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In 2016 the city of Wroclaw became The European Capital of Culture. On this occasion, the National Museum organized three exhibitions. The magnificent and newly renovated Four Domes Pavilion designed by Hans Poelzig staged the show called Summer Rental. The Marx Collection in Wroclaw, featuring 50 artworks from the Hamburger Banhof Museum in Berlin. The Ethnographic Museum showed the multimedia exhibition Treasures of European Traditional Culture, featuring various phenomena of Intangible Cultural Heritage preserved through documents and protected oral tradition. This cultural programme influenced the reception of the third show in the National Museum, the first monographic exhibition of the Baroque Silesian painter Bartholomeus Strobel (1591–1647). Strobel was a Lutheran artist working for the Catholic Church and the Polish King Władysław IV. He received commissions from both Catholics in the Polish Commonwealth and Protestants in Gdansk, and was painting portraits of lay and church dignitaries as well as religious compositions. The Wroclaw exhibition successfully showcased the work of this talented portraitist and religious painter adept at Counter-Reformation subjects. The second protagonist of the exhibition was Bishop of Wroclaw, Polish Prince Karol Ferdynand Waza (1613–1655). For this reason, the exhibition included many outstanding gold Baroque church objects, on loan from the Treasury of the Cathedral of Wroclaw. Strobel’s largest and most impressive painting, the Feast of Herod with the Beheading of St John the Baptist (2.80 × 9.50 m), from the Prado Museum, Madrid, was probably commissioned by the Dean of the Wrocław Cathedral Chapter, Nikolaus von Troilo, since it features his coat of arms. The focal point in the painting is the severed head of St. John, also found on the coat of arms of Wroclaw and Silesia. The canvas was executed around 1640, in honour of the three fallen heroes of the fight for the political and religious freedom of Silesia: Jan Christian, Prince of Legnica-Brzesko, the poet Martin Opitz, and Nikolaus von Troilo. In the Feast of Herod, the artist contrasted hypocritical and vicious rulers, depicted as caricatures, with a few honourable individuals. The large canvas from the Prado did not travel to Wroclaw for conservation reasons. It was, however, replaced and interpreted by a large video art piece by Lech Majewski, the Polish master of the genre and world-renowned artist. Majewski made the famous film Mill and the Cross (interpreting Brueghel’s The Road to Golgotha from Vienna). In 2010 he also created the video art piece Supermarket Dante based on the Divine Comedy. Majewski is renowned for painting with the new electronic means in films and in video art. In the video art presented in the Wroclaw exhibition the first sequence shows Strobel’s painting from Madrid of richly dressed men celebrating at splendidly set tables. In the centre of the picture Herodias is holding St. John’s head and Herod looks at it in horror. The scene of the saint’s martyrdom is depicted on the margins of the picture; it occupies a narrow right strip of the composition. In the next video sequence the banqueting hall turns into a supermarket – the temple of modern consumerism. Tables are set up in front of checkouts for the supermarket customers. A black-clad praying figure appears thus disturbing the feast, and then is lifted out of the film’s frame. After a while Salome brings St. John’s bloody head on the tray and puts it on the table. Thanks to this travesty, Strobel’s painting which is a great allegory condemning unjust governments and the death and humiliation of the virtuous, is timeless in its content. It shows how relevant artists are as society’s conscience. The exhibition shown in Wroclaw was innovative in the context of the Polish museology, and testifies to great new exhibiting opportunities for the future dialogue between the past and the present.
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