Michael Leopold Willmann: a Lubiąż painter of the Silesian Baroque
Finally, after ten years of foreign travels, he settled in Lubiąż – the most charming place in Silesia. Thence, thanks to his numerous works and a constant and meticulous pursuit of perfection, he made his name widely known... These words, referring to Michael Leopold Willmann were written in 1683 by Joachim Sandrart, the author of the painter’s biography. Nowadays only a small circle of people, mainly art historians, are familiar with the artist and his works. This is unfortunate because Willmann was an intriguing person, worth our interest, particularly in the light of the 300th anniversary of his death, celebrated in 2006.
Michael Leopold Willmann was born in Koenigsberg (Królewiec) in 1630 as one of Christian Peter’s ten children. Willmann’s father, also a painter, was his first teacher. However, the most important period for the future artist were his travels to the Netherlands and Flanders, which he undertook at 20. Little is known about his life at that time, except for the fact that he stayed in Prague and Berlin for some time.
In 1660 the painter signed his first contract with the abbot of the Cistercian abbey in Lubiąż. Ever since he settled in Lubiąż, Willmann had been painting mainly for the Cistercians, who provided him with favourable working conditions, allowing the artist to fully develop his skill. Willmann’s cooperation with the Cistercians influenced his decision to convert from Protestantism to Catholicism.
A year later the artist built a house with a studio, modelled on that of Rubens. The chronicler Effner described it thus: On the upper floor there was the painter’s studio. A characteristic feature of the room were six tall, arched windows, two of which were on western side, the other two on the northern and the remaining two on the eastern side. Above the ones facing west there was a large, round window, letting inside light from the above. All the windows, similarly to windows encountered in churches, had panes made of glass and their frames were lead. The artist’s house was burnt down completely in the great fire of 1849, so that nothing of it has remained to the present day. In 1662 Willmann married Helena Liszkowa, a woman famous for her beauty. As far as the private life of the artist is concerned, we know from his will that he enjoyed “44 years of a good marriage” and was a happy father of five children, two of whom followed their father’s career.
In the course of his first years in Lubiąż, Willmann produced twelve monumental works. Ever since its establishment, Willmann’s workshop had incessantly been admitting new apprentices. The painter’s reputation secured for his workshop a number of commissions from all over Silesia, Czech and Germany. The majority of them, however, could not be realized, as their number by far exceeded the abilities of the master and his school. Apart from Lubiąż, Willmann also painted for Cistercian abbeys in Krzeszów, Tarnów, Trzebnica and Kamieniec.
He also accepted commissions from individual lay patrons of the arts.
It is difficult to establish the exact number of paintings, sketches and frescoes, authored by Willmann. There are about 300 known works of the master and almost twice as many of his workshop, dispersed all over Poland and beyond its boundaries. A portion of his artistic legacy remains in the post-Cistercian monastic complexes of Lower Silesia. Some paintings were removed from Lubiąż to Warsaw after 1952 to be displayed in local churches or in Warsaw’s National Museum. A large collection is owned by the National Museum in Wrocław, two paintings are in Augsburg and one in Nuremberg. There is also an unspecified number of works in the Czech Republic and Moravia.
According to Bożena Sreinborn from the National Museum in Wrocław, the works of Michael Willmann “shaped the culture of the 18th century Silesia, whose school of painting owes Willmann a new period of greatness and fame”.
Willmann died in Lubiąż on 26th August, 1706 and was buried in the convent’s crypt in the monastery church, which contravened the monastic rule but was a mark of respect and great esteem on the part of the Cistercians. Willmann’s embalmed body rested in the crypt to the end of World War II. After 1945 the crypt containing the body of the artist and more than 200 monks was repeatedly plundered and devastated. It was only in 1989 that a team of anthropologists and art historians from the Institute of Archeology of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Department of the History of Art at the University of Wrocław conducted scientific research and conservation works in the crypt. Thanks to the historical and iconographic materials, collected beforehand, the scientists were able to identify Willmann’s corpse and put it in a Baroque coffin. The research, conducted by the scientists from Wrocław was completed with the painter’s reburial, which took place on March 3rd, 1990 and was attended by many inhabitants of Lubiąż. The funeral rites were performed by the metropolitan of Wrocław, cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz.