How Matejko's paintings serve as a window into Polish history
In what promises to be a highlight of Poland's cultural calendar this year, the National Museum in Kraków is paying tribute to the nation's most revered painter in its exhibition opening today “Matejko: Painter and History,".
A showcase that marks 2023 as the Year of Matejko, the flagship exhibition explores the artist’s legacy, whose brushstrokes have woven an intricate tapestry of national identity, illuminating the shadows of Poland's turbulent past with unwavering brilliance.
Indeed, it is no overstatement to declare that Matejko's masterpieces have sculpted the collective consciousness of Poles, shaping their perception of the most iconic moments in Polish history.
Not only is it 185 years since the painter's birth and 130 years since his death, it is also 125 years since the first biographical museum in Poland opened at the house where he lived and had his studio on Floriańśka street in Kraków, a museum that still attracts visitors today.
Jan Matejko's paintings serve as windows into Polish history. His masterpieces transport viewers to pivotal moments, allowing them to witness the defining events that shaped the Polish nation.
None more so than two large-format canvases that take centre-stage at the exhibition.
In The Sermon of Piotr Skarga from 1864, Matejko depicted the renowned Jesuit priest Piotr Skarga delivering a powerful sermon to the Polish nobility during the Sejm.
Matejko portrayed Skarga's impassioned gestures and the attention of the listeners, symbolising the critical role of the Church in shaping Polish identity and moral values during turbulent times.
Meanwhile, Rejtan from 1866 is another significant painting by Matejko that resonates with Poles.
The painting portrays the Polish nobleman Tadeusz Rejtan, who, in a desperate attempt to prevent the partition of Poland in 1773, throws himself beneath the feet of foreign ambassadors. Matejko highlights Rejtan's courage and determination to defend Polish independence.
Among Matejko's other work, perhaps his best known is his magnum opus, The Battle of Grunwald.
This monumental painting, which hangs in Warsaw’s National Museum, depicts the famous 1410 battle, which saw the Polish-Lithuanian forces defeat the Teutonic Knights.
Matejko's attention to detail and his ability to convey the intensity of the battle made this painting a symbol of Polish national pride and unity.
His other major canvases also feature important moments from Polish history, such as Prussian Homage, The Union and Lublin and The Hanging of the Zygmunt Bell.
In addition to major works, the Kraków exhibition will feature a palette of smaller works and sketches, as well as props, memorabilia and documents totalling more than 300 objects, including from private and foreign collections.