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Jan Matejko – story behind the artist who created the illustrations of monumental history of Poland

Artworks that can or cannot be interpreted as depictions of real history?

Photo: Jan Matejko / Wikimedia / Public Domain

Jan Matejko was an unquestionable talent, undoubtedly one of the most famous painters in the history of Poland. Although he didn’t mean to distort the history, the beauty of his works blew minds of the viewers. He was born in 1838 in Kraków and died there many years later. Works by Matejko is a treasure of Poland, one of the most popular and appreciated paintings in history. People are delighted to see these beautiful pieces of art. However, his fame blossoms, mostly because of his historical paintings. They are not only gorgeous evidence to the skills of the painter, but many of them are in impressive size. If you visit museums in Poland, sooner or later, you will find some original paintings by him or copies.

Depicting The Battle of Grunwald

Photo: Jan Matejko / Wikimedia / Public Domain

I’m sure you’ve heard about the Teutonic Order. Polish artists prefer to present them as dark characters, whose hunger of murdering people was endless. Of course, it has nothing in common with the reality. The famous battle that took a place on July 15, 1410, stays one of the most popular motifs related to the Polish medieval history. Matejko depicted this battle on one of his monumental paintings (size:426 × 987 cm ). However, looking at this work, most of the people ask: Where is the king?

Jan Matejko didn’t paint king Włądysław Jagiełło, indeed. However, he wasn’t a rebellious painter, but followed the forgotten historical school from Kraków and painted the history they believed was true. Those times, according to many historians, the key role during the battle was in hands of the brother of King Władyslaw Jagiełło, Vytautas,  ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Compared to the official history promoted by Polish historians, the leader of the army that fought against the Teutonic Order wasn’t king Jagiełło. Therefore, the major character of the monumental painting is Vytautas.

The portraits of the kings

Photo: Władysław Jagiełło by Jan Matejko / Wikimedia / Public Domain

That’s another problematic topic. Matejko created 44 remarkable portraits of polish kings and queens titled in Polish „Poczet królów i książąt polskich” between 1890-1892. Although many people still want to believe that these works present the real faces of the rulers, it is not true. None of them has anything in common with the real portraits. Although Matejko took some characteristics from the existing portraits of the kings, in most of the cases there were no older works. Moreover, most of the queens on Matejko’s paintings have the face of his beloved wife. Therefore, although they come from different countries, they look like sisters.
To know the real faces of the Polish rulers we would have to exhume them and make a professional facial reconstruction. Will it ever happen? There is no need to, people prefer to believe in works by Matejko.

Mistakes or hidden messages?

Self-portrait

To make his paintings even more realistic, Matejko worked taking care of every single detail. Several items related to the process of creating the paintings, still exist. Matejko ordered special replicas of old pieces of clothing, hats, and other items that enriched his work. Due to his impressive effort, the paintings are so incredibly detailed that you need to spend a few hours with one work to uncover its secrets.

Some art specialists suggest that Matejko wasn’t just a painter. He was a philosopher of history, a creator of the monumental depictions that made Polish people more proud of the history of their country. The list of the mistakes in his paintings is longer, but… Many of them are not the mistakes. Matejko, as an artist, sometimes didn’t mean to paint the history. The specialists in his heritage explain that very often he depicted the current situation in his homeland, veiled by the historical events from the past.

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