Volhynia, Krakow, Rome – the Polish life of Antoni Madeyski

Part of the Queen Jadwiga’s tomb, 1902/ pl.wikipedia.org/

Volhynia, Krakow, Rome – the Polish life of Antoni Madeyski

The commission to create the sarcophagus of Queen Jadwiga for Wawel Cathedral was an artistic and patriotic challenge for Antoni Madeyski. Here, at the very beginning of the 20th century, the sculptor had to take on a prestigious subject for a place that was almost sacred to Poles and, above all, to keep his compatriots’ faith in their imminent independence. In exile, he lived this theme to the full.


Antoni Madeyski, coat of arms Poraj, came from a family of landed gentry from Volhynia, from the village of Fośnia Wielka in the district of Owrucz. In his memoirs, he recalled that his childhood home was 'splendidly’ situated on a mountain, overlooking gardens, a river and rocks. He finished secondary school in Zhytomyr, then set off into the world – frequently returning to Poland for the rest of his life, serving it as a sculptor and community worker.

He was educated first in St Petersburg, then in Vienna, and finally landed in Rome in 1898.

His artistic work in exile was strongly influenced by Polish culture. For the Basilica of St Anthony in Padua, he made busts of prominent Poles, including John III Sobieski. In Rome, he also made reliefs with their images and epitaphs.

In 1912, thanks to Madeyski, the Fryderyk Chopin Italian-Polish Circle was founded in Rome, and a few years later the Adam Mickiewicz Cultural Society. In 1915, the artist became secretary of the General Committee for Aid to War Victims in Poland, set up in Lausanne. Three years later, he prepared an exhibition in Paris in favour of Polish war invalids living in France. There he also participated in the work of a recruitment office for Poles. When artists from independent Poland took part in the Venice Biennale for the first time in 1920, he supported them by accepting the position of commissioner of the Polish pavilion.

His authorship includes a beautiful design on one of the coins of the reborn homeland. The profile of Polonia – a woman wearing a wreath of clover against a background of rays arranged from ears – was found on the 2, 5 and 10 zloty coins.

The ideal and flawless white

Madeyski must have been proud when, in 1901, Cardinal Jan Puzyna, head of the Krakow diocese, entrusted him with the realisation of the sarcophagus of Queen Jadwiga, buried in Wawel Cathedral, which Count Karol Lanckoroński wanted to finance. At the time, Professor Marian Sokołowski, an art historian at the Jagiellonian University, stressed that the sarcophagus should become a symbol of Polishness by using historical and cultural symbols and making Jadwiga 'an incarnated ideal’. He postulated that it should concentrate on renunciation, grace, simplicity and the pure figure of a woman with noble features.

A project of this magnitude required Madeyski to be well-prepared. He began to study the period of the first Jagiellons in detail and decided that the tombstone should be made in the style of the Italian Renaissance. He used an excellent material – flawless white Carrara marble.

The way the sculptor portrayed Jadwiga moved the faithful. The poet Bronisława Ostrowska, the wife of the sculptor Stanisław Kazimierz Ostrowski, gave Madeyski her yet unpublished collection of poems 'Opale’ as 'true thanks for Jadwiga’s sarcophagus’.

Soon Cardinal Puzyna commissioned Madeyski to carve another work, this time a cenotaph of King Wladyslaw of Varna, also for Wawel Cathedral. The artist chose another style. He created a sculpture in bronze and red marble that is close to the Gothic architecture of Wawel Cathedral. He immortalised the young king with the Szczerbiec, the coronation sword of Polish kings, to show that the deceased was a brave knight.

Madeyski’s authority grew enormously and he received many proposals, especially from the Dukes Sanguszko and Czartoryski. He gladly accepted them, all the more so as he had adopted the principle of not accepting commissions from private Italian clients, not wanting to be disloyal, as he said, to his fellow Italian artists. In 1935, the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts in Warsaw organised an exhibition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Madeyski’s work.

The bust of Jan Matejko by Antoni Madeyski 1895. Marble portrait./

He did not live to see the Second World War: he died suddenly of a heart attack in Rome on the last day of January 1939. Following his will, he was buried in Campo Verano in a tomb he had designed, where the painter Aleksander Gierymski, Madeyski’s friend who died in 1901, and his uncle, the sculptor Wiktor Brodzki, who died three years later, were already buried. Stanisław Witkiewicz believed that without Madeyski, Gierymski, who suffered from mental illness, would have died alone in a hospital room and been buried in a mass grave.

Madeyski had an inscription placed on the common tombstone: 'Tomb of the Polish Artists’, which still exists today and testifies to the history of the Polish artists’ colony in Rome in the first decades of the 20th century. It was founded, among others, by the Circle of Polish Artists 'Kapitol’. It included former students of Madeyski, an important leader of the Polish community in Rome.

Karolina Prewęcka

Source: dlaPoloni.pl