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Polish History in Images [PART 1]


Mikołaj Gliński
Jan Matejko, Rejtan - the Fall of Poland; collection of Royal Castle in Warsaw
Fragment of the painting Rejtan - the Fall of Poland by Jan Matejko, 1866, source: CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Polish history can be complicated, sometimes making it really difficult to tell what's really going on in these pictures. Here's the first part of our visual guide to Polish history – learn what's actually happening in these images from times immemorial to Finis Poloniae.

Battle of Legnitz (1241)

The Battle of Legnitz, represented in the Medieval Vita beatae Hedwigis, in the collection of Paul Getty Museum, photo under the Getty's Open Content Program / www.getty.edu
The Battle of Legnitz, as represented in the Medieval Vita Beatae Hedwigis (1353), in the collection of Paul Getty Museum, photo under the Getty's Open Content Program / www.getty.edu

In 1241, following the invasion of Kievan Rus', the Mongol (or Tartar) forces embarked on a military excursion into Hungary and Poland. In March 1241 they seized Kraków, and on April 9th, 1241 they met at Leignitz with the Polish forces under the command of Silesian Duke Henry the Pious. The battle was a great victory for the light-horsed Mongol forces, however, immediately after the battle the Mongols withdrew, and in 1242 the entire army returned to Kievan Rus'.

The first of the illustrations (above) shows the beginning of the battle with enemy troops still in battle order. The second one (below) shows the next stage of the battle and the death of Duke Henry the Pious. It was characteristic of Medieval artists to include in one and the same painting elements that are not consistent with the work's main subject, and which may have happened at a different place or time. In the image below, one can discern the figure of Duke Henry the Pious (wearing a blue coat and with a black Silesian eagle on the shield and the helmet) being killed by one of the enemy knights, still we can follow some of the later developments: his body, decapitated and stripped of armour, can be spotted in the bottom left corner, while his soul along with the souls of other knights is taken to heaven by two angels holding a white sheet (top right corner). 
 

The second illustration of the battle from the Vita Beatae Hedwigis shows the death of Duke Henry the Pious, in the collection of Paul Getty Museum, photo under the Getty's Open Content Program / www.getty.edu

Casimir and Esther

Władysław Łuszkiewicz, Casimir the Great Visiting Esther, from the collection Lviv National Art Gallery
Władysław Łuszkiewicz, Casimir the Great Visiting Esther, from the collection of Lviv National Art Gallery; Source: CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Esterka (Esterke in Yiddish) was the semi-legendary Jewish mistress of Polish king Casimir the Great. Their romantic relationship became one of the great themes of Yiddish literature in Poland as it reflected a happy symbiosis of Polish and Jewish populations (according to some versions the couple even had children). While it is not certain whether Esterke was a real person, the story also reflects the real positive attitude of the Polish king to Jewish communities in Poland, which resulted in many privileges.

The story was variously placed in different Polish towns, but the one that arguably gained most popularity was the one set in Kazimierz (Yiddish Kuzmir) – a small town on the Vistula river, famous for its prosperous Jewish community. The picturesque, hilly landscape in the painting suggests Kazimierz as the locale of this scene.    

Jadwiga - the King of Poland (1384-1399)

Wojciech Gerson, Dymitr of Goray and Jadwiga, source
Wojciech Gerson, Dymitr of Goray and Jadwiga, source:  CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons - www.pinakoteka.zascianek.pl

If you're not quite sure what's going on in this painting, don't be alarmed – it really isn't obvious. The lady is holding an axe but she's not about to use it against the old fellow. And what looks like a wall behind him is actually a door, the man is simply attempting to prevent the lady from going through it (yes, he has the keys). Behind the door, presumably, is William, the Duke of Austria with whom the lady had fallen in love at first sight. At least that's what they say.

The legend has it that Jadwiga (Hedwig) subsequently sacrificed her true love and prudently married the Lithuanian king Ladislaus Yogaila, which resulted in establishing one of the most powerful dynasties in Europe; The Jagiellonian dynasty were to rule one of the biggest empires in Europe merging the lands of two big countries: Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Part of the legend is that the prudence of Jadwiga had to be reinforced by Dymitr of Goray, a wealthy magnate at the Polish court and a mentor to Jadwiga, barring the door so that the young lady wouldn't elope with the handsome Wilhelm. Jadwiga went on to become the King of Poland (yes, not queen – the king, Rex!) – she remains the only Polish female king, reigning from 1384 until her death in 1399.

Battle of Grunwald (known also as the First Battle of Tannenberg or the Battle of Žalgiris) (1410)

Jan Matejko, Battle of Grunwald / Bitwa pod Grunwaldem, 1878, oil on canvas, 426 x 987 cm, From the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw (MNW), photo: courtesy of MNW
Jan Matejko, Battle of Grunwald / Bitwa pod Grunwaldem, 1878, oil on canvas, 426 x 987 cm, From the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw (MNW), photo: courtesy of MNW

One of the most famous battles in Polish history and one of the most widely recognized paintings in Polish art history. The battle in which the joint army of Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthenians and Tatars under the command of King Ladislaus Yogaila defeated the army of the Teutonic Order, shifted the balance of power in Eastern Europe and paved the way for the future rise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The painting comes from Poland’s most prominent historicist painter and a great interpreter of Polish history Jan Matejko. His Battle of Grunwald is notorious for its huge size: the canvas measures 426 × 987 cm. Note the ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Vytautas the Great in the centre (Polish king Ladislaus Yogaila can be discerned in the right top corner), enjoy the fatal attack on the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order Ulrich von Jungingen, deployed by two peasant soldiers dressed in leather (from Samogitia?), one of them wearing a hangman's headgear and axe, a suggestion that this is an act of justice.

Characters and events in Jan Matejko's Battle of Grunwald explained, at last. Read more about: The Battle of Grunwald Explained

Stańczyk (1514)

Jan Matejko, Stańczyk, oil on canvass, 88 × 120 cm, courtesy of National Museum in Warsaw
Jan Matejko, Stańczyk, oil on canvass, 88 × 120 cm, courtesy of the National Museum in Warsaw

Painted by Jan Matejko in 1862, Stańczyk is probably the most widely recognized symbolic representative of Polish history. The central figure of the painting refers to a real person, Stańczyk (b. 1480, d. 1560) – the fabulously sharp-witted and far-sighted jester at the court of Polish kings. His deep melancholy is a reaction on the news of Smolensk having been captured by Moscovite Russia, which took place in July 1514 (see the date on the letter on the table), an event that would become to symbolize the beginning of the growing power of Russia in the east, a process that would eventually bring the end of the Polish-Lithuanian state centuries later. Stańczyk's grave mood and concern for the future of the country is in stark contrast to the cheerful atmosphere of the ball at the royal court, seen behind the door.

Who was Matejko? The Pope of Polish art? An illustrator and chronicler of historic events? Or was... Read more about: Was Matejko A Painter?

Battle of Orsha

Anonymous painter, Battle of Orsha
Anonymous painter, Battle of Orsha; source: CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia

Stańczyk's reaction was justified, capturing Smolensk by the Moscovite Russia did bring a reaction from Polish and Lithuanian forces.  The battle of Orsha (today: Belarus) was fought only a couple months after the seizure of Smolensk. Although ending in victory for the united Polish-Lithuanian forces, the battle did not lead to re-capturing Smolensk (this happened only some 100 years later and only lasted for a short time).

The painting by the anonymous artist is remarkable for its use of Medieval ‘continuous’ narration, presenting many episodes taking place at different times. This is why some figures appear several times; note that the painting should be read from right to left, and from top to the bottom.

Union of Lublin (1569)

Jan Matejko, Union of Lublin
Jan Matejko, Union of Lublin, National Museum in Lublin; source: CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia 

Wars with Muscovite Russia consolidated Polish and Lithuanian military and political co-operation. In 1569, in Lublin the two countries signed the union which effectively created a new multiethnic state, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Matejko's Union of Lublin was painted on the 300th anniversary of the Union in 1869. The central figure holding a crucifix in his right hand is Polish king Sigismund I August, the kneeling man with the sword is the great hetman of Lithuania Mikołaj Radziwiłł, an ardent opponent of the Union, and the only senator to not have signed the document of Union.

Poles in Moscow (1610-1612)

Ernest Lissner, The Poles surrender the Moscow Kremlin to Prince Pozharsky in 1612; source: Wikimedia/ http://lj.rossia.org/users/john_petrov/258095.html?mode=reply. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lissner.jpg#/media/File:Lissner.jpg
Ernest Lissner, The Poles surrender the Moscow Kremlin to Prince Pozharsky in 1612; source: CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia

On 9th October, 1610, Polish troops entered Moscow – part of the events known in Polish history as the Dmitriads, and in Russian as the Polish Invasion or Polish Intervention. Moscow was occupied by Polish troops until 1612, when the Poles surrendered the Kremlin to Prince Pozharsky. In Russia, this moment is considered the end of the long period of inner turmoil called 'The Time of Troubles'. Since 2005, this event has been commemorated on Russia’s National Unity day on 4th November.

Battle at Khotyn (Chocim) (1621)

Józef Brandt, Battle of Chocim (Khotyn), source: National Museum in Warsaw
Józef Brandt, Battle of Chocim (Khotyn), source: National Museum in Warsaw; source: CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the Polish-Lithunanian Commonwealth waged a series of wars with the Ottoman empire. During this time Polish elites liked to think of themselves as the defenders of the frontiers of Christian Europe, Poland as the antemurale Christianitatis (that is, the Bulwark of Christianity).

The border town of Chocim (Khotyn) in Podolya was the venue of at least two big battles, this painting by Józef Brandt depicts the one in 1621. By around this time Polish Commonwealth had reached its greatest size with some 990,000 km² and a population of 11–12 million people.

Battle of Vienna (1683)

Pauwel Casteels, Battle of Vienna, digitised by Google Art Project; source: Museum of Jan II's Palace in Wilanów
Pauwel Casteels, Battle of Vienna, digitised by Google Art Project; source: Museum of Jan II's Palace in Wilanów; source: CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia

Fought on September 12th, 1683 the battle of Vienna followed a 2-month-long siege of the city by Ottoman troops. The battle was won by the combined forces of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, under the overall command of Polish king Jan III Sobieski, who had led the Polish forces all the way from Poland.

The Battle of Vienna has been seen as a turning point in history, after which the Ottoman Turks ceased to be a real menace to the Christian world. The battle is also noted for including the largest known cavalry charge in history.

First Partition (1773)

Jan Matejko, Rejtan - the Fall of Poland, 1866, source: Wikimedia
Jan Matejko, Rejtan - the Fall of Poland, 1866, source: source: CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia

Yet another painting by Matejko. It depicts a scene that supposedly took place at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, where, on April 21st, 1773 the Sejm declared the legalization of the first partition of Poland. The central figure of the painting – seen on the right – is Tadeusz Rejtan, one of the deputees for the Sejm, Reytan was unsuccessfully attempting to prevent this disgraceful fact from taking place by preventing the members of Sejm from leaving the chamber.

3 May Constitution (1791)

Jean Pierre Norblin de la Gourdaine: Zaprzysiężenie Konstytucji 3 Maja, 1791. source: National Library
Jean Pierre Norblin de la Gourdaine: Signing of the 3 May Constitution, 1791. source: National Library

Adopted in 1791, the 3 May Constitution is often considered the first modern constitution in Europe, it was also world's second-oldest codified national constitution after the 1789 US Constitution. Irish statesman Edmund Burke described it as "the noblest benefit received by any nation at any time"...

The Constitution attempted reforms that would clamp down on the prevailing flawed system of Polish democracy, with Golden Freedoms of the nobles and the anarchy fostered by the country's magnates. Despite its modern character, it turned out too little and too late. The two further partitions which followed in 1793 and 1795 terminated the existence of Poland. This was a huge shock and trauma for the Polish elites, and was often referred to as the Finis Poloniae. In fact, Poland disappeared from the map of Europe for 123 years.

Author: Mikołaj Gliński, June 15, 2015

The second part of our visual guide to Polish history spans the time when Poland was not on the map... Read more about: Polish History in Images [PART 2]

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Category: 
Photography & Visual Arts