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Understanding Matejko's painting The Battle of Grunwald


The July 15, 1410 battle fought between the villages of Grunwald and Tannenberg - as the village of Stębark was then called - was an epochal event. It was a battle between the Teutonic Knights, a mounted Military Order that had created its own German state along the Baltic Sea north of Poland, and the combined forces of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, recently joined through their ruler, King Własysław Jagiełło. It was a massive encounter pitting 24,000 men at arms on the Teutonic side against 39,000 on the Polish-Lithuanian side. Arguably, it was thus the largest battle of the Middle Ages, dwarfing the battle that took place on October 25, 1415 at Agincourt between the English and French forces that numbered 5900 and 20-30,000 respectively.

The battle, which in Germany continues to be referred to as the Battle of Tannenberg, has very much continued to live on in the consciousness of both Poles and Germans. In Poland, Grunwald remains a rallying cry for Polish patriotism. There is hardly a major town without its Grunwald Avenue, Square, Street or Cinema. The battle is viewed as having stemmed, for a time at least, the German "Drag nach Osten" (Push to the East), the Eastward quest of lands for settlement and trade, and thereby also to have prevented the otherwise likely Germanization of the country. In Germany also, Tannenberg has not been forgotten. Thus, for instance, when in late August 1914 in East Prussia the German Army faced 100,000 strong Russian Second Army, General, later Field Marshal, von Hindenburg is reputed to have said to General Ludendorf "Come on Ludi, let's get our own back for 1410" or words to that effect. The Russian army was duly annihilated in what is considered the most spectacular and complete German victory of the First World War. Thereafter, the encounter became known in Germany as the Second Battle of Tannenberg, presumably viewing it as a reprisal for the defeat suffered 500 years earlier at the hands Poles/Lithuanians, also Slavs.

When viewing the painting, it is well to be aware of the historical context of the time when it was created. To start with, over time, the Teutonic State morphed into the Kingdom of Prussia, an entity that participated in the 18th Century partition of the Polish State, annexing 20% Poland's territory in the process. Then the decade of the 1870s saw the rise of Prussia to unprecedented power. First, in 1970, the year in which Majeko conceived the painting The Battle of Grunwald, a coalition of German states led by Prussia defeated the Armies of France and besieged Paris. The following year, saw the successful culminations of Bismark's efforts to unify Germany, a process that led the King of Prussian becoming the German Emperor. Meanwhile the efforts to germanize the areas of Poland in the German partition intensified significantly. The can be little question that in deciding to create a painting of the ancient battle, Matejko had political motives in mind, wanting to remind his fellow Poles of their former success and thereby to give them both hope and incentive to resist the germanization efforts.

The Painting

The Battle of Grunwald is a huge painting 10 feet high and almost 17 feet in length. It's full of figures and action and, because of its size, difficult to uniformly illuminate and photograph. Reproductions tend to miniaturize it to the point that only a couple of highlights are discernable and much of the rest of the painting's detail is lost. Even when standing before it, visitors find it hard, initially, to come to terms with its complexity. Yet it was considered by Matejko's fellow citizens a towering masterpiece, so much so that the Council of the City of Krakow voted to give Matejko the title of King of the Arts and to present him with a golden Royal scepter in recognition of this honor.

Jan Matejko Battle of Grunwald, 1874 , oil on canvas, 16'7"x9'9", National Museum, Warsaw
Before painting it, Matejko, who had a penchant for painting from nature made an extensive collection of Medieval armor and weapons, sketched and painted many studies of people and horses, conducted an intensive study of the history of the battle, and visited the battlefield. He sought to present, within the confines of the canvas, as many as possible of the individuals known to have taken part in the battle and events in which they participated. Although in reality these events occurred at various places on the battlefield and at various times during the almost daylong battle, Matejko brought them all together both in time and location. To portray the resulting large number of individuals, he used a foreshortening technique now familiar to us from viewing photographs of groups of people taken from a distance with a powerful telephoto lense. The result is a loss of depth, people and horses virtually on top of each other, yet all clearly discernable. He coupled this with an accurate reproduction of detail, a combination contemporary critics had found unrealistic, since normally when one is at a sufficient distance from a large groups to see it all at once, the details are no longer discernable.

Secondly, the painting engages the viewer in three progressive levels of contemplation and analysis. At first, it's seen as a scene of furious battle, of warriors, weapons, horses and more. The tableau is dominated, on right of center, by the figure of Witold, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, triumphally raising his arms in what could be compared to a victorious gesture of latter day politicians, no matter that on a moving horse he could not long remain in the saddle in such a pose. On the left of center the painting is dominated by the figure of Ulrich von Jungengen, Grand Master of the Order, who perished in the battle. Under attack from various quarters, Jungengen is about to lose his life.

Once the viewer's eyes leave the highlighted figures, they are attracted to the large number of other events portrayed in the painting. Contemplating these leads most first time viewers to a state of confusion, a feeling perhaps best captured by Stanisław Wyspiański in his parody of the master's painting, portraying a mass of interweaving lines from among which emerges a inclined Teutonic banner. The events portrayed on Matejko's canvas require careful study and acquire meaning as the identity and historical roles of those involved becomes known. It is only then that the third level of analysis, which focuses on otherwise hidden symbolism that Matejko had incorporated into the painting, can be undertaken.

Stanisław Wyspiański
J. Matejko's Battle of Grunwald
The painting is enormously suggestive, unusually dynamic and, in places bordering on horrific. In reality, it's not just a presentation of a bloody scene of slaughter by sword, axe, dagger, mace and bare fists. It's a painting that continues to engender special emotions. In his efforts to represent the battle, its raucous, tumult and turmoil of Mediaeval battle, the artist introduce many elements of armor totally inappropriate to the epoch of the event. Without them, given the then infant state of archeological investigation, the painting would have been much less engaging.

It's true that there are few paintings by Matejko in which there is such a confusion of figures and time periods. as in the Battle of Grunwald. Among the sources of information on which the artist, similarly to Henryk Sienkiewicz (who described the battle in his book The Teutonic Knights) based his portrayal, foremost was the chronicle of Jan Długosz. The historiographer's explicit description was in turn supposedly based on the accounts of his own father, a participant in the battle. Nonetheless Długosz was guided, in large measure, by his own feelings and emotions - hence his vision of Grunwald requires today revisions or at least prudence. We know now that on the Polish side King Wladyslaw Jagiełło was in command, while in Matejko work, in the footsteps of Długosz and Sienkiewicz, the central figure is the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Witold. Other matters were also rendered in the traditional fashion. The documentation by the Swedish historian Svena Ekdahl a few years ago have show beyond doubt that the famous trap and the death of Ulrich von Jungingen at the hand of the peasant infantry are legends. In reality the Grand Master was slain in a mounted battle. Peasant were present but on the branches and trunks of the surrounding oaks ... as spectators of a battle which basically didn't concern them.

The Teutonic camp
In the painting, Matejko portrays three diverse moments in the battle. The earliest, portrayed in the upper left corner of the canvas (no enlarged visual of this detail is available), is the failed attack by the Teutonic knight Dypold Kokeritz Dieber upon the King. Likely, Kokeritz didn't know that the knight surrounded by a modest retinue on the hill near the wood was the King. In the event he failed to engage the King in a duel, having been unhorsed before being able to do so by young Zbigniew Olesnicki (later a cardinal). The King, supposedly, simply administered the coup the grace. In the painting, Kokeritz lies already lifeless on the ground. The second event that is portrayed, this one centrally in the painting, is the death of the Grand Master following his unsuccessful effort to snatch victory from the looming defeat by personally leading an attack by 16 reserve companies. Finally, portrayed in the upper left corner of the canvas, is the conquest of the Teutonic camp towards evening of the 15th of July, 1410. Ulirich von Jungengen by then was no longer alive and the battle was in fact over. Above the field of battle clouds gather, which in the late afternoon sprinkled a light rain on the scene reducing the dustup.

In contrast to portrayal of the battle itself, the area around Grunwald and its landscape are rendered very accurately. In 1877, Matejko visited the field of battle and, after returning to Krakow, made a number of correction in the perspective of the painting already in progress. Photographs of the earlier version at the Jan Matejko Museum in Krakow, make it evident that the artist improved upon and corrected details of the landscape at the cost, however, of the artistic qualities of the painting.

Whoever undertakes an analysis of the symbolism of the Matejko's Grunwald, has to keep in mind the difficulty of the task and that elucidation of all the features evident in the painting is almost impossible. One has to approach this work by first focusing on the whole, then details, gradually retreating through the lens of our eyes so as to discover relationships of individual figures, and then again look at the work as a whole. Naturally, careful viewing of The Battle of Grunwald is enhanced by concrete knowledge of the battle, of the historical figures portrayed, and finally about 19th century Krakow and Matejko himself. Special attention has to be given to the figures which were identified in a separate key by the painter himself: the symbolism then become much more understandable.

Grand Duke Witold
The principal figure that catches ones eye in the center of Grunwald is that of the Grand Duke Witold. More about him later, here lets just notice that in accord with Długosz, Matejko has elevated him to the position of the Commander in Chief of the allied units. And yet the way he is dressed has few military accents other than coat of mail collar and scale armor shin-guards. The artist has located Witold on the border of the wild East and the civilized West. The East is represented by the coat of mail, the specific shape of his shield, and the Persian sword in the hand of the Duke. Significant is the desperation in Witold's eyes, which one can take as evidence of battle frenzy. Basically, however, we have here the ultimate portrayal of a not fully convinced potentiate with a history of having changed sides and alliances several times in the course of his career. It's a portrayal of a man who has burned the bridges behind him, who doesn't even care for his stability in the saddle - since there isn't in the world a rider who, in the position of Matejko's Witold, could retain his place in the saddle of a rearing horse.

Witold's Christian faith was of relatively recent date, hence also the cross on the top of the ducal coronet is not very large and mounted in a neophyte fashion. It stands proudly while another, the much larger cross of the Grand Master's banner, forming the background, tilts towards a fall. Let us consider yet another property of the figure: it's the only one in the painting, among those of significant individuals, whose gaze is directed outwardly from the painting in the direction of the spectator. In spite of the suggestion to the contrary, this isn't a man leading a charge into the battle. Individual Polish knights are already fighting in the midst of the crush of battle. The figure gives the impression of one who is rushing blindly, anyhow, and would most want to remove himself from the field of battle, not because of cowardice but due to his internal desperation. Even if he had been leading knights into battle, he has long since separated from them. The whole portrayal of Witold is a marvelous psychological study of the Lithuanian prince. - not at all so one sided as it is frequently accepted. For amusement we can digress from our discussion to note that the design of the knightly belt worn by Witold, is one Matejko borrowed from a lampshade in his house. Of course, no symbolism is attached. We mention this on purpose so as to worn against forced interpretations and a search for symbolism of items for which the artist had presumably none such in mind.

Next to Witold, Marcin from Wrocimowic, coat of arms Półkoza, holds firmly in his hand the Great Standard of the Kingdom (for he was the Royal Standardbearer). In the painting he is presented in the full armor of a hussars, clearly pointing to the tie in the traditions of Grunwald with those of Kirchholm, Chocimin, and Vienna.[1] Marcin is sounding the horn of triumph, and the staff of the standard he holds is topped by an unusual finial made-up of a sharp pike and a spiny orb that recalls the end of the morgendtern, a menacing weapon of the middle ages. It's a clear allusion to the loss of the standard during the battle, and at the same time a warning: woe betide him who would raise his arm against the symbol of the Kingdom.

Marcin from Wrocimowic

Ulirich von Jungengen, Grand Master of the Order

The spear of St. Maurice
Who are the two worriers that administer the final blows to the Teutonic Order's Grand Master? One of them is the half naked Żmudzin, a pagan, who reminds the Christian his many breaches of faith. For he is attacking using none other but a copy of the spear of St. Maurice - the same that as a symbol of friendship and reconciliation Emperor Otto II gave in the year 1000 to Bolesław Chrobry. The Teutonic knight, instead of converting the pagans, acted in contravention of Christian principles. That is what he is being reminded of in his last moments by one of the pecans belittled and persecuted by him. The other warrior is attacking him with an axe similar to that used by executioners. Indeed the attacker is a "master" executioner with all the accessories of his trade: a red hood and the official uniform - and even with the characteristic alms-purse - a bag at his waist into which the "master," after performing the execution, would place the coin given to him earlier by the condemned. Some students of the painting even claim to seen in the eye emerging from the cape, parts of the face of Matejko himself, who in this manner took on an appropriate role in the painting. Thus the sentence on the Grand Master is being carried out by ordinary people, those who were most oppressed by the Teutonic knights.

But that's not the end of it. Zyndram from Maszkowic, the Krakow sword-bearer, appear to lift aside with his sword Jurgeingen's crusader coat bellowing in the wind (and wind there was on that July day, just before the rain, as the chronicles confirm). But this is portrayed in such a way that symbolically it as if the sword of justice were hanging over the head of the Teutonic commander - a symbol of a death verdict. During the battle, Zyndram was responsible for the great banner of the Kingdom, and since for a period it was lost, in spite of the victory he was removed from his office and replaced by Jakub from Kobylan. It was not by accident that the painter shows him somewhat removed from the symbol he ought to have been protecting: He pushed his way to the Grand Master, looking for glory as the dispatcher of the enemy commander, but failed to mind that with which had been entrusted.

Mikołaj Skunarowski
To the right of Zyndram, Mikołaj Skunarowski, with the menacing bear head covering his own, is about to pierce with his sword the Teutonic standard-bearer, while wrestling from him the colors of the Grand Master of the Order. It all fits, his relationship to the Teutonic symbol was obvious, since it was him that Jagiełło chose to carry to Krakow the news of the triumph.

Mowing slightly to the left and down from the figure of the Grand Master, Werner von Tettingen, the Commander of Eblong, responsible for the medical care of the Teutonic Order's Army, acknowledges, with a gesture of despair, the death of the Grand Master. He himself, however, would survive, the only one among the Order's leaders.

Jakub Skarbka and Kazimierz of Szczecin
On the left side of the painting we see an encounter between Kazimierz, the Prince of Szczecin who in spite of his Slavic ancestry was a Teutonic ally, and Jakub Skarbka from Gór. And everything is correct: Kazimierz was taken prisoner during the battle by Jakub Skarbka, What is interesting is the matter of the Prince of Szczecin fighting on the side of the Grand Master of the Order, against the Poles. Much printing ink and paper has been employed in efforts to document the Slavic ancestry and proPolish intentions of the Gryfits of Szczecin and the Piasts of Silesia, by way of portraying these lands as ancestrally Polish based on the origins of their rulers. In reality, however, matters were not that simple, since frequently these very rulers made significant efforts not to be dependent on Poland. The Gryfits of Szczecin had for a long time maintained their independence and maneuvered their alliances, but given the powerlessness of the Polish Commonwealth succumbed to germanizing predominance in the end. So it was with Kazimierz, who came on orders of Jungingen, at the head of 600 men, fulfilling the promise made by his father, Swietobor II, a year earlier. Silesia, on the other hand, fell under Czech rule.

In the bottom of the central portion of the painting, Matejko portrays Konrad VII Bialy, Prince of Olesnica and Kozul, unhorsed and later taken prisoner. He is shown (no enlarged visual of this detail is available) in an unequivocally in a negative light. He holds in his hand ... one of the three Jagiełłonian University extant maces. That's an explicit allusion to perfidy of the Prince who, as a young page, was brought up at the Royal Court of Queen Anna Cylejka, the wife of Jagiełło. He had to have become estranged from Poland at an early age since he took the field at Grunwald on the side of the Teutonic Order when he was just 18 years old. After being ransomed from captivity in 1411, he changed alliances several times. Such faithlessness was quite common in the Middle Ages and didn't have the negative connotations that it has today and already had in the 19th century when Matejko's painting was being created. During the Middle Ages one served not one's nation of state, but - In accordance with the feudal law - one's ruler, the Prince or the lord to whom one owed allegiance. As a consequence individuals even relatives, entering the order of battle on opposite sides were frequently totally indifferent to the matter at hand, constrained - under threat of infamy and loss of land - by the need to fulfill feudal responsibilities. A knight was the owner of land but also battle technician - hence post-battle feasts of the victors and the vanquished were not that rare since, emotionally, they didn't have anything against each other. Only with the passage of centuries did our current understanding of valor and cowardice, treachery and faithfulness, patriotism and renegade develop. Matejko understood how these matters were viewed in the Middle Ages and he thus he represented them in his works. The portrait of the young disloyal Konrad, created in the Battle of Grunwald by the painter, is an exception because Konrad was a Piast, a member of Poland's ancient Royal clan. He's the only Piast prince painted by Matejko on the Teutonic Order side. Konrad of Szczecin, as a Gryfit, was not counted as a Piast.

Let's go back however to Jakub Skarbka and the Szczecin Prince, Kazimierz. The former, armed almost entirely in the Oriental mode, appears like a guest. This agrees with historical facts, since he came to Poland on the news of the war with the Teutonic Order, leaving behind a lucrative position at the Court of Zygmunt the King of Hungary. On the other hand the gryphon, griffin, griffon on the helmet of Prince Kazimerz is as if identification of his person by the artist, who left for the viewer the matter of underlying moral context.

Jan Żiżka
On the right of the great banner of the Kingdom, the huge profile of the future great Hussian leader Jan Żiżka from Trocnovo, one of the most famous figures in Czech history who at the battle of Grunwald commanded three Bohemian companies. In the painting, he is preparing with great vigor to annihilate Heinrich von Schwelborn, a Teutonic knight who, before the battle, had arrogantly and self-confidently ordered two naked swords to be carried before him these to be returned to their scabbards only after being soiled in Polish blood. Żiżka, a massive knight who would emerge as one of the greatest Hussian leaders only in the following decade, is progressing in the painting through the crowd of enemies like a storm, clad in scaled armor with a horn at his belt. A menacing, dangerous knight he was frequently the target of hired assassins who were dispatched to bring him down, And so, in Matejko's painting also, a Teutonic mercenary clad in black hovers at his back getting ready to plunge a dagger in his side should the opportunity arise.

Zawisza Czarny
In the painting, back and above to the right of Żiżka is the figure of Zawisza Czarny, a fabled knight by birth from Grabow, who by a blow of his lance sweeps off his horse Jan Grabie Count von Wendem, the Commander of Gniew, - an individual earlier suspected of cowardice since within Ulrich von Jungingen's circle he had counseled against a war with Poland. Zawisza was a knight of a type of which many frequented the courts of Europe and who, representing example of general virtue, took part professionally in tourneys of jousting for tournament prizes. In time, Zawisza became a symbol, an exemplar, who was generally not viewed as connected with a particular court, though he most frequently was a guest of the Luksemburgs, the Imperial Austrian clan - hence in the painting we find a fastener of his coat which is remindful of an Austrian order. When the war begun, however, Zawisza presented himself to Jagiełło and was assigned to the group of nine knights stationed and protecting the grand banner, the symbol of the Kingdom. Matejko's Zawisza is lightly armored, as if he were to taking part, as usual for him, in a routine tourney, not a fight to the death. That what he performed professionally and and for show, he now performs calmly and dispassionately, but this time not for a prize, but for an ideal.

St. Stanisław
Let's cast an eye on the whole of the painting. The banners tell much. Each company of knights had its own banner which led the company and around which the knights rallied. In the idiom of the times and descriptions of the battle, the companies were spoken of as banners. The capture of a banner was indicative that the company involved has ceased to exist as a organized fighting force. The display in Krakow's cathedral of 51 captured banners of the Teutonic Order and its allies, made evident the extent of the Polish/Lithuanian victory at Grunwald. The banner continued to hang in the cathedral till 1603 but now are lost.

In the painting, the banners of the Kingdom and that of Jagiełło flutter triumphally, while that of the Grand Master is toppling forward and falling - but this is not the great banner of the Order, which of course survived, although much perturbed. Overhead one can also see the banner with Pillars of Gediminas, the grandfather of both Jagiello and Grand Duke Witold, thus a symbol of the Lithuanian dynasty. On the far right of the painting is visible the banner of the town of Braunsburg (now Braniewo) which features two crosses, one black, the other white. It's tempting to speculate that Matejko chose to represent this particular banner because the crosses have a shape analogous to that continued to be used by Prussia and later Germany in their insignia and medals.[2] Above the battle, in the clouds is visible the figure of St. Stanisław, the patron saint of Poland. After the battle there were many claims, particularly among on the Teutonic side that St. Stanisław, was present and helped the Poles achieve victory. of is concerned, the war with the Teutonic Order was more of a personal, dynastic conflict than one between states. The broken pieces of a knightly lances gliding below the saint's figure are supposed to indicate the fury of the battle - its hard to attach any symbolism to them.

There are many more symbolic details possible to discern in Matejko's painting. But enough has been said to give an idea of the enormous effort carried out by the artist. Matejko's Battle of Grunwald could the subject of a separate book, without any guarantee that it would exhaust the subject and discovery of all the meaning and symbols hidden within it by the artist.

The Battle of Grunwald surprised, shocked and gave rise to various emotions. In spite of some, for him usual, pointed comments, the painting made a lasting impression on Stanisław Wyspianski, who in his drama Julius II compared the battle's choas with the Sistine Chapel frescos by Michelangelo, since also Buonarroti, in the context of his Last Judgment, reminds one all to clearly of Matejko in the context of his Grunwald. In his incomparable Wedding, the poet in the words of the Black Knight (Zawisza Czarny), frankly, describes Matejko's painting:

You will tremble at my voice:
Grunwald, swords, King Jagiełło!
Cutting through the armor,
as the gale howled and blew;
mounds of corpses, mounds of bodies,
and the blood flowed in a river.
That's it is! The work of Giants:
Witold, Zawisza, Jagiełło,
there it is! On the battlefield
armor gleams in the trenches,
javelins, and broken spearpoints,
shafts driven through bodies,
a dam of corpses, a dike of corpses,
a mound made up of knights...[3]

Grunwald has been the subject of earlier works by Matejko and later works by others, Nonetheless it is Matejko's great magnificent Battle of Grunwald completed in 1878, that continues to dominate memory. No wonder that on the 29th of October of that year, the City Council of Krakow presented Matejko with an honorary decorated scepter as a sign that he ruled over Polish art. The ideal was reaching ... its summit. The questioning by specialist of Polish armaments and colors, artistic purists and estheticists, didn't hurt it renown. The power of expression on Matejko's canvas was such, that when Wojciech Kossak, commissioned by the Museum of the Polish Army, created a very factually correct painting on the same subject, it didn't even in to a slight degree garner the fame of the one by Matejko. It was after Matejko's painting that, during their wartime period of German occupation, was the object of a furious and detailed search. The Germans were however unsuccessful in their search because of the many Polish patriots who risked their lives to keep it hidden. Kossak's painting, on the other hand, didn't even elicit the Germans' interest. And in 1999, the exhibition of the Battle on Grunwald in Lithuania created enormous emotions among the people of that country for whom viewing of the monumental painting became the object of a national pilgrimage.

Notes: 1. Kirchholm: location, currently in Latvia, of the 1605 battle against Sweden; Vienna, location of the 1683 raising of the Turkish siege of the City by joint Polish and Austrian forces.
2. See photo of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenberg
3. Translation: Stanislaw Wyspianski: The Wedding by Gerard T. Kopolka, Ann Arbor, Ardis, p105, (1990)

To a significant degree, the analysis of the painting in the above is based on that posted in Polish by Marek Renzler on the website


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