23 June 2017
The Lublin Museum and its castle chapel frescos: an interview with Director Katarzyna Mieczkowska
Director Mieczkowska discusses the remarkable Russo-Byzantine frescos in Lublin and present research being conducted on them, as well as her museum's current exhibitions and major renovation plans for 2018.
Alan Lockwood: It will be important to discuss your museum's history and its current activities – for example, an exhibition opens tomorrow on graphic depictions of Lviv down the centurie, which includes the earliest known view, from Georg Braun and Abraham Hogenberg's volume published in Cologne in 1618 [Theatrum praecipaurum totius mundi urbium, with hand-colored copperplate engravings], which also holds Lublin's earliest known depiction.
I must begin, however, with what was my beginning as regards the Lublin Museum: the extraordinary frescos in the castle chapel, commissioned by King Władysław Jagiełło from a master fresco-painting team in the late 14th century. I returned to see the chapel frescoes yesterday, with afternoon sunlight through the windows. The aesthetic and decorative impact is powerful – yet even for the casual visitor, the royal and cultural history behind them must be at least as powerful.
Katarzyna Mieczkowska: The first thing I need to say is that our museum has a history of a hundred and ten years. And that happened because of local activitst – today we might say they were nongovernmental organizations. These were cooperations between people. They started making exhibitions, and at the beginning it was an agriculture exhibition, which now is not connected with our collection – but that was the first step.
AL: Now we might call these ethnographic interests.
KM: Yes. And at the beginning, the museum didn't exist here, it was on Naratowicza Street then at a few other locations. Here, through that time, was a prison. That prison was closed in 1954, then the House of Culture started to exist here.
AL: Lublin's Dom Kultury.
KM: Yes. This was a very big building, unrenovated, then some renovation started, as the chapel frescos had been rediscovered and the conservators' moment had started, etc. The building was of mixed use; the museum was just in a small space here.
But this was a very important moment in our starting to exist here. And step by step, we began to take more and more space in this area – because the museum is not just in this building. It's a very complicated space. You started by talking about the frescos, and of course this is the top, the most important point that we have here, which we protect and take care of.
The Lublin castle chapel and its frescos
AL: As I said, they make a powerful impression. Then can lead in further interesting directions, in terms of the museum's larger projects and activities.
KM: Yes. And this is very complicated, because we have here so many points in history. We have the frescos, the tower [donjon] that is the oldest building in Lublin, thus older than the chapel, begun from the 12th to 13th centuries.
Then construction of the prison was begun in 1826. They then had two ancient, existing buildings, the tower and the chapel [remaining from the ruined castle], and connected them. They built from them, rather than destroying them.
AL: Too massive of an effort, I imagine.
KM: I think so. [Laughter] Remember that the chapel then got a kind of plaster to cover the frescos, during this period. They were covered with a sort of lime plaster.
AL: Which covered them comprehensively?
KM: Everything, Yes.
AL: The chapel then functioned as the chapel for the prison.
KM: Yes. Without the frescos, of course.
After the war, a local painter named [Józef] Smoliński discovered that there was something interesting inside one wall [the barrel-like casing of an inner stairwell]. This was the moment when the conservation work started. I say started, because then there was another war, the First World War, then work continued here, then broke off during the Second World War. Many people were involved in the conservation. Portions of the frescos were destroyed during this process, of course. It was interrupted, with new techniques tested that were not as good as what we have today.
AL: Wasn't it just at the period when the museum was given its space in this former prison building, that more lasting conservation began on the frescos? Under Bohdan Marconi, who led the project in the mid 1950s – so the history of that conservation project and the history of the museum come together after the war?
KM: There isn't much information of what happened here for fifty or sixty years. We just know a few things about the conservation that was happening then, using conservators' documents. That is mostly engineering documentation, very official technical information: We are removing this part, or that part; We didn't, or We don't. Up to this day, the chapel is still quite unknown, even for us. Of course, it's necessary to conduct research about the chapel, because there can never be enough. Previous research had been finished in 1997.
Now, we've started it again – after twenty years, we begin to conduct research in the chapel. Using new technologies, I mean scanners, special machines that you can use to scan and look, for example, for what's inside a wall that was rebuilt. Some things were rebuilt inside the chapel. The entrance was changed many times.
New research in the castle chapel
AL: When did this new level of research begin in the chapel?
KM: A year and a half ago. That was the first moment when we were using this new technology. Ten or fifteen years ago, scanning technology was very expensive. Now it's not, and we're doing it together with the local polytechnical-science university. They have the equipment, and provide us with the people who do this in our chapel, experts and professors who have great experience in using the machines.
AL: I should think it would be very interesting for them as well, combining their expertise and with the historical significance of the chapel: the opportunity to conduct new levels of research at the site.
KM: One thing we've been looking for is points of rebuilding, as I mentioned. For example, they found a new space. The chapel has two floors, the main floor with the frescos–.
AL: The upper floor.
KM: Yes, and the one below, which had been a kind of technical or support space for the chapel.
AL: The ground floor had been the operations area; the top floor was ceremonial.
KM: Then also there were stairs, which were below, to the crypt. Which was not big but was in use, and there is a wall that was not original but was rebuilt. We were thinking there must be something inside, because it [the extant wall] has an unnatural form. Working with scanners, they found an open space inside. Two months ago, we checked it, putting a camera and lighting inside.
AL: With fiber optics?
KM: Something like that. [Laughter] This new information provides a hypothesis that it was another entrance, not another crypt. That had been the first idea, that it was another crypt. Probably it was a new entrance, but they've got the material and now they must analyze it and look for additional information, documents, etc. It's a long process to reach a conclusion.
AL: And an exciting discovery.
KM: Yes. Everybody had thought that it was finished, the conducting of research – but it's not. Another project we are now realizing is to conduct research about the frescos: what is inside them, in the chemical and physical meanings. Also using new technologies, and both physical and chemical methods. We analyze how the frescos exist, in terms of which flowers and so forth were used to prepare each color.
AL: The pigments. To help analyze how the ancient technology of fresco painting could exist in such conditions over such periods of time.
KM: Yes, but it's very complicated, because as conservators have worked there step by step, with so many ideas in conservation work. Fifty or even forty years ago, when a figure was missing a leg, the idea of conservation was to paint one in. Now, this has changed absolutely, and the idea is to protect only that which is original. It's more to push for the original point.
AL: Toward the authentic remains. This is very evident in the frescos today. In the panel with the crucifixion of Christ, above his chest and those of the thieves flanking him, it's blank and black: nothing's been added [to replace destroyed original work]. There's also an earlier section in that scene, along what I take to be the Gesemane garden wall, where parts of the figures of observers are no longer evident. Rather than a decision to–.
KM: Paint or not. It's very different now than it was in the moment they began conserving the chapel. And that's the problem: what is really original? It can be very complicated. But it's good to undertake it, because next year we commemorate six hundred years since the frescos were finished.
AL: The specific conclusion date was signified on one panel: 10 August 1418.
KM: The frescos were painted by the master whose name was Andriy. We just know his name, but he wasn't alone and was working with support and other painters. It's quite a big project.
AL: And quite a big commission from Władysław Jagiełło to develop the frescos in the Lublin castle chapel at a very important time for wider relations and for Lublin. The city had received important privileges from the king, including for free trade with Lithuania even two decades before Kraków received the same privileges. And the important connections that developed from Vilnius through Lublin to Kraków.
KM: This time of Jagiełło was the golden period in Lublin's history. We were, as you say, on the routes between important places. For economic reasons, this was important.
AL: Important to the extent that Lublin became a fulcrum in the huge union between Poland and Lithuania toward forming the Commonwealth, with Jagiełło's crowning ceremonies held in Lublin. Then, two centuries later in 1569, decisive union declarations were negotiated and signed here.
KM: That was also here, in the castle, after the ceremony – well, it's not so easy, it wasn't like just an official delegation and an official ceremony, everybody saying hello, shaking hands and saying Great! we're together. It was very complicated.
AL: This calls to mind Jan Matejko's famous The Union of Lublin, an important painting in your museum's collection, which depicts and arranges very serious historical individuals, with some of them obviously very upset.
KM: Those discussions, the aim of which was the [international] cooperation, went on for months. It wasn't just one meeting where everyone signed an agreement. For years, there had been discussions between the countries, because it would mean that we had together the same foreign policy, for example, and many things in which Lithuanians had to take a step back and give Poland concessions regarding international policy. This wasn't so easy, and many times it was almost broken – and delegations would go back to their countries.
AL: This suggests today's European Union: finding ways to form a union is no unique moment of inspiration. A lot of discussions, arguments, compromises.
KM: Absolutely. It was a compromise in 1569. Today, we know so much of this history, of what happened and why we are in the European Union. And what happened here was the first step in building the EU: the first cooperation, the first point, between two absolutely different countries with different heritages, different languages.
AL:Each of which saw the advantages of forming that complicated union. Then, as history tells us, it did in fact succeed, for centuries.
KM: That's right. People today see it as the first symbolic step in building the European Union. The European Commission gives a kind of prize or distinction, as UNESCO does, for example. To our city, with the castle and the chapel and the monastery of the Dominicans – after the signing of the union, there was a celebration at the monastery, in the Old Town. Points that form our heritage trail. Lublin received the EU award several years ago, in which the EU interprets this event in 1569 as the first stage in building our common Europe.
The museum's site, and postwar Lublin to the present day
AL: You've mentioned a number of stages over the past century in development of this museum, including the phase in the early 1950s when it found its home here at the site of the remains of Lublin Castle.
Yet the museum now fills a building that was constructed as a prison. This makes a very strong impression: it's simple to pass on the highway through Lublin and look up and think that it's the castle – but once one learns the very different history, it's revealing. Revealing of what went on here through the 19th century. When there wasn't a Poland in the geopolitical reality. When Lublin and this part of Poland were ruled by czarist forces and their occupation authorities. And it's in a building that had been constructed as a prison even before the November Uprising of 1831.
KM: From 1826 to 1954, for all that time, this was a prison. It's a witness of history, begun during the Russian partition of Poland, then it was a German prison during the Second World War, though Jews were sent to Majdanek. Here, many people from the intelligentsia and the underground resistance were held. It was very restrictive – especially what happened in the tower. That was horrible: it was always cold, because of the brick and stone. And because there were so many people held here.
It was a city to itself. They had people producing shoes, clothes – everything for the prisoners. This part, now my office, had been the hospital. What's interesting is that this part, at the front, is the oldest, originally built in 1826. And one wing is original, which connects the tower and the chapel. But the other wing was destroyed in the 1950s, after Stalinist times. They didn't have time to remove what they wanted, documents and so forth, so they destroyed everything. Then it was rebuilt, so it is new, from the 1960s. In the front, there had also been an administration building.
AL: The period you're describing points to another important level of Lublin history: the formation of the political and administrative entity established to impose Poland's postwar government, with Soviet backing. The Lublin government was put in place in 1944, as Soviet forces pushed the Germans back toward Berlin – put in place when the rest of Polish lands and the most of Europe was still at war.
KM: Lublin has always been a very specific city and place. Another example is that we have five universities here. It's always been an intellectual center.
AL: To your point, another Lubliner, the composer Jerzy Kornowicz, who runs the annual Codes Festival here, made a comment last night about Lublin as the city with churches and universities and no apartment buildings.
KM: He's right. [Laughter].
AL: There's KUL [the Catholic University of Lublin], and the technical university.
KM: The agricultural university, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie University, which is the biggest, and the medical university.
AL: The Skłodowska-Curie University with the museum published the monograph on the chapel frescos by Anna Różycka-Bryzek [Freski bizanyńsko-ruskie fundacji Jagiełły w kaplicy Zamku Lubelskiego, 2000, republished in 2012 by the museum].
KM: And for that reason, this academic and intellectual profile, Lublin was very special if you compare it to very economic Poznań, or artistic Kraków or the capital, Warsaw. It's absolutely different. It's in a very big area for agriculture and for villages in this region – and then you have this point, Lublin, which is very intellectual. People arrive here as to Cambridge, for example: Lublin is the academic center for the entire region.
AL: With the Lublin region so large and diverse, reaching east to the nation's present border.
KM: That's right – and that's why it's kind of a bridge between the east and west parts of Europe, connecting the cultures. The heritage that you can touch and feel here is absolutely different from what you'll sense, say, in Poznań or Kraków. If you compare what people think and what is traditional, etc., Lublin is very different and special.
AL: As conclusion, perhaps we can take your description of this broad topic of Lublin's distinctiveness to find a way of asking about current museum activities. The Lviv graphics exhibition, for example, and the anniversary of the frescos, which arrives next year along with Poland's centenary of independence in 1918. And their are your local branches, dedicated to writers including Stefan Żeromski and Bolesław Prus.
KM: Four museum branches within the city include one to the writer Wincenty Pol, the Brama Krakowska [Kraków Gate], where the history of Lublin is told, and also the martyrology point where a wartime jail was established near the university during the Second World War, for Gestapo interrogations. There, we have a large, important archive of women prisoners. For years, we've conducted research and gathered information about what happened with these women who'd been in the camp. It can be very helpful when survivors are looking for information about their family members' pasts.
The Lviv graphics exhibition is our collaboration with their historical museum, ongoing for two years, which we open with Lviv here, then in autumn we'll open the Lublin graphics exhibition in Lviv. Among the most important exhibitions, we're realizing this year is on the iconography of Lublin. On 29 June, we open this exhibition, including over five hundred works from graphics to paintings. We've done research in museums across Poland, to present Lublin in graphics from 1618, the Abraham Hogenburg engraving, the first, up to 1939.
And just this May, we applied to the EU budget to renovate the entire castle site, actually. It's a really big project, of some thirty million euro, which was submitted just a week ago. This would be happening next year: a great challenge for us, so it's a big point, for next year. The new wing of our building was built sixty years ago, and has never been renovated. Our museum is a complicated organization.