Frescos in the Holy Trinity chapel
The chapel of The Holy Trinity at the Lublin Castle is one of the most valuable monuments of art in Europe. What betokens its merit, are the Byzantine-Ruthenian polychromes from the early 15th century. The polychrome that covers nearly entire surface of vaults and walls was funded by king Władysław Jagiełło.
Creation of the paintings dates to the period of city’s greatest prosperity. In 1386 the marriage contract between queen Jadwiga and Władysław Jagiełło was signed in Lublin. It was also the place where in 1421 the Hussites offered the Czech throne to Władysław Jagiełło. In the following centuries the Gothic temple served as the royal chapel. The king endowed the prebend generously, thus securing its further development. The income of the prebend at the castle was allocated for livelihood of six priests and a seminarist, all of them referred to as mansjonarze (vicars of lower rank). Jagiełło established an exceptional patronage of the city, granting it various privileges. Jan Długosz was staying at the castle between 1473 and 1476, working as the teacher of Kazimierz Jagiellończyk’s sons. A solemn thanksgiving service took place in the chapel on the occasion of signing the Union of Lublin act in 1569. The walls have born names of the participants of Polish-Lithuanian deliberations carved in the surface. A decree issued by Pius VII in 1818, which reduced vicars’ incomes, marked the end of chapel’s prosperity. After 1820 the chapel, sharing the fate of the castle, served as a prison chapel. The walls were plastered and covered with lime.
1418 - completion of paintings inside the chapel
1497 - privilege confirming the donations on behalf of the Holy Trinity church issued by king Jan Olbracht
1564 - inventory of the castle confirms the existence of the vicars’ house, built onto the southern wall of the chapel
1569 - solemn thanksgiving service on the occasion of conclusion of the Polish-Lithuanian union
1575 - relocation of the vicars to the St. Michael collegiate church, deterioration of the chapel
1655 - 1656 - the chapel ravaged during Swedish and Cossack invasions
1823-1826 - flank of the prison building built onto the chapel
1890 - walls of the chapel covered with lime and plaster
1899 - fragment of the polychromes uncovered by Józef Smoliński
1902-1914 - conservational works ordered by the Imperial Archaeological Commission in Petersburg
1917-1918 - removal of the 19th-century plaster, cleaning of the paintings’ surface
1918 - conservational works carried out by Jerzy Siennicki
19 19-1923 - removal of the remnants of plaster and other conservation works supervised by Edward Trojanowski
1939-1954 - the paintings significantly damaged
1954-1959 - deterioration of the frescos due to another conservation
1966-1974 - improvement of building’s technical condition
1 976-1995 - thorough conservation of the polychromes
1997 - the chapel made available for visitors
Time of creation
It is not known when the work on the polychromes began. The oldest municipal book of Lublin, whose content is known from Hieronim Łopaciński’s transcripts, contains a mention from 1407 which refers to expenditures on painting inside the castle chapel. The paintings were completed on St. Lawrence's Day, 10 august 1418.
The endower that provided funds for the Byzantine-Ruthenian paintings was king Władysław Jagiełło, who, according to Jan Długosz, preferred the eastern art to that of the West. Jagiełło ordered several other churches in provinces of Greater Poland and Lesser Poland to be decorated in that manner. The castle chapel is the best preserved of the works created owing to the royal endowments.
The paintings were created by a group of three painters, each of different artistic origin, exhibiting three main individual mannerisms. The principal painter, master Andrzej, whose name appears in the foundational inscription, is the author of the majority of the scenes related to the cycle of holidays and the Passion of Christ. He represented the narrative mannerism. His compositions are not homogenous. The holidays cycle utilizes traditional patterns,widespread in Byzantine, while the Passion cycle is based on patterns originating from Serbia and Athos. Figures were painted with bright ochre, which locally passes into red.
The image of Christ in Majesty, the Annunciation scene, angels on the vault and figures of prophets and saints were painted by ‘Kurył’ - Cyril. This painter represented the hieratic-iconic mannerism. Characteristic features of his works are: frontal depiction of the figures and uniform appearance of their faces.
Paintings on the rood-screen wall and on the lower portion of the nave walls represent an archaizing mannerism.They are the work of a painter named Juszko, associated with Galician-Volhynian circles.These paintings are characterized by utilization of archaic iconographic patterns.
The name of the master of the group is included in the foundational inscription. The other names were deciphered by Krystyna Durakiewicz and Maria Milewska during conservational works in 1979.
Representations embellishing the Holy Trinity chapel at the Lublin Castle form an ideologically and materially coherent iconographic programme. It was based on the Byzantine iconographic canon which defined the subjects of the representations and their arrangement inside a church.
Interior of a Byzantine church was not only the venue where liturgy was celebrated, but it was also intended to reflect the Cosmos created by God. Theocentric vision of the world order was depicted in main Byzantine temples. It manifested through hierarchical arrangement of the representations. Themes of timeless nature were located in the uppermost parts of the vault. The earthly themes were painted below and on the walls. Whole decoration was also ordered in accordance with significance of particular representations.
The iconographic programme of God’s eternal glory constituted a fixed motif, always painted on the inner surface of the dome. The body of prophets was located below and the evangelical cycle in the nave. Those were complemented by secondary motifs, developed on lower parts of interior walls. This fixed pictorial programme was implemented in a given church, with depictions tailored to the spaces which were determined by building’s layout.
As far as architecture is concerned, the space inside the Lublin chapel does not share many features with that of a Byzantine church. It consists of a nave with a pillar in the centre and walls divided by pointed arch-shaped windows that hardly provided enough painting surfaces for the Byzantine pictorial programme. Nevertheless, the painters remained faithful to the descending hierarchy principle. Each representation follows another, according to its importance, beginning from the vault and down towards the walls.
The following representations, being most important, were located on the vault of the presbytery: Christ in Majesty; The Holy Spirit in form of a dove; Cherubs; Seraphs; Thrones; the Archangels: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel; Angels; St. John; the Mother of God. On the vault of the nave one sees depictions of cherubs, God’s throne (the Etimasia), angels of lower choirs, symbols of the evangelists.
On the lower section of the presbytery wall, beginning from the north: the Ascension, the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane, The Last Supper, Communion of the Apostles, Christ Washing the feet of the Apostles, soldiers shocked over Jesus revealing his identity during the arrest, The collusion of Judas and the priests, Peter’s denial and remorse, women at the tomb of Christ. In addition, there are two depictions related to the benefactor: equestrian portrait of Władysław Jagiełło and Szreniawa coat of arms.
On the eastern wall: arrest of Christ and trial before the Sanhedrin.
On the southern wall: Annunciation of the Passion, Trial before Pilate, Soldiers Mocking Jesus, the Flagellation, Setting up of the Cross, Crucifixion, the Descent from the Cross, portraits of king David, king Solomon and Saint Parascheva of the Balkans, and the foundational inscription.
Depicted on the nave walls were, beginning from the north: St. Pafnucy, St. Onuphrius, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, the Baptism of Jesus, St. Thomas the Apostle, the Transfiguration, the Raising of Lazarus, the Entry into Jerusalem, Saints Cosmas, Damian, Kira and John, the Dormition of the Theotokos.
The eastern wall: the Annunciation, the Image of Edessa (Mandylion), the Descent of Christ into Hell, the Deesis, the scene titled ‘The Hospitality of Abraham’ (three angels visiting Abraham), St. Paul and three Eastern Church Fathers.
The southern wall: Melchizedek, Isaiah, The Visitation, The Nativity of Jesus, Micah, Elijah in the Desert, healing the man with a withered hand, Christ appearing to Marys at the tomb, Saint Gierasim, Death of Indigent Lazarus, the Communion and the Burial of Mary of Egypt, The Massacre of the Innocents, The Endower Praying.
The western Wall: continuation of the depiction of the endower while praying, Ezekiel, Jonah, St. Theodore Stratelates, St. Theodore Tyron, depictions of undefined saints, Daniel in the Lions’ den with Habakkuk bringing him food, the saints: Pachomius, Anthony the Great, Macarius of Egypt, Sabbas of Cappadocia, Spyridon of Trimythous, Daniel the Stylite and the saints: Cosmas, Damian, Kira and John.
Iconography of the pictures
The paintings placed on the vault and the walls of the Lublin chapel form thematic cycles. Most important in the hierarchy are the representations that glorify God. A depiction of Christ in Majesty can be seen on the Presbytery vault. Pantocrator, sitting on a throne, announces his reign to the world, as the Gospel of John defines it (8:12): 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness...' He is surrounded by a mandorla and apocalyptic creatures emerge from behind, preaching the wisdom of God to the all parts of the world.
At Christ’s feet, on the keystone, one can see the coat of arms of the House of Jagiellon: white double cross on a red escutcheon. This image emphasizes the submission of Polish ruler to the King of the Universe.
The symbol of the Holy Spirit was depicted in a separate field on the vault. A dove, surrounded by a mandorla, was included in a composition depicting the Holy Trinity. This theme was repeated in its Old Testament form on the rood-screen wall, on the field earmarked for a painting related to the dedication of the church. The Holy Trinity motif, symbolically depicted in form of the Old Testament scene of the visit that three angels paid Abraham, makes up the main theme of the painting adornment of the chapel.
The Holy Trinity is accompanied by a throng of angels, whose figures occupy nearly the entire surface of the presbytery and nave vaults. The top of the hierarchy is made up of Cherubs, Seraphs and Thrones. Sixteen angels of the first sphere were painted on the vault of the Lublin chapel. Archangels: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel surround Christ from all sides, appearing as the guardians of the Pantocrator and executors of his will. Further eleven angels, depicted either as full figures or on form of half-lengths, participate in the liturgy or serve as messengers. Compositions depicting the Deesis (the Prayer) and the Etimasia (the Preparation) complete the image of God’s heavenly glory, elaborated on the vault. In the Deesis scene Christ in Majesty is accompanied by Theotokos and John the Baptist, who are the go-betweens between God and man. The Etimasia represents the throne prepared for the Second Coming of Christ, at the same time symbolizing the presence of the invisible God.
Symbols of the evangelists, located on the western side of the vault of the nave, are the complement of the image of God’s heavenly glory. Out of four compositions, only the lion of St. Mark has survived.
Figures of patriarchs and prophets were placed on the margin between the vault and the nave, which symbolize, respectively, the realms of heaven and earth. They form the link between the timeless and the historic God.
The holidays cycle and Passion scenes
Depicted on the upper part of nave walls are twelve most important episodes from lives of Christ and Mary, corresponding with the great festivals in the Orthodox Christian liturgical year.
The cycle begins with the Annunciation scene. Archangel Gabriel approaches Mary, who is seated on a throne. Pursuant to the canon, this scene was placed on the wall that separates the presbytery and the nave. The next scene placed on the southern wall of the nave is the Visitation. Mary and Elizabeth embrace each other in a gesture of greeting and joy. Mere fragments of the following scene of the Nativity of Jesus have survived. Regrettably, the core of the composition, depicting Mary, the Divine Infant and Joseph, does not exist today.
The cycle finds its continuation in the scene of the Presentation at the temple, painted on the southern wall of the nave. It depicts the moment when Christ returns to his mother after he was circumcised by priest Simeon.
The adjacent upper section of the northern wall of the nave bears a composition that depicts the Baptism of Christ. John, barbate and dressed in tunic, baptises the young Christ, who stands in the river of sharp-edged zigzag banks.
Plot of the painted narration continues towards the polychromes located below, where three other scenes from the holiday cycle were depicted: The Transfiguration, the Raising of Lazarus and the Entrance into Jerusalem. Picturesque illustration of the events related to the Palm Sunday completes the festival cycle in the nave.
Presbytery walls feature expanded Passion theme, commencing with the scene of washing the Apostles’ feet. In the upper row of paintings, there is a depiction of The Last Supper. Christ, sitting with the Apostles at the table in the Cenacle, is the central figure of the composition. Judas approaches the table with the devil sitting on his shoulders. Other scene, depicting his collusion with the priests, reveals his intentions to the viewer. For his promise to betray Jesus, Judas receives thirty pieces of silver, which can be seen on the table before the priests. The narration leads us to the uppermost part of the northern presbytery wall, crowned with an ogival arch. Depicted here is The Prayer in Gethsemane. Christ, kneeling, reaches out to the “cup of bitterness”, which is being handed him by an angel coming flying from the sky.
The next, significantly damaged depiction, represents the shock that the soldiers experienced when Jesus revealed his identity before being arrested (John 18:6). The arrest itself was depicted right next to the altar. Christ and Judas, who gives him away with a kiss while stepping on his foot, are portrayed against a rocky paysage opening asunder. On the lower sections of the northern wall of the presbytery one sees three scenes thematically related to the denial and remorse of St. Peter.
The trial before the Sanhedrin was depicted to the right of the altar. In the following scene of the trial before Pilate, separated by a window, one can see Christ being led to face the Roman Prefect. Pilate washes his hands in a bowl full of water. The gothic crown on Pilate’s head is a western addition to the composition otherwise pursuant to the Byzantine canon.
The scenes of soldiers mocking Jesus and of the Flagellation form the continuation of the Passion cycle. Christ’s last moments before the Crucifixion are depicted in the damaged painting of setting up the Cross and in the scene of Christ’s denial to drink the wine mixed with gall.
The biggest of the compositions on the southern wall pictures The Crucifixion. It is also an illustration of the eighth great festival in the liturgical year. Painting that follows depicts The Descent from The Cross.
The composition that pictures women at the tomb of Christ concludes the Passion programme.
The narration then continues in the nave, where there are illustrations of other liturgical festivals: The Descent Into Hell (Anastasis), The Descent of The Holy Spirit and The Dormition of The Theotokos (Koimesis). The Ascension scene can be seen on the upper part of the presbytery wall.
That composition takes up far more space than adjacent paintings. The Dormition of The Theotokos was depicted in the bottom row of paintings on the northern wall of the nave. Detached figure of Thomas the Apostle, who, as the 5th century legend has it, did not manage to arrive in Mary’s home in time, completes the composition. During his miraculous flight from India to Jerusalem, Thomas beheld the Mother of God being lifted up into the heaven. He received a belt from her - a proof of the miraculous Assumption.
The artists supplemented illustrations of the Passion of Christ and the twelve holidays cycle, that cincture the nave and the presbytery in three rows, with corresponding evangelical imagery. The Communion of the Apostles, which is a complement to The Last Supper, was painted on the northern wall of the presbytery. The Passion theme was enriched with the scene that pictures the Annunciation of The Passion and with the figure of Saint Parascheva of the Balkans. Enriching the Resurrection theme is the Chairete - painting that pictures Christ appearing to the ‘Marys’. The scene of healing the man with a withered hand complements the Raising of Lazarus. The Massacre of the Innocents, representing an episode from Christ’s childhood, is probably a supplement to the Nativity theme, depicted on the same wall.
Mandylion can be seen on top of the rood screen wall. In depicts an acheiropoietic (not made by human hand) likeness of Jesus’ face imprinted on a white cloth hung on a rod. Conveying the substance of dogmas concerning the incarnation and the unity of all of the natures of the Saviour, the Mandylion is the key to decipher the paintings on the walls.
The hagiographic theme
Hagiographic scenes take up almost the entire western wall, adjacent parts of southern and northern ones, the central pillar and middle section of the rood-screen wall. They depict frontal likenesses of saints or narrative illustrations of most important episodes from their lives. The great anchorites of The East stand out from this group: Pachomius, Anthony the Great, Macarius of Egypt, Sabbas of Cappadocia, Spyridon of Trimythous and Daniel the Stylite.
Names next to the aureolas, scrolls of parchment and details of appearance allow identification of the motionless, frontally portrayed figures on the western wall of the nave.
The endower theme
Scenes related to the endower were painted in the southeastern corner of the chapel, on the barrel-shaped wall that encloses the entrance to the choir loft and in the passage towards the presbytery, as well as on the intrados of the rood screen arch.
The most complex of these compositions is The Endower Praying. Depiction of the Theotokos with Christ, who raises his arm in a blessing gesture, occupies the central section. Władysław Jagiełło is kneeling before Mary with his hands folded to a prayer. St. Nicholas and Constantine the Great, who is portrayed on the right side of the composition, act as royal patrons of the king.
The prayer scene is accompanied by a symbolic portrait of Jagiełło, painted on the upper section of the intrados of the rood screen arch. The king is pictured on a galloping steed. An angel, flying down from above, puts a crown on his head, at the same time handing him a crucifix. King’s right arm is covered with a shield on which the double cross - the coat of arms of the House of Jagiellon - is painted. This scene conveys the belief that the earthly power comes from God, at the same time praising the king for his deeds on the field of christianization. Below the rider one can see the Szreniawa coat of arms, probably referring to Piotr Kmita, the starost of Łęczyca, who had served as the Lublin castellan until 1409.
Opposite to the equestrian likeness of Jagiełło is the foundational inscription. It is entirely destroyed in its initial part, with only last six verses legible. The preserved fragment allows to read the date of creation of the paintings and the name of the artist. The decoration of Lublin chapel was finished on St. Lawrence day (10 august) in 1418. The creator of the paintings was called Andrzej.
Ornaments and the curtain
The ornaments hold an important position in chapel’s iconographic program. Most frequently used motifs are: palmette or tendril-shaped half-palmette, wavy or zigzag ribbon, knot, scale, peacock’s eve, hearts and floral ornaments, among which the flowers with picturesque calyces draw special attention.
The curtain, intended to resemble the one from the Solomon Temple, acts as an ornament, while at the same time symbolizing the border between temporal and eternal world. Varying colors of folds invoke an illusion of motion.
The ornamentations of the Lublin chapel were created using the fresco technique, consisting in putting the pigments mixed with water upon freshly laid lime plaster, with addition of cut straw and linen fibres. Each time the painters prepared the exact amount of lime needed for day’s work. Design of the composition was painted with bright ochre and at some points amplified by engraving the lines in fresh plaster. Of the natural pigments, the following were used: lime, azurite, malachite, charcoal, as well as iron clay in shades of ochre and red. Gilding nimbuses and details of robes was the final stage of work.
Conservation of the polychromes commenced in 1899. Painter Józef Smoliński discovered a fragment of composition relating to the foundation on the turret encasing the stairway that leads to the gallery. Few years later, the Imperial Archaeological Commission from St. Petersburg arrived in Lublin. Pyotr Pokryshkin and Nikolay Pokrovsky removed most of the plaster in the presbytery. Next conservation works were carried out with participation from The Lublin Circle of The Society for Caring of the Monuments of the Past (Pol. Towarzystwo Opieki nad Zabytkami Przeszłości) and supervised by prof. J. Makarewicz. Painters Stanisław Matejko and Władysław Rupa participated in those works. In the years 1917-1918 the remnants of plaster were removed, the surface cleaned and the cavities filled. In 1918 Lublin-based conservator Jerzy Siennicki continued the works. Between 1919 and 1923 Edward Trojanowski from Warsaw managed the conservation.
During the German occupation and in the after-war years the paintings in the chapel were significantly damaged. In the years 1954-1959 another conservation was conducted, with participation from the Monuments Conservation Laboratory (Pol. Pracownia Konserwacji Zabytków) in Warsaw, yet unfavorable and unstable weather conditions aggravated the state of the frescos. Numerous spots of salt damp appeared, causing plaster to come off, together with the paintings layer. Between 1966 and 1974, works aimed at improving building’s technical condition were carried out, consisting, among others, in replacing windows and inspecting interior’s climatic conditions. Those measures allowed realisation of another conservational works, with contribution from Stanisław Stawicki, Maria Milewska, Leon Bartnik and Magdalena Gawłowska, in cooperation with Krystyna Durakiewicz, head conservator of The Lublin Museum. In the years 1976-1995 salt deposits were removed from the surface, together with most of the reconstructed fragments and all retouches that were excessive or modified the original colours.
The chapel was made accessible to visitors in april 1997, almost hundred years after Józef Smoliński had discovered the frescos.
Urszula Gulbińska-Konopa, Magdalena Ślifirz
Translated by Jarosław Kobyłko