A painting of the Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus is currently on display in the UK for the first time ever.
The painting, Astronomer Copernicus, on display in the National Gallery is also by one of Poland’s most famous painters, Jan Matejko’s (1838–1893), and while much-lauded at home, he is rather less well known outside his home country.
The painting, a huge canvas, was painted in 1873 to mark created to celebrate that year’s 400th anniversary of Copernicus’ birth, although the painting was not included in the program of the official celebration. Matejko had to arrange to have the painting put on display during the anniversary on his own, and donated ticket fees to charity.
It was later bought by Kraków’s Jagiellonian University following a public fundraising.
The dramatic composition shows Copernicus kneeling while reaching up to the night sky. He was reputed to be as good looking as he is shown here, with long flowing hair, although the model who stood in for the painter was a friend of the artist, the local doctor, Henryk Levittoux, who was evidently equally gifted in the luxurious locks department.
If you look carefully you might see that he is wearing a black skullcap as a sign of the clergy, for while Copernicus challenged orthodox ideas, he never broke from the church, and argued that there was no contradiction between science and religion.
Copernicus is shown surrounded by the tools of the trade of early astronomy, although they are not literal representations, as two of the objects in the painting were invented after Copernicus died. Nickpickers also complain that Copernicus seems overly brightly lit for a man at night seemingly with just one small lantern to observe the stars.
However, it’s a romantic vision of a lifetime’s work, not a literal representation of a specific moment in time.
The dark room that houses the painting has been decorated with stars, and not just randomly — they represent the sky as it would have been seen in the early hours of the morning Copernicus died on 24th May 1543. Apart from the painting itself, there’s an early sketch which shows some differences from the final work, and also a copy of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium showing his most famous observation, that the earth is not at the centre of the solar system.
The painting is on loan from the Jagiellonian University, where Copernicus also studied, and the painting hangs in the Senate Chamber, where it rarely leaves, and even rarer leaves to go outside Poland.
This is a rare chance to see not just a great painting, but also one that reflects one of the major moments in European science.
Entry is free, but tickets need to be booked in advance. There are three one-way routes around the gallery at the moment, but this exhibition is next to the gallery exit, so you can’t miss it regardless of the route you take. On busy days there can be a small queue outside the exhibition room as there is a limit on the number of people allowed in at the same time.
As a nice touch, the signs in the exhibition are in both English and Polish.