Queen, Victim or Doll? 7 Remarkable Paintings of Polonia
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The transformations of the most famous allegory of Poland show her in quite surprising and sometimes shocking circumstances: buried alive, chained to a rock, and even crucified, but ultimately triumphant. For centuries, these images have caught the imagination of Poles and shaped how they related to their homeland.
1. The first Polonia
Woodcut illustration to Stanisłąw Orzechowski's Quincunx, or the Crown of Poland, published in Kraków in 1564. Photo: Wikimedia
The so-called Quincunx Polonia is perhaps the first ever image of Poland personified as a woman. The image comes up in the 1564 political dialogue Quincunx, or the Model of Polish Crown by Stanisław Orzechowski and reflects its author’s theocratic vision of a perfect state. Orzechowski, himself a priest, believed Catholicism was the foundation of the Polish state, and that the inseparable relation of church and state was the basis of the Polish kingdom. The image reflects this by presenting the figure of the reigning Polonia (allegory for the Polish kingdom) as wearing a crown and standing on the shoulders of the pope (Pious IV) and the king (Sigismund Augustus). One can note other Catholic symbols too – the chalice (faith) and the altar (church) – which also seem to form the basis of the kingdom. The Latin quote doesn’t leave much doubt: ‘If any of the flanks be knocked down, the whole structure of the kingdom shall come tumbling down.’
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2. Polonia about to be buried alive
The partitions of Poland changed how the Poles saw their Poland-woman. One of the first paintings to record this change was Michał Stachowicz’s Kościuszko Saving Poland from the Grave. The painting was conceived as an allegory for the Kościuszko Uprising (1794) and shows the shackled Polonia being led to the grave by 'traitors of the fatherland'. The person in the centre trying to prevent the premature burial is Tadeusz Kościuszko. The imagery of shackles and premature burial but also violence was one of the most pervasive new elements of the Polonia representations to come in the 19th century.
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3. Foreign Polonia
Throughout the 19th century, Polonias were not only painted by Poles. Here’s one by the Dutch-French Romantic artist Ary Scheffer. Scheffer, who painted his work after the brutal crushing of the November Uprising (1831) by the Russians, represented Poland as a fair half-naked lady being trampled by a Cossack on horse. Along or underneath his Polonia, Scheffer has placed a giant white eagle, an ancient symbol of Poland, although here it looks more like a giant albino condor or flamingo.
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4. Polonia (un)chained
Year 1863 - Polonia, an unfinished painting by Jan Matejko, photo: Wikimedia
Matejko’s unfinished painting Year 1863 shows Polonia in a black funerary dress in the process of being shackled, an image symbolic of the country’s political subjugation following another failed uprising. According to the traditional interpretation, the woman in white being separated from Polonia is Ruthenia (Ukraine), while the dead body lying in a pool of blood belongs to Lithuania – the two historical territories which had once made up the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Once again, rather than being depicted as a belligerent or active subject of history, like the French Marianne for instance, Polonia is shown as a powerless object of others’ activity.
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5. Polonia crucified
This time Polonia is not merely shackled, but chained to a rock in an image reminiscent of both the crucifixion of Christ and the sufferings of Prometheus. The latter association is enhanced by the presence of a black eagle, ready to come down on its prey. In this Messianistic line of Polish political thought, Poland’s suffering, like that of Prometheus, was a sacrifice to mankind, but also, as with Christ, a promise of redemption. In the foreground, a band of Polish historical figures form a kind of ring around Polonia, as if united in a shared effort to liberate their lady.
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Polonia, Constitution of 3 May 1791 (detail) by Jan Styka, photo: Polona.pl
6. Where’s Polonia?
Artur Grottger’s In the Saxon Garden may be one of the most enigmatic Polish historical paintings out there. Traditionally interpreted as a metaphor of Polish society, the painting was long thought to represent the three generations of Polish national struggle. However more recently, it’s been argued that the figure of the one-legged veteran on the left is that of a Russian soldier, rather than a Polish insurgent. Seen from this angle, the painting becomes a scene of intense confrontation between the Polish community, represented here by an uprising veteran, a widow and an orphaned child, with the figure of a soldier representative of the enemy who, in turn, is also shown to be a victim of politics. All of this makes for a deeply unsettling and unequivocal image of mutual distrust and shared suffering.
But where is Polonia? The scholars have argued that seen in this light, it’s very likely that the red doll lying on the ground and being trampled by a greyhound (that symbolises imperial Russia) was conceived by Grottger as a very modern and subversive take on the iconographic tradition of Polonia.
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In the Saxon Garden (detail) by Artur Grottger, 1863, Photo: National Museum in Warsaw
7. Polonia resurrected
One of the last transformations of Polonia, here we find just one of this motif’s many depictions in the work of Jacek Malczewski. Painted in 1918, the year of the Polish state was re-established after 123 years of partitions, the painting presents Polonia seated on the steps of some stairs (leading to a country manor?). This time she’s wearing a military uniform, an allusion to the Polish military effort during World War I. The crown is back on her head, as if in anticipation of the Polish state’s re-emergence in November of that year. She looks self-assured and calm at first, but the gesture she’s caught in – that of washing her hands (possibly of blood) – may be a little unsettling, directing our attention to the darker side of that history.
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