Jan Matejko: The Painter of Polish History

(24 June 1838 –1 November 1893)

This outstanding artist became famous for his paintings depicting important moments in the history of Poland. They are a story highlighting the country’s former glory, but also contain warnings for its entire society.

by Michał Haake


Many paths into the creative future were open before the young, artistically gifted, Matejko (b. 1838). Wishing to devote himself to painting, he could have concentrated on portrait art, like Henryk Rodakowski, whose works he admired, or followed in the footsteps of Jan Nepomucen Głowacki, a graduate of Krakow’s School of Fine Arts, who became the father of the Polish school of landscape painting. He chose historical painting, partly on the advice of his brother Franciszek, a historian at the Jagiellonian Library, and certainly also under the influence of the art of Veit Stoss, who depicted sacred history in the altarpiece of St Mary’s Basilica in Krakow in an unrivalled way.

Jan Matejko in his studio (photo reproduction)

Undoubtedly not without significance either was the fact that historical paintings remained the most valued genre of painting. They honoured the victors and spread the splendour of power. They portrayed outstanding individuals whose achievements were regarded as a legacy co-shaping community identity. This was also the role that Matejko attributed to painting, depicting in the beautiful painting entitled Blind Veit Stoss with his Granddaughter (1865) – alongside the Krakow-based sculptor – the Jesuit preacher Piotr Skarga, author of the Sejm Sermons, and Jan Kochanowski, the great Renaissance poet who proved that the Polish language was capable of expressing the most profound human experiences. When, in 1884, on the three-hundredth anniversary of Kochanowski’s death, an exhibition of works from the time when the poet lived, was organised at the Cloth Hall, Matejko painted his portrait, stating that the work was from the 16th century, and enclosing the following poem he had composed as a gift:

Here is a portrait of the noble Jan the Writer,
known by the Polonia as the Prince among poets,
who painting in Czarnolas with Italian colours,
hoping that in three hundred years’ time people would know what Jan, the Divine Lute Player, looked like
Ex actio Republicae Babiniensis
Cantor atgue pictor totius Reipublicae.
Jan Matejko, Blind Veit Stoss with granddaughter, 1865

There can be no doubt that Matejko, like many of his contemporaries, writers and poets, wished to embolden the hearts of his enslaved compatriots with his paintings. Such a message is already conveyed by the painting John Casimir in Bielany from 1861, in spite of, or actually precisely because of, the fact that it refers to the tragic pages of Polish history, when the final collapse of the state seemed a foregone conclusion. The Polish king is forced to flee from Krakow, which is besieged by the Swedes and on fire. In the painting, he is standing on the terrace of the nearby Camaldolese monastery, and pointing with his hand toward Wawel, the spiritual capital of Poland, unmarred by conflagration and adjacent to a river flowing, as always, further on, into the future. The artist created his painting as a symbol of hope for surviving the final, as it might have seemed, defeat – a hope that did not leave the Poles then and should not abandon them on the night of the Partitions.

Matejko’s historical painting, however, was first and foremost an answer to what was perhaps the main question asked by Poles during the Partitions: why did Poland lose its independence and disappear from the map of Europe?

This question was forcefully voiced in the work entitled Skarga’s Sermon (1864), the first of a great historical cycle. Matejko made Chancellor Jan Zamoyski one of the main characters here. Many historians contemporary to the artist regretted that Zamoyski did not become the country’s king, believing that his rule would have saved Poland from a tragic fate. Matejko had a different view, proving the independence of his judgements about history. Already in his youth, he dedicated two beautiful watercolours to Zamoyski. He then depicted the chancellor sentencing the magnate Samuel Zborowski to death. He had no right to pass such a sentence without royal consent, yet he did. The nobility’s indignation at the chancellor’s arbitrariness thwarted his long-held plans of reaching for the Polish crown. Zamoyski never came to terms with this, scheming and acting to the detriment of the new king, Sigismund III. In Matejko’s drawing, Zborowski is being led to his beheading in the courtyard of Wawel Royal Castle. He is shown against the backdrop of the dome of Sigismund’s Chapel, which contains the tombstones of the last rulers of the Jagiellonian dynasty. Also visible next to it is the Vasa Chapel, non-existant at the time. Matejko added it to enable the accurate identification of the two buildings. The dome, an architectural symbol of heaven, visually crowns the figure of the condemned, elevating it. It also recalls the reign of the Jagiellonians, when no one claimed the right, like Zamoyski, to place himself above the King.

Jan Matejko, Skarga’s Sermon, 1864

This thought is emphatically expressed in Skarga’s Sermon. Opposite Piotr Skarga, who raises his hands in a dramatic gesture, warning the audience of the errors threatening Poland’s future, sits Zamoyski, elevated above the other listeners and above Sigismund III. Commenting on the painting, Matejko’s secretary Marian Gorzkowski wrote of the chancellor that ‘he actually was the de facto king, so it is no surprise that he was placed above the King’. Below, next to Zamoyski, are figures whispering to one another while pointing at the magnate. They are saying something about him that he would not like to hear, which concerns his ambition to decide on the fate of the state. Educated in Italy and an ideological disciple of Niccolò Machiavelli, Zamoyski saw politics merely as a tool for the ruthless expansion of his own power. His career is an example of the successful use of recommendations provided by the Italian author in his treatise The Prince, condemning moral rationale as detrimental to the achievement of political goals. A completely different vision of the state is represented by Skarga, who insists on respecting God’s laws, seeing this as a condition for national harmony and protecting the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from collapse.

In the painting Skarga’s Sermon, the Grand Marshal of the Crown, Mikołaj Zebrzydowski, holds an equally dominant position to that of Chancellor Zamoyski. The former was Zamoyski’s henchman and, following his death, dreamed of becoming the ‘new Zamoyski’. He stands at the centre of the painting, clad in a golden robe, full of majesty, leading the future insurgents, who declared war on the King. The rebels lost, but their treachery was not punished. Janusz Radziwiłł and Stanisław Stadnicki, unable to subjugate the Commonwealth and the King to their will, continued to plot intrigues against him at foreign courts.

Jan Matejko, Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland, 1866

In the painting Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland (1866), Matejko immortalised worthy successors to the aforementioned insurgents. He depicted Polish magnates, paid by the Russian Emperor Tsarina Catherine II, who supported the partition of Poland, against which MP Tadeusz Rejtan protests. Matejko’s contemporaries saw this work mainly as ‘slapping his mother’s dead body’ – an argument delivered to the partitioners that the Poles themselves were to blame for the collapse of their state. Matejko responded to these accusations with the painting Judgement on Matejko (1867), depicting himself being pilloried, and expressing his regret at being treated as the worst villain because he was ‘guilty of death’. The artist may have felt hurt by the attacks, as they missed the most important message of Rejtan. The painter’s friend, historian Józef Szujski, wrote about him as follows:

(…) a man who gave such splendid proof of civic courage can stand before a repentant Poland as one of its political models and patrons, because it needs, above all, the virtue that he shone with – civil courage!

Jan Matejko, Battle of Grunwald, 1878

The question about the reasons for the fall of the Commonwealth also resounds in the works of Matejko that show the glory of Polish arms and culture. The artist recalled the glory days of the country not only to comfort his enslaved compatriots, but also to teach them. He introduced into the paintings figures that did not allow us to forget about opportunities that had not been fully exploited, and about mistakes whose causes needed to be rethought for the good of the future. In The Battle of Grunwald (1878) painting, the only one of the Teutonic Knights successfully resisting the advance of the Polish-Lithuanian army is Commander Henry von Plauen, who in fact did not take part in the battle. On hearing of the defeat, he managed to prepare the capital of the monastic state in Malbork for an effective defence, which determined that an important goal of the campaign was not achieved. In the painting entitled Kościuszko at Racławice (1888), which shows the Polish army rejoicing after the victory over the Russians, Matejko also depicted peasant scythe-bearers sharpening their weapons instead of celebrating. Thus, he reminded us that the peasant issue still remained unresolved, which led already half a century later to armed revolts against the nobility (known as the Galician Slaughter of 1846), and weakened the chances of building social unity at a time when it was necessary for the survival of a nation deprived of its state. By reminding us of missed opportunities, Matejko fuelled reflection on whether this was inevitable and thus offered a mature lesson on Polish history.

Skarga’s Sermon defined the ideological programme of the great historical cycle. Of the two visions of politics contrasted in this work, Matejko was undoubtedly closer to the one preached by Skarga. The artist believed that the ‘judgement of history’, in relation to both the individual and the collective, must take, as its criterion, the relation to God-given laws. He believed that Poland had, more than once in its history, experienced the protection of divine providence. The figure of St Stanislaus emerges from the clouds over the knights at Grunwald, and a rainbow and a dove – symbols of the covenant with God and the Holy Spirit – can be seen over the Turkish conquerors at Vienna. All the more so, the artist lamented the mistakes made in the past, understanding the enslavement of Poland also as penance for the nation’s faults.

Jan Matejko, Self-portrait,1892

Matejko drew his belief in the influence of providence on the fate of nations from his strong Catholic faith and history, from which emerged a picture of Polish history as closely linked to Christianity. At the same time, Matejko was convinced that the Christian sources of Polish culture had origins both in the West and the East, in Latin and Byzantine Europe.

From Byzantium, Christianity was carried to the Slavic territories by two monks, Constantine (who later took the name of Cyril) and Methodius, sent in 863 at the request of Rastislav, ruler of the Great Moravian state. Matejko was likely convinced that Christianity had also then reached the ‘state of Krak’, and thus the lands of the future capital of Poland. In 1885, on the occasion of the celebration of the millennium of the death of St Methodius, the artist created a work which he donated to the church in Velehrad. It depicted Cyril presenting the Holy Scriptures written in Glagolitic script, the alphabet he had himself developed (later called Cyrillic). He is holding a missionary cross. The saints are depicted against the background of the Ruthenian icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa – the most important image in the history of Christianity in Poland. In Matejko’s work, this image accompanies the aspirations of many Polish rulers and freedom fighters: from Casimir the Great and the knights of Grunwald, to King Sobieski at Vienna, and Kościuszko’s soldiers at Racławice.

Jan Matejko, The Hanging of the Sigismund bell, 1874

In 1888, Matejko began work on a cycle of twelve paintings of ‘The History of Civilisation in Poland’ series. It opens with the scene of the adoption of Christianity by Polish ruler Mieszko I. The Piast monarch had the same motives as Rastislav, who, by bringing Cyril and Methodius from Byzantium, wished to become independent of the German rulers, who wanted to subjugate the Great Moravian state. The missionaries were forced to repeatedly refute accusations of heresy by the German bishops before the popes. Similarly, Mieszko I sought to ward off the threat to the state from the Saxons, who were conquering the Polabian Slavs. This was to be achieved via his baptism and alliance with Bohemia through his marriage to Doubravka, the daughter of a Bohemian prince.

Matejko depicted not only the arrival of the princess from Prague to Poland in 966, but also of St Adalbert, a missionary killed by the Prussians in 997. His martyrdom gave rise to the establishment of an archbishopric in Gniezno, and thus the right to perform royal coronations. It was also thanks to the elevation of the country to the status of a kingdom – as Matejko proclaimed with his cycle – that civilisation in Poland was able to develop over the following centuries, supported by the ideas of freedom and religious tolerance, as the painting The Admission of the Jews to Poland reminds us, abounding in works of science, literature, and art. ‘The History of Civilisation in Poland’ series, in which the artist set out his views on native history, proved to be his artistic testament.

He died prematurely in 1893 at age 55. His funeral was accompanied by the sound of the famous Sigismund bell and thousands of grief-stricken Cracovians.


Author: Prof. Michał Haake – Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań
Translation: Mikołaj Sekrecki