War Paint (Part 8): Battle of Grunwald

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.

Jan Matejko, Self-portrait, 1892.

Jan Matejko, Self-portrait, 1892.

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.

11 thoughts on “War Paint (Part 8): Battle of Grunwald

  1. I like the way these paintings always make battles look so heroic and valiant, I expect the reality was quite different!

    • Well you wouldn’t have a great painting of a bunch of maimed men laying around with crushed limbs and skulls waiting days for gangrene to set in….or maybe you would.

      You’ll have to stay tuned for the next installment…

  2. Ste J says:

    The word Teuton was the only word that everyone failed to get in the pub until I answered and got it straight away and then smoothly ordered a pint…I felt like one of the Gods for a bit that day…fond memories.

    The Polish are geographically an unlucky breed for being taken over, that is perhaps why most of their myths are taken up with forests.

    The real mystery these days is why the Teutonic Knights don’t get surrounded by conspiracy theories when the Templars have such a strangle hold on notoriety.

    • It’s always great to be the hero at the pub, whether it’s shouting drinks or starring at trivia.

      I think the Teutonic Order stays conspiracy-free because the Knights Templar have that monopolized. After all, the Templars were brought down by one of the greatest conspiracies of all time. The Teutons had a slow decline due to internal squabbling and economic decay.

      I know which movie I’d rather watch.

  3. aaroncripps says:

    Thanks for a thoroughly enjoyable series thus far Aaron. I await with interest to discover the last two paintings you have chosen. My place of employment, the Joint Services Command and Staff College in the UK has a large collection of art, the majority of which relates to scenes of war and other military subjects. We’ve put a small selection of the artworks online – http://www.da.mod.uk/colleges/jscsc/jscsc-library/artwork – and hope to add more in the not too distant future.

    • I’m glad you’re enjoying it. It’s been fun to compile as well. There are only two left….one of them should be very expected and the other is a bit out of left field. Then I have to figure out what to do next.

      • aaroncripps says:

        Just a thought, but a series on how women are depicted in war images could be very interesting. Taking two of your choices from your War Paint series you have Liberty/Marianne, a symbol of strength, power, and freedom, and in the Bayeux Tapestry you have the woman who is the victim of Duke William’s ravaging.

      • That’s an interesting thought. But I’ll most likely be going away from paintings altogether on the Tuesday series. It sounds like a good wrap up piece for the series, though.

  4. jarretr says:

    As someone with a Polish background, it’s always fascinating to read about the endlessly tumultuous history of that region. Well done.

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