7 Cool Depictions of the Warsaw Mermaid
#photography & visual arts
no-image, 7 Cool Depictions of the Warsaw Mermaid
The Mermaid is a mythological creature which is the symbol of the city of Warsaw. In this article, we won't go into the various legends about how the Mermaid emerged from the Wisła river and became part of the city's folklore. Instead, we take a look at some of the most intriguing depictions of Warsaw's heroin: from the earliest known Polish Mermaid image from the year 1400, an Art Deco one designed by Stefan Norblin, to a mural by Pablo Picasso himself.
mermaid of warsaw
Warsaw’s coat of arms
Before we get into the different renditions of the Warsaw Mermaid, let us take a look at its canonic form designed by the painter Feliks Szczęsny Kwarta. The image has been Warsaw’s coat of arms since 1938 (with a hiatus during the communist regime) when it won a competition for the honourable position. Apart from being graceful and elegant, the design also shows what makes this Warsaw's mermaid, not just any mermaid: she holds a sword and a shield – her indispensable attributes. The crest has the Royal Crown atop of it, a sign that Warsaw was once the seat of Polish monarchs.
Before the Warsaw Mermaid looked like it does today, it was really quite different. Originally, it was a dragonish, bird-like creature whose wings made it somewhat similar to its progenitor from ancient Greek mythology, where Sirens were half-bird and half-woman. The exact origins of the early form of the Mermaid are unknown, but it could have been created as a mash-up of the coats of arms of other administrative units with ties to Warsaw, such as the Dragon of Czersk and the Gryphon of Bełz. The first known depiction of the Mermaid as an official city symbol is a seal on a document published by the city council in the year 1400.
The fish-tailed woman's shape of the Warsaw Mermaid was declared an official symbol in the 18th century. Since then, it has appeared in countless variations and contexts e.g. in documents, maps and postcards. The one above is a depiction that adorns a map made in the late 19th or early 20th century for the waterworks constructed in Warsaw under the supervision of the British engineers William Lindley and his son William Heerlein. Take heed of the nifty masonic symbols: the compass and the triangle.
Stefan Norblin’s Mermaid
This is the Warsaw Mermaid as envisioned by one of Poland's leading Art Deco artists Stefan Norblin. The piece was submitted into a competition for the official city seal with Warsaw's coat of arms in 1915, where it won first prize, but in the end was not chosen to be the emblem due to its sophistication and detail, which proved to be a bit too much for bureaucratic use. Nevertheless, this rendition is nice to look at and points to the diversity of its creator, known chiefly for his paintings and posters but also valued for his set designs, costumes and furniture.
This one comes from the Polish-Soviet war in the years 1919–1921. Even though this portrayal of the Warsaw Mermaid was made for propaganda purposes – to help the war effort, it is a splendid drawing whose value outlived its immediate purpose (which it likely helped with!). After all, the defence of Warsaw against the Bolsheviks was spectacularly won by Polish forces. This dynamic composition by Władysław Skoczylas shows the Warsaw Mermaid in her original, dragon-like form, making good on her legendary promise to help Varsovians in times of need. Using her sword and shield she fights against a hydra, another mythological creature, in this case, an embodiment of the invading Soviets.
In 1900, the periodical Tygodnik Ilustrowany published an article featuring depictions of Warsaw’s coat of arms as a decorative motif, made by the painter and draughtsman Marian Warzeniecki. The human body seen as an integral part of mankind’s spirituality was a central theme in his work, he was also known to use symbolism often. In these portrayals of the Mermaid, he gave her tail unusual twists – instead of a regular fishtail, it is made up of intertwining and tapering legs.
Pablo Picasso’s mural
During Pablo Picasso’s 1948 trip to Warsaw, he visited an apartment at 48 Deotymy Street in an almost completed housing complex designed by his friends, Helena and Szymon Syrkus. There he made a large charcoal drawing on one of the walls (approximately 180 cm tall) depicting the Warsaw Mermaid with a hammer instead of a sword. It quickly became famous – and, at the same time, a major nuisance for the tenants who moved in shortly after its creation. They had to tolerate constant visits from people longing to see Picasso's Mermaid (sometimes over a hundred a day!). Eventually, though, they convinced the authorities to let them paint over it and that's how it ceased to exist in 1953.
Author: Marek Kępa, Mar 2017