The spectator’s attention is primarily drawn mostly by the beauty of Mary’s girlish face - oblong with full cheeks, high forehead shaped distinctly over thin eyebrows and almond-shaped eyes, as well as a narrow straight nose and small lips. This graceful head crowns an exceptionally slim body presented in a strong contrapposto, which shapes the figure’s pose into an elegant S curve. Abundant robe draperies add balance to this slim figure, in particular Mary’s coat which covering almost her entire body, falls down from her arms in cascades and drapes over the sculpture’s pedestal.
The elaborate drapery of the mother’s robes contrast with nakedness of the son she holds in her left arm. Resting confidently against Mary, the infant Jesus sits with his left hand placed on his leg and holds a round fruit, probably an apple, in his right hand. The Saviour’s face resembles his mother’s, brightened with the same smile. The entire representation gives an impression of an intimate lyricism. Simultaneously, the sculpture also brings about an undeniably purposeful decorative effect. It is produced by the rhythmical floating of draperies of Mary’s robes, which effectively meander on the sides of her figure and on her axis drape in parallel patterns - nearly semicircular on top, they gradually become sharper towards the bottom. The figures of the mother and son are slightly tilted back while their heads, placed at the same level, bowing towards each other in symmetry.
The colours of the statue were reconstructed between 1942 and 1943 on the basis of an original polychrome coated with three subsequent layers since the 16th century. Polychrome is dominated by the gold of Mary’s coat, scarf and crown, as well as her and the Christ’s hair. They make an outstanding background for the jewel-like peach complexion of the mother and son, reinforced by red (Madonna’s inner robe) and green (a low polygonal pedestal) accents.
The Kraków figure is considered to be one of the most distinguished examples of so-called 'Beautiful Style' developed within the International Gothic circa 1400. At that time many European cities hosted artistic centres of a common formal expression. Among them the leading place was taken by the Czech state - Prague was then also the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. There, a specific movement in representative art flourished, which emphasized the beauty expressed in idealization of human body and posture, abundance of elaborately decorated robes characterized by softly arranged draperies and their calligraphic, meandering folds, as well as lyricism of representations regardless of their subject.
The 'Beautiful Madonnas' became synonymous with the 'Beautiful Style'. These stone figures depicting standing Mary holding Jesus in her arm are known throughout the territory of the former Kingdom of Bohemia, Hungary, as well as the Austrian countries and the Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia. Till this day, they have raised heated discussions among scholars regarding their artistic genesis and time of creation. It is commonly believed that the surge of the Beautiful Madonnas first occurred in Prague under the reign of Wenceslaus IV over the last twenty years of the 14th century and lasted until circa 1410 at the latest.
These figures are looked upon as 'swan songs' of sculptors employed in so-called 'building thatches' - circuit workshops constructing large sacral buildings, usually out of stone. With time the circuit workshops were replaced by permanent ones associated with a specific town, which were headed by guild masters. Such change in the work mode also entailed change in a preferred sculpture material - stone gave way to wood. Thus, numerous representations of Beautiful Madonnas were carved out of wood. Scholars see them as a withdrawal from a spatiality of stone prototypes and a turn towards dimensionality, which replaced the volume with 'dry' linear forms by means of illusory tricks - copied from painting - suggesting greater multidimensionality. Therefore, many historians perceive the wooden Beautiful Madonnas as younger cousins of the stone sculptures: they are usually dated at the first third of the 15th century.
The Beautiful Madonna from Krużlowa has been examined in the above-described context, however scholars highlight not only the high quality of wood processing, but also the individual interpretation of the above-mentioned prototypes. The Kraków figure harmoniously combines the beauty and lyricism of stone Beautiful Madonnas (among which no directly corresponding work was found) with distinctive features of the local sculpture of the Lesser Poland Province of the 14th century. These features include 'dry' linear draperies and representative nature of Mary’s and Christ’s depiction, who turn towards a worshipper rather than themselves.
These qualities influenced art of the Lesser Poland Province of the first half of the 15th century. Its sculptor, who still remains anonymous, worked most probably in Kraków. As a capital of an increasingly powerful country under the reign of the Jagiellonian family, circa 1400 the city was an important centre of arts and crafts in the Central Europe, which undeniably domineered in the Kingdom of Poland.
The figure was brought to the museum in Kraków in 1899 from Krużlowa, a small town in the Land of Sącz. For a long time, it was believed that such high quality sculpture could not have been destined for a small-town church, and had been brought there from one of the churches in Kraków or Nowy Sącz. However, the most recent research shows that the history of the Krużlowa parish goes 150 years back farther than the early 16th century (as it was previously assumed). What is more, a prestigious fraternity of priests was established in Krużlowa, which in the 15th century was situated on the borderland between the Ruthenian and Orthodox upheavals. This area was a target of intense missionary action of the Roman Church. Thus, the religious confraternity could have performed a significant role in this mission. Whereas the fraternal cult representation, most probably Mary’s, held an unquestionable significance in their spiritual life.
Thus, the thesis suggesting that the figure from Krużlowa was created for this specific town as a fraternity sculpture is convincing. It is confirmed by the sculpture’s hollow back and surprising 'shallowness' of its relief (only 18 cm) in relation to its height (118 cm) – filling in the central panel of a relatively small altarpiece. It is highly probable that it was a retable, in which the big figure of Mary was surrounded by four smaller representations of holy virgins, among them most probably Barbara and Catherine of Alexandria.
Author: Paweł Freus, October 2010. Translated by Katarzyna Różańska, December 2010.
Madonna from Krużlowa
circa 1400 – 1410
wooden, polychromed sculpture, 118 cm in height
From the collection of the National Museum in Kraków
The Bishop Erazm Ciołek Palace