“One by one we look at them”. The experience of an encounter with a religious image in poems by Jakub Ekier

Katarzyna Szewczyk-Haake

Poznań, Adam Mickiewicz University


The poems by Jakub Ekier constitute a case that is quite rare in contemporary poetry: the case when poems referring to religious paintings build, via those paintings, their own way to the truths of faith and the truths about faith. The analysed texts indicate the difference between the painting material, which makes use of light and silence, and the poetic element; at the same time it is an act of looking at an old master religious painting that becomes an inspiration for the effort to express in language the spiritual experience of modern man.

The poems analysed here, and dedicated to works of religious art, do not quite fit the typologies of ekphrasis that are the most commonly applied in Polish literary studies. This is due to the multiple levels deliberately created by Ekier in his poetry, although to some extent such is probably the specificity of a larger group of ekphrases concerning religious paintings. Poetic texts referring to such works of art touch both the substance of the representations (the biblical history) and the specificity of works of visual art, capable of expressing the biblical events using their own, specific means. In the presence of both of those spheres, language – particularly the language of modernity, increasingly diverging from the sacred – is to a certain extent helpless. By means of “ineffective reference” whose object is an old master religious painting, a poem is, however, able to say something important both about the modern reading of old masterpieces and about modern religious experience, for which the common denominators are the hermeneutical conviction of an inalienable character of one’s own cognitive horizon and constant attempts to cross it.

Keywords: Jakub Ekier, typology of ekphrasis, religious poetry, visual arts, the Isenheim altar


A work of poetry referring to a religious painting can bear different relations to the religious truths presented in that work of art. Religiuos, moral and sacred themes were often used in a traditional verbal and visual art form connecting an image and a poem, popular in previous centuries, and called the emblem. Between the contents expressed in its two parts there was, as an effect of a strict normative directive, a relation of correspondence, and the whole often had the nature of a moral reflection, grounded in the truths of faith.[1] Intuition, supported by the knowledge of changes that, over the following centuries, have occurred both in the principles of poetics and in the religious awareness of Europeans, makes us presume that such a quotation-like relationship of a poem with a religious painting would have been losing its importance when approaching the present time. All the more careful atention should therefore be paid to a very interesting and infrequent phenomenon which are modern poems referring to religious paintings, which are not (unlike the former emblem) an attempt to mirror the content of the painting but which, through its medium, build their own path towards the truths of faith, or truths about faith, depicted within.

Jakub Ekier’s poems about paintings, which are the subject of the current analysis, are devoted to the works of old masters dealing with the central theme of the history of salvation. Ekier is clearly interested in the visual art representations illustrating the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, without which, as Saint Paul writes, “your faith is vain” (1 Cor. 15: 17). Those events directly respond to the most radical existential questions: about pain, death, the contingency of human existence and the associated anxiety. At the same time the poet does not so much try to capture in his poems the religious truth about the event which is the content of a painting but rather – through careful observation of a work of religious art precisely as a work – he attests to an encounter with the sacred, mediated by art. How does this encounter happen?

1. stoję przed obrazami [I stand before paintings][2]

An encounter with a painting brings out of nonexistence an individual who is looking. A painting is a painting for someone, and this phenomenological relationship reveals the recipient. It is he who sees, in the case of this poem, the paintings in the space of a museum: a well-known painting by Thomas Gainsborough and another, whose title or author is not specified by the poem’s speaker, and whose subject matter is the Resurrection of Christ:

I see

down the dress of Mrs Hamilton Nisbet

flashes are streaming 


I see the night

when the stone from the grave

is rising like crushed stalks like sounds

of trumpets for the words Et resurrexit

I see it

The transition from the painting by a British artist, representing a beautiful woman, to a work with a religious subject matter, referring explicitly to the realm of the infinite and transcendent, establishes a number of subtle relationships between the picture (seeing), the space (that of a museum and the one shown in the picture) and the domain of the sacred.

It would seem that, in the context of the Resurrection in the painting and in the Gospel, as referred to in the second stanza, the portrait of a woman in an elegant dress glittering with fleeting and perishable flashes of light, described in the first stanza, has the character of a symbol of vanity. However, such a relationship would be too simple, too pushy and not corresponding to the truth of the experience described in the poem. The paintings described clearly belong to the same order, and what binds in a superior unity the encounter with them is the verb “see”, repeated three times. Looking at the paintings, “seeing” their content – flashes on the woman’s dress and the night of the miracle of the gravestone thrown away – leads directly to a visual experience that transcends them and is difficult to touch with a word because the formula “I see it” which closes the stanza is extremely comprehensive. Whether “it” is any element of the representation is doubtful. The second stanza of the poem accelerates and a chain of enjambements reflects the speed and immediacy of thoughts and associations. They lead far beyond the figurative representation, towards the realm of nature (“crushed stalks”) and the domain of music (“sounds of trumpets”) – the domains equally unstable and eternal. The precise comparisons, touching the miracle of the Resurrection without naming it, express the paradoxical character of “seeing” initiated by the painting but extending far beyond it. The short verse “I see it”, although grammatically complete, essentially constitutes the semantic cutting of a thought in the middle, the silence in the face of something impossible to be named precisely, something that is reached by the thought moved by the experience of looking. To what areas this experience directs emotions and the intellect becomes clear in the third, final stanza:

for Thaddeus Olgierd

Stanislaus Siegfried Irene

Marian Anna Catherine Margaret

After seeing the unnameable, the most appropriate gesture is the recitation of prayer for the dead – perhaps for loved ones, and perhaps for all who through the centuries stood in front of the same paintings at which each of us is looking today. Here follows a sudden change of the poem’s tone. Litany-like peacefulness appears immediately after the emphatic phrase “I see it”, leaving the reader in similar emotional elation, like some musical finales, closing a piece of music on a high note. After the epiphany there comes time for an entrusting prayer, remaining a sign of trust, though devoid of the directness of an apostrophe. Characteristically, in this prayer the subject “I”, clearly visible in the previous stanzas, disappears and its place is taken by the procession of the dead.

In front of paintings man experiences a revelation that leads him to thoughts of eternity and to trust in prayer, perhaps – even to the hope of immortality. Not incidentally (and, I think, not only as a consequence of the thematic connection with the Resurrection – as there were more paintings seen, after all) the prayer in which the subject disappears is a traditional Christian prayer for the dead. The vision proposed in the poem is therefore not a modern “religion of art”, which perhaps brings relief to its followers but does not allow them to tame the mystery of death, which is part of the fate of every human being. At the same time, man’s turn towards the sacred, happening before the paintings, does not have the characteristics of triumphant intoxication by gained confidence. The sense of finding the sacred lies in peacefulness, unity with the dead, and a sense of trust. The paintings seen by the subject open their viewer to that which cannot be put into words and what allows one to build a relationship with the fragile human world, to come to terms with death, transience, pain, but also, perhaps, with the vocation of an artist creating works for the receivers standing before paintings and reading, who are also doomed to pass away.

3. Złożenie Chrystusa do grobu, olej, płótno [“The Entombment of Christ”, oil on canvas][3]

one by one we look at them

who hold the pierced one in the light

hold as if they wanted to remember

because we will forget all

to death


all to death


one by one

in the light of the pierced one

The poem, thematically linked to the Passion, and dedicated to the scene of the burial of Christ’s body, frequently depicted by painters, does not allow for an identification of the painting to which it refers, although both its subject and the imaging characteristics (chiaroscuro) indicate that it belongs to works of art of the old masters. The elements of painting technique hightlighted by the poem’s speaker[4] are, however, important for interpretation as the way the painted scene is shown expressly directs the reflection of the speaker. The painterly use of contrasts of light and shadow becomes the basis for the play of meanings that is the key to the sense of the poem and that opens in the first stanza with the phrase “one by one [...] hold the pierced one in the light” and closes in the poem’s finale with “one by one / in the light of the pierced one”.

Already in the first stanza, a community of a certain “we” is indicated: presumably, a community of viewers standing before a painting, passing by and passing away in the face of the centuries-old painting as well as in the face of the events depicted there, that have remained current throughout the centuries (there appears a double dimension of “passing”, already familiar from the poem I stand before paintings, chronologically speaking – anticipating it). This “we” is in opposition to “them”, that is, the people who are holding the body being buried in the grave. The contrast between “we” and “they” is decided on by the difference of memory: “they” want to remember the experience of burying “the pierced one” whereas “we”, as stated by the speaker most emphatically, “will forget to death.” This formula gains a dramatic dimension when the phrase repeated like an echo is cut off and acquires the form:

all to death

The blending of two different idioms: “all for nothing” and “forget to death” results in a tragic statement that “all” that we have forgotten and will forget ceases to exist for us. What is more, “all”, including ourselves, drifts to non-existence, exists towards death. Yet the end of the poem disputes and repeals the tragedy of that statement. For all the people – those depicted in the painting, once actually accompanying the pierced one on his last journey, but also those looking at the painting – “one by one” exist in the light of the pierced one: of his life, passion, perhaps also – although this is happens to be a hint outside the text of the poem – of his Resurrection.

“The light of the pierced one” is a paradoxical expression, just as, from the human point of view, paradoxical was the victory of Christ on the cross. “Light” may have connotations with triumph and salvation, “pierced” is semantically related to suffering and death. In a manner that is similarly paradoxical, though revealing a relation of seemingly conflicting meanings,[5] the reflection in the poem, built on the view of a religious painitng, provides evidence of the clash of religious and non-religious attitudes, positioning itself between them. One may put forward a thesis that in this way the perspective of modern man is revealed, living in a time when religion has a progressively smaller number of genuine believers, and therefore the “we” of the poem are doomed to forget everything that is important. The closing couplet, however, slightly mitigates this tragic conclusion, and allows for perceiving in “them” and “us”, separated by time and space, a basic, common destiny beyong the divisions: passing “one by one”. Then it should be concluded that the text has a more universal dimension and that it deals with fear and hesitation, from which, as we know from the Gospels, even the people burying the body of Christ in the grave were not free, and which sometimes afflicts the soul of probably everyone who has had contact with religion. Faith is a grace whose experience is dynamic and whose nature is well captured by the contrast of light and darkness, mentioned in the poem and present in the painting.

Similarly to the poem analysed earlier, this one also contains noteworthy elements of a metaartistic statement about the essence of art. The oil and canvas are obvious attributes of a painting but also of burials at the time of Christ. The analogy suggests that the painting, like any work of art, proves the human belief in the timeless character of creations of the human spirit but at the same time, as a product of human hands, is subject to the laws of transience. Creating and admiring a painted scene is, in a sense, analogous to the act of burying the deceased: an act of commemoration, directed against transience, although it transcends the latter unambiguously and forces the recipient to remember about it. It is the fruit of the faith in the possibility to overcome the horror of the world and, in the case of a religious work of art, faith in the obviousness of this victory.

Translated by Agnieszka Gicala

[1] “A piece of poetry” was to be “a reflective-moralistic commentary and development of meanings suggested by an image and an inscription”, Słownik terminów literackich, eds. J. Sławiński et al., Wrocław 1988, p. 118; cf. also: K. Mrowcewicz, Wprowadzenie do lektury, in: A.T. Lacki, Pobożne pragnienia, ed. K. Mrowcewicz, Warszawa 1997, pp. 8ff.; J. Pelc, P. Pelc, Wstęp, in: Z. Morsztyn, Emblemata, eds. J. and P. Pelc, Warszawa 2001, pp. XVIff.

[2] J. Ekier, stoję przed obrazami, in: idem, krajobraz ze wszystkimi, Poznań 2012, p. 28.

[3] J. Ekier, “Złożenie Chrystusa do grobu”, oil on canvas, in: idem, podczas ciebie, Kraków 1999, p. 18. I made this poem the subject of analysis in my paper Stając przed wierszem, “Polonistyka” 2009, no. 3, pp. 49–51. I would like to thank Paulina Czwordon-Lis for a conversation about this poem, allowing me to broaden my earlier perspective.

[4] Characteristically, neither in this poem not in other poems discussed by me does Ekier make any reference to the painting materials used in the works of art to which he refers. Considering that he pays attention to sometimes tiny painting details, this omission seems to be significant and shows a view focussed on meanings which stem from the subject and form of a representation rather than its physical shape. This is not a result of looking at the works from a distance: in a museum it is easy to come to paintings close enough to see their surface in detail and the altar painting referred to by Ekier in the poem the Isenheim altarpiece, analysed below, is now exhibited in a way that allows for convenient observation of this kind, namely in the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, in a former Dominican convent (more on this subject below). The question that is relatively troublesome to answer is in what space the poem’s speaker is looking at The Entombment of Christ because the text does not allow for the specification of which painting is referred to; and a work of this kind may be found both in a museum and in such places as in an altar in a church. The omission of issues related to the material of the paintings should, I think, be seen in the perspective of the unique sensitivity of the poet, who, in the works of art selected by him for description, does not perceive material objects but visual structures which, via the content of their formal shape, lead to the spiritual sphere.

[5] “The light of the pierced one”, if we treat this phrase not as a description of a visual impression formed while looking at the painting but as a purely mental concept, reveals, I think, a distant resemblance to the Baroque principle of concordia discors – discordia concors, which corresponds well with the fact that the described painting, due to the use of chiaroscuro, may be associated with that epoch.

[6] J. Ekier, ołtarz z Isenheim, in: idem, krajobraz ze wszystkimi (fn. 3), p. 29.

[7] The assonance (similarity of vowels) is visible in the Polish, original version. The translator tried to compensate for that effect and achieve a similarity of sounds by using words containing voiceless fricative consonants. In this way the translation remains close to another feature of the poem, namely the effect of silence, mentioned by the author of the present text – cf. section 4 below (Agnieszka Gicala).

[8] This gesture differentiates Ekier from Tadeusz Różewicz, who undertook the effort of poetic interpretation of the Isenheim altar in his poem Róża (published in the volume Poezje zebrane, 1971). The reading of Grünewald’s works by Ekier differs from Różewicz’s not only in this respect – cf. K. Szewczyk-Haake, Kolce Grünewalda. Róża Różewicza i ołtarz z Isenheim (the paper presented at the session “Tadeusz Różewicz i sztuka”, Poznań, December 2013, in press).

[9] Cf. Ch. Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge–Massachusetts–London, 2007, pp. 514ff.

[10] Cf. S. Maitland, “Never Enough Silence”. Conflicts Between Spiritual and Literary Creativity, in: Spiritual Identities. Literature and the Post-Secular Imagination, eds. J. Carruthers, A. Tate, Bern 2010, p. 26.

[11] Which is characteristic of modern spirituality, not excluding deep authenticity that is present in it, cf. Taylor 2007 (fn. 9), p. 509.

[12] S. Wysłouch, O malarskości literatury, in: Wiedza o literaturze i edukacja. Księga referatów Zjazdu Polonistów, eds. T. Michałowska, Z. Goliński, Z. Jarosiński, Warszawa 1996, p. 701. Extensive information on various typologies of ekphrases can also be found in the book by Adam Dziadek (cf. idem, Obrazy i wiersze. Z zagadnień interferencji sztuk w polskiej poezji współczesnej, Katowice 2004, pp. 7–14).

[13] Cf. D. Czaja, Noc ciemna. Nihilologia i wiara, in: Nowoczesność i nihilizm, eds. E. Partyga, M. Januszkiewicz, Warszawa 2012, p. 111.

[14] Cf. Taylor 2007 (fn. 9).

[15] J. Ekier, jest, in: idem, krajobraz ze wszystkimi (fn. 3), p. 19.

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