The Introduction of Christianity to Poland, A.D. 965 by Jan Matejko is the painting which opens A History of Civilization in Poland, a cycle of twelve oil sketches created in the painter’s last period of artistic activity which revealed his desire to settle accounts with Poland’s past.
Jan Matejko is the finest representative of historicism in Polish painting and the founder of the national school of historical painting. The genre of historical painting was to play a special role in a nation whose political sovereignty had been denied by the partition treaties of 1772-95. Matejko showed the former grandeur of the Polish Republic and the glory of its armies to lift the hearts and minds of Poles and to resurrect faith in its restoration as an independent country.
Matejko's historical painting project went far beyond academic conventions. What particularly set his canvases apart from contemporary historical paintings was his attitude to the past. He was not one to look merely for a colourful, sensational or sentimental anecdote. He understood history as a continuous and essentially dynamic process, and believed it the artist's job to study historical events in detail in order to produce a solid evaluation and a moral assessment of the involved people and political forces. This goal of synthesising universal teachings from history made him depart very early on from detached and accurate illustrations of the external, visual side of past events. Instead, he was interested in extracting from the darkness of the past living and feeling human beings whom he would often present in the midst of clashing political or moral interests.Growing out of Matejko's ardent patriotism, his profound knowledge of history, and his love for the artistic heritage of the past, his art was more than anything his way of serving his country and supporting the goal of national independence.
The Introduction of Christianity to Poland, A.D. 965 opens the A History of Civilization in Poland cycle and was painted between 13th January and 7th February 1889. Initially, it was to be titled The Baptism of King Mieczysław (the name given to Mieszko by historians in the 19th century), but ultimately Matejko decided to also depict some aspects of the introduction of Western civilization to Poland, symbolized by the arrival of the Czech princess Dobrava, which took place in the 965 – hence the date in the title of the work. The portrayed event takes place on the shore of Lednickie Lake in Greater Poland, near Ostrów Lednicki Island, which was one of the main defensive and administrative centres of Mieszko’s kingdom. The boats moored at the edge of the forest suggest that the mission of propagating the Christian faith will be carried out within the whole Polish territory.
The most important figure in the painting is Duke Mieszko I, leaning on the cross and holding a sword in his right hand to symbolise his authority. Under his left leg lies a broken statue of a pagan idol. On the left, we see the bright figure of St. Adalbert dressed in pontifical vestments, who baptises the Duke's siblings, denoting the baptism of the whole nation. By introducing St. Adalbert as one of the major figures in the painting Matejko implied that the future patron of Poland was at the same time a priest who participated in the ceremony. This historical inaccuracy served the artist to emphasize the importance of the alliance with the Czech state. In fact, in 966 St. Adalbert (Wojciech Sławnikowic) was not yet the Bishop of Prague, and he arrived in Poland only in 977. And yet, he is more exposed in the painting than the kneeling princess Dobrava, who holds a lit candle – the light of the new faith which she carried to the subjects of her future husband.
In the centre of the painting Matejko portrayed St. Adalbert’s brother Radzym Gaudenty, who became the first archbishop of Gniezno, dressed in black and holding a book. An important role in Matejko’s vision is played by the Order of Saint Benedict, the oldest monastic community founded in Poland. The central figure of a monk ploughing with an ox may also be interpreted symbolically as the painter’s acknowledgement of the significance of the Benedictines’ role in uprooting paganism.
The Introduction of Christianity to Poland A.D. 965, along with the following 11 oil sketches of the cycle, is exemplary of Matejko’s 19th-century historicism in recreating historical realities, combined with his own assessment and interpretation of past events and a subjective way of presenting them in paintings.
The painting is owned by the National Museum in Warsaw, but is housed in the Royal Castle in Warsaw.
ed. GS, February 2016