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Exhibitions: The Grand Allegiance

3 minute read

The dominant characteristic of Polish art has always been its steadfast alliance with Western Europe. This Slavic nation, situated on plainlands, has been invaded from all sides, by Mongols, Cossacks, Tartars, Teutonic Knights and Nazis; yet across the centuries it has remained a stronghold for artistic styles as familiar in Paris and Venice as in Warsaw. In no small part this allegiance comes from Poland’s 1,000 years as a Christian nation oriented toward Rome.

To celebrate the millennium this year, Chicago’s Polish community—the largest outside of Poland—requested and got from the present Communist government an exhibition of 127 historic objects that display the nation’s artistic heritage. The exhibition of treasures from Poland, which is currently at Chicago’s Art Institute and will travel next to Philadelphia and Ottawa, makes it clear that the Polish were as responsive to Gothic and Renaissance styles as the rest of Europe.

Backbreaking Gesture. The reliquary bust of St. Sigismund (see color page) demonstrates the multiple origins of Polish art. Given by Polish King Casimir the Great to the cathedral in Plock in 1370, the gilt object commemorates the martyred king of Burgundy, killed by the Franks during the 6th century, who became so popular that three kings of Poland took the name of Sigismund. The crown, studded with tourmalines, diamonds, pearls and sapphires, was commissioned in Venice nearly 150 years before the making of the bust, which was fashioned in Germany.

Polish artistry drew on the resources of Europe. During the early 16th century reign of Sigismund I, Italian Renaissance artists were at work in Poland. Even two centuries later, the most famous master in the country bore the name of Bernardo Bellotto, a nephew of Canaletto. A court painter from 1767 to 1780, he used a camera obscura to obtain perfect perspectives for his city scapes. After the destruction of Warsaw during World War II, his paintings were so accurate that they were used to reconstruct demolished monuments and buildings. The horn of the Wieliczka salt miners, made in 1534 from a bison that roamed Central Europe, celebrates a mine dating back to prehistoric times. Offered in the king’s name by the mine-owner to his well-organized craft guild, its backbreaking gesture seemingly turns their burdens into the symbol of an elegant cornucopia full of goodness for all men.

Wooden Birds. Just as in Holland, where Hals and Rembrandt painted citizen companies of harquebusiers, Polish burghers formed shooting fraternities. Their aim was to defend their city walls; more often they were social militias. Their targets were wooden birds atop staffs, a custom recalled in the Cracow fraternity’s emblem, which was the gift of Sigismund Augustus in 1565, with its silver cock resplendent in royal crown and symbolically attached by a chain to its perch. Poland has been partitioned out of existence only to re-emerge as a nation, changed again under present-day Communism, but its ancient traditions are preserved in its art. In fact the shooting fraternity of Cracow still exists. Each year they parade with a replica of their royal bird to their ritual gunnery.

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