The Painting that Changed Kraków’s Cloth Hall
default, Cloth Hall, Kraków, 1895, photo: Polona.pl, center, sukiennice_1895_polona-107162278.jpg
The centrepiece of Kraków’s famous Old Town Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is not only home to stalls selling souvenirs related to Polish folk. The Sukiennice’s higher levels contain an important national museum of 19th-century art – but it was a single painting that decided this fate.
The Sukiennice restorations
Even during the partition era of the 19th century, when Kraków was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Sukiennice (literally ‘cloth hall’) was considered an extraordinary building of continued great importance for the city and its traditions. The physical centre of one of the largest market squares in Europe, its walls had been the scenery for countless traders and customers for centuries. Further back, even balls were held there in the upper levels. But the mediaeval Sukiennice had lost much of its lustre by the mid-1800s and was in need of renovation, especially since the building was enclosed by haphazardly-built clusters of wooden sheds.
Séances, Dragons & Chakras: Kraków's Magical Past
Around the 1850s, plans arose to turn the Sukiennice into a museum or memorial. The mayor of Kraków, Józef Dietl, wanted to diversify its use. His hope was that the ground floor would be for shops, while the space above would become a national museum. But Dietl did not see his ideas come to fruition – they were later completed by the next mayor, Mikołaj Zyblikiewicz, who decided the Sukiennice could not be left untouched any longer. Jan Matejko, the most famous Polish painter from that era, collaborated on the design, but, in the end, Tomasz Pryliński was the leading architect. During the redesign process, parts of the Sukiennice were demolished. The renewed building quickly became the new heart of 19th-century Kraków, while the city centre around it was slowly changing from a mediaeval marketplace to the modern main square we see today.
Exploring Joseph Conrad's Lasting Relationship with Kraków
In 1877, an idea was thought up by booksellers in Warsaw about marking 1879 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Józef Ignacy Kraszewski’s first books. Due to the wave of Tsarist repressions after the January Uprising in 1863, it wasn't possible to hold the anniversary in the former capital, so the very first capital, Kraków, was chosen instead. At the time, Kraszewski was perceived as a controversial figure; he was regarded as persona non grata in Warsaw by its Russian authorities, in conflict with the Catholic Church and the Stańczycy (Jan Matejko's followers). On the other hand, his many admirers and the citizens of Kraków didn't care much about any of these animosities.
Was Matejko A Painter?
The weeklong celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Kraszewski's literary work started on 2nd October 1879. Thousands of people from all over the Polish territories came to attend. Almost every influential member of the Polish cultural elite made it a point of honour to at least greet Kraszewski. Even famed actress Helena Modrzejewska came from the United States to celebrate the anniversary and to star in one of Kraszewski's plays during the celebrations. During the jubilee, the writer, in addition to participation in various banquets, meetings, public speeches, and masses, received the title of Doctor Honoris Causa from the Jagiellonian University.
Throughout the anniversary, celebratory balls and banquets were held in the Sukiennice. The iconic building’s upstairs sections were merely a space for events, still waiting for that final impulse to become the national museum of Józef Dietl's wildest dreams.
Hotel Savoy in Łódź: Labyrinth of History & Exile
During one of the banquets at Wentzl Restaurant, many writers and artists such as Tadeusz Ajdukiewicz, Witold Pruszkowski, Zygmunt Sarnecki and Henryk Siemiradzki were debating the plan for a museum in the city centre of Kraków. Amidst the discussions, Siemiradzki shocked everyone with a generous declaration. He decided there and then to grant his massive famed painting Nero’s Torches as a foundation for an art museum in the Sukiennice.
Siemiradzki's shocking statement was quickly followed by other artists' announcements. Witold Pruszkowski promised to grant the museum his painting Świtezianka, and Tadeusz Ajdukiewicz decided to give away a portrait of Helena Modrzejewska that he was planning to paint while she was in town.
Paderewski, Modjeska & Curie: Shaping Independent Poland from the Outside
The painting itself
Nero’s Torches, also known as Candlesticks of Christianity, was already famous in Europe. From the moment he entered the public eye, both the international and Polish press were interested in Siemiradzki’s creative process. By the time Siemiradzki was adding the finishing touches to this huge painting, entire crowds of enthusiasts would be allowed to come into his studio and see it once a week. Had it been any more frequently, it would have been impossible for him to finish the painting. When completed, Nero’s Torches was taken on a tour through Munich, Vienna, Prague, St Petersburg, Warsaw and Lwów (today's Lviv).
The painting is quite typical for Siemiradzki: faithful to academic doctrine and masterfully done. It depicts a scene from the reign of the emperor Nero. In 64 AD, after the Great Fire of Rome, the emperor proclaimed that Christians were its alleged perpetrators. The captured martyrs were burned alive. The painting depicts Romans gathered to watch them burn in the Domus Aurea.
The Two Faces of Stańczyk: Surprising Aspects of 19th-Century Polish Painting
A grand patriotic gesture
Siemiradzki's generous gift made him a part of a patriotic painter pantheon. Even the painting’s motto engraved in its frame, ‘Et lux in tenebris lucet et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt’ (The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it), was interpreted as a patriotic allegory for the fight for Polish independence from the partitioning empires. Not only was the painting beloved by the public and critically acclaimed, but prominent cultural figures such as author Bolesław Prus deemed Siemiradzki's art as prophetic.
It was rumoured that when Nero's Torches were shown in St Petersburg, it made such an impact that the Russian Tsar wanted to purchase it for 100,000 roubles – around 1.3 million dollars in today’s money. Yet, due to Siemiradzki's bold patriotic declarations, the transaction was cancelled. This anecdote is a myth though, as recently resurfaced materials show that it was Siemiradzki who had in fact tried to sell his painting to the Tsar. Still, the truth doesn't diminish his Sukiennice gesture – it’s impressive that Siemiradzki decided to grant such a renowned art piece to the city of Kraków.
Poland’s Road to Independence in 10 Paintings
józef ignacy kraszewski
partitions of Poland
19th century history
After the news about Siemiradzki's generous gift spread, Kraków’s citizens reacted quickly. They marched to the Krakowski Hotel where Siemiradzki was staying to thank him en masse. There Siemiradzki decided to visit Kraszewski and walked with the crowd to the writer's apartment in the main square. There, amidst the cheering crowd, the painter and the writer hugged. It seems the story of what is now known as the Gallery of 19th-Century Polish Art at the Sukiennice began with quite a cinematic scene. Today, the museum continues as a thriving entity showcasing the most outstanding figures amongst the Polish painters of the 19th century, with Nero’s Torches appropriately the gallery’s centrepiece.
Written by Olga Tyszkiewicz, Apr 2020
Kraków’s Street Art: A Walk Through History, Creativity & Profound Thought
Sources: ‘Kochankowie Z Masakrą W Tle’ by Maria Poprzęcka (Warszawa,2004); ‘Siemiradzki’ by Józef Dużyk (Warszawa, 1986).