1 Luglio 2018

Questioning the Oracle: Jacek Malczewski’s Pythia series and World War One


Iconocrazia 13/2018 - "Iconocrazia: Art, Astronomy, Politics and Religion", Saggi

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In 1815, Lord Salisbury wrote that, “An absolutely independent Poland is a mere chimera. There is no power that can set it up… there is no power that can maintain it”.[1]  It promotes the view that the Polish people, who had continually rebelled against their occupiers (Russia, Prussia, Austro-Hungary), were a people unable to govern themselves.  The word “chimera,” means the idea of something elusive, or a desire that one is unable to achieve. For Poles, their chimera was to regain their country’s autonomy. A unified Poland remained a longing for her people, a sort of nationwide chimera. For poets, writers, and artists, Poland’s struggles for independence acted as a muse inspiring them to promote Poland’s culture and history[2].

Figure 1

One such artist was Jacek Malczweski, (1854-1929) (Fig. 1), the “Father of Polish Symbolism”, whose canvases are filled with mythological figures such as harpies, muses, and, the chimera, which he often portrayed as a serpent-tailed female (Fig. 2).

Figure 2

The chimera’s symbolism may be a play-on-words representing sexuality and danger as well as the idea of longing for an elusive goal or desire.  Malczewski’s works, from his early days as a Romantic painter to his later years as a Symbolist artist, probe deeply into the psychological wounds of Poland, preserving a sort of collective memory. Jan Tomasz Gross views this memory as a way for subjugated people to make the present bearable, writing, “For collective memory is not only less, but more, than history itself; it serves a people’s eternal longing to make sense of its existence, giving intelligibility and meaning to the past”.[3]

Historical events, important poets, writers, and literary figures, can be found all throughout his works. The events of World War 1 (1914-18) affected him deeply and became a time when, Rodolphe Rapetti explains, “Malczewski’s oeuvre was organized around one theme, the fate of contemporary Poland”.[4]

This paper focuses on three of Malczewski’s paintings, all with the title of Pythia, to argue that when viewed as a cycle or a series, they represent both the process of questioning the Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, as well as Poland’s hope and struggles. While the three do share the same title and there is some debate about the order, to simplify the images, they will be listed as Pythia One, Pythia Two, Pythia Three.

Political events such as the “Polish Question”, the “Kingdom of Poland”, the “Oath Crisis”, and Józef Piłsudski’s[5] heroism all serve as a backdrop to Malczewski’s Pythia series. Additionally, the history and iconography of the Pythia, and her role as a “nation builder” will be explained, in order to understand how Malczewski used a figure from Greek history and mythology to represent Poland’s emotions during the Great War.

One of the greatest challenges in writing this paper is that most scholarship, especially translations of Malczewski’s letters and poems, are in Polish. However, thanks to the efforts of scholars such as Elizabeth Clegg, Richard Warren, Tadeusz Szydłowski, and Maria Suchodolska, as well as books and catalogs published by the Tate Museum, Detroit Museum of Art, and National Museum in Krakow, English writings and analysis about Malczweski continue to expand.  While much has been written about his best works such as Vicious Cycle, Melancholia, and the Ellenai triptych, little research, in either Polish or English, has been done on his Pythia series, beyond the agreement that they convey Malczewski’s anxiety over the war. The machinations and events of World War 1, though integral, can not be delved into too deeply for a paper this length, but a basic history is important to understanding Malczewski’s life and art.[6]

Historical View

In 1619 the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (later the Commonwealth of Poland) was one of Europe’s largest and most populated countries. By 1699, inner struggles, revolutions, and encroaching armies had eroded away Poland. Starting in 1772, a series of four partitions between Russia, Prussia, and Austria decimated the Commonwealth. An independent Poland no longer existed by 1795 and had disappeared from the map.

Throughout the 1800s, under Napoleon’s conquests, Poland regained some small independent states, such as the Duchy of Warsaw (1809-1815) and the Independent City of Danzig (1809-1815).  The Congress of Vienna, in 1815, formed Congress Poland, a small, autonomous kingdom, with its own constitution, military, currency and culture, though it operated mainly as a Russian satellite. After several defeated Polish rebellions, in 1830, 1831, and the crucial uprising of 1863, Russia stripped Poland of her autonomy.  By 1867 Congress Poland was absorbed by Russia.

Throughout all this dividing and conquering by Austria, Prussia, Russia, and France, the rest of Europe and Great Britain remained largely impartial to Poland’s plight. Concern over Poland’s independence, known as the “Polish Question,” did not affect these countries.  It was viewed as an internal problem rather than an international question. Ralph Butler explains, “The world knew that Prussia was endeavoring to Germanise her Polish provinces… In any case, these were matters, which concerned nobody but the Poles themselves and the governments under which they lived. Europe would not disturb the status quo on their account”.[7]

The Polish Question

As World War 1 progressed[8], Poland’s geographical location gained importance to the success of both the Central Powers and the Entente. The “Polish Question” gained prominence. Germany and Austria-Hungary vied for Poland’s loyalty, while the Entente of Britain, France and Russia, felt the Poles had an obligation to support the Russian cause.[9]  Understanding Poland’s strategic importance in a battle with Russia, the Central Powers, granted an area of Poland its independence, on November 5, 1916, calling it the Kingdom of Poland, with Warsaw as its capital. The goal was two-fold, to provide Germany with additional agricultural support and to gain, “motivated soldiers who were willing to fight with them and against the Entente for their new state”.[10]  In reality a puppet government was established giving the Central Powers access to Poland’s natural resources. To quote German Governor General Hans Von Besler, “Poland was for us an occupied enemy province to be ruled externally, to be used for our war efforts and, to the extent compatible, to be improved economically. The question of its political future completely receded to the background”.[11]

The “Polish Question,” though largely ignored by the rest of Europe and Britain, loomed large in Poland’s artistic community. It kept Poland’s culture and identity alive through the turbulent political time of Poland’s captivity since the late eighteenth century. Romantic poets, writers, and painters created a movement towards preserving, creating, and celebrating Polish culture, in a time of loss and fear.  Polish historian Tadeusz Szydłowski explains, “after the suppression of the uprisings, the sheer struggle for material existence became intensified; as also the efforts to retain their language and to raise the general level of culture”.[12]

Jacek Malczewski

Polish Artists, painters, poets, and writers strongly felt the need for independence. Szydłowski comments, “For a nation in captivity, culture was the treasury of national memory, and art a tool in the political struggle”.[13] Jacek Malczewski keenly felt and expressed this struggle throughout his canon.

Born in 1854 in Radom, Poland, he grew up in an area under Russian control. He spent a great deal of his childhood on his uncle’s country estate in Wielgiam. Here he developed a sense of beauty and love for Poland’s rural landscape and learned Poland’s rich folklore and traditions.  His family was financially stable and his father greatly admired the Polish poets. Understanding his son’s artistic needs and abilities Julian Malczewski supported Malczewski’s choice to become a painter.

Malczewski left home in 1872 to study at the Krakow School of Fine Arts. Krakow, under Austrian rule, had more political and artistic freedoms than the rest of Poland and emerged as a mecca for Polish artists and writers. Studying with the great history painter Jan Matejko, Malczewski observed the necessity for the artist to create a national identity. Matejko noted Malczewski’s talent writing to Julian Malczewski, “In your Son, if God allows, I will see my successor”.[14]

Despite Matejko’s obvious influence as a teacher, some feel that Malczewski’s early artistic spirit is closely aligned to Artur Grottger’s works. Wiesław Juszczak opines, “Malczewski entered his Symbolist stage circa 1890. Before that date, his painting was narrative and, from a formal point of view, derived from the work of Artur Grottger, the poet-painter who extolled the history of the 1863 insurrection”.[15] It is interesting to note that while under Matejko’s tutelage Malczweski never painted a glorious, historical scene, preferring to depict, like Grottger, Poland’s current tribulations.

Malczewski later studied at the Ecôle des Beaux Art in Paris, and the Academie Suisse. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s he visited Italy, Turkey and Greece. In 1884 he travelled as a sketch artist for archaeological digs in Asia Minor and Razdon. These travels fomented his fascination with Greek and Roman culture.  He also frequently visited the cosmopolitan and art-centric cities of Berlin, Vienna, and Paris, to expand his artistic vision.  Malczewski’s awards and accomplishments are numerous, including several international awards in Berlin (1891), Munich (1892) and Paris (1900).  A champion of Polish art and history, he achieved success as a teacher and Rector at the Krakow School of Fine Arts. He remains one of Poland’s most celebrated artists.

Malczewski embodied two important Polish art movements the Mloda Polska (Young Poland) and Polish Symbolism. These two styles intersected and interacted with each other. Similar in vein, they found inspiration in Polish culture.  Mloda Polska was especially motivated to create true Polish art, not influenced by any foreign tastes, specifically the Royal Academies. Symbolist art, has it roots in France. In I886 Jean Moreas published his “Symbolist Manifesto” in France’s Figaro newspaper, and though it relates more to poetry and literature than visual art, it planted the thought that art needed to explore and represent “ideas”, things that go beyond the five senses and delve into the realms of dreams and the subconscious.  Malczewski’s work took on Symbolist themes after his international studies. Melancholia (Fig. 3) is considered one of his greatest works.

Figure 3

Malczewski’s works laden with signs, symbols, and metaphors present the viewer with a complex riddle of life. Malczewski painted with the heart of a poet, bleeding for Poland, while pursuing answers to existential questions about love, loss, art, and humanity. At the forefront of these movements, Malczewski is considered the “Father of Polish Symbolism”.[16]

It may seem contradictory to include historical events and political themes into Symbolist art, as Malczewski does, but Elizabeth Clegg and others have argued that Polish Symbolism is slightly different than the rest of Europe’s. J. Patrice Marandel explains, “But while the Polish Symbolist movement has much in common with its counterparts in Western Europe, it also has a unique character that is largely the result of the historical background against which it developed”.[17] Although Malczewski relied a great deal on personal experience and Polish nationalism, his works appeal to a universal sense. Intrigued by ideas of love, freedom, death, and artistic visions, Malczewski speaks to our inner longings. In some ways he always paints a chimera.

From 1914-1917, thoughts of war dominated Malczewski’s canvases. Works such as the Polonia triptych (1914-18) appear surprisingly light and positive. Polonia 1 (Fig. 4), painted at the start of the war, displays hopefulness.

Figure 4

A young, fit soldier, shadowed by his superior officer, willingly follows a coquettish female. Dressed in white she is Polonia, the mother country, arms crossed in a defensive motion. Poland is ready to defend herself – and happily. This seems a unique approach to the consequences of war; however Poland was in the unique situation to gain more than she lost. According to Juszczak:

We tend to search for signs of anxiety and foreboding of catastrophe in various contemporary artistic occurrences.  We must bear in mind, however, that as war and peace were concerned, Poland did not share the feelings of the rest of Europe during this period. What could only bring loss for other nations, offered the hope of some gain for Poland.[18]

But, hesitation and anxiety lurk in these canvases. The shirtless soldier appears young and vulnerable, while a looming figure of judgment appears in the upper left background, and the landscape is obscured by swirls of blue and gray. We also have to question the innocence of Polonia, who hikes up her skirt, and leads on the soldier, despite the wedding band on her finger. Is the thought of freedom only a tease? Or perhaps Malczewski refers to his own possible extramarital relationship with the model Maria Balowa. Richard Warren comments, “Maria Balowa, appears repeatedly throughout his works in various, sometimes mythological – and often erotic – guises… but often as a rather terrifying muse who seems to bear some untold but ominous, and perhaps fatal, purpose”.[19] More than likely Maria Balowa acted as model for the Pythia, which uses an ancient Greek symbol of prophecy and fate to portray Poland’s questions, sacrifice, and uncertain future.

History of Pythia

At Delphi, near Mount Parnassus in Greece, the Pythia commanded (through Apollo) what was law and custom. This prophetic position of vocal conduit for Apollo guided much of Greece for over 1,000 years.  The Delphic oracle changed the fabric of Greek society. Walter Burkert views her as an agent of change, positing, “through the cultic prescriptions emanating from Delphi, the outlines of a universal morality over riding tradition and group interests maybe discerned for the first time among the Greeks”.[20]  Whether under the influence of ethylene gas that filled the chamber (adyton)[21] or the trance-like state that all the rituals and purifications may have created in her, the Pythia spoke on matters of great importance, and her words were heard. The belief in the oracle was, if not absolute, certainly integral to Greek society and culture.

Visiting the Pythia was not a simple undertaking. It involved costly time, travel, and payment in form of an animal sacrifice.  Such a visit meant a decision proved too difficult or an answer remained unknown.  The oracle’s words set things in motion again, and always on the side of fate, not the questioner.  Traditionally at Delphi, prophecies were spoken in dactylic hexameter filled with metaphor and riddle, which the questioners accepted as truth. As the source of divine knowledge and law, the Pythia established cities, customs, cults, and decided destinies of people.

To quote Pausanias (110-180), “There are a lot of different stories about Delphi, and even more about Apollo’s oracle”.[22] The Pythia, a being of literature and history, permeates the curtain between fact and fiction.   Legends recall that she was the only oracle to correctly answer Croesus’ riddle. She cautioned Croesus that if he attacked Persia, a great empire would be destroyed. Croesus did not quite understand the nuance involved in her answer. This resulted in the destruction of own his empire.[23]   In 336 BC, Alexander the Great insisted the oracle answer his inquiry about his conquering of the world. The temple had not been prepared and the Pythia steadfastly refused. Angered, Alexander the Great, dragged and pulled her by hair. She screamed, “You are invincible!” Alexander accepted the answer and left satisfied.

Though much of her history is largely embroidered, other famous supplicants include, Socrates, Pythagoras and the emperors Hadrian and Nero. An important cultural and religious icon, the Pythia figured largely Greek plays, such as, Aeschylus’ Eumenides, Euripides’ Ion, and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

Pausanias, Herodotus, and others, retell of the visits of kings and dignitaries concerned with warfare and founding of cities. Catherine Morgan views her neutrality as something unexpected positing, “yet Delphi was exceptional from the time of its foundation in being a ‘neutral’ institution, dealing with enquiries from many states”.[24] John Hulsman called her the “World’s First Political Consultant” debating that the Pythia’s “prognosticating advantages, not least her outsider status, curiously track the qualities the political risk firms look for in their best analysts today”.[25]  The Pythia, whose words emanated from a divine source and had supposedly no political boundaries or allegiances, could be viewed as having a panhellenic, supranational role.                                                                                                                                                              It is this role, as a political advisor and builder of nations, which may have drawn Malczewski to paint the Pythia, more than her reputation as a mystical, frenzied prophetess.  Richard Warren argues that Malczweski viewed the Pythia as a muse, interpreting her divine inspiration as the same as artistic inspiration. Warren, writing on Malczewski’s Pythia, debates, “prophetic inspiration could easily be made to stand for artistic inspiration. Malczewski engaged with such themes in his The Pythia… For the priestess, despite all her mysticism, is still very much Malczewski’s muse”.[26]

The artist and his muse, a strong leitmotif in Malczewski’s canon, could be applied here, and a level of it remains. However, this series painted during great political upheaval, makes the political message of these works override the sentiment of artistic muse. Malczweski is looking for answers. He seeks to rebuild and unify Poland, viewing its soldiers as religious martyrs. Linking war and religion is not uncommon in Malczweski’s canon.  Józef Piłsudski’s biographer, M. Biskuspi asserts:

Inextricably associated with the military tradition is the martyrological [sic] understanding of Polish history: Poland as victim of the cruelty of history and Polish patriots as sacrificial sufferers. This concept is best illustrated by the canvases of Jacek Malczewski with many representations of soldiers juxtaposed with religious symbolism”.[27]

The spring of 1917 retained some of the zeal instilled in Poland after the dual monarchies of Germany and Austria, under the edicts of Emperors William II (Germany) and Franz Joseph (Austria) granted areas, once occupied by Russia, to Poland with the promise of a liberated Polish state. It was was to be a hereditary constitutional monarchy” (even though it had no king – and never would).[28] The first of the three Pythias, through the use of spring flowers, a light colour palette, and the whiteness of the Pythia’s dress suggest Malczewski is “full of hopes mood concerning the future of his country”.[29] Poland’s future was still undetermined but the Kingdom of Poland had promise.

Phythia One

In the first Pythia, or Pythia One, (Fig. 5) a young woman sits, sits meditatively on her tripod, hands clasped over her chest in a closed off gesture, seemingly unready to hear the supplicants.

Figure 5

Her white dress, or criton, with its Greek key design, along with her forward stance, and contemplative nature, seem influenced by the Codrus Painter’s Themis Cup (Fig. 6).

Figure 6

The vague and non-descript setting, that shifts and changes, reflects Symbolist influences. Glimpses of columns suggest an inner space, possibly the adyton, but patches of blue background indicate openness. Are we in the Delphic temple, outside, or in a transitory space between reality and spirituality?  Seated in this in-between space is the Pythia.

Similar to prior paintings of the Pythia by John Collier (Fig. 7), Eugene Delacroix (Fig. 8), Heinrich Leutemann (Fig. 9), Malczweski envelops the Delphic priestess, high upon her tripod, set in vaporous clouds.

Figure 7

Figure 8

Figure 9

This visual tradition is based on the theory that the underground chamber’s location over a chasm leaked gasses and aided the priestess in her mantic answers, creating her frenzied responses.  Although Classical images of the Pythia, visible in the Themis Cup and Paesten red-figured bell krater of Orestes at Delphi (Fig. 10), indicate neither gasses nor frenzy.

Figure 10

Some nineteenth century artists prefer a crazed Pythia. The Swiss sculptor Marcello portrays her as a powerful, whirling dervish of feminine intuition. La Pythie (Fig. 11) Caterina Y. Pierre describes is, “contorted, wild-eyed, and groping”. [30]

Figure 11

The Italian painter Camillo Miola, paints a Pythia (Fig. 12), with possessed eyes and an open mouth. Out of control, she needs to be held down by the priests.

Figure 12

Kurt Latte, in his paper “The Coming of the Pythia” effectively argues that the Pythia did not engage in frenzied motions during her sessions.  He believes that this idea is based on the Dionysian model of ecstasy. Malczewski prefers a calm, more Apollonian priestess, following the Classical model of a dedicated seer.  Latte remarks on how, “inspired women play an important role in the cult of Apollo”[31].  Apollo’s cultic and mythological history is filled with female seers dedicated to him.[32]  This idea of a female dedicated to a single male god is important to Pythia One.  Because she dedicated her life to Apollo and served only him, the Pythia, in a sense, was Apollo’s bride.

Like a bride undergoing a symbolic and physical transformation from maiden to woman, the Pythia through a series of rituals, which included fasting, prayers, the burning of bay leaves, and drinking from the “magical” Castilian Spring, transforms from an ordinary woman into the oracular vessel for Apollo. Malczewski’s priestess, alone and thoughtful, adorns her hair with narcissi poetica,[33] a flower of ancient Greek myth. Its hypnotic scent is linked to the Eleusinian mysteries, symbolizing ritual.[34] Pythia One shows the first phase of the Pythia’s rites, preparing her body, mind, and spirit for Apollo’s possession of her.

Malczewski’s Pythia may also be interpreted as a Polish bride. Her floral crown and a white dress create a dual symbolism of Greek and Polish culture. The floral crown, a common Polish tradition, symbolizes the change from girl to woman.  The wreath a symbol of virginity[35], also has connections to oracular activity.  On the evening prior to the wedding women gathered to weave the bridal wreath, “casting predictions and divinations”.[36]  Laden with folklore and tradition, these wreaths, according to Lamus Dworski, were, “For the bride the complex symbolism of the flower crown could be summed up as a symbol of a blessed rite of passage, a crowning of a fragile in-between time when she’s about to change her whole life.”[37]

Embroidery, another aspect of Polish traditions, is represented in the hem of the criton. Though the figures appear Greek in design, the intricate embroidery relates to traditional Polish costume.  In this way, Pythia, a visual representation of a Polish bride, is Poland herself, hopeful, but uncertain of her future. And on another level, through the inclusion of the Greek columns, vaporous gasses, and a tripod (repeated in the hem’s embroidery), she is also the Pythia preparing for her questioner.

After the transforming ritual a sacrifice of a goat or sheep by the questioner must made before the Delphic priests agreed to ask the supplicant’s question. To signify its acquiescence, the animal had to nod its head. The session is described by H.W. Parke, “The goat [or sheep] which was to be offered before the Pythia mounted the tripod was induced to shake by a douche of cold water…the sheep must not be sacrificed until it signifies consent by nodding”.[38] Therefore, it is a willing sacrifice that puts the needs of the questioner (or its country) before its own.   I argue, that this next step, that of sacrifice, is the theme of the second Pythia.

Pythia Two

Pythia Two (Fig.13) more somber and dark than Pythia One reflects the fear and uncertainty the Poles experienced later in 1917.

Figure 13

Wacława Milewska observes that, “The initial joy of the Poles gave way to doubt and bitterness. This change in mood and the fear of uncertainty about the fate of the Fatherland reflect Malczewski’s question… and symbolically expressed the state of uncertainty about the fate of Poland after the end of the war”.[39]  Woodrow Wilson may have declared in January 1917 that, “Statesmen everywhere agree that there should be a united, independent, and autonomous Poland,”[40] but Poland was still mired in confusion, hunger, and frustration. The military, especially one of its most popular leaders, Józef Piłsudski vehemently opposed the continuation of Polish troops fighting for everyone else but themselves. 1917 became a dark and undecided time.

In Pythia Two, her white dress[41] and floral crown replaced by a black peplum and wedding ring signify the loss of Poland’s innocence and freedom. The jubilant soldier of Polonia, reappears, gaunt and tense, much like the men currently in battle.  Is the Polish soldier, identified by his military cloak, bent over the balustrade, head bowed, and body taught, a willing sacrifice? The Pythia, although she does not make eye contact, leans forwards with her arms open and hands near her ears, accepting the sacrifice and preparing to listen. Visually, the painting echoes Delacroix’s Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia. The Pythia, seated high on a platform amid billowy gasses, awaits Lycurgus’ question. Lycurgus, legendary king of Sparta, will through his session with the Pythia, learn how to form a just and equal Sparta, based on an effective military.  A sacrificed lamb splays across the altar, its head lowered in supplication. Similar in position to Delacroix’s lamb, Malczewski’s soldier stretches before the Pythia, nodding his head in acquiescence. His bloodshed is required. A soldier’s life is the price of freedom.

This is an important consideration, as the painting may have been painted in July of 1917 after the “Oath Crisis” had occurred. Józef Piłsudski (Fig. 14) a key figure in the crisis, did not fear bloodshed or sacrifice, as Thaddeus Granada asserts, “It was Piłsudski’s belief that only a national insurrection and sacrifice of blood could contribute to the restoration of the Polish state”.[42]

Figure 14

The soldier, in the painting, bowed before the Pythia, defiant and subservient, is that sacrifice, appeasing the Pythia and serving Poland.

As early as 1908, Piłsudski, understood the need for a Polish military defense, and formed the Union Military Army, the nucleus of the Polish Legion. Perhaps, like Lycurgus being guided by the Pythia to arm Sparta, Piłsudski saw the military as Poland’s future. Prescient in nature he foresaw the Great War, and hoped his legions could subvert German ambitions. Thayer Watkins explains, “Piłsudski’s plan was to side with Germany and Austria-Hungary in driving out the Russians from Poland and then turn against Germany to gain Polish independence”.[43]

Germany, somewhat aware of Piłsudski’s plan, tried to thwart his ambitions. Using the promise of the Kingdom of Poland to buoy and unite the Polish troops to their cause, Germany required the Polish Legion to pledge an oath of allegiance.  It had the opposite effect. Instead it demonstrated to Piłsudski (and others) that Poland’s independence meant very little if they couldn’t fight for themselves. The three brigades under Piłsudski’s command refused to swear allegiance. Piłsudski was imprisoned, his soldiers sent to internment camps or forcibly drafted into the Austria-Hungarian army and sent to the Italian Front.  This action, or even sacrifice, was Poland’s first real military stand for liberation. The ethos of Pythia Two, if it is sacrifice, correlates with Piłsudski’s avowal that the Legions “were men redeemed by blood”. [44] The importance of Piłsudski as Poland’s greatest hero and hope for the future, adds a new lens of analysis to Pythia Three, which may include a portrait of Piłsudski, as the questioner.

Pythia Three

The third Pythia (Fig. 15), though youthful and donned in white, is not the same as Pythia One.

Figure 15

Her bridal accouterments have disappeared, and her dress lacks any decoration. Her elegant gold sandals are for more regal than the black ones in the earlier image. This simpler, more goddess-like Pythia exists in the aether, which is another explanation for the shifting and vaporous surroundings. Aether is one of the five elements of Classic Greek philosophy. Earth, air, fire, and water are the other four. Thought to be the purest air or essence, it was the air the gods breathed and their plane of existence, part of the celestial and heavenly world. The Pythia in her element as Apollo’s voice, tells us, “I know the number of grains of sand and the extent of the sea; I understand the deaf-mute and hear the words of the dumb.”[45]

Behind her, a man emerges from the flames, the fiery element of earth. Ghost like, he appears hazy, and his hands, separated from his body, fold in prayer. To her right another face lurks in the flames, but is almost impossible to discern.  The figure on her left, although he has not been officially identified, could be Józef Piłsudski[46], who Malczewski had painted in 1916. Although it is impossible to say for sure who it is, Piłsudski’s presence is not completely far-fetched.  Biographer Andrej Garlicky relates, “he [Piłsudski] believed that he was able to shape the course of history, that Poland’s destiny was dependent on his will”.[47] Here, in the role of the questioner, he hears the Pythia’s guidance, and brings Poland to her destiny. A fitting role for Piłsudski who had long been viewed by Poland as “the creator and symbol of the struggle, for independence, recognized as such not only by the Legions, but by the already aroused public.”[48]

Malczewski, well known for his portraits and self-portraits, often painted Polish luminaries in mythological or fanciful settings, that had less to do with their looks and more with what they represented. His 1916 portrait of Piłsudski (Fig. 16) depicts him in non-descript fields of yellow and green, receding into background of blues and grays.

Figure 16

The sky and landscape merge. Piłsudski’s figure looms large in the foreground. He seems to emerge from the canvas, a common Malczewski trait. In the distance, a Nike figure swirls behind like an apparition.  Pilsudski does not look back at the gossamer like victory symbol; he looks intently ahead, as though peering into the future.  Although the 1916 portrait does not exactly resemble the figure in the Pythia painting, the heavy mustache, straight nose, high cheekbones, and intense expression, demonstrate a likeness. Malczewski did not always think a faithful rendering was necessary.  Szydłowski argues this penchant is a poetic conception:

Malczewski, who had a deep insight into the human soul… did not, however, feel  hampered by the laws of absolute faithfulness to his models; he did not always render the realistic truth, but transformed it in his own way. He interpreted thatcharacters of the people he portrayed by making them converse some fantastic  figure and by supplementing the whole with symbolic objects…  the suggestion of the symbolic meaning which we can read best in the expression of the faces in the gesture of the hands”.[49]

The gesture of the hands, whether or not this is Piłsudski, provides a visual clue.  The hands, clasped and prayer, complete the series, indicating that he is the questioner, not a Delphic priest.  At Delphi, the priests wrote down answers and did not pray to her. They were scribes, not supplicants. Breton-Connelly affirms, “The prophets [priests] have been traditionally viewed as those who wrote these responses”.[50] Malczewski paints the third phase, that of the question. The man, prays for a response, his eyes look beseechingly and intent towards the Pythia. Her back remains turned, her body closed. An answer is not given. Poland’s fate is not yet determined.

The war, which held the promise of Poland’s liberation, still waged. The “Polish Question” continues on unanswered. Oddly, if the mustached figure on the left is Piłsudski, the painting seems somewhat prophetic. Piłsudski, freed from prison in 1918 after the fall of Germany, he became Poland’s Chief of State, leading her through its rebuilding and newly found autonomy.


The Pythia contains qualities of both the supernatural and supranational.  Her role, as a medium for Apollo, allows her to transcend the earthly and spiritual planes. This same role provides her with the ability to affect politics without any apparent alliances or goals, other than of that of peace. More often than not, Pythia advised for peace, regardless of whether the supplicant’s heeded or understood this advice was up to them. A symbol of divine inspiration, prophecy, political stability, and peace, the Pythia is also a symbol of political upheaval, riddle, ambiguity, mysticism and ritual.  Her complex iconography inspired Malczewski, whose own imagination filled with fantasy, artistic quests, lovers, and Poland’s past and future is just as complex.

Towards the end of his career, in 1922, four years into the rebuilding of Poland, Malczewski returned to the Pythia (Fig. 17).

Figure 17

Though, still in white, she appears older, bolder, facing the viewer. Men wearing Greek togas, possibly priests, or philosophers stand near by; some appear to struggle among the vapors.  A temple rises in the distance. Sphinx-like, her ambiguous smile and hooded eyes give nothing away. Her secrets remain hidden. Perhaps the positioning of her arms and downward thumbs provide a clue, but what is it?  The up and down position forms an “M.” Is Malczewski contemplating his own future, or does he feel that the Pythia is an image that eludes him?  Syzdłowski muses that Malczweski,  “realized that he wished to transform the world of natural phenomena and use it for his own ends, it was imperative to gain a mastery over it”.[51]        Indeed Malczewski consistently revisited themes, symbols, and ideas throughout his lifetime, perhaps to gain a sort of artistic control or to aid him as he sought answers about his role as artist, lover, human. His greatest muse was Poland. Stanislaw Witkiewicz (1885-1939) the celebrated Polish painter, writer, and art historian admired Malczewski, seeing Poland’s heart in his works. Witkiewicz’s deliberations expound that,  “every man who is a member of a subjugated nation has freedom and independence uppermost and permanently in his mind… The element of national consciousness fills the work for our greatest poets… It is one of the most outstanding elements in Malczewski’s work”.[52] If, as Lord Salisbury incorrectly conjectured, the notion of a free Poland was a chimera, it was a chimera that infused Malczewski’s soul, creating the legacy of one Poland’s greatest artist.


[1] Quoted in Richard Butler’s, New Eastern Europe, Longmans, Green, and Co., London, 1919, p. 74.

[2] Maria and Bogdan Suchodoloska’s Poland Nation and Art: A History of the Nation’s Awareness and Its Expression in Art (trans. Magadelana Iwińskaw and Piotr Paszkiewic), Arksdy, Warsaw,1989, quite thoroughly explains the importance of nationalism and culture throughout Poland’s history.

[3] Jan Tomasz Gross, Polish Society Under German Occupation, Princeton University Press, 1979, p. 8.

[4] Rodolphe Rapetti, Symbolism (trans. Deke Dusinberre), Flammarion, New York, 2005, p. 220.

[5] Jòzef Piłsudski (1867-1935) emerged as one of Poland’s greatest figures of World War 1.  A rebel and revolutionary throughout his life, he fought against Russian and German oppression. He was once exiled to Serbia, and later arrested several more times for his rebellious actions. He continued to be a force in Poland throughout the Interwar years as well as World War 2, although his actions were not always viewed as positive, possibly even dictatorial.

[6] For deeper analysis on Poland and the events leading up to World War 1, please read Anita J. Prażmowska, A History of Poland, Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2004, Jerzy Lokowski, Herbert Zawadzki, A Concise History of Poland, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, New York, 2006 and Anita Prażmowka’s, Poland: A Modern History, I.B. Tauris and Co Ltd., New York, 2014).

[7] Butler, op cit., p. 69.

[8] For a deeper analysis of the complexities involved in the “Polish Question,” see Jeffrey Mankoff’s “The Future of Poland, 1914-17: France and Great Britain in the Triple Entente”, The International History Review, 30, 4 (December, 2008), pp, 741-767, Jstor.

[9] Alfred Eich Senn, “The Entente and the Polish Question 1914-16”, Jährbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, 25, H.1 (1977), pp. 21-33, Jstor.

[10] Stephen Lehnstaedt, “Two Kinds of Occupation? German and Austro-Hungarian Economic Policy in Congress Poland”, in Joachim Bürgschwentner, Matthias Egger, Gunda Barth-Scalamni (edits.), Other Fronts, Other Wars, First World War Studies on the Eve of The Centennial, Koninklijke Brill, Leiden, 2014, p. 199.

[11] Lehnstaedt, op.cit., p. 204.

[12] Tadeus Szydłowski, “Jacek Malczewski: The Polish Painter-Poet. (1854-1929)”, The Slavonic and East European Review 10, 29 (December 1931), 275, Jstor.

[13] Agnieszka Morawińska, “Polish Symbolism”, in Symbolism in Polish Painting, Detroit Institute of Art, p.16.

[14] National Museum in Krakow, Whispers of Art: Jacek Malczewski, 1854-1929, National Museum in Krakow, p.30.

[15] Wiesław Juszczak, “The Twilight of Modernism”, Canadian-American Slavic Studies, 21,1-2, (Spring-Summer 1987) p. 12, Jstor.

[16]  Elizabeth Clegg firmly establishes Malczewski’s role in Polish Symbolism in her articles, “The Siberian Tea party: Jacek Malczewski and the Contradiction of Nationalist Symbolism”, Apollo 129, 324 (1989), pp. 254-97.

[17] J. Patrice Marandel, “Introduction and Acknowledgments”, in Symbolism in Polish Painting, p.10.

[18] Juszczak, op cit., p. 7.

[19] Richard Warren, Art Nouveau and the Classical Tradition, Bloomsbury Academic, London, 2018, p. 38.

[20] Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, trans. John Raffan, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1985, p. 148.

[21] Volumes have been written on the Pythia’s actions, arguing whether she spoke in a frenzied state or a calm one, and whether or not she inhaled hallucinogenic gases, while sitting over a chasm.  This has been an ongoing debate since Plutarch’s writings and does not appear to have found a resolution. Some writings to consider are: Joseph Fontenrose’s, The Delphic Oracle, especially chapter 7, Daryn Lehoux, “Drugs and the Delphic Oracle,” The Classical World 101,1 (Fall, 2007), pp. 41-56.  A.P. Oppe “The Chasm at Delphi,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 24 (1904) pp. 214-40. .

[22] Pausanias, Guide to Greece Volume 1, trans. Peter Levi, Penguin Books, New York, 1971, p. 415.

[23] For more early writings on the Pythia see Plutarch’s “On the Pythia Responses” and “On the Failure of Oracles, Pindar’s Odes, as well as the histories of Herodotus and Pausanias.

[24] Morgan, Catherine. “Divination and Society at Delphi and Didyma”, Hermathena 147 (Winter 1989), p. 18, Jstor.

[25] John C. Hulsman, “The Pythia of Delphi was the World’s First Political Consultant”, originally published by Aeon, and republished under Creative Commons, p. 2, http://thedelphiguide.com/pythia-of-delphi-was-the-worlds-first-political-risk-consultant/ (accessed July 31, 2018).

[26] Warren, op cit., p. 178.

[27] M.M.B. Biskupski, Independence Day: Myth, Symbol, and the Creation of Modern Poland, Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 3.

[28] See chapter “Kingdom of Poland” in Aleksander Gieystor, Stefan Kieniewicz, Emanuel Rostworowski, Janusz Tazbir, Henryk Wereszycki, (edits.), History of Poland, 2nd ed. Polish Scientific Publishers, Warsaw, 1979, specially, pp 521-531.

[29] Joanna Sapeta, Library of National Museum in Krakow, email to author, August 18, 2018

[30] Caterina Y. Pierre, “Marcello’s Heroic Sculpture”, Woman’s Art Journal, 22, 1, (Spring-Summer), p. 18, Jstor.

[31] Kurt Latte, “Coming of the Pythia”, The Harvard Theological Review 33, (January, 1940), p.13, Jstor.

[32] To completely recount the legends about Apollo’s treatment of prophetic women would be a challenge in a paper of this length.  Briefly, there is Cassandra, to whom Apollo gave the gift of prophecy, but when she refused to sleep with him he cursed Cassandra, so her prophecies would not be believed (she was considered mad). Daphne, a mountain nymph, possibly another ancient Delphic oracle, transforms into a Laurel tree to escape Apollo’s lust.  And of course, his treatment of the Python (which has many names and is often female) is less than kind. In other areas of Greece and Anatolia, female priestesses or seers served Apollo.

[33] Traditionally the Pythia wears a crown of bay leaves.

[34] Wacława Milewska, “Pytia”, http://www.kultura.malopolska.pl/object/MNK II-b-3449, translated by the author, with assistance from googletranslate.com.

[35] Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, Polish Customs, Traditions, and Folkore, Hippocrene Books, New York, 1993, pp 210-213.

[36] Lamus Dworski, “Slavic Bridal Crowns from Polish Folklore”, www.lamusdworski.wordpress.com, (26 Feb. 2017) np. see also Knab, pp. 190-192.

[37]. Dworski, op cit., ibidem.

[38]  H.W. Parke, The Delphic Oracle, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1956, p. 366.

[39] Milewska, op cit., np.

[40] As quoted in Adam Zamoyski’s, Poland: A History, Harper Press, London, 2009, p. 291. For more about the Kingdom of Poland see “Nation Building” chapter, pp. 287-295.

[41] According to Parke, “The youthful costume was worn because of its association with virgin purity”, op. cit, 35.

[42] Thaddeus V. Gromada, “Józef Pilsudski: A Biographical Sketch”, The Polish Review 56,1-2, (2011), p. 7, Jstor.

[43] Thayer Watkins, “The Life and Ideology of Józef Piłsudski”, www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/pilsduski.htm (accessed July 31, 2018), p. 3.

[44]Biskupski, op cit., p. 13

[45] This is of course a fictional account, retold by Herodotus in The Histories, trans. Robin Waterfield, Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 21.

[46] Perhaps this is pushing the analogy, but Piłsudski, born in December, falls under zodiac sign of Sagittarius, which is associated with the element of fire.

[47] Andrzej Garlicki, Józef Piłsudski, 1867-1935, trans. John Coutouvidis, Scolar Press, Aldershot, England, 1999, p. 165.

[48] St. J. Boncza, Józef Piłsudski, Founder of the Polish National Independence and Chief of the Polish State, S. Low and Mortson Co., Ltd, London, 1921, p.13.

[49] Szydłowski, op cit., p. 282.

[50] Joan Breton-Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess, Princeton University Press, 2007, p.73.

[51] Szyłdowski, op cit., p. 278

[52] Witkiewicz, Pisma Zebrane, II, Krakow: Wydawnietwo Literackie, 1974, as quoted in Wožniakowski, op cit., p. 39.

Jennifer Bates Ehlert

PhD student at Salve Regina University received her MLA in 2017 from Harvard University Extension School

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