AD: Jan Matejko audio described


a peek inside “Speaks the Masterpiece”

Renowned for his large-scale oil on canvas battle scenes and imagery rooted deeply in the history of Poland, Jan Matejko is now audio described for the American blind.

Jan Matejko, self-portrait
Jan Matejko’s self-portrait (NAC)

Jan Matejko, a Polish national painter of the 19th century and the father of Polish historical painting, ventured far beyond a simple faithful representation of historical events to exercise purposeful artistic license. His huge paintings, some of them reaching 16 x 30 ft, seethe and churn with a plethora of historical figures, symbols, and paraphernalia rendered in minute detail; they amass symbolic meanings, buzz with motion, and roar with battle clangor.

This last Mohican of realistic historical painting in the midst of newly-born impressionism was a devout patriot. Born in 1838 in the Free City of Kraków, merely 43 years after the Crown of Kingdom of Poland & Grand Duchy of Lithuania was wiped from the maps of Europe, Matejko saw his city fall into the hands of the Austrian Empire, lived through the unsuccessful January Uprising of 1863, and passed in 1893, 21 years before Poland regained her independence

Himself of ill health, he found an outlet to spur his compatriots on through his output, leaving behind not only the most recognizable canvas in the history of European painting, awarded at yearly salons and exhibitions of Paris, Vienna, and Berlin, but also visual accounts of Polish civilization (12 sketches on the History of civilization in Poland), canonical portrayals of Polish kings (Gallery of Kings and Princes of Poland), as well as meticulously researched accounts on the local garb (an album Clothing in Poland) and historical monuments in Kraków.

Our author, Beata Jerzakowska, decided to include five major paintings in her AD collection, which we adapted for the American audience. They illustrate groundbreaking moments in the Polish history:

  • an epic scene during the victorious 1410 “Battle of Grunwald” for the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania against the Teutonic Knights;
  • “Stańczyk,” a deflated jester at the height of the Polish Crown’s power in the 16th century, somber to foresee, in a notification, the impending downfall of his fatherland;
  • political and religious turmoil in the 17th century Poland, when magnates were tearing the country to pieces (“Skarga’s Sermon”);
  • a scene of historical shame in 1773, when the nobles sold the Kingdom to the partitioning empires (“Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland”);
  • but also a tender moment well-ingrained in the literary history: here is Jan Kochanowski, this famous John of Blackwood, a humanist and statesman, lamenting over his deceased daughter – a life event that led to the creation of his most striking elegies, which remain the highlight of Polish Renaissance literature (“Jan Kochanowski over Urszulka’s Dead Body”).

Battle of Grunwald

Matejko, Bitwa Pod Grunwaldem
Jan Matejko, “Battle of Grunwald” (MNW)
  • date of origin: 1878
  • dim.: 167.7 × 388.6 in
  • medium: oil on canvas
  • loc.: National Museum in Warsaw, Poland

This impressive size painting depicts a dense fray of warriors on the plains of Grunwald. Packing on one canvas, around a half dozen distinct clashes between historical figures. Each clash overlaps another, the painting rumbles with movement and color. The color palette is dominated by salmon red, crimson, curcuma yellow, white and greens over finely detailed browns and grays. The theme is the historical battle fought on July 15, 1410 by the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania against the German-Prussian Teutonic Knights. The painter shows the battle in its pivotal moment, when the scale of victory tilts in favor of the Polish-Lithuanian troops. […]

Jan Kochanowski over Urszulka’s Dead Body

Jan Kochanowski over Urszulka's Dead Body
Jan Matejko, “Jan Kochanowski over Urszulka’s Dead Body”
  • date of origin: 1862
  • dim.: 7.4 × 9.1 in
  • medium: oil on canvas | watercolor sketch
  • location: unknown | private collection

This tightly framed candle-lit painting depicts a man leaning over a coffin with a body of a little girl in it. Save for the father’s flesh and the little girl in her white dress, the palette is dark, with dominating grays and blacks, and accents of contrasting whites. The work is both delicate and hard, like a masterfully carved marble statue of silk. Because the sketch was photographed in 1862, the photo does not yield the work’s true colors. […]

The sitter for this 19th c. portrait was Matejko’s wife’s niece, Stanisława Serafińska. Years later, the painting inspired another poet, Bolesław Leśmian, who in 1936 wrote an ekphrasis “Urszula Kochanowska”:

When I arrived in heaven’s wilderness,
God long gazed at me and my hair caressed:
“Approach! A living image as you were,
I’ll do anything to gladden you, dear.”
“Please, God – I whispered – in all your glory
Make everything just like in Czarnolas!”


Off he went and so I start to bustle,
Lay the table down, swipe floors in hustle,
Put the gown on, chase eternal sleep away,
Stay awake and wait, and wait, and wait…
The dawn already glows its golden glow,
When footsteps and a knock I hear. All awed,
Up I jump and rush! The winds outside blow!
My heart skips beat… No! it’s not them, it’s God!


Jan Matejko, “Stańczyk” (MNW)
  • date of origin: 1862
  • dim.: 34.6 × 47.2 in
  • medium: oil on canvas
  • location: National Museum in Warsaw, Poland

A somber, lifeless man in red jester’s garb sits center in a small dark room, isolated from a packed ballroom partly seen at the right edge of the work. The man’s body faces our left shoulder, head hung, hands clasped in his lap, he rests in a tall armchair, its high backrest walling him from the party’s view. A dark heavy curtain behind his chair further detaches him from the hustle and bustle of the adjoining room filled with amused courtiers. The painting is kept in dark hues of pitch-dark browns, greens, and reds, as well as rusty brown, drab green, and midnight blue, with commanding bold red accents. The full title of the painting, “Stańczyk during a ball at the court of Queen Bona in the face of the loss of Smolensk,” summarizes the subject and circumstances of the whole scene. […]

Skarga’s Sermon

Skarga's Sermon
Jan Matejko, “Skarga’s Sermon” (MNW)
  • date of origin: 1864
  • dim.: 88.2 × 156.3 in
  • medium: oil on canvas
  • location: Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland

Jesuit priest Piotr Skarga delivers an impassioned political sermon in front of an elite audience dressed in finery and gathered around a regal chamber: clergy, dignitaries, nobility, and king Sigismund III Vasa, among others. The work is confined to pitch-dark hues with a prevalence of black, reds, and purples. Dark wood walls disappear into recessed blackness as if within the walls of a cave. Bright focused light whitens key figures; a touch of crimson at the bottom right intensifies the impression of the work’s solemnity. […]

Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland

Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland
Jan Matejko, “Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland” (ZKW)
  • date of origin: 1866
  • dim.: 111 × 192 in
  • medium: oil on canvas
  • location: Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland

This painting of a historically pivotal and emotionally charged exchange refers directly to an infamous event that took place on 21 April 1773, on the third day of the Partition Sejm’s session in Warsaw, which led to the Russian, Austrian and Prussian Empires annexing the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. An ornate gold-laden chamber contains a crowd of men in diplomatic and military regalia, with isolated women either in a box seat above or on the crowd’s fringe. At the work’s right edge, an armed guard of troops stacks outside a cracked open door; a man blocks the doorway, sprawled on the ground just inside of it. A spot of bright white light falls from above on the crowd’s center, further illuminating both the box seat in the upper left and the sprawled champion of the country in the bottom right. Figures in the bottom left corner are depicted in relative shade. The lighting, composition and exaggerated expressions on characters’ faces impart a theatrical character to the whole scene. Prevailing are glimmering golds and whites, deep reds, regal blue accents, and cool browns with blacks. Every depicted gesture and detail has carefully thought out significance. […]

All this, and more, in “Speaks the Masterpiece: Fine Arts in Audio Description,” soon to be available in audiobook.

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