The Battle of Grunwald Explained
#photography & visual arts
Using Internet magic, the characters and events in Jan Matejko's classic painting The Battle of Grunwald have been explained at last. Click the image below to find out how to interpret this colossus.
(If clicking the image below isn't working, click here to see our guide on Thinglink.com)
One of Poland's most inspiring paintings
Jan Matejko's monumental 1878 work depicts an amalgam of the most dramatic turning points in the Battle of Grunwald on 15th July 1410. Also known as the Battle of Tannenberg, the victory of the Polish and Lithuanian armies over the Teutonic Knights took place in the fields of Grunwald, Łodwigow and Stębark, and was one of the greatest battles of mediaeval Europe.
It should be emphasised that Grunwald carried a special significance for Poles during the 123-year period when the nation did not exist on any map. During the so-called Partition era, all uprisings were bloodily suppressed by the Austrian, Prussian and Russian occupiers who had taken over Poland's former territories. In these circumstances, paintings and literature designed 'to cheer people's hearts' played a very special role, feeding the Polish people's conscience and patriotic sentiment.
Matejko based his painting on the chronicle The Annals written by Jan Długosz. Even though the painter allowed himself to introduce some elements that were fictional, he did so based on thorough research of historical events. He made sure that the landscape of the battle was reflected very realistically – he even visited the site of the battle and upon returning to Kraków applied necessary amendments to the piece.
In his paintings, Matejko would normally base the composition on one central element (in this particular work, it is described as a group enclosed in a circle) and two ‘wings’ – facilitating a narrative stretched in time and space, as well as the numerous relationships between the featured characters.
In The Battle of Grunwald, the three main parts presented are:
- the episode in which the knight Dippold Kikeritz tried to attack the King of Poland but was stopped and killed (upper right hand side)
- the glorious moment Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen was defeated (centre)
- the final moments at Stębark, which the remaining Teutonic Knights barely survived (upper left hand side)
Historian Marek Rezler advises us on how to read the painting:
When attempting to analyse the symbolism embedded in Matejko’s painting, one needs to be aware of the difficulty of this task, and of the fact that it is virtually impossible to resolve all the clues presented in it. One has to approach this masterpiece in a special manner: first, we ought to grasp a general view of the painting, then the details, then start to gradually zoom out, tracing possible relationships between the individual protagonists, to finally look at the entire painting again.
If you'd like to see the real thing in the flesh, it is on permanent display at the National Museum in Warsaw.
battle of grunwald
19th century polish painters
You can also hear about how The Battle of Grunwald was hunted by the Nazi Germans on our podcast Stories From The Eastern West:
Sources: wyborcza.pl, eduseek.interklasa.pl, culture.pl. Written by Anna Micińska, 18/03/2014