The religious iconography of female artists in the Independent Culture Movement

Tadeusz Boruta

University of Rzeszów


When studying a certain area of art, is it justified to attempt certain generalizations and invoke sexual determinism? Is there such a thing as a type of iconography closer to the experience of female artists? In our times, the lines between the sexes are being blurred and such statements are dismissed as incorrect. However, it may be worthwhile to suspend judgment for a moment and closely examine the peculiar interpretation female artists gave to certain iconographic motifs, especially in those works which tackle religious themes but serve a private, rather than a liturgical, purpose. The largest number of relevant examples herald from the difficult decade of the 1980s, when the pervasively tragic sense of time and place favoured the appearance of art that rooted the audience in a sense of community and metaphysical allusions.

Stereotypical thinking about the religious inspiration of women would lead us to expect a large profusion of pieces devoted to the Virgin Mary and the intimate relationship between mother and son in their oeuvre. Pieces of this kind, to be sure, do appear in the 1980s; they usually show the Black Madonna of Jasna Gora, alone or with the infant Jesus. They are, however, rarely infused with the artist’s private experience. Without attempting any synthetic generalizations, but keeping in mind hundreds of relevant paintings, it can be said that in their treatment of Christian iconography the female artists of the Independent Culture Movement rarely addressed the typically feminine theme of motherhood. Motifs of the Passion served as far superior vehicles for their emotional experience. Were we to put a finger on the most typical feature of the Crucifixions created by female artists, it would have to be the unwillingness to depict the body in an explicit, anatomical manner. Their artwork is full of understated forms, luminist expression, nearly abstract arrangements of the surface. However, their works typically reflect a common concern for community and fellow human beings. The theological and artistic need to find a form that would be able to carry the weight of communal experience often pushed them to draw on the theme of the Cenacle. Even when they paint scenes without human figures, such as landscapes and still lifes, their images express the drama of separation and the hope for the restoration of human relationships.

Keywords: iconography, independent culture, Veil of Veronica, martyrology, Polish art, the 1980s


At the end of the 1980s, I was living in the countryside just outside Krakow. One day, a neighbour invited me to her house. She opened a chest of drawers and produced a small, ironed, neatly folded piece of cloth. The old, fraying fabric unfurled to reveal an image, a copperplate on canvas. It was the face of Christ, as impressed on the Veil of Veronica. Barely legible, a Latin inscription read: VERA EFFIGIES SACRI VULTUS DOMINI NOSTRI JESU CHRISTI; it was indeed a faithful replica of the face venerated at St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. My neighbour had inherited the cloth from her great-grandmother. She wanted to know whether the precious relic could still be salvaged. Unfortunately, time had taken a heavy toll; in particular, flies had left the Holy Face mottled over the years. But the greatest damage had been done by the neighbour herself. Unable to stomach the scandalous profanation of Jesus, she had taken the canvas off the loom, washed and ironed it. These cleaning procedures had caused irreparable damage.

The sorry condition of the image inspired a Krakow-based artist, Aldona Mickiewicz, to create a series of paintings. In her previous work, Mickiewicz had frequently used images of damaged, discarded objects as vehicles for her existential experience. Stripped of their original utility and function, objects can unfurl before us a landscape of unobvious beauty, tell stories, portray human relationships. Mickiewicz believes they can also communicate religious realities. By painting a piece of damaged cloth, a replica of Veronica’s Veil, she also painted the face of Jesus. She touched on the fundamental dogmatic dispute over holy images but also managed to circumvent it. In a sense, she reconciled the supporters of icons with their iconoclastic adversaries. Hers, after all, was a painting not of God, but of a thing, a former object of worship, invested by the vicissitudes of its history with an additional dimension of female care and piety. At the same time, the iconographic reference firmly grounded the painting in the apocryphal story of St Veronica, who acquired the exceptional image through her service to Jesus [fig. 1].

The motif of the veraicon became extremely popular with Polish female painters in the 1980s. Many artists emphasized their strong identification with St Veronica. In 1988, at the request of “Tygodnik Powszechny”, I invited fourteen Krakow-based artists to create The Way of the Cross, allowing each to pick a station of their choosing. Irena Popiołek-Rodzinska insisted on painting the scene in which Veronica uses her veil to wipe the face of Christ. She placed the face of Jesus at the intersection of beams of a tilted cross, and endowed Veronica with her own features [fig. 2].

The idea of fusion between body and cloth, inspired by the Veil of Veronica and the Shroud of Turin, can also be found in the works of Magdalena Hoffmann. The artist, however, identifies not with Veronica, but with Christ. The relationship is created between the cloth and the female nude, which makes an imprint on the cloth, trying to pierce through it and come to life.

A similar identification is at play in the installations by Ewa Kuryluk from the 1980s. The artist uses chairs, walls, and easels to spread out thin surfaces of cloth painted over with real-size male and female nudes of the artist’s own body and the bodies of her relatives and friends. The nudes are “arranged as intimate situations between two people, both defenceless in their nakedness, exposed to the curious eye of the voyeur audience. They can be profoundly moving at times, especially when the sharp pencil seems almost to scar the gossamer layer of soft transparent fabric. In her installations, the artist relies on the iconography of Veronica’s Veil and the related idea of an ephemeral trace, an imprint of a tortured human body on an enveloping shroud (it was also the subject of her monograph, Weronika i jej chusta [Veronica and her Veil], published in 1998 in Poland). Kuryluk’s veils and shrouds, however, take a departure from strictly Christian symbolism. True, they depict suffering, but their primary role is to preserve a record of individual emotion and a biological fascination with life. They come together to tell a story of love and memory; a strong emphasis is usually placed on sexuality”[1].

Translated by Urszula Jachimczak

[1] M. Kitowska-Łysiak, Ewa Kuryluk, [accessed: 8 Jun. 2012].

[2] A. Rottenberg, Pokolenie ‘80, w: Prze-ciąg. Teksty o sztuce polskiej lat 80., Warszawa 2009, p. 54.

[3] Ibidem, p. 57.

[4]  The problems of independent culture in Poland in the period 1980–1992 were discussed at more length in the following publications: Cóż po artyście w czasie marnym? Sztuka niezależna lat 80., exhibition catalogue, Galeria Zachęta, Warszawa, Dec. 1990 – Jan. 1991, Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie, Jan. – Feb. 1991; A. Rottenberg, Przeciąg. Teksty o sztuce polskiej lat 80., Warszawa 2009; W. Włodarczyk, Lata osiemdziesiąte – sztuka młodych, “Zeszyty Naukowe ASP w Warszawie”, 1990, vol. 3; A. Osęka, Obietnica lat 80., “Tygodnik Powszechny” 1995, no. 43; A. Wojciechowski, Czas smutku, czas nadziei, Warszawa 1992; Republika Bananowa – ekspresja lat 80., exhibition catalogue, Zamek Książ, BWA Wałbrzych, 26 Jan. – 23 Mar. 2008, Wrocław 2008; Pamięć i uczestnictwo, exhibition catalogue, Muzeum Narodowe w Gdańsku, Gdańsk 2005; R. Rogozińska, Inspiracje pasyjne w sztuce polskiej w latach 1970–1999, Poznań 2002; R. Rogozińska, Ikona w sztuce XX wieku, Kraków 2009; Kościół i kultura niezależna, Katowice 2011; Pokolenie ‘80. Niezależna twórczość młodych w latach 1980–89, Kraków 2010; Pokolenie ‘80. Polityczny protest? Artystyczna kontestacja? Niezależna twórczość młodych w latach 1980–1989, Rzeszów 2012; B. Kokoska, Malarstwo polskie, Kraków 2001; D. K. Łuszczek, Inspiracje religijne w polskim malarstwie i grafice 19811991, Warszawa 1998.


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