Maciej Sieńczyk’s New Graphic Illustrations of Old Polish Legends
For the 1050th anniversary of the Baptism of Poland, Maciej Sieńczyk created a series of illustrations that capture the atmosphere of the Middle Ages and recall events from the era – both real and imagined.
Of the project, Sieńczyk comments:
I was approached and asked to create a series of drawings on the anniversary of the baptism. The drawings were not only to relay historical events, but also to draw inspiration from the legends and myths of Poland. They offer variations on the ancient and obscure stories of our culture. At the same time, I wanted them to be spectacular – to, through comic form and dramatic content, encourage young people to take an interest in the history of our country. Because I did not remember all the details from my lessons on the lives of the saints and the fate of Popiel, I looked to the internet, where I gathered a wealth of – often incomplete and contradictory – information that I have used in conceiving my drawings.
Blindness of Mieszko I
The first heir to his family name, Mieszko was blind for the first seven years of his life. During the celebration of his seventh birthday, Mieszko miraculously gained his vision and was able to recognize those who he had never seen before. Filled with joy, Mieszko’s father, Duke Siemomysł, questioned his respected guests as to whether his son’s blindness and newly gained sight might be a miraculous sign. Gallus Anonymous – the first historian of Poland – describes the scene;
So they explained that the blindness meant that Poland before had acted as if blind but from now on-they prophesied it-was to be enlightened by Mieszko and elevated above neighbouring nations. And indeed that was the case, although at that time it could have been understood differently. Indeed Poland had been blind before, knowing neither the reverence of true God, nor any principles of faith, but through the miraculously enlightened Mieszko, it also became enlightened, because when he accepted the faith, the Polish nation was saved from death in paganism. For in a proper order Almighty God first restored to Mieszko his bodily eyesight, and then provided him with spiritual eyesight, so that through the knowledge of visible things he came to know the invisible ones and so that through the knowledge of the things created he could grasp with his eyesight the omnipotence of their creator.
In 966 Mieszko was baptized and brought Christianity to Poland.
In the series, this was Sieńczyk’s favourite illustration:
Working on this panel representing the young blind Mieszko and his miraculous healing gave me the most pleasure – perhaps because it was the last work I completed. As with all of the events and legends, it was difficult to fully understand the details of the story. In the end, I selected elements from a thicket of imprecise and conflicting information.
Holy Wojciech’s murder by the Prussians
Wojciech was born in 956 – ten years before the baptism of Mieszko I. As a child, Wojciech was baptized by his parents, who feared their young son might be lost to childhood illness. In Magdeburg he studied under the local archbishop, Adalbert. When Adalbert died in 981, Wojciech returned to Prague and found himself under the first bishop of that city, Dietmar.
At the insistence of Emperor Otto III, in agreement with Bolesław I the Brave, in 996 Wojciech travelled to Poland to undertake a mission among the pagan Prussians. Wojciech and his companions in the faith were not welcomed and met their violent end at the hands of a pagan priest and his faithful, who beat the group to death with oars in 997. Wojciech’s severed head was mounted on a pike and paraded through town, while his body was ransomed for its weight in gold. The remains were brought to Gniezno and Wojciech was canonized Adalbert two years later by Pope Sylvester II at the request of Emperor Otto III.
The famous Congress of Gniezno in 1000 – which included a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Adalbert – saw the announcement of the creation of the Metropolitan See of Gniezno with subordinate bishoprics in Wrocław, Kraków, and Kolobrzeg. Emperor Otto III left Gniezno with the relics of the saint – which were distributed to Aachen and Rome. The cult of the saint quickly spread to many countries in Europe – he is considered the patron saint of Bohemia, Prussia, and sometimes Hungary. In iconography, he is represented with an eagle, the pallium, and the paddle and pike with which he was killed.
Of this brutal scene, Sieńczyk commented:
I designed this illustration of St. Wojciech in the likeness of an ancient carpet, with the axis defined by the pike bearing Wojciech’s head and the surrounding planes decorated with depictions of the actions that led to this tragic end. This was the first piece I worked on for the series and it proved to be the most work because it required me to illustrate the large number of Prussians lying in wait for missionaries.
How Evil Popiel was eaten by mice
In Kruszwicki Castle lived old Popiel
Who for his crimes suffered just punishment
And although it’s strange, everyone believes
That little mice ate the king in his tower.
Long ago, King Popiel and his wife Gerda ruled from their stronghold at Kruszwicza. They were merciless and cruel in their quest for power. The proud rules turned cold hearts to their subjects and deaf ears to the King’s council of elders – upon which sat his uncles. Prodded by Gerda, Popiel hatched a plan to consolidate his power and consulted an oracle about his fortunes in the future.
King, your power is great, you are cunning and have strong weapons, but more powerful than you are mice. Sir, beware of the mice!
Popiel and Gerda dismissed the prophecy as the ravings of an old man. Why should the king – master of men, hunter of wild beasts – be afraid of a little mouse? Now sure nothing could stand in their way, the two proceed with their evil plan and invited Popiel’s uncles to dinner at the castle. Pleased with the couple’s unexpected hospitality, the uncles accepted food and drink, not knowing the honey wine served them had been laced with poison. As the fatal toxin took hold, the dying men cursed their hosts,
Treason! Poisoned by our nephew! Vengeance on the murderer!
Curse you! Let your death be more terrible than ours!
With the death of his uncles, Popiel was convinced of his absolute power and he became even crueller – exacting harsh punishments and demanding great sacrifices from his people. Though his subjects suspected foul play in the disappearance of the king’s council, none were brave enough to challenge Popiel and it seemed his crimes would go unpunished.
That is, until a mouse appeared in the castle. And then two more…and more…until it seemed they were multiplying exponentially. As Popiel realized what was happening, fear gripped his heart. His uncles’ curses had been fulfilled and his prophesied fate was coming to pass. In a frenzied effort to save their lives, Popiel and Gerda rowed across the lake to a tower. Locking the iron door behind them, Popiel and Gerda breathed a sigh of relief, believing they were safe.
But the evil pair could not outrun their fate. Looking down, they saw a swarm of mice crossing the lake. After chewing through the walls of the fortress, the mice descended upon the king and queen. When the mice were finished, all that remained was the crown of the fallen royal – which rolled down the stairs of the tower, the only sound in the otherwise silent night.
As winter descended on Kruszwicza, the area was engulfed in clam. The townspeople, accustomed to living in fear, did not know what to make of the silence from their tyrannical rulers. It was not until a lone scout rode to the tower that the news of the king’s fate spread through the town.
The King is no more! All that remains in the tower is a lone mouse! This crown is all that is left of Popiel!
And so wickedness was punished by the meekest of creatures.
This story is one Sieńczyk remembers from his youth:
I read comics about Popiel as a child and so I reached for this legend almost instinctively. In my work, I tried to showcase, in a decorative way, the wounds on Popiel and his wife from the mice biting into their flesh.
Source: Teresa Brauer
Legend of the Wawel Dragon
The legend of the Wawel dragon was first recorded at the end of the 12th century by Wincenty Kadłubek. In his version of the legend, King Krak summoned his two sons and told them to kill the dragon that lived beneath the castle hill. Through this task they were to prove their courage and suitability to inherit the throne. Krak’s sons first attempted to face the dragon head on, but soon resorted to subterfuge to slay the fiery monster. After stuffing the innards of a cow with sulphur, they left the corpse as an offering to the dragon. Taking the bait, the Wawel dragon consumed the incendiary snack whole – and was killed when it burst into flames in his stomach.
Jan Długosz cites an amended version of Kudłubka’s tale in his Polish Histories . He suggests that Kraków had been built by Krak (here called Grak). The city was, from time to time, attacked by a dragon living in a cave on Wawel Hill. Initially, in order to live in peace with the monster, Krak presented a daily offering of three cows. He feared, however, that after his death, the city would be destroyed by the greedy beast and decided to kill him using the same explosive trick described in the earlier tale.
Stories of the Wawel dragon have continued to be told and reimagined – and to this day, visitors to Wawel Hill can descend through the subterranean tunnels of the dragon’s cave and emerge to find the fire-breathing beast on the banks of the Wisła.
Commenting on the popularity of this legend, Sieńczyk notes:
The legend of the Wawel Dragon is also widely known. My illustration of the killing of the dragon a somewhat styled to reflect the design in Poland under communism. When drawing the dragon stuffed with sulphur, I referred to an old German encyclopaedia. Like the others, this story has several versions. In some the dragon is killed by a poor shoemaker, in others, by the king’s sons. After a brief hesitation, I decided to depict the version with the king’s son, mostly because I had a hard time drawing the poor shoemaker.
Author of comic books, draughtsman, and illustrator, Maciej Sieńczyk studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. His illustrations can be found in such magazines as Newsweek, Przekrój, Wysokie Obcasy and lately also in the online Dwutygodnik.
Since the beginning of his career Sieńczyk has been affiliated with two organizations: Lampa i Iskra Boża, a publishing house run by Paweł Dunin-Wąsowicz, and Raster, a gallery run by Michał Kaczyński and Łukasz Gorczyca, who used to publish periodical under the same name.
Sieńczyk illustrated Dorota Masłowska’s books (Snow White, Russian Red, Queen's Spew, A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians) for Wąsowicz, and his comic strips have also been featured in the literary monthly Lampa. The artist’s “somewhat troublesome objects” (a lock of hair and a ball) and his original comic book boards were sold by Raster at the Cheap Art Fair, which the gallery organized.
Lampa i Iskra Boża has published three comic book albums by Sieńczyk: Hydriola in 2005, Wrzątkun (Boiling Boy) in 2009 and Przygody na bezludnej wyspie (Adventures on a Desert Island) in 2012. These publications are chiefly collections of comic strips that had appeared in Lampa.
Ed. az, 7.07.2016
Translated and edited by A. Aniskiewicz, 11 July 2016