8 Christmassy Paintings from Poland
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Culture.pl takes a look at how Polish artists have captured in paint the spirit of Christmas, presenting some of the holidays’ significant traditions like getting a Christmas tree, carolling or sharing a Christmas dinner with your family.
‘Nativity Scene’ by Ewelina Pęksowa
Although nowadays Christmas is mainly associated with present purchasing, food preparations and Santa Claus impersonators it is, in its origin, a holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. This heart-warming depiction on glass of the beginning of Jesus’ life is Szopka (editor’s translation: Nativity Scene) by the Zakopane artist Ewelina Pęksowa.
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She started to paint on glass in 1968. She learned the technique of this art discipline by herself and mastered the folk aesthetic by making copies of old paintings from the Tatra Museum. She became highly skilled in creating primitive and simplified representations reminiscent of the old folk masters. Her paintings are characterised by bold juxtapositions of colours drawn from a rich palette, and varied interpretations of traditional forms based on unrestrained invention.
Quote from www.nagrodakolberg.pl/laureaci-ewelina_peksowa, trans. MK
Szopka, an artwork from 1981, shows the newborn baby Jesus resting in a manger (where he was placed right after birth, according to the Gospel of St. Luke). His parents caringly watch over him, whereas the animals in the lower corners reference the non-scriptural tradition saying that Jesus was born in a stable. The angels in the upper parts complete what is a very fine, folk-art depiction.
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‘Selling Christmas Trees in Kraków’ by Adam Setkowicz
At Christmas time, you simply have to have a Christmas tree. And since few of us keep a potted one that can be used annually, we usually end up purchasing a cut tree from a vendor.
To many, the familiar ritual of getting a Christmas tree is an important part of the building up of the holiday atmosphere. It’s an experience you often want to share with close family members. Securing a particularly beautiful specimen can be a source of pride.
The very Christmassy moment of obtaining a tree was charmingly captured in the watercolour Sprzedaż Choinek w Krakowie (Selling Christmas Trees in Kraków) by Adam Setkowicz.
He was chiefly a realist painter. (…) He was interested in genre painting: landscapes from the Kraków area (…), portraits, allegoric and religious scenes, urban landscapes, (…) still natures. Soon after his studies [at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts], he started a collaboration with Henryk Frist, a Polish Jew from Tarnów, an entrepreneur and publisher. (…) For him he designed numerous postcards, becoming a leader in that field.
From lublin.eu/kultura/wydarzenia/wystawa-adam-setkowicz-kartki-pocztowe,50610,w.html, trans. MK
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The painting at hand is one of Setkowicz’s postcard designs (it’s undated but was probably created around the year 1925). It shows a boy and his mother purchasing a Christmas tree from a vendor whose traditional highlander outfit suggests that he’s a visitor to Kraków from the nearby mountains. In the background, you can see the Wawel Royal Castle.
‘First Star’ by Tadeusz Popiel
After the Christmas tree has been decorated, after all the food has been prepared and the table set up, it’s time for Christmas dinner, which in Poland takes place on 24th December. However, before the meal begins it’s time to… wait.
According to an old Polish tradition, it’s customary to wait for the first star to appear in the sky before sitting down to the Christmas table. This is done to commemorate the Star of Bethlehem, which in the Bible showed the Wise Men the way to the birthplace of Jesus.
An instance of looking for the first star on Christmas is delightfully portrayed in the painting Pierwsza Gwiazdka (First Star) by Tadeusz Popiel.
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Nowadays a somewhat forgotten painter, during his life he enjoyed widespread popularity, acclaim and interest. A pupil and admirer of Jan Matejko, he studied at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts. (…) He created chiefly religious and historical paintings but he also authored genre scenes, portraits and landscapes. He collaborated with Wojciech Kossak and Jan Styka on the ‘Racławice Panorama’.
In Pierwsza Gwiazdka (created in ca. 1900), you can see a Polish gentleman dressed in old-school winter clothes, leaning on the fence of his countryside property and looking at the single starlet flickering in the left hand side of the painting. With the tradition observed, it’s time for dinner.
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‘Christmas’ by Bronisława Rychter-Janowska
In Poland, Christmas Eve dinner is possibly the most important part of the Christmas holidays. This festive meal often includes a wide array of traditional, non-meat dishes like mushroom soup or Polish-style zander, and is celebrated with family members and close friends. Apart from being an occasion to eat plenty of delicious foods, it’s also a time when people wish one another all the best for the upcoming year. Typically around the time of Christmas dinner (afterwards, or between courses) people unwrap their gifts. These are traditionally placed below the Christmas tree before the meal starts.
A splendid portrayal of a Polish Christmas dinner can be found in the undated painting Boże Narodzenie (Christmas) by Bronisława Rychter-Janowska, a painter best remembered for her depictions of Polish manors.
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Those paintings by Rychter-Janowska which were reproduced on festive postcards published on the occasion of Easter and Christmas holidays were especially valued because the artist, like none other, could convey the magic and atmosphere of these holidays, so important to Poles. The ambience and mood accompanying the holidays simply emanate from her cards.
From Bogdan Podgórski’s book ‘W Poszukiwaniu Piękna: Bronisława Rychter-Janowska 1868–1953’, trans. MK
The aforementioned Christmas paintings, but also Boże Narodzenie, were published as postcards in the Interwar period. In this example, you can see a family at a Polish manor, sharing their Christmas dinner as their Christmas presents lie beneath the tree waiting to be opened.
‘To the Shepherds’ Mass’ by Juliusz Słabiak
After Christmas dinner, many religious Poles decide to go to church to participate in a special late-night mass called pasterka. The name of this highly traditional service, held usually around midnight, translates as ‘shepherd’s mass’, which points to its special meaning.
According to the Gospel of St. Luke, the first ones to acknowledge the newborn Saviour were shepherds from the Bethlehem area who visited him on the day of his birth. By participating in a pasterka, which takes place at midnight or at the very beginning of Christmas Day (the day believed to be Jesus’ birthday), you’re showing you’re as eager to meet Jesus as the biblical shepherds.
People flocking to a shepherd’s mass is what’s skilfully shown in the undated painting Na Pasterkę (To the Shepherds’ Mass) by Juliusz Słabiak (1917-1973).
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A Kraków painter. He studied painting under Wojciech Kossak and was influenced strongly by his style. (…) A large portion of his oeuvre is composed of genre scenes from villages near Kraków. Słabiak was keen to paint peasant farms, wooden churches, wagons with riders, Kraków weddings and also city flower vendors.
From desa.art.pl/index.php?pozycja=3572&language=en, trans. MK
In Na Pasterkę you can see a wooden church in what’s probably a village near Kraków, and a number of believers. One can assume the painting shows a scene from a long time ago as the depicted people travel by sleigh, a rather antiquated means of transportation.
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‘Highlander Nativity Scene’ by Władysław Skoczylas
During the Christmas holidays, its customary to set up nativity scenes or religious installations that use model figurines (of Joseph, Mary, the Wise Men and so on) as well as props to show the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. This tradition dates back to mediaeval times and is observed throughout Poland in churches as well as in public spaces.
On certain occasions, a ‘live’ nativity scene is created, in which instead of models, living people represent the various characters from the story of Jesus’ birth. A live nativity scene such as this can be seen in the intriguing watercolour Szopka Góralska (Highlander Nativity Scene) created around the year 1910 by the painter and woodcut artist Władysław Skoczylas.
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Considered the father of contemporary Polish woodcut art, he was also a master watercolour painter. He exhibited alongside formist painters. (…) In the years 1922-34, he was the head of the Department of Artistic Graphics at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts and from 1932 he was a professor at that school. In his art he often referenced folklore, especially the highlander kind.
From desa.pl/pl/artysci/wladyslaw-skoczylas, trans. MK
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In Szopka Góralska, you can see a number of highlanders marching to see a live nativity scene including impersonators of the Wise Men as well as music-playing shepherds. Interestingly, the shepherds are wearing traditional highlander clothes rather than middle-eastern ones, which highlights the scene’s folkloristic character.
‘Dressing Up: Reherseal’ by Vlastimil Hofman
Similar to the tradition of the live nativity scene is the Christmas custom of staging theatrical performances about the birth of Jesus, called jasełka. These performances, which are of folk origin and – like nativity scenes – date back to the Middle Ages, typically appear from the second day of Christmas to the first days of the new year.
Jasełka include familiar Christmas characters like Mary, Joseph or angels, but also characters that don’t appear in the scriptural story of Jesus’ birth, but are ingrained in folk imagination, like devils or a scythe-bearing Death. The performances are put on by kids or grown-ups, in various places like schools, churches and public spaces.
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A troupe of youngsters getting ready for a jasełka performance is shown with great skill in the 1936 painting Przebieranka: Próba (Dressing Up: Reherseal) by Vlatimil Hofman.
He studied at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts, first under Florian Cynk, later also under Jan Stanisławski, Leon Wyczółkowski and Jacek Malczewski. (…) Hofman painted chiefly fantastic-symbolic compositions using folk motifs, genre scenes, portraits and landscapes. His paintings, although marked by ties and analogies to Malczewski’s art, always exhibit an individual character, style and ambience.
From sztuka.agraart.pl/licytacja/343/22723, trans. MK
The painting shows juvenile actors dressed up as what appears to be the Wise Men, a shepherd and a farm animal. The girl in the lower left corner seems to be the sole spectator of their rehearsal.
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‘Carollers’ by Zofia Stryjeńska
As well as jasełka, it’s customary in Poland for groups of carollers to go from house to house and sing special carols wishing good luck. Like jasełka and live nativity scenes, this folk tradition (which is fading nowadays) also dates back to mediaeval times and involves dressing up. Carollers dress up as animals, shepherds, chimneysweeps, policemen and other things.
In return for their songs, the carollers typically expect treats from the hosts of the houses they visit: delicacies or small sums of money. Like in trick or treating on Halloween, if the carollers are denied any reward for their efforts, they might pull a prank on the hosts – the chimneysweep might smear them with soot, for example!
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A group of wandering carollers was beautifully portrayed in the painting Kolędnicy (Carollers) by Zofia Stryjeńska.
She created painting decorations on architecture, polychromies, illustrations, scenic designs (…) and industrial designs (designs of kilims and toys). She devised her own unique style in decoratively stylised, colourful, dynamic and temperamental paintings: watercolours, gouaches and temperas. In them she referenced legends, beliefs, history and folk customs.
From: sztuka.agraart.pl/autor/licytacje/262/zofia-stryjenska, trans. MK
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In Kolędnicy, whose date of creation is hard to establish, you can see three carollers travelling through the snow-clad Polish countryside. Though none of them is dressed up, one of them carries a decorative star – a traditional attribute of carollers in Poland. And almost certainly, just like Culture.pl, this merry party of carollers wishes you all the best for Christmas and the New Year.
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Written by Marek Kępa, Dec 2019