The Truth of the Model and Jacek Malczewski’s “Crucifixions” [1]

Dorota KudelskaThe Catholic University of Lublin


Jacek Malczewski’s paintings often deal with biblical subjects, but strictly sacred pictures, i.e. intended for worship, are in his work very rare. When discussing the artist’s faith, it should be mentioned that apart from the habit of prayer he learnt at home, as a young man he was a member of St. Vincent de Paul Society encouraging not only charity work, but also systematic reading of the Old and New Testament and other spiritual texts.

The two Crucifixions painted by Malczewski are similar in their composition (the first one, from the family chapel belonging to the Konopkas of Breń at St Catherine’s Church in Olesno, known only from photographs, was painted in 1898; the other, in All Saints Church in Bobowa was painted around 1903). The documentation presented in the article helps to recreate the circumstances of making of both pictures and their dating. The author confronts the character of the Crucifixions with the “optimistic” subjects recommended for general church teaching, such as the Virgin Mary and the cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, stressing the hope for salvation.

The way the Bobowa Crucifixion is painted emphasizes the expressionistic, cadaverous features of Jesus’s body. The model was a suicide, whose body was set in the appropriate pose by the artist in the autopsy room at the Department of Anatomy in the Unit of Forensic Medicine, whose head, Prof. L. Wachholtz was Malczewski’s friend. The traces of this model are clearly visible in the Bobowa picture – the vertical beam of the cross has a crack identical to the crack in desk supporting the suicide’s body in the photograph. Other visible elements are the wire stuck into the arm and the pegs under the armpits, supporting the body and helping to place the body in the position appropriate for forensic photography. The perversity of this concept (the suicide, judged by the standards of these times, juxtaposed with the physicality of God-man and its results) has much in common with the contemporary literature which used often hyperbolic monumentalization. Such an approach to this subject was, however, hard to swallow both for the provincial parish priest and his parishioners, and for that reason the painting was removed from the main altar.

keywords: Jacek Malczewski, Crucifixion, Olesno, Bobowa


Jacek Malczewski on many occasions painted scenes from the Bible, often choosing forgotten iconographic motifs (such as Ezekiel’s prophecies) or took up in a novel way those constantly present in the European painting tradition (e.g. the life of St John the Baptist). However, only four pictures of this artist known today have sacred character, that is, in my understanding of this term, they were intended as the objects of worship. These are: two Crucifixions from Olesno and Bobowa, discussed below [fig. 1–2], Triptych with the Virgin Mary from the palace chapel in Sandomierz (currently in the parish church in Rzepiennik Strzyżewski) and Crucifixion from the side aisle at the church in Domosławice (formally different from the ones discussed here and therefore omitted).[1]

Crucifixion from St Catherine’s Church in Olesno is known nowadays from two photographs (the painting was stolen in 1983).[2] It was intended for the chapel of the Konopka family from Breń. The correspondence regarding the details of painting the picture is extant. The painter spent many a night, talking with Jan Baron Konopka, who had commissioned them, about “the ultimate matters”, as he himself noted on the drawing depicting the scene in the cafe.[3] Baron was the owner of the mansion house at Krupnicza 8, where the Malczewski family were living for many years. The picture “Jesus on the Cross”, begun in 1897, was completed – as the artist promised – in January 1898. He made it according to the detailed size specification he had asked for – within the inside diameter and allowing the margin for the frame.

The story of the second Crucifixion[4] remained unclear for a longer time. As early as in 1933 even the members of the artist’s family did not know for whom it was painted and where it was placed (currently the painting hangs in the chancel of All Saints Church in Bobowa). Adam Heydel, who had the complete family documents and photographs of Malczewski’s works, published in his monograph of the artist a small reproduction of the discussed picture, dating it at 1903 [fig. 3]. Since he did not have first-hand knowledge of this work, he did not discuss it extensively.[5] The fortunes of the picture are explained almost completely in the letter of Fr. Stanisław Warchałowski to Bishop Leon Wałęga from 1920.[6] The cause of the correspondence were the claims of “Count Zborowski”, who twice demanded the return of the canvas – he claimed to be its donor, and the picture “lies neglected in the attic”. Most probably the priest refers here to Stanisław Zborowski, who was the third companion during the night conversations “about soul” mentioned above. As the letter indicates, the story of the picture began when the count “came to see the newly painted church”. He was supposed to talk with the then parish priest Antoni Mamak and support financially the work done in the church. This allows us to place these events between August 1904, when the Neo-Gothic altar and polychrome wall paintings (now no longer extant) were completed, as indicated by the report from bishop’s visitation,[7] and 1908, when Fr. Mamak left that parish.[8] Zborowski donated 200 krones, which Fr. Mamak intended to use as a contribution towards commissioning Jan Styka to paint a picture for the main altar. Zborowski argued that 1200 krones would hardly suffice for covering the cost of painting supplies and would not be enough for the picture. He proposed then to give the commission to Malczewski and he offered his services as an intermediary in this matter (“I’ll make sure he will paint it and you won’t have to pay anything more than that”). Fr. Mamak learnt later that the count “paid his friend additional 1200 krones”, which however, in his opinion, did not mean that Zborowski was the picture’s donor.

Translated by Monika Mazurek

[1] Jacek Malczewski, A Tribute to the Virgin Mary, triptych, oil on wood or pressed wood [?], signed in the right bottom corner of the right wing: “J Malczewski”; the central part: Madonna with Child and Young Angels, 110 x 40 cm; the left wing: Tobias Wandering with Angel; the right wing: St Jacek Odrowąż, both wings 54 x 22 cm; commissioned by Karol Dolański, completed in 1913. Cf.: Sztuka Sakralna w Polsce. Malarstwo, ed. T. Dobrzeniecki, J. Ruszczycówna, Z. Niesiołowska-Rotherowa, Warszawa 1958, table 286–288. One could also add the flag design for the Pauline Fathers Monastery at Jasna Góra: Jacek Malczewski, St Casimir with the Angel, approx. 1880, tempera on canvas, 106,5 x 79,5 cm, signed in the bottom right corner: „J. Malczewski”. Cf.: Katalog Domu Aukcyjnego Agra-Art of 21 May 2006; Z. Niesiołowska-Rotherowa, Opis ilustracji, in: Sztuka sakralna w Polsce. Malarstwo, ed. T. Dobrzeniecki, J. Ruszczycówna, Z. Niesiołowska-Rotherowa, Warszawa 1958, p. 365; W. Skrodzki, Polska sztuka religijna 1900–1945, Warszawa 1989, p. 26.

[2] Photographs: a) on the commemorative print of Lady Anna nee Bronowska, the wife of Jan Baron Konopka from 1924, the caption under the photograph depicting the chapel with its surroundings reads: “The graves of the Konopka family at the cemetery in Olesno”, the caption under the photograph of Malczewski’s picture reads: „The picture/of Christ Crucified/ painted by Jacek Malczewski/ in the patrons’ chapel/ of the parish church in Olesno” (The Jacek Malczewski Regional Museum in Radom, inv. no. Dspl. 423); b) in the inventory card from the Conservations Office (the former Tarnów county, currently in the police files of the Kraków Regional Headquarters).

[3] The drawing depicts an artist Stanisław Zborowski and Jan Konopka, signed underneath: “JMalczewski from Saturday to Sunday/ conversation on soul/ 11/ June 12” (The National Museum in Kraków, inv. no. III r.a. 10471, pencil on paper, 20,5 x 30,7 cm).

[4] Jacek Malczewski, The Crucifixion, oil on canvas, approx. 200 x 135 cm (ID); a golden stripe at the bottom edge of the frame (13 cm wide. in the inside diameter) with the inscription: “Jacek Malczewski”. Taking the picture down from the side wall of the chancel, let alone photographing it, was impossible, despite the kind help of Fr. Marian Jedynak, the parish priest. For that reason I cannot provide data on the reverse side: the kind of stretcher and the technique used in order to put the inscription stripe above the lower part of the frame.

[5] A. Heydel, Jacek Malczewski. Człowiek i artysta, Kraków 1933, p. 206, Fig. 99 and the legend for the list of illustrations.

[6] The Diocesan Archive in Tarnów (further referred to as: ADT), The local files, Bobowa parish 1901–1920, Fr. S. Warchałowski to L. Wałęga (13 Sep 1920), LB XI 21, separate card. I would like to express my thanks to the Rev. Prof. Janusz Królikowski for pointing me to this and other documents from the Diocesan Archive in Tarnów quoted below as well as granting access to them. To prove his argument, Fr. Warchałowski quotes a fragment from the letter he received from Fr. Antoni Mamak in 1917, regarding Zborowski’s first request to return the picture. This letter was not used as a source by K. Majcher (Bobowa, historia, ludzie, zabytki, Bobowa 1991). since he claims that the discussed picture was presented to the neighbouring St Sophia Church after the death of Filomena Kossakiewiczowa and that Malczewski painted it in 1886 (p. 39), which is not confirmed by the stylistic analysis. The author does not cite the source of the information.

[7] ADT, canonical visitation no. I/2, Wizytacje kanoniczne, Bobowa deanery.

[8] Fr. A. Mamak left Bobowa on 31 December 1908, cf.: A. Nowak, Słownik biograficzny kapłanów diecezji tarnowskiej 1786–1985, vol. 3, Tarnów 2001, p. 182.

[9] In Malczewski’s sketchbooks from his late period one can find many drawings which are the variations on the figure of Christ, portrayed down to his arms, suggesting being stretched on the cross, or  the depictions of only his head in a large crown of thorns (cf.: G. Kubiak, Jacek Malczewski. Dessins et esquisses à l’huile du Musée National de Poznań, Catalogue Exposition à l’Institut Polonais de Paris 4 Feb – 2 March 2000, Fig. 34). The studies and pictures on this subject are also discussed by Michalina Janoszanka in her monograph of the artist (Wielki tercjarz. Moje wspomnienia o Jacku Malczewskim, Poznań [1936], pp. 192–193) and in the unpublished manuscript Pierwiastek religijny w obrazach Jacka Malczewskiego (The Jagiellonian Library, MS, akc. 1098/99, c. 3, 4).

[10] This society, founded in France, at the beginning had only academic members, that is male college students, members of academies and college professors. When it reached Poland, it did not have any age limits anymore, it accepted also women and members of social and financial elites (not necessarily with university diplomas). The society focused on two fields: the active participation of its members in the care for the poor (constant care over one person or family) and work on one’s own spiritual development. The last task included, among others, each member of the community choosing reading texts for the others and prepare its interpretation. Apart from the Bible it could be any spiritually improving texts. For further reading on this subject and bibliography: Kudelska 2008 (ft. 1), chap. O formacji i obrazach religijnych.

[11] On the particular intensity of the cult of the Virgin Mary and its effect on the visual arts: P. Krasny, „Le vrai de Notre-Dame”. O próbach odnowienia ikonografii maryjnej w XIX wieku, in: “Sacrum et Decorum” 2, 2009, pp. 31–37.

[12] H.H. Hofstätter, Symbolizm, trans. into Polish by S. Błaut, Warszawa 1980, pp. 23–24.

[13] A letter from J. Malczewski to K. Lanckoroński, in: Listy Jacka Malczewskiego do Karola Lanckorońskiego, ed. M. Paszkiewicz, in: “Rocznik Historii Sztuki” 18, 1990, pp. 244–245; for commentary see: Kudelska 2008 (ft. 1), chapter Wokół polichromii wawelskich.

[14] For instance such pictures as: Juan de las Roelas, Christ on His Way to Calvary (approx. 1620); Francisco Zurbarán, Veraikon (approx. 1631–1634?); Antonio de Pereda, Ecce Homo and many others.

[15] Cf.: Pathos ed estasi. Opere d’arte tra Campania e Andalusia nel XVII e XVIII secolo, ed. F. Buono, Napoli 1999: J. de Roeals, Christ on His Way to Calvary (p. 62); F. Zurbarán, Veraikon (p. 55); A.E.P. Sánchez et al., Prado, Polish edition edited by W. Krauze, transl. into Polish by H. Andrzejewska, Warszawa 1994: Antonio de Pereda, Ecce Homo.

[16] According to the description in the inventory card mentioned above it was “a remote landscape in grayish-blues and greens”.

[17] A similar impression, created by the positioning of figures impossible to achieve during regular posing, is produced by The Vicious Circle.

[18] L. Wachholz, Klub Eustachego Chronowskiego, in: „Czas”, 1936, no. 354 (24 Dec), p. 10. The author writes about sketching the body of a young woman who committed a suicide drowning herself and „was soon portrayed faithfully in a painting in oils. Her dead body lying on the mortuary table was moved by the artist onto a shoal in a stormy and foamy lake or see and behind her, a triton was rising up from one of the waves, with his horrified eyes fixed on the victim of the element”. The picture described here is unknown. See also: A. Gross, Zwłoki człowieka jako model w malarstwie,

[19] Although I have a digital copy of the photograph mentioned above, out of respect for the deceased and because of its explicit nature I refrain from presenting it here.

[20] The correspondence of the author with Adam Gross.

[21] W. Juszczak, Narracja i przestrzeń w malarstwie Malczewskiego. (Notatki z wystawy poznańskiej), in: Fakty i wyobraźnia, Warszawa 1979, p. 142.

[22] Malczewski painted portraits of his friends with pleasure, and other people’s, as he wrote, only “when in need”. If he wasn’t given a free choice of props and situation, he refused the commission, as was the case with Bishop Bilczewski, see.: M. Samlicki, Pamiętnik, The Regional Museum in Bochnia, H/4104/5, pp. 180–181.

[23] In the art of Western Christianity it was allowed to use models for divine figures, but there were no particular regulations in this field which, as we know, sometimes stirred up conflicts between artists and the Church authorities. Christ’s body was modelled according to the current knowledge of anatomy, and with regard for the iconographic tradition (as a continuation, modification or contestation). The passion scenes belong to those which portray the relationship between suffering and pain with cruelty; in the course of ages the limits of permitted explicitness were evolving, just like the reflection on the body, its meaning and the permitted ways of its depiction, inextricably connected with this subject were evolving. All these elements enter into a dialogue of shapes and the ideas, values and the artistic relationship of the matter personified by them (and personified also in the mode of existence of the ordinary mortals and saints). On the relation between portraying Christ as man, the theological dogmas and the artistic form through the ages, see: L. Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, Chicago 1996 (1st ed. 1983). On the need to portray such scenes (close to battle pieces, exotic slaughter scenes etc.): M. Gill, Image of the Body. Aspects of the Nude, London 1989, pp. 293–300; W. Gutowski, Motywika pasyjna w literaturze Młodej Polski, in: Problematyka religijna w literaturze pozytywizmu i Młodej Polski. Świadectwa poszukiwań, ed. S. Fita, Lublin 1993, pp. 263–307.

[24] W. Gutowski, Z próżni nieba ku religii życia, Kraków 2001, p. 189 and chapter VII; see also: H. Filipkowska, Z problematyki mitu w literaturze Młodej Polski, in: Problemy literatury polskiej lat 1890–1939, series I, ed. H. Kirchner and Z. Żabicki, Wrocław 1972.

[25] P. Hubal Dobrzański to [J. Bołoz Antoniewicz] in the Society of Friends of Fine Arts in Lviv, quoted after: J. Puciata-Pawłowska, Jacek Malczewski, Wrocław 1968, pp. 101–102 (no MS catalogue number given).

[26] Jan Warchałowski was a graduate of the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts. We do not know whether the similarity of the surnames of the priest and the painter is a coincidence. The picture still remains in the church chancel. A copy of the same picture, painted by A. Kugler, was presented earlier (1890) by the emperor Franz Joseph to the seminary chapel in Tarnów. The original (slightly differing in some details from the copy) is in the holdings of Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. See.: W. Szczebak, Na 100-lecie obrazu Pana Jezusa Ukrzyżowanego w kaplicy seminarium duchownego w Tarnowie (1890–1990), in: “Currenda” 140, 1990, pp. 331–341; idem, Jeszcze raz o obrazie Chrystusa na krzyżu w kaplicy seminarium duchownego w Tarnowie, in: “Currenda” 142, 1992, pp. 470–477. The Crucifixion by van Dyck was very popular in the Tarnów diocese – every seminarian received its reproduction at the end of his seminary formation. Both pictures by Kugler and Warchałowski are reminiscent of The Crucifixion by Van Dyck from the National Museum in Gdańsk, whose theft was discovered by accident in 1974. In 2008 the police renewed the search of this object.

[27] The short time which passed between the first attempt of Zborowski to seize the picture and framing and hanging the picture in the chapel seems to be important here. Perhaps it was the count’s action which inspired the priest to get the picture out from some dark corner and appreciate it properly.

[28] J. Malczewski, [a questionnaire answer], in: “Przegląd Powszechny” 23, 1906, vol. 90, p. 81.

The full text of the article was published in the pages of "Sacrum et Decorum" III, 2010. Please send your orders to the University of Rzeszów Publishers or activate an electronic subscription.