The Constitution of 3 May 1791 remains one of those events in the history of Poland which buttress the belief in the wisdom and vitality of the nation. Its power and triumphant scope was best expressed by Jan Matejko – writes Prof. Jerzy Miziołek.
.The process of painting the Constitution of 3 May, the last great masterpiece by Matejko (who died in 1893), can be easily traced in written records and the statements made by the artist himself. Marian Gorzkowski wrote in 1898: “Matejko chose the moment that was the most emblematic for the Constitution of 3 May, that is its proclamation on the streets of Warsaw when the crowds proceeded to church to take the final oath.” The huge painting (2.5 x 4.5 m) does indeed depict a triumphant procession. Before describing it in detail, it is worth mentioning a valuable souvenir of yet another triumph related to the deliberations of the Great Sejm and its famous Marshal, Stanisław Małachowski. Known for his great integrity, Małachowski earned the moniker “the Polish Aristotle”. In 1789, during the period of pure joy accompanying the sessions of the Four-Year Sejm, a banner was made in his honour in the garden of the Krasiński (Commonwealth) Palace in the form of a triumphal arch. It bore the following four-line poem and a scene of wreathing represented on the arcade:
Wolność przez Twoje ręce
Z rozwalin powstaje,
Bierz z radością ten wieniec,
Oyczyzna go daje.
[Freedom rises from ruins,
By the work of your hands
Take this wreath gladly
As a gift of your land.]
Józef Czechowski’s engraving gives us some idea of the artistic value of the arch with its ornaments and inscriptions that commemorated not only the eminent politician and patriot, but also the triumph of the idea for reforming the state. Another arch was erected in the market square of the Old Town after the adoption and swearing in of the Constitution, but, unfortunately, no image of it has survived.
On the road to reforming the Republic
.The eminent historian Fr. Walerian Kalinka, expert on the history of the Four-Year Sejm, believed that the Constitution was adopted based on a wrong assessment of the political situation. Indeed, people were overly optimistic about the good intentions of Prussia ruled by Frederick Wilhelm and Leopold II, the Emperor of Austria who was sympathetic to the Polish cause and tried to promote – to no avail, as we now know – the need of reforming Poland. France and England had their own problems. However, Warsaw tried to make good use of the period of tensions between Prussia and Russia. The work of repairing the state began a long time before 1788. It started with the Collegium Nobilium where Stanisław Konarski educated thousands of Poles including the co-drafters of the constitution of 3 May such as Ignacy and Stanisław Kostka Potocki. Later, when Stanisław August was already king, the Corps of Cadets was founded as another forge of patriotism that gave the world, among others, Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz whom Matejko immortalised – like Ignacy Potocki – in his famous painting. Finally, there are the achievements of the Commission of National Education, the world’s first ministry of education, and the reform of the Jagiellonian University carried out by Hugo Kołłątaj who co-authored the Constitution and also features in Matejko’s picture. Through his students who spoke up during sessions of school dietines, Konarski demanded personal freedom for peasants and political rights for townsmen. He even used the theatre stage as a platform from which to proclaim his patriotic and progressive ideas. His Tragedy of Epaminondas, for instance,contains the following notable phrase, among many others: „Nawet najświętsze prawo świętym być przestaje, gdy się przeciwnym szczęściu ojczystemu staje” [However holy, that law cannot stand which contravenes the welfare of your land].
Undoubtedly, this great teacher of the nation meant such travesties of the Polish legal system as the liberum veto that was at long last abolished by the Constitution. In the play, modern civic virtues are epitomised by famous Greeks – the already mentioned Aristides and Epaminondas – who were well known to the educated Poles, including from the works by Cornelius Nepos. The former lived in Athens during Persian wars, the latter was a strategist in Thebes in 4th century BC. Even though the integrity of Aristides, an eminent politician, was proverbial, he was ostracised and expelled from the country as a result of slanders. In spite of the offence, he came back to defend Athens against the Persian threat. Epaminondas broke the nonsensical law that required him to step down as strategist before a great battle with Spartan forces. Motivated by a just cause, he prolonger his status of commander-in-chief by one more day and won the battle. These two great Greeks are depicted in the paintings by Franciszek Smuglewicz from ca. 1790 that were probably commissioned by Hugo Kołłątaj. Among other locations, they are displayed in the Presidential Palace and the Royal Castle in Warsaw, i.e. not far away from Matejko’s masterpieces: Rejtan and Constitution of 3 May. The number of preserved versions of paintings featuring Aristides and Epaminondas suggests that their function was to “edify” envoys. One shows the scene of ostracism, the other the death of the brave strategist, a spear sticking out of his chest. In a moment he will learn about the victory and die as the deadly piece of iron is taken out. Love of one’s homeland is the highest law.
Triumph of the Constitution of 3 May
.It was with the greatest care that Matejko prepared himself for painting his historic work which was intended to decorate the Royal Castle. Following long and meticulous research, he decided to show the triumphant procession moving on in great numbers from the Royal Castle to St. John’s Church (current a cathedral). The central figure is Marshal Małachowski who is carried on the shoulders of two envoys and holds the world’s second constitution – after the American one – in his right hand. Next to him, also hoisted high, is Kazimierz Sapieha, Marshal of the Lithuanian Confederation. In the crowded space between Małachowski and king Stanisław August who is mounting the steps of the church, one can also see, among others, Ignacy Potocki, Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski and Hugo Kołłątaj. On the doorstep of the church, under a canopy, there is Princess Dorothea of Courland and, behind her, Elżbieta Grabowska, the king’s friend. The composition of the painting and the location of all the figures are very deliberate. The king is welcomed by the famous Jan Dekert, president of Old Warsaw, on behalf of townsmen who are finally well-represented in the Government Act. Standing behind Marshal Małachowski, Andrzej Zamoyski, a benefactor of peasantry, is pulling a peasant as a representative of the estate that was sadly not treated well by the new law. In the lower right-hand corner, there are two Jews – an old and a young one.
A very interesting scene is unfolding in the central bottom part of the painting: an envoy of Kalisz, Jan Suchorzewski, who opposed the Constitution and indeed any reforms, tires to kill his son with a knife. He threatened to do so if the Constitution was adopted. They boy is trying to break away from the cruel father whose knife-wielding hand is pinned down by Stanisław Kublicki, envoy of Livonia, one of the most active members of the reformist camp in the Sejm. Cards can be seen spilling out of the would-be killer’s pocket: Suchorzewski was a gambler and so an easy target for Russian bribes. Among other figures, our great painter has not forgotten to include Kościuszko and Prince Józef. This is how the genius of Matejko encapsulated one of the most glorious events in the history of Poland in the painted story of triumph. Regrettably, the ultimate triumph did not take place until as late as 1920.