Jan Matejko's Battle of Grunwald is indisputably one of the most famous paintings in Poland's national collection. The painting has followed a tumultuous track through more than a century of cultural and political change, inspiring artists, authors, filmmakers, historians and even politicians.
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Jan Matejko's monumental work depicts an amalgam of the most dramatic turning points in the struggle of the Polish and Lithuanian armies against the Teutonic Knights on July 15, 1410. The battle of Grunwald, which took place in the fields of Grunwald, Łodwigow and Stębark, was one of the greatest battles of mediaeval Europe. As for the painting's ideological facets, it has remained pretty fixed in its anti-Germanic message from its first appearance in 1878 up to the period of the Polish People's Republic. It should be emphasized that Grunwald carried a special significance for Poles in the time when the nation did not exist as an independent state on the map of Europe, and all uprisings were bloodily suppressed. In order to survive, national identity had to refer to the past. In these circumstances, painting and literature made "to cheer people's hearts" played a very special role, feeding the conscience and patriotic sentiment.
The composition of the painting is extremely dynamic, almost Baroque. The circle in which the main heroes of the painting's action are presented creates an unusual effect. You can see swarms of people captured in violent action, stressed by the dynamic movement of their robes. At the same time, the composition remains harmonious and balanced as a whole. The figures of the commanders, Duke Witold on the right and Ulrich von Jungingen on the left are placed in the painting's centre. Thanks to the contrasting colours of their red and white robes, as well as the illuminated effect on that part of the painting, the viewer's gaze stops there first. Still, after a moment of close reading you can notice equally important historical figures in the top right corner in the background, that is Władysław Jagiełło and Zbigniew Oleśnicki, who will later save the king's life. It is an element of composition that Matejko often made use of. On the one hand, highlights a clear message - at the centre of the painting - and on the other it injects additional elements into the story, key to its proper interpretation and understanding. The viewer discovers new parts of the account without losing track of the main theme.
The suggestive and dynamic visual form of The Battle of Grunwald is intended to serve more than just an educational purpose. The composition literally seizes and sucks in the viewer. The attack of the Kraków banner develops along a diagonal line of the canvas, almost perpendicular to its surface. It creates the illusion that the viewer is in the centre of the painting's action. Furthermore, it just about suggests his participation in the battle's struggle. As was pointed out by Stanisław Czekalski in his question "What does Grunwald want?", the painting, as it were, forces the viewer to identify with the figure of the warrior in the red hood with his back turned towards to him, ready to strike the Grand Master with a fatal blow.
A special aura has surrounded the work ever since it was created, as was exemplified by the numerous accounts of those visiting Matejko's studio while the painting was still a work in progress, in addition to the reminiscences of the events accompanying the work on the painting, including the painter's trip to the Grunwald fields. The work brought exceptional success and status to the already well-known and highly-regarded artist. After the public presentation of The Battle of Grunwald during a special ceremony, Matejko was awarded the interrex sceptre. The painter became not only a hero, but most of all the ruler of people's hearts, a fact he emphasized in his speech to Słowacki's Spirit-King during the celebration. Matejko's unique status cannot be compared with any other painter of the time. The master became "sacred", and this sacralisation was transferred to the painting, called the "altar of Polish art" at the time. After the show in Kraków, the art work, privately owned in fact, began its tour around Europe. It was presented in such cities as Warsaw, Vienna, Petersburg and Berlin in the years following.
Matejko's painting played a significant role in the process of imparting a key and symbolic role in national history to the Battle of Grunwald, and the literary concept of Grunwald presented in Henryk Sienkiewicz's 1900 novel Krzyżacy / The Knights of the Cross undoubtedly contributed to this idea. In the subsequent years the battle turned into the major event which came to determine the fate of the Polish nation. The celebrations of the five-hundredth anniversary of Grunwald held in 1910 were exceptionally solemn and were filled with patriotic events such as the presentation of the monument of Władysław Jagiełło, funded by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, on Matejko Square in Krakow. Still, the public lost interest in the painting in the years that followed. For security reasons the painting was transported to Moscow during the First World War, and returned to Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw in 1922.
The next chapter in the history of the painting's reception was framed by the period of the Polish People's Republic, when Matejko's oeuvre became the object of political evaluation. Anti-German stereotypes in addition to the trauma of war and occupation were consciously exploited by the Polish People's Republic authorities for political propaganda. The theme of the victory of "the power of the united Slavonic folk over the elites of the Western knighthood" was used to once again project history in the present and the future. It was expressed by the telling catchphrase "From Grunwald to Berlin." This juxtaposition became an intrinsic feature of the historical narrative constructed by the authorities. It was based on symbolic points: the origins of the Polish State, through Grunwald, the Partitions and the Kulturkampf, the German occupation and the destruction of the country, up to the conquest of Berlin and the West Germany government's reluctance to acknowledge the border on the rivers Nysa and Oder. The negative picture of the German was also created by identifying him with the historical figure of the Teutonic Knight. Aside from Matejko's painting, Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel and, above all in the 1960s, Aleksander Ford's film Krzyżacy / Knights of the Teutonic Order were all used for this purpose.
Explore our interactive guide to Battle of Grunwald:
Matejko's painting has been, finally, an inspiration for many artists. First were the struggles of Stanisław Wyspiański who took on this work in his historiosophic project of Wawel as the Acropolis (the Grunwald low relief was supposed to crown the entrance of the Academy of Learning), but most of all in Wesele / The Wedding where he brought back the character of Zawisza the Black. In the 20th century Matejko's art work turned into the object of Edward Krasiński's conceptual game, Łódź Kaliska's field of artistic actions, and a painterly challenge for Edward Dwurnik. Katarzyna Kozyra refers to Matejko's painting in her newest work in progress, affirming that Grunwald still plays on the broader artistic consciousness and remains a relevant point of reference.
2010 marks the 600th anniversary of the battle, commemorated with a major re-enactment of the battle on the same fields, involving thousands of people from Poland, Lithuania and around the world. This annual event is one of the most popular historical military re-enactments in Europe.
Author: Magdalena Wróblewska, July 2010.
Translation by Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer, July 2010.