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Title: Battle of Grunwald
Artist: Jan Matejko
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.
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.