that a woman had been caught eavesdropping on a conversation between the monarch and his advisors, opted to put a gag on her. Rather than having her imprisoned, she was to bear testimony that not everything is for public consumption—and heaven forbid that it become fodder for gossip.

He was a crafty king, I concluded. The explanation was consistent with the king’s experimental policies in civil rights and freedoms, including religious tolerance.

There is another legend associated with the head of the “silenced” or “muzzled” woman who is a part of the decorated ceiling in the Envoy’s Hall of Wawel Castle, the very room where the king met with foreign diplomats, held audiences, and issued judgments. The king was known to be a procrastinator, often liking to leave decisions for the next day. However, one day, bored with executing judgments, he made a rash and unjust pronouncement. One of the carved ceiling heads spoke out in protest, saying, “Rex Auguste, iudica iuste” (“King August, judge with justice”). The king became angry and asked the court craftsman to add a gag to the talking head’s mouth.

The placement of the scarf could be interpreted in a symbolic way, we are told. The Jagiellonian dynasty is remembered for curbing political rights for the benefit of the ruling class—the nobility.

Might the talking head have been a precursor to the WikiLeaks syndrome of today? The 16th-century approach to justice and human rights is not the best example of how to silence our contemporary talking heads. Gagging can only serve the temporary needs of someone who has something to hide. In our internet world, where everyone can be a publisher, we serve our interests best when we are open, honest, and transparent.

Privacy requires guardianship. If you are sloppy in guarding your parlor, don’t be upset when we all become observers of your actions. This applies to both personal affairs and the way we run society, its organizations, and communities. The realm of religion is not excluded. The Bible is full of stories in which mixing God’s realm and personal affairs lead to a crooked result. Notwithstanding the proverbial washing of dirty linen in public and attempts to kill the messenger, the common good, whether we like it or not, requires public exposure and scrutiny of motives and actions. When secret deals are cut and laws are circumvented, and when our common benefits are tampered with, watch out. We will be found out. In a church setting, the consequences for gossiping and spreading rumors can be applied. Any one of us could be muzzled—and quite often, at that.

Consider this poetic query by Cyprian Kamil Norwid, an animator of the literary Age of Romanticism who wrote about freedom and responsibility: “Is this bird ill that fouls its own nest? Or is it that one who does not let anyone talk about that?”

As a photographer, I was intrigued by a muzzled head carved in a coffered ceiling of the Envoy’s Hall. What was behind this ornamental detail? In the same way, I wonder what stories and lessons might be found behind the graffiti on many a city wall. As I photograph the images of eyes and mouths, I wonder if perhaps they speak a message: it’s not only what you see that matters but also what others see. Consider that somebody may be watching you, too.

Rajmund Dabrowski is director of communication for the Rocky Mountain Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Denver, Colorado.

Photo caption: “Woman With a Scarf on Her Mouth.” Replica. Wawel Castle, Krakow, Poland.