Jan Matejko paintings: History of Poland

Let us take a virtual tour of the most significant works of Jan Matejko.

Jan Matejko self portrait
Jan Matejko self portrait

He is a real treasure for historians, guides, and all who are interested in exploring the history of Poland, Lithuania, Russia, and Ukraine. It is a visual study of the history of Rzeczpospolita and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. We can observe the paintings in the Art Museums of Warsaw, Krakow, Lublin, and Lodz.

Jan Matejko studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow and became a great artist and a great patriot of Poland. His eye is sometimes critical, sometimes politically engaged, sometimes he is even not entirely accurate in representing real events. The highest level of his art, excellent composition, a wide variety of colors, and exclusively skillful drawing distinguish his works.

Jan Matejko Battle of Grunwald (National Museum in Warsaw)

It was a crucial moment for the existence of the two nations – Polish and Lithuanian. Who knows, if the Teutonic Germans had won, maybe these two nationalities would have been Germanized at all. The leading figure of the painting is Vytautas (in red), the Grand Duke of Lithuania, and the commander of the Polish Lithuanian army. His opponent is Ulrich von Ungingen (in white), the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. In the picture, we see a final episode of the battle, the moment of the death of the last one.

the battle of grunewald by Jan matejko

The Union of Lublin (Lublin Museum)

It was, apparently, a pivotal point in the history of two countries. Lithuania, threatened from the North, is looking for an alliance with Poland. In 1569, in the city of Lublin, representatives of both parties signed an agreement, Unia, proclaiming the creation of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania. As we can see, the Lithuanians (on the left) look quite unhappy about that agreement – they have to sign it. As a result, Lithuania had lost vast areas in southern Ukraine, and Poland became a dominant force in the new alliance.

The Union of Lublin by Jan Matejko
The Union of Lublin by Jan Matejko

Hanging Sigismund Bell (National Museum in Warsaw)

The year is 1521. A giant bell weighing 13 tons is erected on the tower of the Cathedral in the Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow. The event is in the presence of King of Poland Sigismund I and Queen Bona Sforza. Matejko portrays his wife and his children, as a queen and a royal family.

In the middle, we see two men dressed black. In the front, with a scroll of a map in hand, stands an Italian architect of Wawel Castle Bartolomeo Berrecci. Behind him, the court musician Valentine Bakfark, holding a lute, looks thoughtfully at the bell. He was an excellent lute virtuoso of his time, and he threw the strings of his lute into the melted bronze of the bell. Until today, Zygmunt Bell rings on especially solemn days, and you can even touch it when you climb the Wawel Tower.

Jan Matejko Hanging Sigismund bell
Jan Matejko Hanging Sigismund bell

Jan Matejko Stańczyk

The only image in the canvas is a court jester, Stanczyk. He, seems, should have made the audience laugh, but instead, he sits alone, profoundly severe and upset. The matter is that he is the first to receive the bad news from the North. Polish army lost Smolensk in the war with the Russians. Stanczyk, whom Jan Matejko gave of his facial features, foresees the fall of Poland at the end of the 18th century. The artist, who lives in the mid-19th century, knows that this is what happened. He dresses the jester in bright red clothes and immersed him in anxious thoughts.

Jan Matejko Stnczyk
Jan Matejko Stnczyk

Reception of Jews in Poland 1096

Wandering Jews looking for a more reliable and safer place arrive in Poland in the 11th century. They humbly seek refuge and are ready for anything, if only they could settle here. The young mother lay flat at the feet of the ruler, holding out her child. She is pleading to let them stay in Poland. 

The Duke (in red) and his Bishop have not decided yet. Two sons of the ruler, standing in front of the door of the church, express a different attitude. One agrees to accept the Jews; he holds a sword in front of him with two hands (a sign of consent). While his brother, standing behind, holds a falcon – a symbol of hostility.

Reception of Jews in Poland 1096
Reception of Jews in Poland 1096

Reytan, the Fall of Poland

This canvas depicts a tense meeting of Polish Sejm (parliament) in 1773 on the eve of the first partition of Poland. Some of the gentries are ready to yield to the pressure, and the others are ashamed and upset about the forthcoming event. Tadeusz Reytan rushes to the floor, blocking the way to go out for announce. Reytan, a nobleman, a real patriot of Poland, begs: “Kill me, do not kill the Мotherland!”. Above the whole scene rises the portrait of Catherine the Second, Empress of Russia.

Reytan, the Fall of Poland
Reytan, the Fall of Poland

Constitution of May 3, 1791

In this picture, Matejko depicts a long-awaited event – the adoption of the Constitution of the Commonwealth. We see a procession emerging from the Royal Castle, that is in the background, and entering the church of St. Jan to sing Te Deum. (Symbolically – the same name as the artist.) At the head of the procession, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, the last king of Poland. 

In the center, the authors of the constitution and around is a crowd of different classes, supporting the new law. To the great regret of the whole nation, in four years, the Commonwealth was finally divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. As a result of these events, Poland and Lithuania lost their statehood for 120 years.

Constitution of May 3, 1791
Constitution of May 3, 1791

When you visit Krakow, the ancient capital of Poland, please do not miss the splendid monument of Jan Matejko.

Jan Matejko Statue in Krakow
Jan Matejko Statue in Krakow

Written by Yulik Gurwitch

Jerulita Travel