Stanisław Wyspiański: monumental project

The National Museum in Krakow

Painting decoration and stained glass windows for the Franciscan church in Kraków are one of the greatest artist's achievements.

Franciscan church in Krakow 
Just how Gustav Klimt’s life was linked to Vienna, Stanisław Wyspiański’s whole life was linked to Krakow — its churches and public utility buildings, for which he designed innovative, monumental pieces. One of his great achievements was creating painting decoration and stained glass windows for the Franciscan church.
Painting decoration
The National Museum in Krakow has a valuable collection, containing some hundred and fifty items, of pastel designs, tracing patterns and pounced drawings executed for painting decoration in the Franciscan church in Krakow. And although this assemblage does not include all the artist’s ideas implemented on the walls of the church, it is the only collection of this type in Polish museum holdings. It gives an insight not only into the stage of the artist’s work connected directly with the creative process of making the artwork, but also into the one related to the technical aspect of its execution.

To find out how Stanisław Wyspiański became involved in the work on the painting decoration of the Franciscan church it is necessary to go back to the events which had occurred in Krakow in the latter half of the 19th century. In July 1850 a huge fire broke out in Krakow, which gutted a considerable part of the city, including some of the Franciscan church. The aim of the restoration works was not only to rebuild the church, but also to restore it to its medieval appearance.

From Stanisław Wyspiański’s letter to his friend Lucjan Rydel we can learn he had been thinking about the decoration of the Franciscan church even before he was chosen in the competition. On 16 November 1894 he wrote to his friend, who was staying in Paris at the time: “Now I am busy composing decoration for the Franciscan church, which I am doing on my own initiative and for my own satisfaction, – but who knows..."

Before Wyspiański's project there was a competition for a new arrangement of the church. Because the winning design by Józef Mikulski and Franciszek Górski aroused controversy, another competition was held. On 15 March 1895 the jury chose again Mikulski and Górski’s design, recommending that it be executed under the supervision of Władysław Ekielski. Before starting work, Ekielski asked the two artists to carry out painting tests in the church. Because they were unsuccessful, the contract with the designers was broken. In the end Wyspiański did receive a commission for polychrome decoration in the Franciscan church, which happened on 12 June 1895.

Wyspiański started to work on the painting decoration of the Franciscan church with his characteristic enthusiasm and eagerness. Artist's relative Maria Waśkowska-Kreinerowa said: “Every day he makes and provides workers with new cartoons with patterns. He works strenuously, patiently, intently. His studio is filled with rolls of paper. On the walls he hangs more and more unframed paintings, drawings, sketches, small cartoons, big cartoons. He works both in church and at home. He climbs up the scaffoldings, ladders. This job makes him happy, satisfied and offers him an opportunity to develop his talent, to show it to the world.”

This quote well illustrate both the pace and scale of the work done in the church. The artist was able to cope up with it only because - to cite Rydel - “he implemented (...) in the Franciscan church the solutions which he had learnt up on the scaffolding in Saint Mary’s church” where he worked in the student years under the supervision of Jan Matejko.

What were these solutions? “Matejko’s cartoons were copied with the use of tracing paper and the resulting stensil with a series of pinpricks, known as pounced drawing, was attached to the wall. By dabbing pounce through the pinpricks the join up of the dots replica of it was created on the wall.

After finishing the drawing with charcoal, paints were applied and the picture was shaded and modelled based on the cartoon.” Transferring designs of plant and geometric ornaments to the walls of the church using the technique described above was done by a group of craftsmen supervised by Mikulski and Górski.

Figural compositions, which required “greater artistry”, were painted on the walls by Wyspiański himself.

Scene of the fall of angels: “here we can see the fall of the creatures associated with fault and sin. Stupefied, without fight, without opposition against their fatal destination their tangled bodies fall down, and an army of young angles send in their direction fiery bullets from their tightened bows".

The collection of the National Museum in Krakow includes twelve pastel designs for flowers with flat, geometrised and symmetrical forms, executed in window embrasures and on the edges of windows in the chancel and the transept.

Wyspiański blended the figural and floral motifs for the church interior into the fields, strips and borders filled with ornamental decoration. The holdings of the Krakow Museum include over forty pastel designs for these ornaments.

And although their diversity is immense, it does not cover the entire “polycolouredness” and variety which can be admired on the church walls. “The richness of this ornamentation – Rydel wrote – is such that it is difficult to realise its entire wealth even for me, and I have been following the progress of painting works in the church week by week and watching everything up on the scaffolding".

Rydel wrote that the vaulting of the Franciscan church was covered “uniformly with a subdued, deep pale sapphire colour with hundreds of golden stars shining on it.” We can watch their diverse and complex forms in extant pastel designs. According to Rydel, when working on stars, Wyspiański was inspired by “the enormous diversity of star-like snow crystals, which can be found enlarged – in every physics textbook.”

Work on the painting decoration lasted from June to December 1895. The work was approved by the “artistic commission” on 30 December that year and the opinion was very favourable for Wyspiański.

Polycoloured Franciscan Church. Stained Glass Windows
“Work on designs for stained glass windows is going well and they will be very beautiful. Of course they are completely new, new through and through, mine, only mine, without any restraint, anybody’s influence. I threw away all the architects. I am the real architect – the one that was needed here.”

Stanisław Wyspiański wrote these enthusiastic words to his friend Lucjan Rydel on 3 July 1897. At the time he was working on the cartoons for stained glass windows in the Franciscan church, for which he had been asked some time earlier, on 20 June, by the guardian (superior) of the order, Fr Samuel Rajss.

The artist’s commitment and lively pace of work on these stained glass designs are well conveyed by an account given in his next letter drafted to Rydel on 5 July: “I have just finished drawing the third stained glass window from left. As you know they will show the elements. I have completed the element of water. Now I am drawing the element of fire".

"However, I haven’t introduced the whole huge apparatus yet, e.g. I’m not depicting (for the time being) fish or reptiles in water, contenting myself with water plants, actually not marine flora, but the more modest one (which will be more appropriate for us)".

"I have depicted fire embodied in crimson, flame lilies and poppies. Irises, flat-leaved water lilies and brandy-bottles are playing in water".

The “huge cartoon,” mentioned by Wyspiański in a letter of 5 July 1897, was a design for the western window in the Franciscan church. In this window the artist was planning to depict God the Father creating the world. Already in December 1897 the cartoon with God the Father and the other designs for stained glass windows in the Franciscan church were shown at the exhibition of the Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Sztuk Pięknych [Friends of Fine Arts Society] in Krakow.

The Report on 1897 listed the following works by Wyspiański: Stained Glass Cartoons, Saint Francis – stained glass composition, God Creating the World from Chaos. For the cartoon for the stained glass window Saint Francis Wyspiański received the first award (1,000 Guldens). Another exhibition at which the artist presented his cartoons was held at the Zachęta [Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts] in Warsaw at the end of January and the beginning of February 1898.

Wyspiański’s works were awarded out of competition. This was the only way, because according to the regulations only paintings and sculptures representing pure art could take part in the competition, and Wyspiański’s works clearly had features of the applied arts. They are in the form of huge cartoons, and all can serve as designs for stained glass windows in the Franciscan church in Krakow. There are five of them: Good the Father, Saint Francis, Three Saint Nuns, The Element of Fire and The Element of Water. What is most important about these compositions is their originality. Wyspiański’s stained glass windows can be regarded as his own unique style, showing his enormous creative power in this field.

Work on the designs was continued in the next months of 1898. In September 1898 the artist went to Innsbruck, where he and the artistic director of the company chose the color shades of glass pieces for the stained glass windows. Probably already by then talks had been initiated about changing the design for the stained glass window with three ascetically represented sisters of Saint Claire. According to Władysław Ekielski, the order was against this depiction of the saints "claiming they are too ugly and that the canons do not allow to show anything disgusting in the church, and it demanded a new composition in which the faces would be ‘more beautiful,’ at least without this characteristic asceticism."

The conflict between Wyspiański and the Franciscans was exacerbated at the beginning of 1899. From then on work on the stained glass windows was continued without Wyspiański. Designs for the eastern window and traceries were in the end produced by Bernard Rice. It was also him that transferred an image of Blessed Salomea to a cartoon. Wyspiański did not accept the decisions of the order and tried to prevent them.

According to an account given by Julian Pagaczewski, “Shortly before starting work on the production of the stained glass window with God the Father for the western window in the Franciscan church, the cartoon was spread in one of the halls of the National Museum in the Sukiennice, and a case with numbered samples of colored glasses was sent from the stained glass company. At the Museum Wyspiański selected glasses, watching them against the light and comparing their shades with the colors in the cartoon.

It turned out, however, that it was not possible to find among the samples the hues that would be identical to the ones in the cartoon. Therefore Wyspiański chose one of the colors as the basic one, and based on it he selected the other colors so that they harmonised with one another. As a result the combination of colors and their intensity in the final stained glass window are different from the ones in the cartoon; nevertheless, in terms of color the stained glass window should also be regarded as the work of Wyspiański, as he was the one who decided on the selection of colors and their shades.”

“Stained glass constitutes the lion’s share in Wyspiański’s oeuvre. The greatest works were executed in this technique. His cartoons are linked with that drive, prevailing in Wyspiański’s art, that longing for monumental art, direct contact with life and influencing it, a desire for renaissance in art and life,” this is what Mieczysław Skrudlik wrote about Stanisław Wyspiański’s stained glass windows shortly after the artist’s death.

Here we can see "The Dormition of Mary". Design of a quarter for the west stained glass window in Saint Mary's Church in Krakow.

Credits: Story

Curators of the exhibition / texts: Danuta Godyń, Magdalena Laskowska (selection: Agata Jabłońska)
Reproductions: Photographic Studio NMK: Bartosz Cygan, Katarzyna Wojdyła, Jacek Świderski

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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