Polish historical painters – the curious case of Jan Alojzy Matejko (1838-1893) – Part II

Unia Lubelska (Union of Lublin) – (1869).

This is the tercentennial anniversary painting of the Union of Lublin (1569), which united Poland and Lithuania.

I cannot say this enough: Matejko is the master of historical painting. One has only to look at the range of emotions, costumes, ambiance, and light, which starts in the middle, where the intended emotional focus of the painter is, and slowly diffuses in one direction only.

The light gradually withers away from the flame, with a visible penumbra concentrated in the upper left corner and behind prelate dressed in black and next to the cardinal dressed in red-velvet.

King Sigismund II Augustus holds Jesus Christ on the Cross, while a prelate, perhaps a bishop, holds the Holy Scriptures for a Polish or Lithuanian magnate. Judging by his pravoslavnic looking beard, the magnate taking the oath, might be Eastern Orthodox. The Polish szlachta sit behind their king, already graced by the apostolic God, while the Lithuanian Orthodox are somewhat grudgingly stepping into His Light.

The symbolism is powerful. All the estates are present, as this is a defining turning point in Poland’s mission in the East. From this moment onward, Polish Catholicism started making inroads converting the Lithuanian and Rus’ elites to Eastern Catholicism; a process which extended to the lower classes under the Union of Brest (1595-96).

Stefan Batory pod Pskowem (Stefan Batory at Pskov) – (1872).

This canvas speaks to the next step in Polish history, namely the eerie homage of one of Russia’s history most insane characters: Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Ivan (in)famously killed his own unborn grandson when he beat his daughter-in-law causing her to miscarry. Adding insult to injury, this paranoid demented murdering tyrant struck his own son dead with his staff.


Ivan the Terrible holding his dead son – by Ilia Repin- (1885). This is another fine example, this time of Russian, neo-classicism.
Ivan the Terrible (detail) – note the maniacal eyes bulging with recognition of the abhorent sin of filicide. Repin is a master painter as well. This image sent shudders up and down my spine. That is the face of mortal danger.

Back to Matejko’s Bathory painting…

In testament of the power of Polish King Stephen Bathory, the Russian Tsar’s delegates present him with the symbols of the oath of fealty, accepting Bathory as his suzerain.

Perhaps it is good to mention that the Bathorys were not Polish but Hungarian. This influential family yielded quite a few voivode and princes of Transylvania. Stephen for instance started as the Voivode, then Prince of Transylvania, before becoming the jure uxoris (by right of marriage) King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania (1576-1586).

His grandson, Sigismund Bathory, was quite a different type of prince. He ruled Transylvania before he abdicated in 1598, only to change his mind and holding on the crown, before abdicating again in 1599. He then left his cousin, Cardinal Andrew Bathory, in charge of Transylvania.

Incidentally, the cardinal did not fare well in his secular endeavours, meeting his untimely demise and losing, literally, his head at the end of the battle of Schellenberg/Selimbar. His killers, Szekely officers, usually the defenders of Transylvania, incensed by the cold blood and wonton assassination of their captain by Andrew Bathory’s guards, took their revenge beheading the treacherous cardinal.

Coming back to the canvas, a haughty Stephen Bathory arrogantly (a very common Hungarian trait) looks at the Tsar’s representative, while holding a sword and in full dress of armour. This canvas represents an important moment for Poland, which had just won the Livonian campaign. A Polish magnate, dressed in red, stands behind the king, but does not trust the sincerity of the homage, nor the Russian’s display of atonement.

The painting is magnificent for its colour, level of detail (look at the shield bearing the arms of Poland and Lithuania), and the dynamic range of emotions exhibited by the participants to this scene.

This is the Polish equivalent of Velázquez’ epic Surrender of Breda.

The Surrender of Breda – Diego Velázquez – (1634-35).

We saw this historical canvas at the Museo del Prado in the summer of 2018. Breathtaking!

Sorry for the parenthesis. 

Coming back to Matejko’s Stephen Bathory at Pskov, just look at the Russian knight’s typical 16th century armour and helmet. Is it not utterly, purely splendid?! And look at the contrast between his grieving face, the face of a military man, who takes defeat as a personal failure, and the lackadaisical even uncaring face of the dwarf dressed in yellow velvet, sitting to his left.

The painting carries two other significant elements. 

First, it also shows the papal legate, the black-robed Jesuit Antonio Possevino, who was a Jesuit Counter Reformation diplomat, encyclopaedist, bibliographer, vicar general of Sweden, Denmark, Muscovy, Livonia, Rus, Hungary, Pomerania, and Saxony, between 1578 and 1586. By they way, Possevino was the first Jesuit to visit Moscow.

Second, one notices in the background but seated in front of the smouldering walls of Pskov, the famous, distinctive uniform and armour of one of the heaviest cavalry units of the time: the Polish winged hussars.

100 years later, in 1683, they would go on to defeat the Ottomans under the walls of Vienna. If it hadn’t been for the Polish King John Sobieski III’s salutary intervention, the Austrian empire would have been destroyed then and there. Within the next 100 years, Poland would be partitioned between Austria, Prussia, and Russia.

As the saying goes, “A good deed never goes unpunished!”

This painting won Matejko three major distinctions: the title of academician of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, the honorary membership of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts, and the Medal of Arts from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.

Winged hussars in art…

Husaria’s Attack – by Orłowski.

Detail of Bathory’s armour…

Zbroja Batorego – Stephen Bathory’s armour – (1872). Detail from Stefan Batory at Pskov.

Note the level of detail indicative of Matejko’s skillful brush. He displays an almost anatomical level of precision in his studies of human anatomy and range of motions.

Moving on to the next chronological Matejko’s chef d’oeuvre, we find his depiction of Copernicus.

Astronom Kopernik, czyli rozmowa z Bogiem (Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God) – (1873).

Throughout his career, Matejko strove to work on paintings capturing the essence of Polish history. More often than not, he had the occasion to celebrate Poland historical anniversaries. This is also the case with this canvas, which currently adorns the aula of the Collegium Novum of the Jagellonian University of Krakow, one of the oldest in Europe and the world.

Matejko started work on Copernicus in 1871, the 400th anniversary of the astronomer’s birthday, finishing it in 1873. In passing, the master would author, in a moment of irony, a self-portrait, marking his trials and tribulations while working on this masterpiece. The painting was not a huge commercial success, commanding only a 12,000 zloty price from the City of Krakow, which purchased in 1873.

It depicts a kneeling Copernicus, whose religious application to the study of astronomy earned him recognition from his contemporaries. The painting seizes his fervour and awe before the celestial firmament. Copernicus has just had an epiphany, a sudden realization that the Earth is not at the centre of the universe, and that in consequence, the Sun must play this role in our system.

This is the most romantic portrayal of Copernicus’ epochal discovery of the Heliocentric model. To this day, the jury is still out on the location of this scene. Matejko handled the composition on a symmetrical basis, which I must confess, makes me a very happy camper. I love symmetry. Symmetry does life justice.

He surrounded the focal point (Copernicus’ face) with atmospheric perspective (look at the contrast between night and coming day light) while arranging for a display of offset hues radiating away from his head, like a saintly halo. The light is mostly focussed in the middle of the composition. The margins are darker, and the periphery is positively dark. The contrast is symbolic. Copernicus is about to have a personal Fiat lux – Let there be light! moment.

As with other paintings, the master used his family, in this case his nephew, Antoni Serafiński, as a model.

Copernicus is an outlier. Matejko usually paints large group scenes; individual scenes like this one are an exception for him.

Painting of Copernicus, Matejko’s self-caricature drawing – (1872).

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