During his time working on an Austro-Hungarian commission to paint the murals for the Bosnia-Herzegovina’s pavilion at the 1900 Paris World Fair, Alphonse Mucha had a dream that one day he would complete a series of paintings which would depict the true story of the struggle of the Slav people which would truthfully depict their history and civilisation through a series of twenty monumental paintings. His early research for his project began the year before the 1900 Paris World’s Fair and to do his research he travelled around the Balkans collecting stories and researching customs of the Slavic people. Many of the areas were that populated by the Southern Slavs, regions that had been annexed by Austria-Hungary two decades earlier. They were regions which now fall under the rule of countries such as Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and North Macedonia. It was during these early travels that Alphonse Mucha developed the inspiration for his new project – The Slav Epic, a true pictorial history of the Slavs.
For his project to materialise Alphonse needed financial support and when he was in America between 1904 and 1909, he had received that from Charles Crane, a wealthy Chicago-based businessman and philanthropist who was extremely interested in the progress of political affairs in Eastern Europe and the ethos of the Slavonic people. The Slav Epic as it was known took Alphonse fifteen years to complete. In 1911 he started by renting a large spacious studio and an apartment in Zbiroh Castle in Western Bohemia which afforded him the space he needed to work on the giant canvases, some of which measured 6 metres by 8 metres. His plan was to produce twenty paintings depicting crucial episodes from the Slavic past, stretching from ancient times to the present day, ten canvases would represent episodes from Czech history and ten would focus on historical episodes from other Slavonic regions.
So, in the next three blogs I will discuss the twenty-painting series. I suppose I should apologise in advance if you feel they tend to be “history” blogs rather than art blogs but these twenty monumental works are history paintings and you need to understand what is being depicted by the artist.
Alphonse Mucha completed his first canvas in the series, which was entitled The Slavs in Their Original Homeland, in 1912. It was a monumental painting measuring 8.1 x 6.1 metres. The idea for this first of the series was to focus on the Slavic people in the 4th to 6th centuries. It was during this time that the Slavic tribes were agricultural folk who lived in the marshlands between the Vistula River, the Dnepr River, the Baltic Sea, and the Black Sea. Their villages were under endless assaults by Germanic tribes from the West who would burn their houses and steal their livestock.
In the foreground of the painting, we see a terrified couple, dressed in white, hiding in the bushes as their village burns on the horizon. They press themselves against the ground to avoid detection but the shrubland offers them little or no hiding place. They are the survivors of one of these attacks. Look at their facial expressions. Look how Mucha has depicted their terror and defencelessness as they look out at us, imploring our help. In the left background, flames from their burning homes can be seen rising into the star-covered sky. In the central background we see the depiction of the warring invaders who show no mercy as they slaughter the fleeing villagers, the females of the village are herded and will have to suffer the long and brutal journey to the slave markets. In the upper right of the painting, we see depicted a pagan priest with two youths by his side symbolising war and peace and these figures foreshadow the peace and freedom that will eventually come to the Slav people when they have battled for their rightful independence.
The second painting in the series, The Celebration of Svantovit is all about the spreading out westwards of the Slav people. In the city of Arkona on the north east tip of the island of Rujana, which is the present-day German isle, Rügen, they built a temple, Jaromarsburg, dedicated to the Slavic pagan god Svantovít. It was situated at the tip of the Cape Arkona and was protected on three sides by cliffs and from the land side by a 25-metre-high Slavic burgwall. Every autumn pilgrims from as far as Spain would make a pilgrimage to the temple to celebrate the annual harvest festival. From around the 9th century to the 12th centuries, the Jaromarsburg became a cult site for the Rani, a Slavic tribe, dedicated to their god Svantevit. In 1168 the Danish army attacked Rujana and destroyed the Slavic temple. When Mucha painted this work, the temple had developed mythical status and was looked upon as a symbol of former Slavic glory. Alphonse Mucha’s painting is not so much about the Slavic temple but about the pilgrims who visited the site and the impending doom. In the foreground, occupying a third of the space, we see the pilgrims dressed in white clothing. They seem quite unaware of what is going on above them. In the sky we see the gods who are besieged by the enemy who are being led by a pack of wolves. Some of the Slav gods in the upper central portion are bound, while others look distressed or hang their heads in sadness. Look how Mucha’s has contrasted the mood. The sky is dark and there is an ominous feel about it whereas the sun-soaked pilgrims are enjoying their arrival at the pilgrimage site heedless of the troubles that is about to befall them.
However, in the central foreground, one of the pilgrims, a young mother holding her child in her arms stares out at us. She looks distressed as though she alone is aware of the looming downfall of the city.
In 1168, the Danes, commanded by King Valdemar I the Great and Bishop Absalon of Roskilde, attacked the island and destroyed the temple of Svantovít. Eventually, the Baltic region came under Germanic rule, and the pilgrimage site and Svantovít came to symbolise the former glory of the Baltic Slavs. A painting by Laurits Tuxen depicts a Christian Bishop overseeing the destruction of the pagan image during the purge of paganism and the supplanting it with Christian beliefs. Churches were established and the castle and its temple destroyed.
Alphonse Mucha’s third painting of the Slav Epic series, which he completed in 1912, was the Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy in Great Moravia, is populated with many figures and tells the story of Methodius and his brother Cyril who had translated the Bible into the Slavic language. The setting of the painting is Velehrad, a town which was once deemed the capital of the Slavic state of Great Moravia. The time of this gathering is somewhere around 880 AD. In an attempt to prevent the demise of the Slav language, Prince Rostislav commissioned two learned monks from Salonika, Cyril, and Methodius, to translate the Bible into Old Church Slavonic. This move was not popular with the German bishops and Methodius was summoned to Rome to stand up for the translation. He was successful and succeeded in securing Rome’s permission to continue his work. The pope appointed him archbishop of Great Moravia for his efforts. It was their translation of the bible which afforded the Slavic people the chance to read it.
Methodius and Cyril were instrumental in the survival of the Slavic tongue in centuries to come, and they became the Slav people’s most popular saints. In the painting we see Methodius, the bearded figure on the left, almost hidden behind a small tree. Two of his followers kneel either side of him, holding his hands.
Prince Svatopluk who was the successor of Prince Rostislav, sits on a throne to the far right of the depiction. He is listening carefully to a priest who stands before him reading out a letter from the Pope John VIII. Two German priests sit either side of Svatopluk. Their faces are shaded and almost hidden in darkness, and they can hardly hide their anger at what is going on. These Germans had been making their way through Moravia with the intention of eradicating the Slavic language for good. They wanted to force the Slavs to learn the German language if they wanted to practice Christianity. Floating above this scene, in the upper left corner, we have four members of the divine realm. We can see the Pope sitting on his throne. Beside him, sits the Byzantine emperor, who was the head of the Orthodox Church. Surrounding the great religious leaders are Slavs who had suffered forced Germanification and who now cry out for comfort. In the centre of this ethereal world, we see stylized images of Methodius and Cyril as Saints.
Represented in the top right of the painting are the stylised figures of rulers who supported the spread of Christianity in the Slavic language: Boris of Bulgaria and Igor of Russia and their wives. In the foreground, a figure of a youth with a clenched fist and a circle in his right hand symbolises the strength and unity of the Slav people.
The fourth painting in the Slav Epic cycle is entitled The Bulgarian Tsar Simeon. After the death of Methodius, around 885 AD, Prince Svatopluk withdrew his support for the Slavonic translation of the New Testament and banished his followers from Moravia. Fortunately, the Bulgarian Tsar Simeon, who was known for his passion for Byzantine literature, gave them refuge and encouraged them to continue their work. In this painting, Mucha immortalises the expelled followers of the Slavonic liturgy in the Byzantine frescos that adorn the walls of the basilica. He places Tsar Simeon at the centre of the composition, communicating with his scholars and scribes in the foreground while the official members of the church and court are relegated to the background.
Alphonse Mucha’s fifth painting in The Slav Epic series, King Premysl Otakar II of Bohemia, jumps ahead four hundred years from the previous work and is set in the second half of the thirteenth century. It features King Přemysl Otakar II of Bohemia. He had two nicknames; the Iron King for his military valour and the Gold King because of the vast fortune he had amassed from his silver and gold mines of Kutná Hora. More importantly, in the mind of Mucha, Otakar was responsible for instituting close links between the various Slavic monarchies in the 13th century which ultimately led to peace for future generations of Bohemians. The painting depicts the great ceremony held on the occasion of the marriage of his niece Kunhuta of Brandenburg to the son of Hungary’s King Béla IV and the king took the opportunity to invite various Slavonic rulers in the hope that the get-together would help forge lasting coalitions between all those who came to the grand ceremony. We see King Přemysl Otakar II greeting his guests as they arrive at the wedding. Stood at the centre of an opulent tent with a built-in chapel, the king holds hands with two guests in a gesture of friendship.
Another grand ceremony is depicted in Alphonse Mucha’s sixth painting of the series. It is The Coronation of Serbian Tsar Štěpán Dušan as East Roman Emperor. Štěpán Dušan was responsible for expanding the Slavic territory in the 1300s and for establishing a code of law that was valid throughout his empire. In 1346, following successive military victories against the Byzantine Empire, he crowned himself Tsar of the Serbs and Greeks in Skoplje. In this work, Mucha depicts the procession following the Tsar’s coronation. Dušan stands in the middle of the procession with two men on either side holding regal robes. The procession is led by young girls in Serbian folk costume and their inclusion is thought to be Mucha’s belief that the younger generation will carry forward Pan-Slavic ideals.
The seventh painting of Alphonse Mucha’s Slav Epic series is dedicated to Jan Milíč of Kroměříž. He was a learned young theologian who held positions of responsibility in the church and the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV. He became disillusioned by the workings of the church and was horrified by the immorality and indulgences of the clergy. So much so, Milíč resigned from his duties and decided to devote the rest of his life to the city’s poor and speak out against the misdemeanours of the church. Legend has it that in 1372, by the sheer power of his oratory, Milíč managed to persuade an alleged three hundred prostitutes in Prague to repent, and on the site of a former brothel which was located in Konviktská Street, he, with the help of Charles IV, established a refuge for repentant sinners, a chapel and convent dedicated to Mary Magdalen. In the painting, Mucha depicts the building of the refuge for repentant prostitutes. Atop the structure we see the humble figure of Milíč, wrapped in a blue shroud with a long grey beard. He stands aloft alongside the structure’s architect, preaching to those down below. The repentant women replace their jewellery with white habits, signifying their newly found purity, whilst in the foreground, a woman in red is gagged to prevent her from gossiping.
…………………………………….to be continued.
Much of the information for this came from the excellent website The Mucha Foundation