Mila Szczecina, Marek Pieniążek, and Victor Adorjan

The Panorama Racławicka: a Battleground for Identity

The Racławice Panorama is a 15 by 140 meter-long painted canvas depicting the legendary General Tadeusz Kościuszko’s victory over the Russian forces at Racławice in 1794. The monumental work, painted in the 19th century, is situated in a large concrete rotunda built in the shape of a crown on the edge of Juliusz Słowacki Park in Wrocław, adjacent to the Katyń Memorial.1

The main entrance to the Racławice PanoramaAerial view of the main panorama building

The painting, the oldest and only existing example of panoramic painting in Poland, was created by Jan Styka (1858–1925) and Wojciech Kossak (1857–1942) with the assistance of a team of scenic artists over a nine-month period between August 1893 and May 1894.2 The historically accurate panorama illustrates the details of Kościuszko’s troops and his corps of peasants wielding scythes engaging the Russian hussars. They win a glorious victory; but, as every Pole knows, this victory was short lived because the bid for independence from the Russian yoke ultimately failed. Nevertheless, the triumphant battle became a symbol of the nation’s aspirations.

The National Exhibition, organized in Lwów in 1894, offered an excellent opportunity to realize Styka’s ambition to create a monument to the Polish national spirit on the 100th anniversary of the original battle. Fine, heavy duty canvass was purchased in Brussels and a rotunda was built to display the painting. The exhibit opened on 5th June 1894; it was an immediate popular and financial success as it attracted enormous local attention and brought large numbers of tourists to Lwów.

At the end of World War II, with the city (now known as Lviv) becoming part of the Ukraine and being absorbed into the Soviet Union, most of the Polish citizens remaining in the city were resettled in Poland. It was during this period that the panorama, damaged when a bomb hit the building housing it during the war, was brought to Wrocław. The nationalist and implicit anti-Russian sentiments underscoring the painting were regarded as politically sensitive by the then communist regime so restoration of the canvas and displaying the work had to wait for the emergence of Solidarity in the 1980s. The canvas finally went on display in its purpose-built home in Wrocław on the 14th July, 1985. It has since become the most popular tourist attraction in the city and required visiting for important guest to Wrocław, that among others have included the likes of Pope John Paul II, Queen Beatrix of Holland, and Czesław Miłosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Panorama Experience

For all visitors, be they celebrity or ordinary citizen, the introduction to what awaits you inside the entrance to the rotunda is a memorial of sorts in the vestibule of the building that provides dates, illustrations, and details about the Battle of Racławice. This ticket-buying and waiting area is a simple, efficient construction of concrete, wood and stone furnished with long padded benches for people to sit and wait till they can enter the rotunda proper. Apart from the informative memorial there is a modern map of the battle with a modest book store selling guide books and small figures. There are also monitors and an exhibition providing historical information about the battle.

The way in which the waiting room surrounds you with the various sources and mediums of information about the battle and its history provides a transition from the everyday to an event with deep connections to Poland’s sense of national identity. Even the bookstore seems more in keeping with a church repository than the commercial transaction of selling memorabilia so common in museums today. Given that it is tucked into a corner of the waiting area, is rather small, and that its simple lighting as well as its limited range and simple display of merchandise leans more towards the homespun than encouraging sales, its purpose seems less concerned with making money than with offering a more extensive source of information about what you are about to witness.

Moving from the waiting area into the rotunda, you pass through a steel gate where your entrance ticket is checked; following those ahead, you enter a dark subterranean passageway past signs requesting silence. All obey, and the muffled sounds of feet, whispers, and breathing combined with the somber low-ceilinged corridor you are making your way through leave little doubt you are entering a place of reverence. This dark corridor is beneath the building; it is in Poland’s soil, in the same earth, rendered in the painting you are about to see, that has been soaked with the blood of the nation’s aspirations for independence for centuries. There is more than a casual suggestion of the sacred as you move in near silence through a space reminiscent of an underground passageway in a church or cloistered monastery.

The corridor gradually transitions into a stone spiral stairway. The long, ascending stairs appear to increase their incline gradually, making you aware of the effort it takes to climb them. This effort is rewarded however, as you gradually move from darkness into light; then, as you reach the top of the stairs, you are encircled by the brightly lit panoramic painting that stretches from floor to ceiling. The cyclorama’s monumental scale, its visual radiance enhanced by intense, bright lighting, and its representational exactitude are instantly striking; and in keeping with the suggestions of a religious experience which seem purposely designed into an experience rooted in Catholic Poland’s history, the brief journey from waiting room to panorama has the quality of a pilgrimage about it.

Once at the top of the stairs, you and others accompanying you are directed by the architecture to walk around in front of the painting on a raised walkway. This platform affords you an unobscured view of the canvass that reproduces the main events of the battle in chronological order. The painterly ‘illusion of reality’ is enhanced by lighting and cyclorama techniques that gives the impression the sky continues on to infinity at the top of the painting and provides for a seamless transition from the painting to the material terrain (soil, plants etc.,) that it flows into at the bottom of the work.

Your walk around the painting is accompanied by a narration (offered in several languages) that both chronicles and provides a soundtrack for the events ‘taking place’ in front of you. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, this narration avoids nationalist rhetoric; it is respectful, warm, and familial, as if the narrator is sharing something deeply personal and meaningful with those viewing the panorama.

Combining a technology of yesterday, a Victorian sensibility for spectacle, and the semblance of a theatrical paradigm in which a story is ‘played-out’ rather than simply told, the panorama experience provides a contemporary viewer with the vicarious experience of appreciating events that are a touchstone of Polish nationalism.

An Historical Context

The top of the spiral staircase with the painting in the background

The Racławice Panorama is deeply connected to the history of Polish nationalism. This nationalism has its roots in the often thwarted aspirations for an independent state denied by larger, more powerful neighbors and a rhetoric steeped in the Catholic tropes that have helped shape the narrative of these aspirations.

The origins of Poland’s obsession with national identity lie in political shifts in the country’s history that began with the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth towards the end of the 16th century. The union, which grew out of developing ties between the two nations during what is commonly referred to as the golden age of Polish history, witnessed a long period of gradual political decline beginning in the mid-17th century. The decline culminated in the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy, through a series of invasions and partitions, terminating the Commonwealth’s independent existence in 1795. Poland ceased to exist for the following 123 years!

The Second Republic (so called to signify its heritage in the earlier Polish state) had to wait until the end of WW I in 1918, when the partitioning imperial powers were defeated by war and revolution. Poland remained an independent nation from 1918 to 1939, when the country was invaded by Nazi Germany at the beginning of WW II. The Nazi’s held on to power until the Soviet’s ‘liberated’ the country in 1945. With the agreement of the Allied powers at the Yalta Conference in February of the same year, Russia claimed Poland as a Soviet satellite and annexed some 180,000 sq., kilometers of prewar Polish territory in the east while reinstated some 100,000 sq., kilometers of Poland’s western provinces. With these changes, the country lost much of its traditional multi-ethnic character and the communist system was imposed.

The war devastated what had been the Second Republic. The nation had lost more than 6 million people, over half of whom were Jews. The country’s infrastructure was in ruins, most of its cities were damaged or, like its capital, Warsaw, totally destroyed. A generation of future leaders was lost, and the country was to remain under the Soviet yoke until the rise of Solidarity in the 1980s. However, it was not until November 1990, when the first fully free elections saw Lech Wałęsa installed as president, that Poland celebrated the founding of its Third Republic, the modern Polish state we know today.

Ever since Poland officially adopted Christianity in the 10th century, the Catholic Church has informed the religious, cultural and political life of the country. Catholicism is, for many Poles, an integral part of what it means to be Polish, if for no other reason than it differentiates it from its larger neighbors who have coveted its territory for centuries with the east and north of Germany being primarily Lutheran and Russia, Orthodox Christian. The Catholic Church has sustained Poland through much of its troubled history, and as a consequence, much of that history has been shaped in the nation’s consciousness and rhetoric through the lens of Catholicism. For instance, the Polish monastery in Częstochowa, which successfully resisted a foreign siege in the 17th century (1655) with the reputed intervention of the Virgin Mary, has ever since been both a symbol of national resistance to occupation and the spiritual heart of Poland; this is due in no small part to the actions of the King of Poland (Jan Kazimierz) the year following the battle in which he pledged Poland’s fealty to the Virgin Mary in gratitude for her assistance in an elaborate ceremony in which she was crowned ‘Queen of Poland’. This linkage between the Mother of Christ and the Queen of the nation has resonated with Poles ever since.3 In a similar vein, one of the nation’s seminal literary figures, the Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, envisioned Poland as ‘The Christ of Europe’ in his poetic drama Dziady. In a vision that married Poland’s national trauma with Catholic theology, Mickiewicz, cast the persecution and suffering of the Poles as something to be endured for a larger purpose, that of a providing a means of salvation for all persecuted nations, just as the death of Christ brought redemption to mankind. Thus, the phrase, known to all Poles, ‘Poland the Christ of Nations’ (Polska Chrystusem narodów) was born; a phrase that identifies Poles collectively with messianic suffering and implies a nation destined to return to glory, as Christ was.

A dynamic relic

The Panorama resonates as both a national and personal touchstone for Poles because it incorporates the aspirations of a nation realized in victory; but, as touched on earlier and as every child who visits the painting on a school excursion knows, the victory was short-lived. Poland won the battle, but eventually lost their struggle for independence from Russia as Poland’s tale of sacrifice and subjugation entered a new chapter. Despite the subsequent history, it is the victory over a larger, perennial occupying enemy and the ethos of Kościuszko himself that speaks to the Polish people.

The pivotal history the painting cites, the romanticized realism of the painting, the sheer scale of a work surrounding the viewer that stretches from floor to ceiling and covers the entire circular wall of the large rotunda, the metaphor of the heroic imbued in the presentation of the cyclorama as a radiantly bright, magnificent work portraying a glorious moment in Poland’s history, and the way in which the painting is experienced as an ambulatory, narrated journey through the unfolding events of the triumphant victory over a perennial foe lend themselves to what might best be described as a hybrid fusion of theatre, cinema, and the theme park.

The hybrid experience references a deeply important event for Poles because as theatre and performance studies scholar, Halina Filipowicz points out4, the Battle of Racławice, and even more so the insurrection it was part of, is generally regarded as ‘the fulcrum of modern Polish history’.5 Kościuszko, already a famed general, and a veteran of the American War of Independence, returned to Poland in 1784 to support his own nation’s struggle for independence. Shaped by his experiences in America, Kościuszko’s ambitions for Poland were contentious. He stated unequivocally that his fight was for all Poles, not only the nobility and aristocracy of the country. Ignoring the concerns of the latter, who regarded arming the common people as dangerous, Kościuszko recruited ordinary people into his army of independence in the firm belief that freedom was something for all Poles, not only for the elites. He freed serfs who served in his army and made them an integral part of his battle strategy.

The strategy, and the social agenda it implies is most famously associated with the Battle of Racławice. It was here that fact and mythology coalesce as Kościuszko’s victory against an overwhelmingly larger force was attributed to a charge led by peasant recruits armed with nothing by scythes. Following the victory, Kościuszko donned a peasant coat as he addressed his victorious army, identifying himself with the ordinary people that had played a decisive role in defeating an overwhelmingly larger force of the nation’s historical oppressors.6 Over time, these events have become ‘enshrined as part of the canonical version of the insurrection narrative’7 and the panorama experience, with its various allusions to history, nationalism, glorious victory, and the intolerable suffering of the Polish people, offers a unique way to engage with the chronicle of Polish identity.

The official panorama website describes the work by Styka, Kossak and their colleagues as ‘an impressive relic of 19th-century mass culture’. This is but part of the story, however. The painting and the concept of a cyclorama in the 21st century does have the ring of the 19th century about it. But the way in which the painting is presented, and the visceral experience of embedding oneself in the allusions it references offers the opportunity for a deeply moving experience in the present that leans more to the performative than the static implications of a relic. To paraphrase the performance studies scholar Richard Schechner, the Racławice Panorama is not a relic but it is equally not not a relic; it is a complex of materiality and experience that is both, neither, and something between the two.8

  • 1. For a discussion of the Katyń Memorial by other students in the Open University of Research summer seminars see ‘Katyń Memorial. Light and Dark: a performance (re)presentation.’
  • 2. The scenic team consisted of 7 artists: Ludwik Boller, Tadeusz Popiel, Zygmunt Rozwadowski, Teodor Axentowicz, Włodzimierz Tetmajer, Wincenty Wodzinowski and Michał Sozański.
  • 3. For more information about the Virgin Mary being both the Mother of Christ and the Queen of Poland see, ‘The Pledge of Jasna Góra,’ online at: http://chnm.gmu.edu/1989/items/show/8 (accessed January 16, 2012). Pertinent to the role of Catholicism in Poland’s ongoing narrative of nationhood, the primary focus of the article is about the renewing of the original (1656) pledge linking the figures of Mary and the Queen of Poland by Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński in 1956 (the 300th anniversary of the original pledge by King Jan Kazimierz). As noted in the entry, this renewed pledge has been promoted heavily by the Polish Episcopate and has become a mainstay of organized pilgrimages while remaining popular to this day.
  • 4. Filipowicz, Halina 2010. ‘Re-Envisioning Solidarity: History, Agency, and the Politics of Performance’, Theatre Journal, Vol 62, No 3., pp. 333–347.
  • 5. Ibid., p. 340.
  • 6. The symbolic importance of Kościuszko’s actions is lost today; it should be remembered that his wearing of the clearly identifiable peasant coat (a sukmana) was done at a time when clothing clearly defined a person’s class and social identity. In those days, men of Kościuszko’s social standing would never have worn a coat co clearly identifiable with the lowest rung of the social ladder. Kościuszko chose to do so as a visual statement of his vision of freedom and independence for all Poles.
  • 7. Filipowicz, ibid., 340.
  • 8. Schechner, Richard 1985. Between Theatre and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Richard Schechner coined the double negative, ‘not-I, not-not I’ paradigm to describe the nature of playing a role on stage. In discussing Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet, for example, he argues that Olivier is not Hamlet, but he is equally not not Hamlet (1985, p. 123).