Poland the Woman: How the Polonia Allegory Weaved Her Way into Art History
Poland has often been portrayed as a woman in visual arts. Reigning, chained, crucified, sleeping, triumphant... Polonia seems to come in many forms. Culture.pl takes a look at the evolving concept of Poland's personification across the centuries.
When was the first Polonia painted and how did she originate? Can Polonia be a man? Why is Polonia so different from other national allegories? Why do some Polonias look like the Holy Mary? And why is she sometimes being crucified? Read on to find out...
The first Polonia
The earliest known Polish appearance of Polonia comes up in the the work Zwierzyniec (1562) by the Renaissance writer Mikołaj Rej. One of the illustrations shows Polish Commonwealth represented as a weeping mother bemoaning her plight. The lamentation of the sorrowful mother was a symbolical representation of Poland, which as the free republic was contrasted against private interests. Like some other Polonias of the day, this representation goes back to a literary source, namely the Chronicles of Gallus Anonymous, where in one of the chapters Poland is depicted as a mother weeping after the death of her son King Bolesław I The Brave.
During this early modern period, the allegorical Polonia, along with the image of the white eagle and portraits of kings and dukes, was the most effective way of conveying the idea and authority of the Polish state. As such, the figure appears on the front pages of several books, like Simon Starowolski’s 1632 book Polonia (see image), a book dedicated to refuting some of the stereotypes about Poland that were common at the time. There, Poland is shown with a hat in hand (a hat being a symbol of freedom), while the figures of Polish nobles can be seen in the background as beneficiaries of the beaming freedom. Another work Orbis Polonus (1642) shows the reigning Polonia, with regalia lying in front of her, surrounded by members of the nobility, and with the Polish white eagle hovering above her (see image on top).
But it was another Polonia that became the most emblematic image of the early modern Polish state. It comes up on the front page of the work Quincunx by Stanisław Orzechowski. Published in Kraków in 1564, this political treatise written in the form of a dialogue between a Protestant, a Catholic and Orzechowski himself, was an expression of Orzechowski’s theocratic vision of a perfect state. And so is the image found on its front cover.
It shows the personification of Poland standing on the shoulders of a pope (Pius IV) and a king (Sigismund Augustus). According to Orzechowski, who himself was a priest, it was Catholicism that founded Polish state, and thus the inseparable relation of church and state was the basis of the Polish kingdom. Another image from the same book, presenting the geometrical pattern of a quincunx, clarifies Orzechowski’s concept of state: the four angles of the square are formed by an altar, faith, the King and the Pope, with the Church standing above them all.
According to one scholar, by associating the image with the iconography of Ecclesia and Madonna, Orzechowski’s personification reflected his belief that the Polish kingdom was encapsulated within the mystical Corpus Christi. Still, this Polonia was not an expression of the notion of the nation as sacrifice, nor was it a ‘sacralisation’ of the image of Poland, which came along only with the 19th century.
Not only a woman... Enter Polonus
And yet throughout all this period, Poland could also take other shapes than that of a fair-haired lady. The traditional topoi, popular both in poetry and visual arts, included those of a garden, nave or an admirable but imposing edifice (compare the painted plafond in the Dutch Study of the Wilanów Palace), as symbols of the Polish state.
Another way to represent Poland, popular on the pages of historical chronicles and allegorical compositions, were portraits of kings and dukes. They were meant to symbolise the highest authority, with the king becoming the personification of the state itself, while at the same time they also worked to glorify the ruling dynasty.
A bit different is the case of Paul Decker’s copperplate engravings from Laconicum Europae Speculum (1737). The book contained representations of ten European nations represented by monarchs shown seated on thrones, along with personifications, symbols and ancient maxims characteristic of a given nation. It was noted by scholars, that Polonus has the face of a Polish king from the Saxon dynasty: Augustus II. Note the national emblems of an eagle and Pahonia (Lithuania) above the royal baldachin, the oriental ‘Polish’ dress and hairstyles of nobles, and that the animal symbol of Poland is a bear.
In fact, the tradition which sought to represent the Polish state through the figure of the ruling monarch was a popular one all the way through, as long as the Polish Commonwealth existed. In the late 18th century, Stanislaus August, the last Polish king, became a symbolical representation of much of the perplexing iconography dating back to the partitions era.
Polonia the barbarian
Back to female representations of Poland, one of the most curious allegorical depictions of the country comes up in the second volume of Voyage en Siberie (1768) by Jean Chappe d'Auteroche. The work, otherwise containing ethnographic accounts of Russia, includes a curious drawing by Jean Baptiste Tilliard (based on a drawing by Le Prince), confusingly entitled ‘La France et L’Empire, la Pologne et la Russie’ – a title which certainly demands some explanation.
First, by ‘Empire’ it is meant Russia (second figure from left), while the third figure, dressed in what looks like bear’s skin and holding a bardiche, is Poland. The boy at her feet is Russia Rubra (Ruthenia). The placement and disposition of the figures in the image is quite confounding from a geographical point of view. In portraying Russia and France as two sophisticated ‘civilised’ ladies, the painting certainly reflects more the political or ideological stance of its author, especially as the author of the picture, Le Prince, had never been to Poland. It’s tempting to think that in representing Poland as an uncivilised, somewhat barbarian figure, Le Prince was leaning on early images of the mythological Sarmatia...
The tomb of Poland
The partitioning of Poland by Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary in the late 18th century brought about a major change in how Polonia was represented in the national iconography. The fall of Poland as an independent state resulted in the disappearance of both the country and name Poland from the map of Europe for over a century. In the arts, this unprecedented political setting resulted in new types of symbolical representations. One of the most popular of them was called 'The Tomb of the Fatherland'.
The first painting to use this motif was Michał Stachowicz’s Kościuszko Saving Poland from the Grave. The painting, an allegory of the Kościuszko Uprising, shows a woman Polonia in shackles being led to a grave by men that are interpreted to be the traitors of the fatherland (Targowica). The person in the centre trying to prevent the untimely burial is Tadeusz Kościuszko. His efforts, as we know, turned out futile. The Latin text on the plinth on the left reads Exoriare aliquis nostris de ossibus ultor, which can be translated into English as 'Rise up from my dead bones, avenger'. The idea of an ultimate avenger of the fatherland would stay with Poles for a long time.
For the next century, representing Poland as a grave, tomb, or a woman buried alive, etc, became a kind of ubiquitous visual motif, attested in paintings, newspaper illustrations, satirical political maps and even allegorical drawings on business cards (see Count Brzostowski's business card in the gallery below).
The land of graves & crosses
Poland, as one Polish poet called it following another failed national uprising, became 'the land of graves and crosses'. Appropriately, Polish painting of this period abounded in landscapes with graves, crosses and wayside shrines. All of these, rather than being elements of an authentic landscape, worked as a sort of patriotic signpost – a symbolical memento of what happened to the fatherland and a clear allusion to its contemporary misery. This may be considered an element of the visual secret code of Polish arts, something also present in Polish literature.
Another popular 19th-century allegorical representation of Poland is called 'Polonia in chains' and goes back to a now lost painting by Franciszek Smuglewicz. Painted around 1795, the year of the final partition, the huge canvas showed Polonia dressed all in white, stylised to look like the ancient Vestal Virgin. Again Kościuszko was in the centre – kneeling at her feet, he was making a solemn pledge assisted by representatives of three classes: nobility, townspeople, and peasantry.
In the 19th century, depictions of a chained Polonia gained enormous popularity. But while Polonia shared similarities with other national allegories of the day, like Marianne of France or Germania, it was also strikingly different from any other female ones.
While the French allegory of Freedom (and later France) is usually shown as an active agent of social (and political) transformation, often depicted heroically breaking out of chains (of oppression) and leading people to freedom (equality and brotherhood), the 19th-century female allegory of Poland is conversely most often shown as a passive, subjugated and oppressed woman without much sense of agency.
In a famous drawing by Artur Grottger from 1863, Polonia is shown draped in a black funerary dress with a hood over her face. Seated on a dilapidated throne, she is the inert object of the liberating work of Titan, who is on her right. Significantly, it is him who is wearing a Phrygian cap, a symbol of freedom.
Another variant of the same motif – found in an unfinished painting by Jan Matejko, the Polish master of historical painting – shows Polonia, again in black funerary dress, being shackled following the fall of the January Uprising.
According to the traditional interpretation, the woman in white being separated from Polonia is Ruthenia, while the dead body lying in a pool of blood belongs to Lithuania.
Once again, rather than being depicted as a belligerent, active subject of history, Polonia is shown as a powerless object of others’ activity. According to Polish scholar Waldemar Okoń, the ‘statical’ character of the whole composition is evocative of a ‘time out of time’ as if the figures in the scene were awaiting redemption.
As another Polish scholar noted, in the face of political events, mostly tragic national uprisings, a belligerent figure a la Marianne failed to take root in Polish iconography.
Perhaps the culminating moment in this trend came with the epic painting by Jan Styka called Polonia, Constitution of 3 May 1791. Shown for the first time in Lviv in 1891, the display became a place of pilgrimage from all over the Austrian partition and beyond. This gigantic canvas shows an innocent Polonia chained to a rock in the background, while in front a group of people (mostly men, including Kosciuszko, Mickiewicz, and Abbot Kordecki) gather round the cross to conspire, obviously hoping to save the innocent and inert woman.
Foreigners paint Poland
In the 19th century, foreigners also painted Poland. Most of these allegorical works were painted in the wake of the November Uprising in 1830, whose echoes reverberated strongly across Europe, even all the way across the Atlantic to America. A popular symbol, found in caricatures and drawings from the period, was a dead white eagle. A brown eagle (symbol of Russia) is shown as sirring on the corpse of a Polish officer in the painting Polish Prometheus by Horace Vernet. Another famous caricature produced after the fall of the uprising shows Poland as heaps of dead bodies (see image in the gallery below), with the figure of a Russian gendarme in the foreground. Indeed, order reigned in Warsaw.
Also in the gallery below you'll find a classical woman allegory in the painting by Ary Scheffer, where Poland is being trampled by a Cossack on horseback (note the white eagle under the lady – or is it a vulture?). One of the few depictions of a heroic, belligerent Polonia, much in the fashion of the French Marianne, was produced by Andre Belloguet after the fall of the January Uprising.
Polonia crucified, or was the Virgin Mary Polish?
Back in the country, rather than engaging in dialogue with other national personifications of the day, Polish depictions of Polonia started to look more like... the Virgin Mary. This was partially caused by censorship issues. Simply, the image of Holy Mary did not entail such fierce reactions from the partitioning empires' administrations as Polonia's did. Hence some of these allegorical works can be seen as contaminations of traditional religious iconography of the Mother of God and national patriotic imagery (compare Matejko’s triptych The Queen of the Crown of Poland, 1887, or Chełmoński’s Pod Twoją Opiekę [Under Your Care], 1906)
Another, perhaps the most controversial (and perhaps even blasphemous) case of intertwining Polish patriotic and religious imagery, is the figure of Polonia hanging on the Cross. These images, one of them painted by Artur Grottger, were often reproduced on postcards, and were hugely popular at a time when Poland itself was considered a 'Christ of the Nations'.
One of the popular postcards published circa 1891, shows Jesus and Mary under the cross. Note Kraków’s Wawel Castle in the background. The dates on Jesus’ staff are those of the partitions, while the cloth draped around the cross bears a Polish inscription that says 'The time of redemption has not yet come'. As scholar Genevieve Zubrzycki explains, Poland here is represented as both Jesus and his mother:
Jesus represents the union of the nation and the state, crucified (repeatedly partitioned) but certain to rise again. The pages ripped from the nation’s bible, appearing against the background of Mary’s cloak, mark key (failed) national uprisings. The Virgin appears to represent the nation mourning the loss of statehood; though presently in chains, she will one day be 'free', i.e. regain independence.
All at the same time, Polonia was developing interesting similarities with another key figure from 19th-century Polish culture, namely that of Matka Polka, or the Polish Mother. As Mateusz J. Hartwich notes:
While the figure of Matka Polka and the figure of Polonia don’t have common roots, the historical evolution of both figures brought them closer together so that the mythical and unreal national allegory descended into the domain of social roles traditionally associated with women. It may seem paradoxical that during a whole century of uprisings, the female allegory lacks heroic elements. In place of valkyries, the national iconography produced rivalling models of a soldier-insurgent, who encompassed whole symbolics of [military] combat, and of Matka Polka, who incorporated suffering and a model of femininity.
As Polonia became more ‘domesticated’, and as the Great War loomed nearer, the allegory's traditional role as a belligerent fighter for freedom was more and more taken over by the figure of a soldier. But the allegories of Polonia transcended the end of the 19th century, particularly with the the works of Malczewski and Wyspiański.
Whereas Stanisław Wyspiański could have still doubted the possibility of Poland regaining freedom (in fact, he did not live to see it), and as such his 1894 vision of Polonia still shares the earlier concept of a passive Polonia waiting for redemption (compare also Tetmajer’s Sleeping Polonia), the Polonias of Jacek Malczewski express joy at their regained independence. A triumphant or melancholy Polonia is one of the few recurrent motifs in the symbolic art of Malczewski. In one of these paintings, the personification of the Polish state is pictured as wearing a crown, with a military mantle on her arms.
And again, World War I did not put an end to the ubiquitous use of the motif. The ensuing Polish-Bolshevik war of 1920-1921 once again revived the need for a comabatant personification. But it was the last time Polonia was really popular.
In the 20th century, Polonia seemed to have returned for a short while during Martial Law in 1981-1983, when the motif returned in the paintings of Sobocki and Dwurnik. One of the most recent interpretations of this motif was Franciszek Starowieyski’s Divina Polonia from 1998.
Appearances may seem far less frequent now, but with a such a long and rich history behind her, and being so well-established in people's minds, Polonia will no doubt continues to weave her way back in and out of Polish symbolism for many years to come.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 23 Oct 2017