Part 8 in a 10 part series. To view other entries into the War Paint Series, follow the link.
The Battle of Grunwald, as it’s most commonly known, was one of the largest in Europe’s medieval history, was a deciding event in Eastern Europe’s history and saw the rise of a great regional power, yet often flies under the radar. The battle was fought in 1410 by the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania against the Teutonic Order near the modern Polish village of Grunwald in the country’s north.
The battle was born out of a series of events known as the Northern Crusades, in which the Teutonic Order and Scandinavian monarchies attempted to Christianize the pagan tribes of the Baltic Sea. The Teutons had seized land belonging to Lithuania, but with the Grand Duchy’s conversion to Christianity in 1385 and their union to Poland, the tides turned back in favor of the Slavs. Fought between upwards of 70,000 participants, it forever changed the landscape of the Baltic and saw the Polish-Lithuanian Union, and later the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, become the largest state in Europe. The Teutonic Order would maintain relevance for some time, but the financial burden placed on it following its defeat would lead to a series of internal struggles that would eventually see its demise.
The painting, by Jan Matejko, depicts the death of Ulrich von Jungingen, Grand Master of the Teutonic order. Duke Vytautas of Lithuania sits astride his horse in the center of the piece, sword raised. The painting is one of the most enduring symbols of Polish pride, so much so that it had a bounty of 10 million marks for its capture during Goebbels’ systematic destruction of Polish culture during World War II. It now hangs in the National Museum in Warsaw.
Artist Matejko was born in Krakow in 1838 and is possibly the most famous Polish painter. His works often deal with historical themes involving his native land. He bucked the stereotype of the starving artist, gaining notoriety during his time and selling some of his works for extravagant fees. During the 1800’s, Poland was partitioned between Prussia, Austria and Russia. Matejko’s work is often credited with keep Polish Nationalism alive during a time when a sovereign Poland was barely a pipe dream.