The largest painting in the National Museum’s collection – Jan Matejko’s Battle of Grunwald, measuring over four metres in height and nearly ten in width.
The painting depicts the culmination of a battle waged in July of 1410 which ended in a rout of the Teutonic Knights’ army by allied Polish-Lithuanian-Russian forces led by Ladislaus Jagiełło. The Battle of Grunwald acquired a monumental relevance in Polish history. As one of the nation’s greatest military victories, it became an affirmation of the historical strength of the kingdom. Matejko’s depiction of this very event in the era of the country’s partitioning was intended to bolster Poles’ faith in their homeland’s future resurgence.
The action portrayed in the painting revolves around two figures, the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order Ulrich von Jungingen and the Lithuanian Grand Duke Witold. We see von Jungingen is the midst of a fatal clash with plebeian warriors symbolising the Polish-Lithuanian nation. The triumph of the victors is personified in the figure of Duke Witold, full of momentum, appearing as if elevated above the fighting masses. A key ideological accent can be found in the spear being aimed at the chest of the Grand Master. The weapon is the Spear of Saint Maurice – an insignia of the Polish crown after Holy Roman Emperor Otto III presented Boleslaus I the Brave with a replica of the Holy Lance during the Congress of Gniezno.
The emotions on the faces of the warriors – ranging from triumph to despair, from chivalric courage to fury and terror – are depicted in a much more graphic way than the fashion typical of academic painting in the second half of the 19th century. The densely packed and seemingly crooked composition, achieved in part through setting the two main focal points – the action around the Grand Master and the figure of Witold – deeper within the scene, serve to pull the viewer into the very centre of the battlefield tumult. Matejko’s deliberate lack of restraint and order in constructing the composition, his use of nervous outlines and the sharp, dissonant contrast of colours were all intended to maximise the painting’s impact. Despite the realistic rendition of the cruel and brutal fighting, the artist was still able to endow the knights with a specific air of grandeur and pathos, and to elevate the scene’s anonymous warriors to the rank of heroes of a historical epic.
Matejko’s vision of the Battle of Grunwald rose to achieve symbolic stature. The painting’s significance within Polish culture is evidenced by the fact that during World War II, the Nazis offered a reward of two million Marks, eventually increased to ten million, for information leading to the location of the canvas. Fortunately, even with such a high sum, the painting never fell into Nazi hands.