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0093 Volodymyr Hucul, The Battle of Orsha – court propaganda or chivalric epic? (English version)

RIHA Journal 0093 | 3 July 2014

The Battle of Orsha courtpropaganda or chivalric epic?

Volodymyr Hucul

Peer review and editing managed by:

Katarzyna Jagodzińska, Międzynarodowe CentrumKultury, Kraków / International Cultural Centre, Krakow


Juliusz Chrościcki, Michał Mencfel

Polish version available at / Wersja polskadostępna pod adresem: (RIHA Journal 0092)


The Battle of Orsha, part of the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw, an example of panel painting (1525–1535), is of paramount importance for the study of the military, as well as for the research in art history, material history, and the history of political and military elites of Central-Eastern Europe during the Renaissance. The article describes the ways Ruthenian and Lithuanian-Polish elites used material and intellectual products of chivalric culture, and tackles the problem of documentary and propagandist role of visual narrative. Since the publication of works by David Freedberg1 and Peter Burke2 the necessity to recreate the context of making, functioning, and reception of images has become evident. Daniel Arasse has further expanded methodological tools of this type of research3. However, there are still numerous artworks whose historical and social context has either remained untouched by research, or has been researched insufficiently. Repeatedly, it has led to misinterpretations of such artworks in spite of their major position in culture. The Battle of Orsha is a spectacular example of this process.


Artwork description

  1. The Battle of Orsha (tempera on oak board, 165×260 cm), just like the best paintings of Renaissance battle painting, is remarkable for its epic composition, realistic rendition of figures (there are at least several hundred of them in the picture), the attention to depict luxurious objects and their owners, as well as an almost critical number of details. (fig. 1) The painting represents the tradition of German painting of Late Gothic and Early Renaissance (15th–16th century), with closest analogies being Albrecht Altdorfer's The Battle of Alexander at Issus and Jörg Breu's The Battle of Zama. It was supposed to be and it was viewed in reference to these works4. However, even the very first look at the painting surprises an insightful researcher, and the more details are noticed the more troublesome the general interpretation becomes. All similarities of style and technique between the three paintings fade in contrast to differences stemming from an analysis of content, plot, and iconography. Altdorfer's and Breu's paintings interpret events from ancient history and include numerous allegorical and symbolic references. On the other hand, The Battle of Orsha presents historical events and real people, and the way they are represented corresponds with what one finds in historical documents. The battle took place on 8 September 1514 in what is now Belarus and confronted Lithuanian-Ruthenian and Polish army with the army of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. It ended with the victory of the former. The central figure of the picture is the hetman of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, an Orthodox Christian Ruthenian, prince Konstanty Ostrogski. Other figures, next to Poles, Lithuanians, and Muscovites, include Tartars. Among several hundred figures one can also find Hungarians, Serbians, and Italians. The author presents them on the background of faithfully depicted geographical terrain. As an art work documenting reality, the picture is closer to the tradition of Italian battle painting: the three-part Battle of San Romano (1435–1440?) by Paolo Uccello, or to the series of tapestries The Battle of Pavia made (around 1528–1531) according to cartoons by Bernard van Orley, where influences of various artistic trends can be discerned.

The Battle of Orsha, tempera on oak boards, 1525–1535. The National Museum in Warsaw, inventory no. MP 2575. Photo: Piotr Ligier, Museum Photo Studio

  1. The date when the painting was made is not certain. This matter is still being debated, with little light shed by dendrochronological research conducted in 1992, which indicated the year 1525 as the earliest possible date, and the period after 1530 as possible. The opinions on this matter vary significantly – the possible date when the picture was painted is set between 1515 (right after the battle)5 and 15406. The author was most certainly German, yet up to now it has not been possible to establish his identity, despite the fact that in the years 1515–1544 there were few specialists able to realise a commission of such scale, and being acquainted with Italian battle painting tradition, as well as military reality of Eastern Europe. Of little help was the presence of a figure whose gesture (the right hand making a typical painter's gesture of framing the space of the future painting7) and appearance (it is the only figure with no weapons or armour) suggest that it is the artist's self-portrait. In 1980 Zdzisław Żygulski stated that previous researchers had ignored this figure8. It seems that it is still being ignored. This motif deserves a separate study, especially that the figure of knight standing next to the artist points in his direction with a lance with a Radziwiłł family coat of arms on the pennon. It is usually assumed that the artist was linked with the workshop of the Cranachs. (fig. 2)

The Battle of Orsha. Fragment with an assumed author of the painting, tempera on oak boards, 1525–1535. The National Museum in Warsaw, inventory no. MP 2575. Photo: Piotr Ligier, Museum Photo Studio

  1. The painting reveals the influence of Albrecht Dürer as well, most distinct in the depiction of the so-called Orsha cannon shown in the right-hand bottom part of the picture. At some point it became a subject of a heated debate among Polish scholars9. Recently, Dieter Koepplin suggested that the work was painted by Hans Krell10, a painter known entirely as a portraitist. This thesis may seem plausible, since even the faces of second- and third-ground figures are depicted in smallest detail. Nevertheless, all the above-mentioned theses lack substantial support in historical sources.

  2. According to the rules of Renaissance battle painting, the picture should praise the victors. However, the winners seem here more like professionals at work, rather than majestic triumphant warriors, while the defeated are depicted in a pity-provoking manner.

  3. The choice of the medium of painting is of certain importance, as well. Undoubtedly, it is a means of symbolic communication, yet one needs to answer the question about the aim of using this form – royal propaganda, glorification of Polish-Lithuanian aristocracy, or perhaps depicting representatives of the class of nobility? Researchers are not in concord as to the person of the founder, which makes the task of establishing the original function and role of the painting very difficult. Apart from the Polish king and the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Sigismund I, possible founders are indicated as one of the Ostrogski11 or Radziwiłł12 princes, the most powerful prince dynasties in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the first half of the 16th century. Yet, historical sources offer no support of these speculations.


Aesthetic aspects

  1. Aesthetic aspects of the painting deserve to be discussed, and they may aid in further search for its author. Within the framework of a singular composition the author succeeded in creating a clear, logical, coherent and – what is most crucial – historically verifiable visual narrative on key battle events. He depicted all the details, as well as remarkably expressively presented both the victors, as well as the defeated. Medieval simultaneity was used with Renaissance mastery. The narrative corresponds with historical texts about the battle. It needs to be noted that to realise similar commission Bernard van Orley, the author of cartoons for the tapestries showing the Battle of Pavia, needed as many as seven separate compositions. The composition of Orsha successfully applies several new original ways of depicting military events. Just like any other great work of art, The Battle of Orsha significantly transcends the limits of the genre. The author excelled at transforming the visual story of the battle into a picture documenting the culture and customs of the nobility.


The non-aesthetic functions of the painting

  1. For obvious reasons, each panting makes a bigger impression on those who look at it than on those who read about it. In case of The Battle of Orsha the imposing historiography, written in at least five languages, does not translate into the popularity of the work outside Poland.

  2. In the second half of the 19th century the painting was found in Wrocław. It was first noticed by German art historians, who made the original attribution13. The first publication by Polish scholars was written by Stanisław Herbst and Michał Walicki. In many ways, it has preserved its validity up to this day. Its theses on the undoubted documentary value of the painting stemming from the participation of the author in the battle, on the faithful depiction of the arms, battle formations and combat techniques, despite earlier criticism, seem to be relevant14. Jan Białostocki presented an extended set of visual analogies with the painting and discussed several borrowed motifs. In his opinion, the composition reveals the influence of Albrecht Dürer, Hans Burgkmair, Lukas Cranach, and Niklas Stoer. The author shows a remarkable knowledge of their art. Białostocki is right to acknowledge the painter's artistic priorities. According to Białostocki, he was more interested in the faithful depiction of details and actual events than in any kind of compositional elegance, which would explain such naturalistic rendition of the horrors of the battle15. Zdzisław Żygulski's work with carefully presented fragments of the painting was first published in Switzerland in English16. This high quality text, which over time has not lost any of its literary quality or academic relevance, was addressed to Western-European scholars of military and to armament specialists, yet it seems it did not impress them the way it should have. For example, it was completely overlooked in major comprehensive studies of the history of arms, such as Ewart Oakeshott's work17. Nevertheless, Zdzisław Żygulski came back to this topic on numerous occasions18.

  3. From the beginning of the 1980s The Battle of Orsha has attracted interest of Polish art historians. Mieczysław Gębarowicz placed the painting at the top of his list of masterpieces of Polish historical painting, at the same time significantly questioning its veracity as a historical source19. Teresa Jakimowicz included The Battle of Orsha in her book Temat historyczny w sztuce ostatnich Jagiellonów [Historical Themes in the Art of the Last Jagiellonians]20. Searching for political and propagandist content in the art at the court of Sigismund I Mieczysław Morka reset the date when the picture was painted to after 1540 by comparing just one fragment of the work with just one woodcut by Niklas Stoer21. The above mentioned interpretations of the work, next to the originality of their methodological approaches, are characterised by one major flaw – their authors are more interested in their own concepts, for which The Battle of Orsha is a more or less important material, than in the picture itself, and its use is limited to the manipulation of several small fragments.

  4. Even though outside the circle of Polish art historians and those interested in the broadly understood cultural studies the picture is not popular, it is being discussed very often, also abroad.

  5. On several occasions, it was mentioned in a study by a Soviet scholar Anatolij Kirpicznikow22, as well as in an article by the Ukrainian scholar Oleksandr Galenko23. In 2004 it was presented at an exhibition "Thesauri Poloniae" in Vienna. On this occasion there was published an article by Andrzej Dzięciołowski and Maciej Monkiewicz, where authors presented a new hypothesis as to the possible foundation of the picture by the Ostrogski princes24. Recently, Piotr Oszczanowski questioned this idea, quoting archive materials from the 17th century, and linked the foundation with a different powerful Lithuanian family, the Radziwiłł25.

  6. Regardless of ongoing criticism, for Polish scholars the picture is still a major source for the study of Polish military of the first half of the 16th century. It is also important in the study of Polish cultural relations with both the West, as well as the East.


Research objectives

  1. Of paramount importance is an answer to the question how the picture was received by viewers at the time it was made, who these viewers were, and to what social group they belonged. Therefore, the main research premise should be to situate the picture in its original context, that is in the military reality of Central-Eastern Europe of the first three decades of the 16th century, which can best be known on the basis of artefacts and documents from this period. I am convinced that this procedure may provide answers to questions about the possible reception of late Medieval and Renaissance battle art – was it propaganda and instrument of manipulation, or a conscious document of important events? Do battle artworks differ one from the other in this respect? It needs to be noted that the accusation about the falsification of reality by Medieval and Renaissance battle painting is completely groundless, since there are no objective criteria of their "accurate" representation.


The construction of battle narrative and the genre of the picture

  1. Attempting to answer the question about the role of the image in cultural transmission one is tempted to formulate a definition in accordance with terminology used by practitioners of so-called cultural history: this role is to be an "informative fact", an account of the culture of noblemen and knights of Central-Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 16th century.

  2. Up to now we have been dealing with a stereotypical reception of the picture as a typical example of propaganda of the royal court. The Battle of Orsha was considered a classic example of propagandist campaign of the Jagiellonian court. The work was supposed to effectively supplement the small success of the Polish-Lithuanian army in the war against the Grand Duchy of Moscow, as well as glorify the person of the monarch.

  3. For several decades this thesis has been omnipresent. Polish scholars were the first to announce the thesis about the propagandist function of the work26. Afterwards, it was enthusiastically received by Soviet, and later Russian historians27. This thesis has suited well the main trend of Russian ideological interpretation of the 16th-century Lithuanian-Moscow wars. What is more, the ongoing discussions on the actual age of the picture (whether it was painted right after the battle, or after 1525 as suggested by dendrochronological research, after 1531, or maybe after 1540) has not changed this misconception, despite the fact that there is no direct proof that the work was commissioned by the royal court, or that it had been in Poland before 1946.

  4. The application of the word "propaganda", which has only been used after the year 1622, in reference to a work of art created almost a hundred years earlier provokes reservations of formal nature. For contemporary Western-European historians of culture, the use of the term in reference to visual material from before 1789 is an anachronism, which has been reflected in standard textbooks28. In the majority of Polish studies on The Battle of Orsha the term is used almost mechanically. If one accepts the thesis that the phenomenon of propaganda, especially war propaganda, defined in a different way or not defined at all, has existed almost from the very beginnings of the military history of the humanity, linking the picture with this function only is a serious simplification of this phenomenal piece. The use of the term not in a historical, but in an analytic sense is equally inadequate. I understand the term "propaganda" as communicative practice that is meant to manipulate the mind of the viewer. The picture in question, on the other hand, does not use basic manipulative techniques, including the manipulation of the images of the hero and the enemy.

  5. Sigismund I, the key subject of the Jagiellonian "propaganda", is not presented in the picture. The single image of the Polish white eagle, which can be interpreted as a symbolic representation of the monarch, is placed in this part of the composition where it was really necessary – on the banner of royal court company29. The eagle is not particularly emphasised and it is "iconographically equal" to the coats of arms of the Ostrogski and the Radziwiłł, also featured in the picture. There are no other signs or objects in the picture that could be formally qualified as carriers or symbols of "monarchical ideology". Assuming, of course, that at that time and place something like that existed at all (fig. 3).