Stations of the Cross: The sacred space and space sacralisation in the context of modern modern sculptural achievements

Grażyna Ryba

Rzeszów, University of Rzeszów


The essence of sacred art, especially of modern one, can be captured primarily via an analysis of religious and artistic phenomena, in which their visual realisation is only one of the elements. The paper discusses modern examples of realisation of Stations of the Cross in different spatial and symbolic contexts. The aim of the study was to present the method of arrangement of the sacred interior and different forms of sacralisation of outer space through the creation of a set of Passion compositions associated with both paraliturgical services and individual devotion. The paper presentes projects by: Adam Brincken and Maciej Zychowicz in the Church of Christ the King in Jarosław, Bronisław Chromy on the grounds of the Church of the Transfiguration in Królówka, Jan Siek in the Church of St Maximilian Kolbe in Oświęcim and Jacek Kucaba in Bydgoszcz.

Keywords: Maciej Zychowicz, Bronisław Chromy, Jan Siek, Jacek Kucaba, Stations of the Cross, modern Polish calvaries


The dominance of Passion themes should be considered a characteristic of contemporary sacred and religious art,[1] and Stations of the Cross are among the most interesting artistic achievements, including the field of sculpture. It should be emphasized that the sculptural composition (alto-relief or bas-relief sculpture) operates in the conventional space of the painting but simultaneously, due to its dimensions, enters the real space, creating a fluid sphere in which life and art permeate each other.

The expression and reception of the representations of the Way of the Cross – a cycle which creates a special visual narrative – depends largely on its place of exhibition, which may be either the church interior, the boundary between the sacred and the profane, or the open non-sacred space.

In the sacred interior, the Way of the Cross is not just a sequence of carved or painted images that build a special scenery related to the architecture but, above all, it is a materialisation of the transcendent element: spiritual experiences of the artist, and then of participants of the Passion service or people devoted to individual prayer. The expression of figures and forms brought into being by their creator is completed by written reflections, often of outstanding literary quality, frequently created under the influence of a particular work of visual art. Thus that work of art constitutes an element of the event unfolding in time and space, and combining action, word and image. The aesthetic dimension of that event, often taken into account by the author of a representation of Stations of the Cross in the way of shaping their environment, tends to be overlooked in analyses done by art historians, who focus primarily on formal and ideological aspects of a work of visual art.[2]

The arrangement of representations of the Way of the Cross outside the sacred interior opens up new possibilities for an artist’s expression. Artworks in the boundary space, in which the place occupied by the viewer determines in a particular way the symbolic reception of a work, include Stations of the Cross built into the church fencing. At the boundary between the sacred and the profane, representations of the Passion are located on carved church doors, very often fitting within a specific historical context associated with a particular place where the church was built. Modern calvaries – sculptures in the open space – are an equivalent of the Way of the Cross enclosed within the walls of a church or in its surroundings. Some of them are part of monumental compositions, usually with a commemorative character associated with lay people or secular events. They give a special dimension to places and facts that they are to commemorate by their sanctification.


The years 1992–1999 saw the accomplishment of interior decoration in the newly built Church of Christ the King in Jarosław.[3] The rector, Rev. Andrzej Surowiec, entrusted the creation of the concept of the whole as well as the painting and sculpture to Adam Brincken[4] and Maciej Zychowicz, who collaborated with him.[5] The artists’ proposal fulfilled the expectations of the investor, who believed that art in the church “should not be naturalistic but symbolic”. It is to be characterized by “incompleteness, an understatement. A comprehensible fragment – a sign – a symbol should be complemented by forms close to abstraction so that the recipients have to interpret the rest themselves”.[6]

In a small, single-space interior one clearly feels the invisible boundary between a light chancel with the accompanying chapels in the altar area[7] and a darker nave built on the plan close to a square. Its diversified, postmodern wall divisions were used to arrange the fourteen Stations of the Cross, which dominate this part of the church interior [fig. 1, 2].

Individual scenes in the form of coloured reliefs take place on the walls of the building but Brincken and Zychowicz included in the composition the space of the nave by introducing the structures formally close to the representations of the Stations, created by the church furniture (pews and confessionals). This procedure makes the people who enter the space of the nave become elements of the composition, forming configurations varied over time; they constitute a variable factor of the whole, incorporated, regardless of their knowledge and will, in the drama of Christ’s Passion as shown by the artists.

The sequence of The Way of the Cross, surrounding the nave, is defined by planes of beige marble cladding but more often by dark, almost black wooden panels, which in the upper sections are broken by the alternating rhythm of faults and contrasts with bright marble tiles and white plaster of the wall above. The black panels become extended in the space by heavy blocks of confessionals. Rows of benches, also black, with sides broken at the top by sharp, short cuts, correspond with it.

On the border between black and beige at the bottom and white above there are stations of The Way of the Cross, in which human figures emerge from semi-abstract, sharp, dark shapes with a rich texture. Bas-relief shapes are marked by red, white and gold streaks, which sometimes take the form of smooth or corrugated brass fields, which are part of the background. The same, glistening yellowish metal forms adorn the confessionals, and the figure of the priest sitting inside as well as the penitent kneeling beside the priest or only a bright purple stole with characteristic embroidery, also designed by the artist, create an unambiguous formal analogy to the figurative elements of each station. Due to a lack of space, during the service of the Passion the faithful sit in the pews and watch the priest walking from station to station, as if the procession of Christ walking to his death, almost as motionless as the surrounding images of the Passion. These, however, form a sequence arranged as a story which moves with the priest around the worshippers, expressing their participation only with rhythmically repeated words and gestures. This experience of a liturgical community is replaced by an intensification of individual experiences during private celebration of the Way of the Cross, when a worshipper walks along the Stations of the Cross alone, focusing only on their representation.

Pairs of reddish columns, running in front of the wall at the transverse axis of the nave, wall pillars and arcaded niches as well as semicircular balconies of the galleries break the flatness of the walls, fuse them with the interior space and provide a setting for particular sequences of the Way of the Cross, suggesting different, changing roles to people celebrating the Passion or just contemplating the work by Brincken and Zychowicz, or staying in the church for any other purpose. The rhythm of the path is discretely marked by a sequence of white uniform rectangles placed between the stations and differing only in texture from the background wall.

Translated by Agnieszka Gicala


[1] Cf. R. Rogozińska, Inspiracje pasyjne w sztuce polskiej w latach 1970–1999: w stronę Golgoty, Poznań 2002.

[2] Services dedicated to the Passion of the Lord are usually a subject of the study of contemporary religiosity in cultural anthropology, often with the use of performance theory. Those studies emphasize the importance of space in which the event takes place, also in the symbolic dimension, while the work of art and its value as an important component of the phenomenon is underestimated (cf. K. Baraniecka-Olszewska, Ukrzyżowani. Współczesne misteria męki Pańskiej w Polsce, Toruń 2013).

[3] The church was erected according to the designs by Ewa and Jacek Gyurkovich in the years 1988–1992 (“Rocznik Archidiecezji Przemyskiej” 1997, p. 158).

[4] Adam Brincken (born 1951), professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow (the artist’s biography in: 175 lat nauczania malarstwa rzeźby i grafiki w krakowskiej Akademii Sztuk Pięknych, eds. J.L. Ząbkowski et al., Kraków 1994, p. 383).

[5] Maciej Zychowicz (born 1957), author of numerous works of sacred art (the artist’s biography on the website of the Institute of Art Education, Academy of Special Education in Warsaw:, accessed: 27 Sept. 2013).

[6] A statement by the rector of the Parish of Christ the King in Jarosław, Rev. Andrzej Surowiec, during a conversation with the author of the present paper on 5 August 2011. It should be noted that the rector not only boldly introduced contemporary art inside the church, but also prepared the faithful to receive the message so that the projects by Brincken and Zychowicz were accepted by the parish community. Subsequent Stations of the Cross were reproduced in calendars issued by the parish, and the rector explained the meaning of the forms proposed by the artists.

[7] The light altar zone also contains the baptistery area.

[8] M. Zychowicz, Przestrzeń sakralna – wspólnota drogi i wspólnota świętowania, paper presented at the conference “Architektura – bezgłośny szept emocji. Integracyjna rola miejsc duchowych w miastach XXI wieku”, organized by the Union Internationale des Architectes and the Association of Polish Architects in Warsaw on 6 October 2007. Elsewhere, the artist writes about the Way of the Cross in Jarosław: “Slightly different is the openness and dynamics of an earlier Way of the Cross, designed for the Church of Christ the King in Jarosław. Those objects are, out of necessity, closed (if only for the reason that timber is their basic material) but their external shape, trying to respond to the internal drama of the forms, is irregular and tending towards openness [...]. In the stations themselves, the figurative representation was mostly limited to the figure of Christ. Other participants of the drama (the torturers, the crowd) as well as the load that overwhelms him, are removed into the sphere of anonymity and reduced to abstract forms which fall on him or accompany him. There appear, however, Simon of Cyrene and Veronica as negatives and fragments of figures who are trying to persuade the viewers to enter into those roles” (idem, Czas twórcy, czas dzieła, paper presented at the conference “Fides ex visu”, organized by the Institute of Art History, Catholic University of Lublin, 20–21 May 2010).

[9] In his own commentary to his works, the artist writes: “My attempt to look at the Way of the Cross refers to a specific optics of perception of the situation of the drama, of looking that is saturated emotionally and applies the narrowing of the plan, selectivity of seeing and variability of the perspective. [...] It is a dialogue that tries to open up to the audience, involving them in the dramatic events of the Passion, trying to make them participants in those events, but also trying to establish contact with the architectural space of a modern church for which it is designed” (idem, Czas twórcy, czas dzieła, as in fn. 8).

[10] Interiors of this type may arouse objections in supporters of tradition, who perceive the church as an escape from the present and prefer to function within the established routines.

[11] The church was built according to a design by Czesław Boratyński. It was blessed during the war, on 8 August 1943, but consecrated by Bishop Jerzy Ablewicz, Ordinary of Tarnów, only in 1966 (Schematyzm diecezji tarnowskiej 2005/2006, Tarnów 2006, p. 148).

[12] The information is based on the parish chronicle in the Archives of the Parish of Transfiguration in Królówka.

[13] In the same period he made The Way of the Cross according to Chromy’s design for the Church of St Maximilian in Tarnów.

[14] They sometimes resemble figural motifs on ancient Greek vases.

[15] Among the most famous ones are the Stations of the Cross on the slopes of the Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa, made by Pius Weloński in the yars 1901–1912.

[16] J. Madeyski, Bronisław Chromy, Kraków 2008, p. 49.

[17] The church of St Maximilian Kolbe in Oświęcim was built according to the design of Krakow architects Elżbieta and Andrzej Bilski (P. Szafer, Nowa architektura polska. Diariusz z lat 1976–1980, Warszawa 1981, pp. 170–171, 178–179); the history of efforts to build the church is thoroughly presented in the publication by Rev. S. Górny Z dziejów starań o budowę kościoła św. Maksymiliana Męczennika w Oświęcimiu, Rzeszów 2002.

[18] Among numerous publications concerning the saint, particular attention is deserved by: L. Dyczewski, Święty Maksymilian Maria Kolbe, Warszawa 1984; A. Frossard, “N’oubliez pas l’amour”. La Passion de Maximilien Kolbe, Paris 1987 among others.

[19] The door was made by the sculptor Jan Siek (b. 1936), professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, famous for numerous sacred accomplishments (the artist’s biography in: 175 lat nauczania…, as in fn. 4, p. 392). The door was created between the years 1986 and 1989.

[20] Stained-glass windows were made according to the design of Jerzy Skąpski (born 1933) in the Krakow Studio of Anna Zarzycka in 1994 (M. J. Żychowska, Witraże Jerzego Skąpskiego, in: Witraże Jerzego Skąpskiego – monumentalne szkłem malowanie, exhibition catalogue of the Museum of Architecture in Wrocław, Wrocław 2005, pp. 12 and 13; which contains more information on the artist). More on this work by Skąpski can be found in: G. Ryba, Narodziny witrażu i jego znaczenie w kontekście wnętrza współczesnej świątyni, paper presented at the VII International Scientific Conference “Tradycja i współczesność. Sztuka witrażowa po 1945 roku”, Katowice, 10–12 Oct. 2013, organised by the Association of Stained Glass Lovers Ars Vitrea Polona, the Museum of Architecture in Wrocław and the Silesian Cultural Heritage Centre in Katowice.

[21] The Way of the Cross on the grounds of the Auschwitz camp has been organised on the first Sunday after All Souls’ Day since the early 1980s and – since 1987 – during Lent (the parish chronicle, the Archives of the Parish of St Maximilian Kolbe in Oświęcim).

[22] “The National Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau was established thanks to the efforts of former prisoners, which was formally confirmed by the Polish Sejm Act of July 2, 1947 on the commemoration of the «martyrdom of the Polish Nation and other Nations». The Place of Remembrance covers an area of two extant parts of the camp, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a total of 191 ha, of which Auschwitz I includes 20 ha, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau has 171 ha. In the museum, there are several hundred camp buildings and ruins, including the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria, several kilometers of the camp fence and roads, and the railway ramp at Birkenau”; source: [accessed: 12 Apr. 2013].

[23] The scene of selection of prisoners reflects the accounts in numerous memoirs and scientific publications, such as F. Piper, Eksterminacja, in: Oświęcim. Hitlerowski obóz masowej zagłady, ed. W. Michalak, Warszawa 1977, pp. 108–124.

[24] The events depicted on the door are described, among others, by J. Wnuk, Dzieci polskie oskarżają, Lublin 1975, p. 108 ff.

[25] The whole sentence whose last part is written on the door is: “In the world you will have hardship, but be courageous: I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).

[26] The author of the door in Auschwitz makes excellent use of a mental shortcut, abstracting from rich source materials a synthetic overall picture of the reality of the camp, rendered in the light of the message of faith. The reasons for the unusual expression of the work may also be traced in the personal memories of the artist, who in his childhood experienced the horrors of the occupation, even witnessing an execution. The sculptor mentions this in an interview Duchy i bunt rzeźbiarzy, “Gazeta w Krakowie”, a supplement to “Gazeta Wyborcza” 1998, No. 268.

[27] The Auschwitz doors were discussed more extensively in: G. Ryba, Oświęcimskie drzwi z brązu. Przyczynek do ikonografii św. Maksymiliana Kolbe, in: Limen expectationis. Księga ku czci śp. ks. prof. dr. hab. Zdzisława Klisia, eds. Rev. J. Urban, Rev. A. Witko, Kraków 2012, pp. 299–310.

[28] The author of the stained glass, Krakow painter Jerzy Skąpski, is also the creator of the Auschwitz poster the original of which was included in the permanent exhibition at the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem (Żychowska 2005, as in fn. 20, pp. 12–13; G. Ryba, In statu nascendi visum. Z prac twórców współczesnego witrażu krakowskiego, exhibition catalogue, Documentation Centre of Contemporary Sacred Art, University of Rzeszów – Art Exhibition Office in Rzeszów, Rzeszów 2011).

[29] This subject was developed by the author more extensively in her presentation Pérmeation des espaces. L’intérieur comme l’asile de la mémoire et la sublimation du sentiment at the conference “Esthetics and Spirituali​ty: Places of Interiorit​y”, 16–18 May 2013, Leuven, organised by Katholieken Universiteit Leuven.

[30] G. Ryba, Na granicy rzeczywistości. Mistyk, droga poznania mistycznego i artysta współczesny, in: Fides ex visu. Okiem mistyka, ed. A. Kramiszewska, Lublin 2012, pp. 249–255.

[31] Eadem, Interpretacja motywu rajskiego drzewa poznania w twórczości Janiny Karczewskiej-Koniecznej i Janiny Stefanowicz-Schmidt, “Sacrum et Decorum. Materiały i studia z historii sztuki sakralnej” VI, 2013, pp. 139–142.

[32] The construction of the church of St Maximilian and the organisation of religious services on the grounds of the camp is also a now forgotten symbol of the ideological struggle against the communist propaganda of the Polish People’s Republic, which distorted the history of World War II.

[33] J. Umiński, Bydgoszcz – przewodnik, Bydgoszcz 2004, p. 119.

[34] Środowisko przyrodnicze Bydgoszczy, ed. J. Banaszak, Bydgoszcz 1996.

[35] Historia Bydgoszczy: 1939–1945, ed. M. Biskup, vol. II, part 2, Warszawa 2004, p. 87.

[36] [accessed: 10 Oct. 2013].

[37] Ibidem.

[38] J. Derenda, Bydgoszcz w blasku symboli, vol. II, Bydgoszcz 2008; Kalwaria Bydgoska  Golgota XX wieku, ed. J. Jędrzejczak, Bydgoszcz 2009; Bydgoszcz: nowe sanktuarium “Kalwaria Bydgoska – Golgota XX wieku” , Catholic News Agency, [accessed: 10 Oct. 2013].

[39] A passage from Jacek Kucaba self-commentary attached to the project. Elsewhere in this text the artist writes: “The wall itself – referring also to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem – is a universal symbol across cultures, inextricably bound to suffering, sacrifice and hardship. The wall, through which you can walk and see the panorama of Fordon, forms the boundary between the past, which gave the foundation for the present [...]. In the 20th-century monument of Golgotha there will be placed urns with ashes and earth from places of martyrdom and memory associated with the 20th-century European history – in this way the place of martyrdom of Bydgoszcz will be connected with the history of Europe and in this place a symbol of the continent’s collective memory and the events that had a significant influence on the formation of the contemporary identity of people and nations” (text in the artist’s private archive).

[40] Ibidem.

[41] It is a monument created by Józef Makowski, erected in 1975. It depicts “broken ears of corn on high columns like martyrs’ hands outstretched towards the sky”. On its pedestal there are plaques with the names of people who were murdered in the Valley of Death (monument in the place of execution in the Valley of Death in Bydgoszcz, htm, accessed: 28 Sept. 2013)

[42] Two double-leaf doors made in 2009 by Jacek Kucaba, the author of the foundation of Bydgoszcz Calvary.

[43] The door was made by Michał Kubiak in 2003.

[44] A passage from Jacek Kucaba’s Autokomentarz, as in fn. 39.

[45] The spiritual dimension of space is also increasingly the subject of scientific discourse, expressing itself in numerous publications; cf. e.g. Sacrum w architekturze i przestrzeni życiowej człowieka, ed. A. Bańka, Poznań 2005; E. Klima, Przestrzeń religijna miasta, Łódź 2011; Miasto i sacrum, eds. M. Kowalewski, A. M. Królikowska, Kraków 2011.

[46] Józef Michalik, Droga Krzyżowa. Medytacje, Warszawa 1997.

[47] According to M. Eliade: “[...] temples are replicas of the cosmic mountain and hence constitute the pre-eminent “link” between earth and heaven”. A church tower is one of the symbols of the “axis of the world”, around which space becomes organised, its hierarchisation through valorisation expressed in a sign (M. Eliade, Sacrum i profanum. O istocie religijności, Warszawa 1996, pp. 31 ff, English quotation after the translation by J. Tillard and R. Trask:

[48] In the period of the Polish People’s Republic, these were e.g. obstacles related to the construction of churches or organisation of religious ceremonies.

[49] The symbolic structure of cities mirrors the axiological chaos of modernity to an increasing extent and many controversial accomplishments even become manifestations of the cultural war of the representatives of different ideologies.

[50] M. Madurowicz, Sfera sacrum w przestrzeni miejskiej Warszawy, Warszawa 2002, p. 113. According to Madurowicz, “Suffering [...] is removed from the sphere of the profane because it is not transmitted immediately, which is obligatory in the secular sphere; moreover, the profane seeks the complacency of its participants, in the name of being blind to certain values ​​or even of cursory treatment of the real world” (ibidem).

[51] Cf. J. Kopeć, Kalwaria, in: Encyklopedia katolicka, VIII, pp. 414–420; J. Barcik, Kalwaria Pacławska, in: ibidem, pp. 420–421; A. Obruśnik, M. Wrzeszcz, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska , in: ibidem, pp. 421–424. A more extensive bibliography can be found there.

[52] Among others, Chełm Calvary erected in 2011 on the site of weekly Passion services on the slopes of Chełm Mt. Jacek Kilciński from Siemianowice is the author of the concept and the sculptures (T. Boniecki, Chełmska kalwaria, “Niedziela. Edycja lubelska” 2011, No. 24); the Beskid Calvary on the slope of Matyska Mt, completed in 2009 and designed by Czesław Dźwigaj (, accessed: 27 Sept. 2013). There are records of about 13 sites of this type created after 1945 (Atlas of Holy Mountains, Calvaries and Devotional Complexes in Europe, ed. Amilcare Barbero, published by Istituto geografico De Agostini, Novara 2001, p. 172). Unfortunately, the artistic value of those accomplishments is often embarrassingly low. Sometimes investors reject interesting proposals awarded in specially organised competitions and commission much worse projects (Chełm Calvary).

[53] John Paul II, Spotykamy się ze sobą w pytaniu o człowieka, a meeting with representatives of science and art, Vienna 12 September 1983, “Osservatore Romano” 1983, Polish issue, No. 9, p. 14 (transl. A. Gicala).

[54] Instrukcja Episkopatu Polski o ochronie zabytków i kierunkach rozwoju sztuki kościelnej z 16 IV 1966r., [in:] Dokumenty Duszpastersko-Liturgiczne Episkopatu Polski (19661993), ed. Cz. Krakowiak et al., Lublin 1994, p. 304.

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