8 Magical Depictions of Polish Legends
The immensely rich and curious world of Polish legends has been captivating artists for ages. Here we take a look at how eight classic Polish legends have been represented in painting, drawing and woodcut by some of the finest Polish creators.
Angels Visiting Piast
The dynamic scene depicted in this painting is taken from a legend about the beginnings of the Polish state. This tale goes that the humble wheelwright Piast was visited by mysterious travellers on the day of his son’s first haircut. Piast was celebrating this important family occasion (a first haircut was an Old-Polish rite of passage after which a boy became a fully-fledged member of the family) with some friends. He had little food and drink to share but didn’t hesitate to offer some to the unexpected visitors:
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I have indeed brewed a little jug of beer which I’ve prepared for the time of my only son’s first haircut; but what difference does such a tiny amount make? If you’ll find it to your taste, please have a drink.
From Gallus Anonymus’ 12th-century ‘Gesta principum Polonorum’, trans. MK
In various iterations of the legend, the visitors were either pilgrims or angels (as in the painting at hand). In all versions, however, the visitors magically multiply their host’s supplies in return for his hospitality. They also cut his son’s hair, giving him the name Ziemowit and blessing the boy to become the protoplast of Poland’s royal Piast dynasty. According to legend, Ziemowit would go on to become the great grandfather of the first historical ruler of Poland, Mieszko I, who lived in the 10th century.
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The painting Aniołowie u Piasta (editor’s translation: Angels Visiting Piast) was created around 1900 by Paulin Gardzielewski, a valued painter who authored a number of works referencing Polish legends and folk tales. In the depicted scene, Piast is kneeling and greeting the angels, whereas his wife, Rzepicha, is standing next to her child, inviting the visitors to join the celebrations with a friendly gesture.
Leszek the Black’s Dream
Next up is another depiction of a tale linked to a Polish ruler. Sen Leszka Czarnego (Leszek the Black’s Dream) is an illustration based on a legend about a 13th-century Polish prince from the Piast dynasty.
In this story, the lands near the town of Lublin are viciously attacked by an army of Lithuanians and Yotvingians. Upon learning of this, Leszek the Black, who at the time was in Kraków, decided to come to the rescue of the troubled Lublin lands, leading a force of valiant knights. However, when he arrived he found the attackers were already gone, having carried away plenty of captives and loot.
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When he was hesitating whether to pursue the outnumbering and mightier foes who had already reached the woods, bogs and other places that couldn’t provide any food for him and his soldiers, or to stop and go back, exposing himself to sneers and mockeries about his expedition, an angelic apparition claiming to be the archangel Michael, which came to him in a dream, told him to cast aside any doubts and reasons, and not to stop the pursuit, promising him that he’ll surely be victorious.
From Jan Długosz’s 15th-century ‘Annals or Chronicles of the Famous Kingdom of Poland’, trans. MK
The dream proved to be prophetic and Leszek Czarny went on to defeat his enemies, retrieving the captives and the loot.
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Sen Leszka Czarnego is an illustration by Władysław Barwicki, a well-known Lublin poet and painter. He created it for his 1915 volume of poetry Lublin w Pieśni (Lublin in Song), which references Lublin legends and customs. It shows the prince statically resting beneath an oak while the angelic apparitions he’s dreaming of dynamically encourage him to take action.
The Sleeping Knights
Here’s another depiction of a Polish legend that revolves around knights and an angel – the legend of the sleeping knights. According to this tale, there’s a secluded cave in Mount Giewont in the Tatra Mountains, where a band of armour-clad knights rests in eternal sleep, waiting for a time when Poland will be in need of their services. The knights are guarded by an angel who is always ready to inform them whether that time has arrived.
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There is a cave over there, enormous and dark, only cressets flicker along the walls. These knights are asleep, and every ten years the oldest of them raises his head and asks the angel that watches over them:
‘Is it time?’
And all the knights raise their iron-helmeted heads, but the angel replies:
So they keep sleeping.
From Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer’s ‘Śpiący Rycerze’, published in 1914 in the volume of novellas ‘Na Skalnym Podhalu’, trans. MK
Śpiący Rycerze (The Sleeping Knights) is a 1914 woodcut by Władysław Skoczylas, one of Poland’s most important woodcut artists, known to have frequently made use of mountaineer motifs. It shows all the elements so captivatingly described in the above quote by Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer: the guardian angel, the slumbering knights and even the flickering cressets.
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Twardowski Talking with the Devil
At this point it might be worth saying that Polish legends include not only plenty of angelic characters, but also a great number of devilish ones. One of the best-known devils in Polish legends is the one that signed a pact with the 16th-century nobleman Sir Twardowski.
According to the contract, the devil provided the nobleman with great wisdom and magical powers in exchange for – as you might very well expect – his soul. However, a key stipulation stated that Twardowski’s soul could only be collected in Rome. That allowed the cunning nobleman to exercise his special powers without ever having to pay the price – as long as he avoided the Eternal City.
However, on one day, the devil tricked Twardowski into visiting an inn… An inn called none other than Rome. That was when the party ended for Sir Twardowski: a confrontation with the devil ensued and as a result the nobleman became stranded on the moon forever (or in the space between it and the Earth, in other versions).
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As soon as Twardowski crossed the threshold, the doors shut behind him, and a great noise arose. (…) Then, from a corner the familiar devil approached, holding the contract and smiling with happiness.
‘What brings you here?’ cried Twardowski.
The devil silently stretched the contract toward him and said solemnly, slowly, pompously:
‘This inn, it’s called Rome!’
From Józef Ignacy Kraszewski’s 1874 novel ‘Mistrz Twardowski’, trans. MK
The depiction shown here seems to show the very moment the nobleman gets caught. This 1890 drawing is titled Rozmowa Twardowskiego z Diabłem (Twardowski Talking With the Devil) and is the work of the Polish draughtsman Michał Elwiro Andriolli, author of numerous illustrations for Polish literary works, such as Józef Ignacy Kraszewski’s Stara Baśń (Old Fairy Tale).
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The Dragon from Beneath Wawel Hill
Parts of the legend of Sir Twardowski take place in Kraków, a city where the nobleman is said, for example, to have been active as a scholar. This brings us to our next legend, one about the dragon that used to terrorise the city in ancient times.
Called the Wawel Dragon, it dwelled in a cave in Wawel Hill, atop of which Prince Krak had raised his castle (today the Royal Wawel Castle stands in that very spot).
The dragon nested itself in a cavern beneath the hill, what it sees, it devours, what it captures, it consumes. When it roars with anger, the entire hill trembles. When it pants satiated in the cave, its breath poisons the air… Day and night there is no rest – the fields are empty, the folk flee, beasts run into the forest in panic… It’s depleted the livestock and populace, it oppresses women and children, and ever hungry for new prey, it’s always roaring, always panting.
From Józef Ignacy Kraszewski’s ‘Pieśń Słowana’, published in the 1960 book ‘Klechdy Domowe’, trans. MK
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Eventually, however, the dragon got tricked into eating a dummy cow filled with sulphur. It died, either because of ‘a fire burning within’ (according to Wincenty Kadłubek’s 13th-century ‘Chronica Polonorum’) or – in other versions of the legend – from exploding after drinking too much water from the Vistula river in an attempt to quench the detrimental effects of the sulphur.
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In the painting Smok Podwawelski (The Dragon from Beneath Wawel Hill), you can see the beast sliding out of its den, ready to attack what appears to be a woman offered as a sacrifice. This 1912 piece was created by Marian Wawrzeniecki, a painter whose works are often permeated with eroticism and death.
Mermaid of Warsaw
Today, the Wawel Dragon is one of the major symbols of Kraków. Similarly, the mythical Warsaw Mermaid is an important symbol of another Polish city, Warsaw. Although, unlike the dragon, the mermaid is an official symbol – her likeness is included in the capital’s coat of arms.
Legend has it that the mermaid was the daughter of King Baltic, the underwater-dwelling ruler of the seas. One day, she decided to swim upstream into the Vistula river from the Baltic Sea, eventually reaching the area in which Warsaw stands today. There she encountered the Mazovian Prince who was wandering through the woods, and led him to an exceptionally advantageous spot. The prince decided to found a city there, which he named – as you probably already suspect – Warsaw (this popular legend has other iterations, one of which is described in our article on Poland’s fantastic beasts).
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The princesses’ beauty
Is famous afar
From wave to wave
Her image follows
Take a look: lips like corals
Teeth like pearls
The sapphire of the eyes
Even to the sky’s
Although fair like lilies
Is the neck
Cover her legs
At her sides she has fins…
It’s a Mermaid!
From Ewa Szelburg Zarembina’s 1954 fairy tale ‘O Warszawskiej Syrenie’, trans. MK
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A rather impressive depiction of the Warsaw Mermaid can be found in the 1954 drawing Mermaid of Warsaw by the highly talented but controversial painter and sculptor Stanisław Szukalski. The drawing shows a fountain design for Warsaw’s Old Town Market Place. Notice the unusual double-ended tale (typically the Warsaw Mermaid is shown with a single one) as well as the little Moai statues that reference the artist’s quirky belief that all human culture descends from a post-deluge Easter Island…
Him & Her
The wodnica, or a female water daemon, is another aquatic being from Polish mythology. But, unlike the generally friendly mermaid, the wodnica is malevolent. Her story is told, for example, in the legend of the Płock Wodnica, a traditional tale originating from the town of Płock in central Poland.
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In this story, the daemon is magically disguised as a rusałka, a mythical being in the shape of a beautiful young woman. She frolics in the shallows near the banks of the Vistula where she catches the eye of a young fisherman called Jaśko. Bedazzled by her beauty, the youth eventually falls in love with the fair maiden and asks her to marry him. She agrees, but on the condition that he brings her two necklaces – an amber and a pearl one. But when Jaśko fulfils her wish, she comes up with a new demand: a necklace made of stars!
‘Made of stars? But that’s impossible!’ said Jaśko.
‘Impossible? So you won’t get it for me?’
‘No. I can’t take the stars out of the sky! Not even for you!’ the fisherman cried.
The screech that sounded at that very moment almost blew up his ears. With horror he noticed that in the place the beautiful rusałka had been, a hideous wodnica was now standing. She started hitting the water with such fury that the earth trembled and a fragment of the nearby escarpment fell off. Jaśko ran away, hurried by the yells of the furious wodnica.
From www.bajkowyzakatek.eu, a website with Polish fairy tales, trans. MK
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On i Ona (Him & Her) is a 1887 painting by Jacek Malczewski, one of the most important artists in Polish modernism. It comes from his series titled Rusałki, which revolves around the cultural phenomenon of the rusałka. In On i Ona, the young fisherman is clearly enchanted by the beautiful rusałka frolicking in the water, making the painting a perfect illustration to the Płock legend.
Last on our list is a legend about another Polish daemon, the friendly Skarbnik or Treasurer. This coal-mine-dwelling being, shaped like an old man, is said to be a former miner by the name of Walenty. He loved his work so much that he convinced God to let him remain in the mines even after his death.
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And so in heaven they decided that the soul of Walenty will not come to them, but will be left in the mines. Since then Walenty has been roaming the mines in the form of the Treasurer, watching over everything that happens there. And if somebody whistles over there, he’ll punch them right in the face. When somebody curses, they can get hit with a lamp. But if a real catastrophe should endanger the miners, he’ll quickly warn them. He’ll flicker a lamp, or bang on a stull, or he’ll appear himself. People realise then it’s Walenty and run away from the danger.
From a folk tale cited by the miner tradition expert Józef Fudali in his article ‘Demonologia Wśród Górników’, trans. MK
It’s worth mentioning, however, that there are other versions of the legend. In one of them, the Treasurer’s eternal presence in the coal mines is a form of punishment for him having killed his daughter.
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sketches and drawings
polish fairy tales
michał elwiro andriolli
józef ignacy kraszewski
ewa szelburg zarembina
The sketch Skarbnik (The Treasurer) created around 1950 by Teofil Ociepka is a splendid representation of the mining daemon. The artist, a self-taught painter fascinated with the occult, had himself worked at a coal mine for many years. He shows the Treasurer in his classic form, with a white beard and a lamp.
Written by Marek Kępa, Dec 19