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The folk sculpture Madonna and Child was made in the 19th century by a village woodcarver Jan Kluś of Olcza (originally, Olcza was an independent settlement, now it is a district of Zakopane). It belongs to the most outstanding sculptures in the collection of the Tatra Museum.


The folk sculpture Madonna and Child was made in the 19th century by a village woodcarver Jan Kluś of Olcza (originally, Olcza was an independent settlement, now it is a district of Zakopane). It belongs to the most outstanding sculptures in the collection of the Tatra Museum. It was presented at numerous exhibitions and placed in many publications as a work typical of folk artists of the Podtatrze region of the 19th century. It was purchased by Maria and Bronisław Dembowski, the creators of the largest private collection in Zakopane, in the years 1887-1893, and was stored and made available to the public in one of the rooms in the house of the Dembowski family – the famous Chata (Cottage). The sculpture of Madonna with Child, along with the entire collection consisting of around 400 ethnographic objects, went to the Museum of Tatra in 1922, as a result of a bequest made by Maria Dembowska. It is exhibited in the Maria and Bronisław Dembowski Museum of the Zakopane Style – Inspirations  (Zakopane, ul. Droga do Rojów 6). Traditional folk sculpture performed a purely religious function in the Podhale region; it was an expression of the religiosity and piety of its inhabitants. It could be encountered in small village churches, which were rare in this area until the mid- 19th century, in roadside brick shrines and small wooden box shrines mounted on trees, walls of highland cottages or on poles. Shrines were placed in various locations, at village borders, at crossroads, on stream banks, in fields, clearings and places of important events. They were usually thanksgiving shrines, funded by private individuals. Shrines that became part of the Podhale landscape were, in particular, roadside shrines of different sizes, made of brick, with small simple altars in their middle and recesses for sculptures and paintings in the walls. On the altars, there were set statues of a larger size than in the case of wooden box shrines. In shrines, sculptures of Christ, the Mother of God and saints could be found that were made by local artists, of whom only a few are known to us by name. They were carpenters and wood carvers, who were generally familiar with woodworking and decorated numerous everyday objects (furniture, tools, and wooden utensils) with sculptural ornaments. Sculptures of the Podhale region of that time, created by self-taught artists, varied in form and content and were of different artistic levels determined by the better or poorer skills of their creators. Apart from simple and modest sculptures of small sizes, made by highlanders for shrines to be hung on the front wall of the house, some wood carvers created sculptures of considerable size and high expressiveness, imitating Baroque figures from old churches of the Podhale region, made in provincial workshops. The most outstanding sculptors – carvers of the Podhale region also made altars for village churches and built shrines of brick, where they placed their sculptures. Large-size figural sculptures also include beehives in the form of, for example, a figure of St.  Ambrose (the patron saint of beekeepers and bees) or a bear. Such hives are in the collections of the Tatra Museum. Sculptures in Podhale were sometimes dressed in shirts and robes sewn of linen. It was forbidden to sell or dispose of such sculptures; when destroyed, they could only be burnt, and when a new house was erected, a shrine removed from the old house was often nailed thereto. The most popular themes of Podhale sculptures, apart from images of Christ, were Mariological themes such as the Pietà, Our Lady of Sorrows, Coronation of the Mother of God, Madonna and Child, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Czestochowa and Our Lady of the Scapular.
In folk culture, the Mother of God was held in special veneration, and in the Podhale region, Our Lady of Ludźmierz was particularly venerated. She was present in all of the most important moments of peasant life as Mediatrix in dealings with God and Mary Help of Christians, assisting them with all their needs. The presented sculpture of the Madonna and Child is, according to Anna Kunczyńska-Iracka, the author of numerous studies on folk art, modelled on the miraculous Gothic figure of Our Lady of the Sanctuary in Ludźmierz. This small sculpture, made of linden wood, is painted in a way typical of traditional sculptures of Podhale – with red and dark blue colours. The Mother of God has a string of red glass beads around Her neck, alternated with brass ornaments of an elongated shape, the so-called brembolce or brémbulce. This type of necklace of brass pendants and beads of polished bone or glass, threaded alternately onto a string, was worn in Podhale by men (mostly young shepherds and bandits) until the mid-19th century. Perhaps brembolce put on the neck of the Mother of God (as an ornament, or votive offering?) led to it that She was named Madonna of Bandits and under this name, or as the Madonna with brembolce, She frequently occurs in literature. It is a wall-mounted sculpture of compact form. Figures of Mary and the Child are covered with a maphorion, enclosing the entire composition semi-circularly. High, full crowns, identical for Mary and Jesus, resemble sculptures from Slovak pilgrimage sites, visited by highlanders from Podhale. Mary's face, animated by a gentle smile, is modelled on faces of village women the artist knew well from his own surroundings. The Mother of God is dressed in a long robe tied at the waist, with ample and deeply cut folds, ending at the neck with a ruff and with a maphorion covering the head, back and shoulders. At the edges, it is decorated with diagonal notches forming small convex rhombs arranged in series, in the shape of a garland. "This motif, unique on the Polish territory, was popular mainly in Slovakia, where it adorned robes of numerous Madonnas and Pietas" (Stefania Krzysztofowicz, O sztuce ludowej w Polsce [On Folk Art in Poland], 1972). The arrangement of Madonna's right hand suggests that She probably used to hold a sceptre, which is now absent. The Child sitting on Mary's left arm, dressed in a long dress with a ruff, tied at the waist, administers a blessing with his right hand lifted upwards. Because the left forearm is absent, it is hard to say what attribute was held by Jesus in his left hand. It may have been a royal orb. Ornamental motifs adorning the robes and crowns of Mary and the Child have much in common with highland carving, used as decoration on e.g. spoon-holders or moulds for sheep's milk cheeses. They even suggest that the creator of the sculpture did not replicate the model he used (if this model was indeed the figure of Our Lady of Ludźmierz), but only interpreted it freely. The creator was Jan Kluś, a gazda (a landholder in the Podhale region) of Olcza, probably a carpenter and joiner as well. He made other items in the Dembowski collection such as a low relief picture depicting the Mother of God with Child and a beautiful spoon-holder with carved trouts. Nothing more is known about this woodcarver or the time and circumstances of the creation of the sculpture and its purpose. In the inventory of Maria Dembowska, there is only a note that it is an old sculpture "made by Kluś Jasiek (a self-taught artist)" and that "it comes from Kluś from Olcza." And because it was bought by Maria and Bronisław Dembowski in the years 1887-1893, some ethnographers date it back to the1st half of the 19th century while others believe that it was created around 1870. Perhaps the sculpture was made for a shrine located in Olcza, in the Klusie district. The shrine can be found on the cadastral map from 1846, standing near the old blacksmith road that was used to carry iron and objects manufactured of iron from Kuźnice, through Olcza and Poronin to Krakow. Scarce information does not allow us to unambiguously determine which Jan Kluś it was, as the surname Kluś with the name Jan was frequent among residents of 19th-century Olcza. Some researchers attribute its creation to Jan Kluś-Harendzki (1819-1896). We know from oral tradition that he built a brick shrine on his land in gratitude for his safe return from the army and he placed sculptures that he had made on his own there. The belief that it was a shrine sculpture firmly placed against a wall is supported by the fact that the body of the sculpture is flat at the back, where the wood was left untreated, was not covered with polychrome, and there are two holes in the bottom of the figure designed for tangs with which the sculpture was probably attached to some base (an altar?). It is worth noting that the sculpture was not entirely made of a single piece of wood. The Child's legs, from mid-thigh down, were carved from a separate piece and then attached to the figure with two pegs. Traces of the left forearm of the Child also indicate that it was made separately and probably attached with a peg. The sculpture comes from the largest ethnographic collection of the Podhale region created in the late 19th century. Its creators, Maria (1856-1922) and Bronisław (1848-1893) Dembowski, settled permanently in Zakopane in 1885. The following year, they already began to acquire the first exhibit pieces. They were particularly interested in richly-ornamented original objects. The collection included many spoon-hangers, pastoral equipment, furniture, ceramics and metal accessories, as well as numerous festive costumes worn by rich highlanders in the first half of the 19th century and a few paintings on glass and figural sculptures. Maria and Bronisław Dembowski bought only 12 sculptures and 2 shrines (one in the shape of a low-relief, glazed altar). For comparison, they gathered 32 spoon-hangers decorated with woodcarving, thus with ornamental sculpture.
The Dembowski Collection is considered to be the largest and most valuable of the ethnographic collections of the Tatra Museum. The sculpture Madonna with Child, the so-called Madonna of Bandits, which is part of this collection, with her face resembling a beautiful highlander woman, wearing Gothic «timeless» robes and a necklace of pendants, carved around  1870 by Kluś-Haręski, a carpenter from Olcza, intended for his own shrine, is one of the most beautiful primitive sculptures, which does not strive to imitate the craft of church masters" (A. Kunczyńska-Iracka, Sztuka ludowa w Polsce (Folk Art in Poland), 1988, and ibidem: Madonna w dawnej polskiej sztuce ludowej (Madonna in Old Polish Folk Art), PSL, 1988).

Elaborated by Zofia Rak (The Dr. Tytus Chałubiński Tatra Museum in Zakopanem), © all rights reserved


Wayside crosses and chapels

Wayside wooden crosses were usually several metres high. With time, the wood decayed and had to be dug in again; this was usually done after All Souls’ Day. This action was repeated until the cross became quite small. Chapels and crosses, which were an expression of...

Nowica, wayside chapel, 1918,
 National Digital Archives

Wayside wooden crosses were usually several metres high. With time, the wood decayed and had to be dug in again; this was usually done after All Souls’ Day. This action was repeated until the cross became quite small.
Chapels and crosses, which were an expression of folk religiosity, were erected at crossroads, intersections, and also at the ends of villages or small towns, on the border between the inhabited space and the space of nature. It was believed that the presence of a holy sign would not only ensure the safety of the inhabitants, but also effectively ward off evil spirits and demons.
It was also common to put up cholera crosses that commemorated epidemics of this disease.
The founders of chapels maintained the shrine, as well as its surroundings. They planted trees nearby, mainly lime trees and chestnuts which bloom, smell and attract insects in the spring. Sometimes, it happens that by determining the age of a tree, one can also determine the date when the chapel was erected.

See in our collection:
Chapel entitled “Simon of Cyrene Helps Jesus Carry the Cross”
Wayside shrine “Pensive Christ”
Shrine with a scene of the Scourging of Christ

Currently, wayside chapels can be found not only in rural areas, but also in the centres of big cities. They are often a sign of the past of the places in which they stand and a testimony to how developing cities took over rural spaces, of how borders are being pushed back, and what changes are taking place in the landscape.

Elaborated by Anna Berestecka (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums), 
Licencja Creative Commons

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland.


Wooden sculpture “Madonna and Child” of Jan Kluś




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