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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Did Ivan Mazepa Pose For European Artists?

13 January, 2004 - 00:00


The name of Ivan Mazepa, Hetman of Left Bank Ukraine from 1687 to 1709, has passed into the annals of not only Ukrainian but world history for generations still to come. And while for some this name is a symbol of freedom and righteous rebellion, others still associate it with perfidy, treason, and womanizing. Although the hetman’s so-called treason against Muscovite Tsar Peter I can only be characterized as the Ukrainian leader’s well-considered transfer from the jurisdiction of one monarch, who had failed to meet his commitments, to that of another, Sweden’s warrior King Charles XII, the struggle to restore the good name of this outstanding figure of Ukrainian history continues. For if you pronounce the name of Mazepa in such Western European countries as Austria, Germany, France, Holland, and Britain, an educated person immediately conjures up the picture of a Casanova who enamored almost all the women in far-off Poland and Ukraine. Why did this happen? Whence came the legend (or a true story?) about Hetman Ivan Mazepa as a Cossack Don Juan? The tradition to describe the Ukrainian hetman’s “amorous and romantic adventures” emerged even during Mazepa’s lifetime, in the late seventeenth century. What sparked it was a conflict between young Mazepa and Polish nobleman Jan Pasek, court page of King Jan Kazimierz. In 1661 Pasek maintained secret relations with the confederates who opposed his patron. As a loyal servant, Mazepa had to report this to the king, his suzerain. As a result, Pasek was arrested but managed to convince the judges of his innocence.

Soon after, they quarreled on these grounds, slapping each other’s faces. Having literary talent, Pasek decided to take revenge on this “all too haughty Cossack boy.” The vengeance he conceived meant writing and libeling his adversary — what we would today call negative advertising. Admittedly, in this the Polish man of letters succeeded completely. Mazepa’s fictitious affair with the wife of nobleman Stanislaw Falbowski ends with an unsurpassable scene of the young lover’s torment at the hands of the loyal husband, “...After stripping him naked, they placed him on his own unsaddled horse’s back, with his face to the tail and feet to the horse’s head. Then they tied his hands behind his back and his feet under the horse’s belly, shouted at, struck with whips, tore the blinkers off, and fired a few shots over the fleet-footed horse. The panicked steed galloped homeward as if it were rabid. And the way was through dense woods, thickets of hawthorn, hazelnut, buckhorn, and briar, down barely visible trails... A rider usually has to bend down, holding the reins in hand, and bypass dangerous places. Sometimes a tree branch would hit him on the head and rip his clothes. You can thus imagine the injuries the naked horseman must have received, for the swift, frightened, and hurt horse was galloping wildly and at random until it galloped out of the forest... Reaching his home, the wounded Mazepa began to call his guards. At first the latter could not recognize him. Then they finally let their exhausted and frozen master in. He was barely able to speak.”

Pasek obviously borrowed this plot from Greek mythology, particularly the story about a character named Hippolytus, who spurned the love of his stepmother Phaedra, and she falsely accused him of raping her. In punishment, he was bound to a chariot. Scared by a sea monster, the horses galloped forth, soon breaking the chariot and killing the innocent Hippolytus. This legend was used in a tragedy by Euripides (484-404 BC) and later in the oeuvre of the Roman author Seneca. As the ancient authors were well known even in medieval Poland, Pasek could not have failed to read them and offered the reader his own updated version of the tragic love of a man punished using a horse.

Pasek’s tale was immediately picked up by another Polish memoirist of those times, Erazm Otwinowski, who in turn added a number of ghastly details. In his notes, the captured lover, Mazepa, was tarred and feathered, and a steppe horse brought him to a Ukrainian town’s crowded fair. The myth was further picked up by none other than Jean-Louis d’Usson, alias Marquis de Bonac, French ambassador to Swedish King Carl XII. He wrote in his early eighteenth century memoirs,

“...The cuckold avenged his disgrace. He ordered Mazepa to be stripped naked, smeared with honey and feathered. Then [Mazepa] was tied to a horse, and the latter was set loose. The ensuing shame prevented Mazepa from returning home and showing himself to his friends. He hurried to Ukraine.” As we see, this version differs somewhat from that described earlier by Otwinowski. In 1709 the story was repeated by Slovak Daniel Krman in his travelogue: he went so far as to claim that Mazepa had “cut out” a prominent royal minister, for which he was tarred, feathered, and tied to a horse.

It is French Enlightenment writer Voltaire who made by far the greatest effort to spread the legend about our compatriot among Europeans. Although he gave a generally true description of the political situation during the Northern War (1700-1721), including the hetman’s intention to gain freedom for Ukraine, in his famous History of Carl XII (published in 1731 in Rouen), the renowned Frenchman still could not help repeating the story concocted by Pasek and picked up later by Otwinowski and Marquis de Bonac. “Young Mazepa’s love affair with the wife of a Polish nobleman was exposed. The irate husband had the naked Mazepa tied to a wild horse and let the latter loose,” Voltaire wrote. In 1764, Andre Constant Dorville published in Amsterdam the book Les aventures d’Azem, the amorous hero of which strikingly resembles the legendary Mazepa.

Almost a century later, in 1818, famous English poet George Gordon Byron wrote one of his most acclaimed poems, Mazeppa, in which he artistically recounts the well-known episode:

They bound me on, that menial throng,
Upon his back with many a thong;
They loosed him with a sudden lash —
Away! — away! — and on we dash! —
Torrents less rapid and less rash...
‘Away! — away! — my breath was gone —
I saw not where he hurried on:
‘Twas scarcely yet the break of day,
And on he foamed — away! — away! —

This poem was often republished in various European languages and thus prompted some other nineteenth-century authors to write poetic works focusing on Ivan Mazepa’s alleged love tragedy. The most well known of these are Mazepa by France’s Victor Hugo (1829), Poltava by Russia’s Aleksandr Pushkin (1829), and Mazepa by Poland’s Juliusz Slowacki (1839). The extremely romantic plot inspired Hungarian and Russian musical geniuses Franz Liszt and Peter Tchaikovsky, to compose symphonies titled Mazepa.

Yet, the educated elite of the Europe of that time was most of all thrilled with pictures by more or less known artists who, guided by the inspiring lines of Lord Byron’s most successful poem, usually depicting various scenes based on the Mazepa legend. One of the first images of Mazepa was painted in oil by the Frenchman Theodore Gericault in 1823. Then came over a dozen canvases that can be grouped thematically into the following categories: The old Mazepa tells Carl XII his story (Deveria, 1839; Kossak, 1860), Teresa’s declaration of love for Mazepa (Richter; Jacolin, 1850), The capture of Mazepa (Baugean, Kossak), The punishment of Mazepa itpliciretitles (Boulanger, 1827; Guesnet, 1872), Wolves chasing Mazepa’s horse (Vernet, 1826; Boulanger, 1839; Wentzel; Gierymski), Swimming across the Dnipro (Gericault, 1823; Delacroix, 1824), Mazepa and a herd of wild horses (Vernet, 1825; Gierymski), The death of Mazepa’s horse (Boulanger, 1830; Leray, 1849; Morot, 1882; Kossak), Cossacks finding Mazepa (Charpentier; Gierymski; Levy, 1875), Mazepa in a Cossack house (Deveria, 1839), and Mazepa’s revenge (Baugean, Jacolin). Of these pictures, Louis Boulanger’s monumental canvas, now kept at the Rouen Museum of Arts and depicting the young Ivan Mazepa fighting the nobleman’s servants while they were tying him to the horse, is widely considered the best.

Experts note that most of the artists followed in some way the Rubenesque style with a certain touch of eroticism. The masters of the brush in the main have portrayed the naked Mazepa tied to the horse. He looks like a romantic hero who failed to escape punishment for his alleged sin but still refused to bow to cruel fate. At the same time, such painters as Boulanger and Vernet conveyed a more profound message through their pictures interpreting their hero as a rebel.

Clearly, the historical Ivan Mazepa, who died a natural death in 1709 at Bender (now more commonly known as Tighina in Moldova’s breakaway Trans- Dnister region — Ed.), could not have posed for any of these artists in real life. For European Mazepiana as a phenomenon was created in the age of nineteenth-century Romanticism. But such artists had no need for genuine lifetime portraits of Mazepa, for they were inspired by the following poetic lines of Lord Byron:

I loved, and was beloved again —
They tell me, Sire, you never knew
Those gentle frailties; if ‘tis true,
I shorten all my joy or pain;
To you ‘twould seem absurd as vain...

By Taras CHUKHLIB, Candidate of Sciences in history; Director, Cossack Research Center, Institute of History, Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences
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