Illustrated Polish Bible by Leopold Nowotny and the iconography of the history of Poland in the Nazarene art

Maria Nitka

Polish Institute of World Art Studies


In 1872 Cyprian Kamil Norwid voiced an appeal to save a collection of drawings by Leopold Nowotny, who named the future Illustrated Polish Bible. The author hereof presented the idea of an “illustrated bible”, as was undertaken by the Brotherhood of St Lucas in the art of the 19th century, whose artistic heir was Leopold Nowotny. He created several dozen drawings showing religious scenes set in Nazarene aesthetics. These depictions do not differ much from the classical versions of cycles of paintings from the history of the Old and New Testaments. The author seeks, therefore, answers as to why Norwid saw in them paintings from the “Polish” bible. This issue is analysed with reference to the Nazarene concept of history in which, according to the scholastic idea of time, particular events become a repetition of the concept of the story of salvation – the most important lesson in the message of the Catholic theology of the Bible. It is indicated that the Nazarene aesthetics, rooted in such a concept of time, is strictly related to the semantics of the work. The archaic, anti-naturalist form of the paintings of the Brotherhood of St Lucas is, therefore, an element of a conscious attempt at historiosophy, which is the basis for understanding the core of this artistic movement. This connection of form and content in the works of the Nazarenes was described by Cordula Grewe as “historical symbolism”, which connects the holy and secular histories and moves the profanum into the sphere of the sacrum. This perspective on the Polish version of biblical history would feature depictions of saints by Nowotny. In the theological sense, the copies of biblical history are, in fact, the fates of particular saints – followers of Christ. Events from the history of the nation were for the members of the Brotherhood of St Lucas also a repetition of the history of salvation. In Polish art, the only full realization of this concept is the work of Edward Brzozowski Bolesław Chrobry and Otton III at the grave of St Adalbert in the Golden Chapel in Poznań cathedral. There are, however, no references to the history of Poland in the art of Nowotny, who devoted himself only to producing religious paintings. In the Nazarene concept of history, this did not have to mean a lack of “Polishness” of these works; they might be placed in the political context as a manifestation of Catholicism with conservative values being the basis of the founding of the Golden Chapel (Chapel of the Kings of Poland) and the chapel in Turew, where in the altar Nowotny’s painting of the Immaculata was placed. Bringing up the idea of creating the Illustrated Polish Bible, Norwid referred not only to the collection of graphics and paintings by Nowotny, but to the project of creating a sacred-national painting movement, and the very idea of collecting illustrations for the Illustrated Polish Bible may be understood as another attempt at the sanctification of national history in the art of Polish romanticism.

Keywords: Cyprian Kamil Norwid, Leopold Nowotny, religious painting, 19th century, Brotherhood of St Lucas, Illustrated Bible (Bilderbibel), Turew


In 1872 Cyprian Kamil Norwid in his letter to Józef Bohdan Zaleski called for saving the “collection […] produced by a notable expert”. This collection belonged to the future “Illustrated Polish Bible, which this Catholic nation does not have at the moment”.[1] What this would Illustrated Polish Bible be is not clear, since the poet’s call remained unanswered and the collection of religious works by Leopold Nowotny was scattered. Several sketches have been saved, as have several unfinished drawings, though according to his designs they do not form any cycle. They are works that show episodes from biblical histories – two graphics from the Old Testament: David playing the harp [fig. 1] and Cain and Abel, other pictures featuring mainly New Testament scenes, including: Announcement, Christ’s Birth, Christ in Martha’s House [fig. 2], Christ and the Wise and Foolish Virgins [fig. 3], Christ Blessing the Wise Virgins, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, Christ Carrying the Cross.[2]

The project of creating illustrations for the Bible fits perfectly into the concept of “Bible in pictures” – Bilderbibel, which has a long tradition, and attempts were made to preserve this tradition, modelling it after the old art of the Brotherhood of St Lucas. The first Nazarene who attempted to execute the program of creating a Bible in paintings was Johann Friedrich Overbeck. He was inspired by the ideas of Johan Heinrich Pestalozzi, postulating the return to the naive perception of a child, already in Vienna in 1808 he wanted to create a cycle representing the Bible for the people, and then in 1810–1811 he produced illustrations showing the life of Christ.[3] In 1815, after coming from Rome, the idea of a joint effort was undertaken by a member of the brotherhood named Joseph Sutter to prepare by the group the illustrations to the Bible. In 1819, thanks to the initiative of Carl Barth, the project united such artists as Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Johann David Passavant, Samuel Amsler and Johann Friedrich Böhmer.[4] The idea of creating a Bilderbibel was extremely important for the brotherhood, but together they did not accomplish it and they continued the work separately. The first bible illustrated by the Nazarenes – Bilder-Bibel in funfzig bildlichen Darstellungen – was authored by Friedrich von Oliviera and dated 1836.[5] Overbeck also continued working on the expanded cycle of images from the life of Christ, which were, however, issued as a series of graphics in 1846.[6] A realization of the topic of bible histories, Die Bibel in Bildern, was produced by Julius Schnorra von Carolsfeld, who had been preparing it since the 1820s until it was published in 1860.[7] It was very popular in the second part of the century, in Europe as well as in America and Asia. When in 1872 Norwid wrote the words quoted at the beginning of this paper, the idea of an “Illustrated Bible” was known thanks to the efforts of the old members of the Brotherhood of St Lucas.

[1] C.K. Norwid, letter to J.B. Zaleski, 11 Jan. 1872, in: idem, Pisma wszystkie, vol. 9, ed. J.W. Gomulicki, Warszawa 1971, pp. 502–503.

[2] The works by Nowotny known from biblical-themed graphics include: King David, transverse woodcut (by S. Baranowski), paper, 23.3×14 cm, National Museum in Cracow, inv. no. III-ryc.-30576, reprint “Wieniec”, 1872, no. 17, p. 144; Cain and Abel, ink, watercolour on paper, 21.6×30 cm, Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich (hereinafter referred to as: ZNiO), inv. no. Ig 5016; Annunciation (before 1858, pen, ink, paper, 16.7×23.8 cm, National Museum in Warsaw (hereinafter referred to as: MNW), inv. no. Rys.Pol.2681; Christ’s birth, after 1844, oil on paper, 18.5×24.3 cm, MNW, inv. no. Rys.Pol.161321; Christ in Martha’s house, 1844, black crayon, pencil on paper, 45.4×32.8 cm, ZNiO, inv. no. Ig 5020; Christ with Wise and Foolish Virgins, 1841, pencil, ink coloured with watercolour on paper, 28.4×43.7 cm, ZNiO, inv. no. Ig 5018; Christ Blessing the Wise Virgins, pencil, ink coloured with watercolour on paper, 28.4×43.7 cm, ZNiO, inv. no. Ig 5019; Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, pencil, ink coloured with watercolour on paper, 29.3×42.8 cm, ZNiO, inv. no. 5017; Christ Carrying the Cross, engraving. J. Lewicki, aquatint, etching, paper, 15.8×9.4 cm, MNW, inv. no. Gr.Pol.12279.

[3] C. Grewe, Painting the Sacred in the Age of Romanticism, Farnham–Burlington 2009, p. 209.

[4] Ibidem, pp. 215, 217.

[5] Bilder-Bibel in funfzig bildlichen Darstellungen von Friedrich von Olivier, Hamburg 1836.

[6] Darstellungen aus den Evangelien nach vierzig Originalzeichnungen von Friedrich Overbeck, Düsseldorf 1846.

[7] Grewe 2009 (fn. 3), pp. 217–223.

[8] Overbeck started work on the painting Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem in 1808, while still in Vienna. He finished it only in 1824 and it was the first of his first works shown in his home town of Lubeck. The painting was destroyed in 1942; see: M. Thimann, Friedrich Overbeck und die Bildkonzepte des 19. Jahrhunderts, Regensburg 2014, pp. 224–228.

[9] J. Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Christ Blessing the Children, 1822, oil on canvas, 147×107 cm, lost, formerly: Hohe Domstift Naumburg; see: Verlorene Meisterwerke Deutscher Romantiker, eds. G.J. Wolf, München 1931, number 96; J.F. Overbeck, Christ at Martha and Maria’s house, 1813–1816, oil on canvas, 103×85 cm, Berlin Alte Nationalgalerie; see: Thimann 2014 (fn. 8), fig. XXI.

[10] P. von Cornelius, Christ and the Wise and Foolish Virgins, 1813–1819, oil on canvas, 116×155 cm, Kunstmuseum, Düsseldorf.

[11] C. Reiter, Die Kartons von Joseph Führich zu den Kreuzwegstationen in der Johann-Nepomuk-Kirche in Wien, in: Religion Macht Kunst. Die Nazarener, eds. M. von Hollein, Ch. Steinle, exhibition catalogue, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 15 Apr. – 24 Jul. 2005, Frankfurt am Main, pp. 207–209.

[12] B. Hinz, Der Triumph der Religion in den Künsten Overbecks Werk und Wort im Widerspruch seiner Zeit, “Städel Jahrbuch” 7, 1979, pp. 149–176.

[13] M. Nitka, Twórczość malarzy polskich w papieskim Rzymie w XIX wieku, Toruń–Warszawa 2014, part II: Katalog, Cat. no. 52.

[14] A. Melbechowska-Luty, Sztukmistrz. Twórczość artystyczna i myśl o sztuce Cypriana Norwida, Warszawa 2001, pp. 97, 165–166, fig. 81.

[15] A. Pietrzak, Przyczynek do historii niezachowanej kolekcji Michaliny z Dziekońskich Zaleskiej (catalogue of drawings from the National Library), Rocznik Biblioteki Narodowej 43, 2012, p. 180.

[16] C.K. Norwid, Krytycy i artyści, in: Norwid 1971 (fn. 1), vol. 6, pp. 596–597.

[17] [K. Libelt], Artyści, Dzienniki Polski, 1849, (25 Jul.), as quoted in: Norwid 1971 (fn. 1), vol. 4, p. 559

[18] See: D. Pniewski, Między obrazem i słowem. Studia o poglądach estetycznych i twórczości literackiej Norwida, Lublin, 2005, pp. 10–13.

[19] C.K. Norwid, Una piccolissima osservazione al illustre autore delMagnificat delle arti’, in: Norwid 1971 (fn. 1), vol. 6, pp. 395–397.

[20] C.K. Norwid, letter to M. Dziekońska, 9 Aug. 1852, in: Norwid 1971 (fn. 1), vol. 9, p. 173.

[21] Ch. de Montalembert, Du vandalisme et du catholicisme dans l’art, Paris 1839.

[22] [A. Kestner], Overbeck’s Werk und Wort. Ein Aufsatz von einem römischen Kunstfreunde, “Kunst-Blatt”, 1841, no. 33 (27 Apr.), pp. 129–133; see also: B. Hinz, Der Triumph der Religion in der Künsten. Overbecks “Werk und Wort” im Widerspruch seiner Zeit, “Städel Jahrbuch”, 1979, pp. 149–170.

[23] Purism’s Manifesto (Manifesto del Purismo) was prepared by Antonio Bianchini and signed by Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Pietro Tenerani and Tommaso Minardi. Announced in 1842, it established a new religious art base on “pure”, templates of old art, stemming from the spirit. A perfect work that fulfilled these criteria was Disputation of the Sacrament by Rafael; see: D. Vasta, La pittura sacra in Italia nell’Ottocento. Dal Neoclassicismo al Simbolismo, Roma 2016, p. 52.

[24] Norwid wrote: “per me che non faccio partito ni dei puristi, ni dei contra-puristi”; Norwid 1971 (fn. 19), p. 396.

[25] Norwid noted in Una piccolissima osservazione… that he is one of the admirers of what “with God’s blessing” Overbeck did [“uno degli ammiratori di tutto cio che Illustre Overbeck ha fatto con la grazia di Dio”]; as quoted in ibidem, p. 397.

[26] C.K. Norwid, letter to J.B. Zaleski, 22 IX 1872, in: Norwid 1971 (fn. 1), vol. 9, p. 496.

[27] C.K. Norwid, Critics and artists, in: Norwid 1971 (fn. 1), vol. 6, pp. 596–597.

[28] C.K. Norwid, Wyjątek z listu z Krakowa w czerwcu 1842 pisanego, in: Norwid 1971 (fn. 1), vol. 6, pp. 357–358.

[29] C.K. Norwid, Promethidion, in: Norwid 1971 (fn. 1), vol. 6, p. 441.

[30] Pniewski 2005 (fn. 18), pp. 24–26.

[31] Compare W. Suchocki, Mickiewicz i Machabeusze Stattlera, in: Księga Mickiewiczowska, eds. Z. Trojanowiczowa, Z. Przychodniak, Poznań 1998, pp. 117–122; Nitka 2014 (fn. 13), pp. 217–234.

[32] In relation to the renaissance worship of Saint Stanisława Kostka, the room of the saint was decorated in the cloister near the church Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, which was made by Minardi; see: Vatsa 2016 (fn. 23), p. 49.

[33] E. Raczyński, Sprawozdanie z fabryki kaplicy grobowej Mieczysława I i Bolesława Chrobrego w Poznaniu, Poznań 1841.

[34] Ibidem, p. 39.

[35] From Ostrowska-Kębłowska, Dzieje Kaplicy Królów Polskich czyli Złotej w katedrze poznańskiej, Poznań 1997, pp. 117–118.

[36] Raczyński 1841 (fn. 33), p. 39.

[37] Nitka 2014 (fn. 13), pp. 236–237.

[38] R. Koselleck, O rozpadzie toposu “Historia magistra vitae” w polu horyzontu historii zdominowanej nowożytnością, w: Semantyka historyczna, ed. H. Orłowski, transl. W. Kunicki, Poznań 2001, pp. 75–106.

[39] Thimann 2014 (fn. 8), p. 224–228.

[40] For more information about “Eos” and the role of Schelling in its creation see: C. Grewe, The Nazarenes. Romantic Avant-Garde and the Art of the Concept, Pennsylvania 2015, pp. 76–77; see also C. Grewe, Historicism and the Symbolic Imagination in Nazarene Art, The Art Bulletin, 2007, no. 89 (1), pp. 82–107.

[41] Peter Cornelius. Festschrift zu des grossen Künstlers hundertstem Geburtstage, 23. September 1883, ed. H. Riegel, pp. 82–83.

[42] F. Schlegel, Filozofia życia, transl. X. Guenot, Wilno 1840, p. 28; see: A. Lisiecka, Z problemów historyzmu Cypriana Norwida, “Pamiętnik Literacki” 50, 1959, no. 2, pp. 355–356.

[43] S. Morawski, Poglądy estetyczne Cypriana Kamila Norwida, in Studia z historii myśli estetycznej XVIII i XIX wieku, Warszawa 1961, pp. 313–314.

[44] Grewe 2009 (fn. 3), pp. 111–113.

[45] J.F. Overbeck, Adoration of the Magi, oil on board, 49.7×66 cm, Kunsthalle Hamburg; see. Thimann 2014 (fn. 8), fig. XX.

[46] T. Padalica (Zenon Fisz), Listy z podróży, Wilno 1859, vol. 2, p. 140.

[47] C.K. Norwid, letter to J.B. Zaleski, [Aug.? 1871], in: Norwid 1971 (fn. 1), vol. 9, p. 492; Pniewski 2005 (fn. 18), p. 29.

[48] To the paintings of Nowotny presenting Holy Virgin Mary include: Birth, Coronation of the Holy Virgin Mary, Holy Virgin Mary in Mandrola, see fn. 2.

[49] Nitka 2014 (fn. 13), pp. 247–248.

[50] E. Prałat, Turew. Miejsce i sztuka, Poznań 2012, pp. 39–47.

[51] The meeting of Chłapowski and Ratisbonne was described in her memoires by the daughter of the general; see ibidem, p. 45.

[52] E. Brzozowski, letter to W.K. Stattler, Rome, 14 Mar. 1837, Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Special Collection, number 290–I, p. 14.

[53] Current News (Wiadomości bieżące), “Przegląd Poznański” 5, 1847, pp. 245–246.

[54] W. Kalinka, Jenerał Dezydery Chłapowski, Poznań 1885, p. 174.

[55] Ibidem, p. 170.

[56] The painting Immaculata by Brzozowski is in the Church of the Gracious Mother of God in Mentorelli. For the information about the painting I want to thank Wiesława Cichosz.

[57] K. Morawski, Korespondencja z 2 VIII 1839, “Przyjeciel Ludu” I, 1839, no. 8, p. 62.

[58] Wiadomości bieżące, “Przegląd Poznański” 5, 1847, p. 670.

[59] C.K. Norwid, letter to J.B. Zaleski, 11 Jan. 1872, in: Norwid 1971 (fn. 1), vol. 9, p. 502.

The full text of the article was published in the pages of "Sacrum et Decorum" . Please send your orders to the University of Rzeszów Publishers or activate an electronic subscription.