Matejko: The Great Bell

July 9–August 31, 2021

To mark the 500th anniversary of the installation of the Sigismund Bell in Wawel Cathedral, Wawel Royal Castle has organized a special showing of Jan Matejko’s masterpiece "Hanging the Sigismund Bell in the Cathedral Tower in Krakow in 1521." A selection of the artist’s preparatory sketches accompanies the painting.

“We are very pleased to be able to present this intimate exhibition free of charge. Although the show is small in size, it’s big on style—Matejko’s style. The artist’s brushstrokes bring to life this important event in Poland’s cultural history. I hope that the picture, which is, so to speak, a mirror image of the history of Poland and Krakow will entice visitors to Wawel Hill. Let’s meet in front of this splendid picture, which is truly worth a thousand words, conveying more than many a history textbook,” said Prof. Andrzej Betlej, Director of Wawel Royal Castle.
Hanging the Sigismund Bell in the Cathedral Tower in Krakow in 1521
Jan Matejko (1838–1893)
Krakow, 1874
Oil on panel; 94 x 189 cm
National Museum in Warsaw
Inv. no. MP 441 MNW

Jan Matejko began thinking about painting a picture of the celebrated bell donated by King Sigismund I the Old in 1861. He made the first preparatory sketches in 1862. The artist returned to the subject in 1874 and depicted—contrary to the what the painting’s title states—the removal of the bell from the mold at the foundry, in effect dedicating his masterpiece to the art of bell founding.

The king, his Milanese queen Bona Sforza, Prince Sigismund Augustus, and Princess Isabella are depicted beneath a canopy surrounded by the royal court, on the left-hand side of the painting. In the center of the painting, a bit further back, he has placed Jan Chojeński, the future bishop of Krakow, engaged in blessing the bell. He is accompanied by members of the clergy. The right half of the picture is taken up by the principal action: Hans Beham, the Nuremberg bell founder whom the king commissioned to make the bell, is overseeing its removal from the mold.

Among the onlookers, the artist depicted: on the left, Piotr (initially identified as Stanisław) Kmita (standing near the canopy) and city council member Seweryn Bethman (seated), and on the right, master of the Krakow saltworks Jan Boner (holding onto the post of the canopy), and Stańczyk, the royal jester, at whose feet lies the bell’s giant clapper. Standing next to the scaffolding are the lute player Valentin Bakfark (or Bekwark) and the architect and sculptor Bartolommeo Berrecci, holding plans. In the background we can see the city walls and Wawel Hill. The bell, which was installed on July 9, 1521, in the elevated and reinforced cathedral tower, was rung for the first time several days later.

In this historical composition, the painter immortalized his family and Cracovian contemporaries. Bona Sforza has the features of Matejko’s wife, Teodora née Giebułtowska, while Princess Isabella is based on their daughter, Helena, their other daughter, Beata, is the little girl, and their son Jerzy lends his face to Prince Sigismund Augustus, while their son Tadeusz is the page playing with the dogs. Matejko portrayed his mother-in-law, Paulina Giebułtowska, as a matron, and one of Teodora’s relatives, Antoni Serafiński, as Bakfark. The romantic couple, Boner’s daughter and a young knight, are Zofia Łuszczkiewiczówna and the painter Witold Piwnicki. Jan Mierzb Matliński, a participant of the January Uprising against Russia, posed for the portrait of Hans Beham.

The painting inspired Stanisław Wyspiański to describe the scene in his landmark play "The Wedding." In it Stańczyk says:

“The royal bell: –
I sat at the king’s feet,
the royal court behind me:
the son and several daughters,
the Italian Lady – while a great choir
of clerics intoned hymns; –
They all were looking up,
as the bell was rising…”

Exhibited alongside the picture, which is on loan from the National Museum in Warsaw, are pencil drawings from around 1862 and around 1874, including one of the bell and its clapper, on loan from the National Museum in Krakow (the Jan Matejko House).

Agnieszka Janczyk, exhibition curator
Plaeas note: The accompanying educational program is available in Polish only.