“Saint Francis” by Jacek Malczewski and the Dionysian Idea

Michał HaakeAdam Mickiewicz University in Poznań


The study attempts to address the widespread idea about syncretism of Jacek Malczewski’s art, combining the ancient cult of Dionysus and the Christian teachings on salvation. The analysis of Saint Francis, one of his numerous paintings with faun figures, tries to prove that the relationship between the titular character and the mythological figures is not a juxtaposition of similar attitudes towards the world of nature. The depicted situation is rather the case of the mythological creatures becoming subject to the “intransgressible” which for every picture is its surface and its boundaries. This subjection is shown through the formal shaping of the figures. This relation, which can be understood only through direct contact with the work, is an expression through the means of painting of the artist’s profound Christian faith, shared also by his other contemporaries who struggled with the modernist “disenchantment” (in Max Weber’s sense of the word) and proving through their work their trust in Christian transcendence (e.g. Jan Kasprowicz).

keywords: Jacek Malczewski, St Francis, faun


The key question of this study is inspired by the figures of fauns and satyrs appearing on the numerous canvases by Malczewski[1] and it is as follows: can it be that the work of the artist is the example of combining the 19th-century fascination with the figure of Dionysos and Christianity? A telling example of this contamination and also, as Kazimierz Wyka wrote, a kind of summary of Malczewski’s previous creative work, would be the picture St Francis from 1908 [fig. 1].[2] According to Katarzyna Nowakowska-Sito, this work confirms the correlation between the rebirth of the Greek god in the art of the turn of the 20th century, represented in the picture by fauns, and the growing interest in the person of St Francis,[3] who attracted many “both because of the sensual contact with the Divine (through the received stigmata) as well as the feeling of the spiritual unity of the world, so close to the age’s pantheistic tendencies and the worship of the creation through the spontaneous expression of feelings by means of song and dance”.[4]

Taking into account the often emphasized correlation between Malczewski’s “faunism” and Adam Asnyk’s poetry,[5] it is worthwhile to mention the poem Orpheus and Maenads, which tells the story of the murder of the mythical poet by Maenads and a Satyr. If we remember that the painter undoubtedly identified himself with Orpheus,[6] the obvious question would be whether the figure of St Francis, with whom the artist also identified himself, should be really an example of exuberant uniting with nature together with fauns. Such a hypothesis can be confirmed by the reception of Poverello in the 19th-century Polish culture. It has been noted that there are differences between the Franciscan and ancient spirituality, as the former was rooted in the unconditional love of one’s neighbour, to which was attributed a particularly reviving influence on fine arts.[7] While the influence of the Dionysian idea, born in Romanticism and explained most fully in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy of 1871 is undeniable, one should also pose a question about how the artist whose attachment to Catholicism was so strong and lasting (as he himself made clear on numerous occasions) could hold such views. Malczewski came from a very religious family.[8] The artist, in his view, making his art “a plea, confession and adoration” towards God, “becomes a true ‘son of God’ and in his own image he receives the grace of creating”, he produces art “out of love for approaching and uniting with the Highest Spirit”, through art “he perceives the Highest Love” and he “feels it in the infinite universe”, he is “a discoverer of the highest truths, the chosen one who reveals eternal harmonies, springing from God, which for the humankind, while it is riveted to this globe, are sometimes hidden”, and which become for the humankind “signposts”.[9] According to Jagna Dankowska, such views allow us to connect Malczewski with European theocentrism, “putting God in the centre of the discourse as the Creator of the world”.[10] Summing up Malczewski’s views on art, Dorota Kudelska points out that “the Christian, biblical value system was for the artist ‘the baseline’ for his work”.[11]

Translated by Monika Mazurek

[1] Adam Heydel wrote on Malczewski’s „faunism”: A. Heydel, Jacek Malczewski. Człowiek i artysta, Kraków 1931, p. 133. The horned figures depicted by Malczewski are referred to as either fauns or satyrs by the authors writing on the subject from the very beginning: W. Prokesch, Obrazy Jacka Malczewskiego, in: “Kurier Warszawski” 1903, no. 191, p. 2. Although in the titles of the works, given to them mostly by critics and art historians (cf.: T. Grzybkowska, Mitologia Malczewskiego, The Czartoryski Museum in Kraków [exhibition catalogue], Kraków 1995, p. XXII), “faun” appears more frequently, the researchers use it interchangeably with “satyr” (among others A. Jakimowicz, Jacek Malczewski, Warszawa 1974, p. 6), and also with the name of the Greek god Pan (e.g. Agnieszka Ławniczakowa regarding the faun in the picture “Law”, cf.: Jacek Malczewski. Powrót, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie [exhibition catalogue], ed. E. Micke-Broniarek, Warszawa 2000, p. 80).

[2] According to Wyka, in Malczewski’s work the affinity between St Francis and Dionysus corresponds with unexpected sensuality which permeates the figures of Christ and John the Baptist, making the picture “the most original example of this erotic-Dionysian shift” (K. Wyka, Thanatos i Polska czyli o Jacku Malczewskim, Kraków 1971, pp. 46–47).

[3] The growth of interest in St Francis was brought about by the work by Paul Sabatier Vie de Saint Francis (Paris 1894; Polish transl.: Życie św. Franciszka, Cieszyn 1927), see also: M. Głowiński, Maska Dionizosa, in: idem, Mity przebrane. Dionizos. Narcyz. Prometeusz. Marchołt. Labirynt, Kraków 1990. More on this topic in: K. Nowakowska-Sito, Między Wawelem a Akropolem. Antyk i mit w sztuce polskiej przełomu XIX i XX w., Warszawa 1996, pp. 55–56.

[4] Nowakowska-Sito 1996 (ft. 3), p. 55. On the correspondence between Franciscanism with all the other “-isms” of this age, its philosophical and religious tastes, see: R. Padoł, Filozofia religii polskiego modernizmu, Kraków 1982.

[5] The idea that Malczewski’s “faunism” was derived from Adam Asnyk’s poetry was advocated by the artist’s friend Konstanty Maria Górski: The Jagiellonian Library (further referred to as BJ), MS 7717 II, K.M. Górski, Szkic do monografii Jacka Malczewskiego; BJ, MS 7717 II, idem, Notatki i wykłady, c. 52. Heydel also writes about it, singling out a group of poems Freska starożytne, including the following texts: Fresk pompejański, Dzieje piosenki and Orfeusz i bachantki, cf. Heydel 1931 (ft. 1), p. 133.

[6] D. Kudelska, Dukt pisma i pędzla. Biografia intelektualna Jacka Malczewskiego, Lublin 2008, pp. 317–357.

[7] In Polish culture a broader interest in St Francis is generated by the translation of the work by Frédérica Ozanam Les pöetes franciscains (Paris 1853; Polish transl.: Św. Franciszek Seraficki i poeci włoscy z jego szkoły, Kraków 1864) and the translation of Fioretti made by an anonymous Poor Clare from the monastery in Lviv in 1892, quoted after: A. Bednarek, Franciszek z Asyżu wśród humanistów. Z dziejów recepcji postaci w XIX i XX wieku, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska 1986, pp. 64–65 containing the following quotes: E. Orzeszkowa (Ernest Renan, in: “Ateneum” 2, 1886, no. 42, pp. 304–305), B. Prus (Kwiatki świętego Franciszka z Asyżu, in: “Tygodnik Ilustrowany”, 1910, no. 7, pp. 130–131), T. Grabowski (Św. Franciszek z Asyżu w świetle filozofii przyrodniczej, Kraków 1910) and others. Earlier the Saint caught the interest of, among others, the author of “Pan Tadeusz”: „Adam (Mickiewicz) has said recently that he read somewhere in ‘Glob’ a claim based on facts that St Francis of Assisi [...], this ideal of humility and poverty is this mysterious source out of which in the course of ages the following things flew through the spiritual channel: Italian poetry, painting, sculpture and architecture, which in turn influenced the whole world through Dante, Raphael and Michaelangelo” (A.E. Odyniec, A Letter to Julian Korsak of 11 Sep 1832, in: Listy z podróży, Lwów 1937, p. 122; cf.: J. Birkenmajer, Motywy franciszkańskie u Mickiewicza i Słowackiego, in: “Ruch literacki” 2, 1927, no. 10, pp. 289–294). Among the views on the influence of Franciscanism on the fine arts closer in time to Malczewski the one worth noting is: “The religion of feeling, proclaimed from Umbria’s hills, filled many souls with elation. Its warm breeze revived art and from the gloomy Byzantine torpor arose the Christian deity, humanized through joy and pain, coming to life, accessible to human senses” (E. Porębowicz, Św. Franciszek z Asyżu, Warszawa 1899, p. 120); “Wherever the stigmatized Saint may roam, wherever he treads, art, poetry and beauty bloom under his feet. How come? […] Because St Francis punished and mortified creation in himself, but apart from himself he loved the creation passionately and ardently. He loved it all, from the sun which he worshipped in his wonderful hymn to a leaf of hyssop in a wall crack, to the humblest crawling worm” (J. Klaczko, Święty Franciszek z Asyżu a gotycyzm włoski, in: idem, Szkice i rozprawy, Warszawa 1904, p. 5). “I am truly thankful for the wonderful book Little Flowers of St Francis. I want to write a sketch on St Francis for ‘Idea’ and I think it would be good to include it. […] Francis of Assisi will allow me to present a great deal of opinions (not mine) on philosophy and psychology of religion, touch upon the relation between art and religious life, and many, many other things” (S. Brzozowski, A Letter to O. Ortwin of 16 Dec 1909, in: O. Ortwin, Żywe fikcje, Warszawa 1970, pp. 357–358).

[8] “Malczewski’s family was religious not only in the traditional but also a truly deep sense, with a mystical and Franciscan orientation, combined with a keen feeling of the resulting moral and social obligations” (H. Barycz, Na przełomie dwóch stuleci. Z dziejów polskiej humanistyki w dobie Młodej Polski, Wrocław–Warszawa–Kraków–Gdańsk, 1977, pp. 74–77).

[9] J. Malczewski, O powołaniu artystów i zadaniach sztuki. The chancellor’s speech delivered on 15 October 1912 at the inauguration of the academic year, published in: “Krytyka” 14, 1912, vol. 36, issue11, pp. 233–236; M. Janoszanka, Wielki Tercjarz. Moje wspomnienia o Jacku Malczewskim, Poznań 1930, pp. 47–51; A. Ławniczakowa, Jacek Malczewski, Warszawa 1976, pp. 84–87.

[10] J. Dankowska, Filozofia epoki Jacka Malczewskiego, w: Muzyka w obrazach Jacka Malczewskiego. Materiały z konferencji zorganizowanej przez Akademię Muzyczną im. Fryderyka Chopina w Warszawie w 150. rocznicę urodzin malarza, ed. T. Grzybkowska, Warszawa 2005, p. 131.

[11] Kudelska 2008 (ft. 6), p. 429. This conclusion is accompanied by a wide and penetrating analysis of the chancellor’s speech inaugurating the academic year 1912/1913 at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts.

[12] Literature on this subject is wide-ranging, cf. among others: Grzybkowska 1995 (ft. 1), pp. XII–XVII.

[13] BJ, MS 10095 III, A letter of Helena Mycielska to Tadeusz Szydłowski, c. 11–12, quoted after: Kudelska 2008 (ft. 6), p. 240.

[14] L.J. Austin, Mallarmé and the Visual Arts, in: French 19th -century Painting and Literature, Manchester 1972, pp. 232–257; J. Kearns, Symbolist Landscapes. The Place of Painting in the Poetry and Criticism of Mallarmé and His Circle, London 1989.

[15] K. Przerwa-Tetmajer, Poezje. Seria V, [Warszawa] 1900.

[16] Nowakowska-Sito 1996 (ft. 3), s. 59.

[17] Most recently: S. Krzysztofowicz-Kozakowska, Jacek Malczewski. Życie i twórczość, Kraków 2010, p. 55. Malczewski moved to Zwierzyniec in October 1899 and lived there till 1910.

[18] Wyka 1971 (ft. 2), p. 47.

[19] Institute of Fine Arts in the Polish Academy of Sciences, MS 7, a letter of J. Malczewski to his parents, c. 186–187, quoted after: Kudelska 2008 (ft. 6), p. 662. Malczewski was a tertiary at least since 1875 and remained in the order until the end of his life. He was buried in the Franciscan habit – cf. Janoszanka 1930 (ft. 9), p. 11. More about this subject: Kudelska 2008 (ft. 6), pp. 661–662. The Third Franciscan Order was promoted by the encyclical of Leo XIII Auspicato from 1882.

[20] “A metaphorical personification of the Arts in many pictures of Malczewski is a young apprentice decorator. (Trzy malarstwa, Introdukcja, Błędne koło, Malarczyk i jego muza)” – Jakimowicz 1974 (ft. 1), p. 16. Leszek Libera writes that Yanko the Musician [Janko Muzykant] in the picture from 1892 (currently in the Regional Museum in Toruń) “is reminiscent of the author’s face as a child” and considers this painting the first masked self-portrait of Malczewski, cf.: L. Libera, Romantyczność i folklor. O twórczości Jacka Malczewskiego i Bolesława Leśmiana, Poznań 1994, p. 7. The role of the artist’s alter-egos played by child artists in the pictures painted in the 1890s is confirmed also by the picture Yanko the Musician, portraying the literary character [the title character of a short story by Henryk Sienkiewicz – transl. note] accompanied by an older woman, perhaps his mother. Yanko the Musician is sitting on the trough in exactly the same pose as the boy in the boat depicted on the canvasses painted many years earlier Childhood. Jacek on the Pond at Wielgie and The Painter’s Childhood, both from 1919 (the authenticity of the latter picture is, in the present author’s opinion, doubtful). However, it is known to him only by the reproduction on the Web page: http://artyzm.com). The boat and the trough are placed in both paintings in the same position in relation to the picture frame.

[21] Pisma Adama Chmielowskiego (Brata Alberta), in: “Nasza przeszłość”, 1965, vol. 21; A. Okońska, Poglądy Brata Alberta na sztukę, in: Brat Albert. Życie i dzieło, ed. A. Okońska, Warszawa 1978, pp. 21–31; S. Smoleński, Duchowość bł. Brata Alberta na tle odrodzenia franciszkańskiego w Polsce, in: “Nasza przeszłość”, 1987, vol. 67, pp. 119–136.

[22] A. Krechowski Jestem, Warszawa 1894; idem, Kres, Warszawa 1896.

[23] A. Lauterbach, Św. Franciszek z Asyżu i jego wpływ na sztukę, in: Pierścień sztuki. Historia i teoria, Warszawa 1929, p. 209.

[24] A. Ławniczakowa (the note accompanying the picture Vicious Circle), in: Malczewski, Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart [exhibition catalogue], Stuttgart 1980, p. 34; M. Brötje, Der menschliche Blick – Lebensmitte und Abgrund. Zur Bildwelt Jacek Malczewski, in: Jacek Malczewski und seine Zeitgenossen. Polnische Malerei um 1900 aus der Sammlung des Nationalmuseums in Poznań, Städtische Galerie in der Reithalle Schloß Neuhaus in Paderborn [exhibition catalogue], Bielefeld 1999, pp. 39–40.

[25] Mt 9: 13.

[26] A. Ławniczakowa, Jacek Malczewski, wystawa dzieł z lat 1890–1926, Poznań 1990, p. 55; Jacek Malczewski. Powrót 2000 (ft. 1), s. 44. Jakimowicz calls him simply “a youthful decorator’s apprentice” – Jakimowicz 1974 (ft. 1), p. 16.

[27] T. Grzybkowska, Świat obrazów Jacka Malczewskiego, Warszawa 1996, pp. 21–22.

[28] I. Bett, Wystawa dzieł Jacka Malczewskiego, Kraków 1903, p. 5; Nowakowska-Sito 1996 (ft. 3), pp. 31–32.

[29] Jakimowicz 1974 (ft. 1), p. 26.

[30] Brötje 1999 (ft. 24), pp. 37–38.

[31] Brötje 1999 (ft. 24), p. 38.

[32] Brötje 1999 (ft. 24), p. 42.

[33] M. Bryl, Michael Brötje o Jacku Malczewskim, czyli jak wyjść z „błędnego koła” interpretacji, in: “Polonistyka”, 2010, no. 1, p. 27.

[34] J. Malczewski, [a questionnaire answer], in: “Przegląd Powszechny” 23, 1906, vol. 90, p. 80.

[35] This aspect of the painting by Malczewski’s teacher was brought to my attention by Wojciech Suchocki.

[36] This figure’s face is modelled on the face of the artist’s love Maria Balowa. As Kudelska notices, there are no passages in Malczewski’s poems and notes in which Balowa would be compared to the Chimera, cf.: Kudelska 2008 (ft. 6), p. 313. However, these records should not be treated as a commentary upon the artist’s relationship with Maria Balowa. Her features appear at the same time both in the faces of Chimeras and Fates, as one can observe by comparing such works of the artist as: The Poisoned Well, 1905, The Regional Museum in Radom; The Myth of Life – The Fate (a portrait of Maria Balowa), The National Museum in Warsaw, inv. no. Rys. Pol. 11742 (sign. JMalczewski 28 [?] 12 1907).

[37] H.H. Hofstätter, Symbolizm, transl. into Polish by S. Bałut, Warszawa 1987, pp. 23–24.

[38] M. Walicki, Święty Franciszek z Asyżu a sztuca duecenta i trecenta, in: Ojcu Serafickiemu w hołdzie, Warszawa 1927, p. 132.

[39] Grzybkowska 1995 (ft. 1), p. 66; Grzybkowska 1996 (ft. 27), p. 23; eadem, Rola muzyki w obrazach Jacka Malczewskiego, in: Muzyka w obrazach Jacka Malczewskiego. Materiały z konferencji zorganizowanej przez Akademię Muzyczną im. Fryderyka Chopina w Warszawie w 150. rocznicę urodzin malarza, ed. T. Grzybkowska, Warszawa 2005, p. 17;

[40] Grzybkowska 1995 (ft. 1), p. 66.

[41] Quoted after: ibidem, p. 68.

[42] Grzybkowska 2005 (ft. 39), p. 17.

[43] K. Lipka, Instrumenty muzyczne na obrazach Jacka Malczewskiego, w: Muzyka w obrazach Jacka Malczewskiego. Materiały z konferencji zorganizowanej przez Akademię Muzyczną im. Fryderyka Chopina w Warszawie w 150. rocznicę urodzin malarza, ed. T. Grzybkowska, Warszawa 2005, p. 89.

[44] Grzybkowska 1995 (ft. 1), p. 66.

[45] Brötje 1999 (ft. 24), p. 39.

[46] The emphasis on these two figures and their complicated formal and semantic relation is pointed out by Brötje 1999 (ft. 24), p. 40.

[47] “And now, O Lord, think of me,/ and take not revenge of my sins”. Tb 3: 3.

[48] It is not the thread spun by the Fates, as Nowakowska-Sito claims 1996 (ft. 3), p. 86.

[49] F. Nietzsche, Narodziny tragedii, czyli hellenizm i pesymizm, transl. into Polish by L. Staff, Kraków 2003, p. 10.

[50] In the period 1905–1912 a 17-volume Polish edition of Nietzsche’s works, translated by Berent, Staff, Drzewiecki and Wyrzykowski, was published.

[51] A. Hutnikiewicz, Młoda Polska, Warszawa 1994, p. 126.

[52] Kwiatki świętego Franciszka z Asyżu, transl. into Polish by L. Staff, Lwów 1910 (translation of the Latin version Artus beati Francisco et sociorum eius, ed. P. Sabatier, Paris 1902); J. Parandowski, Luźne kartki, Wrocław 1967, p. 62.

[53] Malczewski 1906 (ft. 34), p. 80.

[54] Brötje 1999 (ft. 24), pp. 40–41.

[55] First edition in: “Chimera”, 1901, issue 7–8, pp. 103–122.

[56] A. Hutnikiewicz, Hymny Jana Kasprowicza, Warszawa 1973, pp. 66–67; Hutnikiewicz 1994 (ft. 51), pp. 112–124; J.J. Lipski, Twórczość J. Kasprowicza w latach 1891–1906, Warszawa 1975.

[57] G. Picht, Kunst und Mythos, Stuttgart 1987, pp. 2–17.

[58] H.-G. Gadamer, Koniec sztuki? in: idem, Dziedzictwo Europy, transl. into Polish by A. Przyłębski, Warszawa 1992, pp. 43–44 [original title: Ende der Kunst? in: Das Erbe Europas: Beiträge. Frankfurt am Main 1989 – transl. note].

[59] Ibidem, p. 44

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.