Teodor Axentowicz (1859-1938) was a renowned Polish-Armenian painter born in Braşov, Hungary (now Romania). His father’s family had Armenian roots and owned a small property in Ceniów (now Tseniv, Ukraine).(Author note: The Armenians had found sanctuary in Poland in the 14th century).
Axentowicz grew up in Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine) and after finishing high school he spent four years (1878-1882) studying art at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts and then went on to Paris to the studio of Carlos Duran.
In 1893 Axentowicz went to Kołomyja and Jamno in eastern Ukraine, paying his first visit to the lands of the Hucul (spelling in Polish language, Hutsul in Ukrainian), an ethnographic group of Carpathian highlanders of mixed Ruthenian and Wallachian origin. The region is located in the western part of the Ukraine, in the area of the Eastern Carpathians, at the forks of Prut, Cheremosh and Tisza rivers.
Map of ethnic Carpathian highlanders. Source: Pinterest.
Today the region is located almost entirely in the Ukraine, and to a small extent overlaps with the territory of Romania. These areas were part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for centuries. After the first partition of Poland in 1772, they became part of the Austrian (later Austro-Hungarian) monarchy. In the years 1918–1939 they were once again part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Axentowicz, recognized as an illustrator, graphic artist and a superb portraitist by this time in his career, developed a very keen interest in the life, rituals, and traditions of the distinctive Hucul people. He began garnering attention for his paintings of the Hucul’s while still in Paris. In 1895, he settled in Kraków. Based on his sketches from the region, Axentowicz, continued to return to the subject of the Hucul’s throughout his career. The folk costumes and religious rituals became a recurring theme in Axentowicz’s work, among them, appropriate today, the feast of Candlemas, also known as the feast of Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated on February 2.
Teodor Axentowicz. Gromnicza. (Blessed Thunder candle). Oil on canvas. c.1900 Museum of Archdiocese of Katowice
In the Polish folk tradition, the feast of Candlemas was also called Matka Boska Gromniczną, or Gromniczną, both referrring to Mother of God Thunder Candle. The name derives from the candle that was brought to church on this day, solemnly lit and kept for a lifetime as a means of protection. It was believed that this candle protected against storms and thunder, hence the name "gromnica," from the word “grom” meaning thunder. A storm with lightning and thunder was a great threat to thatched huts without lightning rods. One strike of lightning could destroy the achievements of a lifetime so it was with a feeling of helplessness that a family watched the luminous zigzags of lightning against a dark sky. In that helplessness, a candle, blessed on a feast devoted to the Blessed Mother, was reached for and put it lit at the window in the hope of safety and protection. It is a custom that can be dated back to the 9th century.
Teodor Axentowicz. Na Gromnicą . Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie.
Teodor Axentowicz Dziewczyna z Gromnicą. (Girl with Thunder Candle). Date unknown. Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi
Teodor Axentowicz. Na Gromniczną. On Candlemas. Date unkown.
In the paintings, we see children and adults carrying candles to be blessed through a wintery landscape. Axentowicz seems to have more young girls carrying the candles than other individuals. According to custom anyone can carry the candle to the church for blessing, regardless of gender and age, but in practice it was mostly done by girls and women.
Teodor Axentowicz. Na Gromniczną. Powrót z cerkwi na Huculszczyźnie.( On Candlemas. Return from the Orthodox church in Hucul region). C.1910
The Hucul region lay within Poland’s borders from the time of Kazimierz the Great( reigned 1333 to 1370) to World War II except for the time of the Partitions. The people were typically of the Greek Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faith, both of which would celebrate Candlemas but at different times on the calendar.
These paintings are only a few among many of the painting completed by Axentowicz of the custom of bringing a candle to be blessed on the feasts of Candlemas. It is said that it was he who “discovered” and subsequently, uncovered, the Hucul’s to the world through his paintings.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.