Conversations with God: Jan Matejko’s Copernicus
Marking its post-Covid re-opening, the National Gallery has welcomed the loan of a Polish painting, a work that combines two of the country’s most famous figures from the worlds of art and science. Painter Jan Matejko, who mainly worked with royal, historical, and nationalist canvases over the late 1800s, created this work of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Pulling together in one image Copernicus’ faith, national identity and scientific insight, Conversations with God was shown publicly on the 400th anniversary of the astronomer’s birth and became an instant national icon.
The painting is monumental, both in scale and scope – representing Copernicus on a Kraków rooftop, the cathedral behind him representing his roots in Catholicism, the starlit night sky above as marker to his reading of the solar system from which he determined his heliocentric model with the sun—not God’s earth—at the centre of the planetary system. Scattered around him are the tools, documents and sketches underpinning his revolutionary leap in knowledge.
Hanging in its own room at the National Gallery it is similarly surrounded by contextual items, including a copy of his 1543 seminal text De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, a torquetum, used to measure astronomical distance, and an astrolabe offering, a miniature model of the universe.
Over lockdown, we have been locked out of galleries and museums. Now things are slowly re-opening, we can experience familiar places and culture in a new light, with more space and fewer crowds. And what more poetic way to mark this new light than by visiting Copernicus, a man who found clarity in darkness through profound looking, offering a galactical release for science, humanity and culture.
You can visit the painting for free at the National Gallery in Room 46, as part of Covid-safe routes through their collection of works from Artemisia and Botticelli to Vermeer and Van Gogh, with free admission.
Conversations with God: Jan Matejko’s Copernicus runs until 22 August 2021
Location: Room 46
For further information visit The National Gallery
Words by Will Jennings