Posted by: Valentino Radman | December 29, 2012

Alphonse Mucha and Croatian history

Alphonse Mucha (1860–1939) was a very influential but seldom mentioned figure in the history of art. He is more than anyone else responsible for the Art Nouveau style that developed around the turn of the century. He applied his considerable talents to a wide variety of pursuits, ranging from painting and sculpture to poster, magazine, and calendar illustration, as well as product and architectural design. It is probably because he did things other than gallery paintings that many of the leading artistic institutions have ignored his work for most of 20th century.


The Slav Epic (in Czech : Slovanská epopej) was Mucha’s magnum opus. It is a cycle of 20 large canvases (measuring 18 by 24 feet) painted between 1910 and 1928 and depicting scenes from the history of the various Slav nations.

He managed this feat in part due to the generosity of Count Jerome Colloredo-Mansfeld who offered the use of a wing of Castle Zbirov where Mucha could have the space and light necessary to carry out his vision. The work on this project took place between 1912 and 1928. The sequence is divided equally between Czech and broader Slavic themes, and is also arranged thematically along allegorical, religious, military and cultural lines. As well as the time spent composing the paintings, Mucha devoted considerable energy to research involving travel throughout the Balkans and Russia; this scholastic approach resulted  in considerable moral and didactic content.

Here is the b/w photo of Mucha in front of The Slav Epic, taken in Clemtium, Prague in 1919. Below that is one of the paintings from that cycle titled “Defense of Sziget against the Turks by Nikola Zrinski: The Shield of Christendom.” (click for enlargement)

A.Mucha - Prague, 1919 


Defense of Sziget deals with an important episode from Croatian history.

In January 1566 turkish Sultan Suleiman “the Magnificent” went to war for the last time. His advance was eventually halted at the city of Sziget by a citizens’ army let by Croatian nobleman, Nikola Zrinski. The Battle of Sziget was fought from 5 August to 8 September 1566. Count Zrinski found himself besieged by a hostile army of 150,000 soldiers with powerful artillery while he had assembled a force of only 2300. There were heavy losses on both sides. Both commanders died during the battle – Zrinski in the final charge and Suleiman in his tent. More than 20,000 Turks had fallen during the attacks and almost all of Zrinski’s 2,300 man garrison was killed, with most of the final 600 men killed on the last day. Although the battle was an Ottoman victory, it stopped their push to Vienna that year. It was not threatened again until the Battle of Vienna in 1683.

The importance of the battle of Sziget was considered so great that Cardinal Richelieu has described it as “the battle that saved civilization.”

Mucha captures the moment when Zrinski’s widow, realising the inevitability of defeat, threw a touch into a gunpowder store, destroying the city but inflicting damage on the Turkish army which halted their progress. Mucha divides the scene between the sharply focused sacrifice of the women on the right and the blurred images of destruction to the left. The device used to split the picture, a mushroom-shaped prop, is uncannily prophetic of later wars.  (Unfortunately, good color images of the paintings from The Slav Epic are very hard to find on the web. I scanned this one from excellent 356-page monograph on Mucha, published by Prestel.)

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