Martyrological iconography and the mystic experience: Cracow painting of the second half of the 20th century

Tadeusz Boruta

Rzeszów, Uniwersytet Rzeszowski


Messianic-martyrological iconography has always been a crucial factor in shaping the Polish national identity, especially in the periods when Poland lost its independence. That was the case during the Partitions, the Polish-Soviet war, and the Second World War. Raised on the foundations of traditional Polish religiousness and the messianic philosophy of the literary-intellectual elites, martyrological iconography visualized the theological and historiosophical sense of suffering, the role of Poland among the nations of the world, and the eschatological perspective on history. Also in the 1980s, within the independent culture movement, artists frequently reached for this verified repertoire of those symbolic-expressive devices; considering the social and political context, it was a natural direction. The Cracow artists chose a different path, despite being deeply involved in the anti-Communist independent movement, and despite quite often searching for inspiration in the thought and tradition of the Church.  In the Cracow circles of painters, messianic-martyrological iconography was a marginal form of expression. That difference was undoubtedly rooted in the intellectual and cultural experience of the old Polish capital. After 1945, the theological-metaphysical reflection gave rise to a multitude of diverse but continuous artistic phenomena, extending in their continuum until today. This situation was certainly affected by several factors: the conservatism of the intellectual elites, the unbroken cultural continuum since the 19th century, the clerical character of the city (with many monastic orders and several seminaries, functioning even today, and the John Paul II Pontifical University, then named the Pontifical Academy of Theology), the activity of the weekly “Tygodnik Powszechny” and the publishing house “Znak”. Cracow being a large academic centre, with numerous higher education institutions and vast artistic-humanist circles, favoured the polarization of attitudes, from conservative to avant-garde ones. Nevertheless, the presence of an intellectually potent local Church – open to dialogue and the post-Council changes, but also boasting many distinguished personalities – could not remain unechoed in the creative work of the most  notable artists.

Keywords: mysticism, martyrology, personalism, independent art, iconography, Cracow


Messianic-martyrological iconography may be deeply rooted in the tradition of Polish art, but it was a marginal form of expression among the Cracow painters of the second half of the 20th century. This is a paradox of a kind, as this period includes the 1980s, the decade when the society, oppressed by the Communist regime, turned to the Church to seek a more profound sense of their painful experience. From the perspective of Polish culture, messianic-martyrological iconography was a crucial factor constituting national identity, especially in the periods of loss of independence. This was the case in the time of the Partitions, the Polish-Soviet war, and the Second World War. Formed on the foundations of Poles’ traditional religiousness and the messianic philosophy of contemporary literary and intellectual elites, martyrological iconography visualized the theological-historiosophical sense of suffering, the role of Poland among the nations of the world, and the eschatological perspective on history.

Also in the 1980s, within the independent culture framework, artists quite frequently reached for this already proven repertoire of signs and symbols; considering the socio-political context this seems quite natural. That was the case in other regions of Poland (outside Cracow), where messianic-martyrological iconography nearly became the stereotypical label for the whole independent culture phenomenon. This set of symbols was used both by the older generation (e.g. Edward Dwurnik, Łukasz Korolkiewicz, Marek Sapetto, Wiesław Szamborski, Jan Rylke, Jerzy Kalina, Andrzej Bielawski), and by debuting artists. Such young painters as Maciej Dowgiałło, Jacek Staniszewski, Leszek Żegalski, Jerzy Truszkowski and members of “Gruppa” expressed the ethos of the times in which they happened to live, using grandiosity or irony. The artists mentioned participated in a massive artistic-social phenomenon: around a thousand artists of various branches of art. Martyrological iconography entered the bloodstream of communication in the independent society. Clandestine publications, graphics, a seemingly infinite number of underground post office stamps, posters, billboards, street graffiti, church decorations of Easter Tombs, were teeming with martyrological signs and symbols.

Despite the popularity of the trend, ever since politically-engaged art exhibitions started to be organized in the 1980s, questions arose within the movement, and negative opinions and doubts appeared concerning the artist’s duty towards the society and the idea of artistic form.

In the beginning of 1986, the monthly “Znak” published the famous debate on Krystyna Czerni’s article “Crisis of the engaged art”. The author, dismayed by the artistic quality of independent exhibitions, stated: “I realized that this unsettling phenomenon has lost its temporary and incidental character and begins to conquer wider and wider circles of imagination. This imagination has been dominated by a fixed, actually quite limited, vocabulary of symbols and implicative-metaphorical expressions. Thus, the vocabulary includes: bars, chains, shackles, flags, all kinds of ties and bonds, and drapes – purple, obviously. But also candles, blind-covered eyes, cut wings, and blood-stained bandages, that is all the indispensable attributes and accessories that serve to keep us in the state of permanent national-memorial-martyrological festival, which Kisiel used to mock so much”.[1] At the same time, in her critical text, Czerni indicated the uniqueness and value of the Cracow exhibition held in the cloisters of the Dominican monastery, entitled Towards the person. The exhibition created “a kind of precedence in the recent history of exhibitions in church surroundings, a precedence that »strengthened hearts« to a greater extent than many other spectacles, organized »to honour« and »to commemorate«. Amidst historical tombstones, in the area of the cloisters, I suddenly saw our reality – not the collective, festive one, but our own, the one individually created in each of us, reflecting the human, not only the national drama – and yet not indifferent to the history happening now”.[2]

Krystyna Czerni aptly grasped the peculiarity of the Cracow figuration presented in the exhibition Towards the person [fig. 1]. The Cracow artists reached for Christian iconography as a result of their conviction that the emerging metaphysical perspective will offer a more profound, more culture-rooted insight into the human being. At the same time, Cracow-based painters manifested a distance from the stereotypical martyrological art, sign-based and poster-like, in which individual fates are unnoticeable, and the visual form is usually schematic and necessarily flashy. Even the members of the Cracow group “Wprost”, who had been creating critical, socially and politically engaged art since the 1960s, in the Dominican exhibition expressed the drama of existence in a lowered, more personal tone. The title of the exhibition unambiguously pointed at the source of this homocentrism, based on Christian personalist reflection. These artists’ attitude is to some extent symptomatic of a wider phenomenon, that is Cracow painting after 1945, which sought its own paths and a deeper sense in metaphysics. It must be noted, however, that the best works of that current did not draw on the martyrological-messianic tradition, but on Christian anthropology, especially mysticism.


[1] K. Czerni, Kryzys sztuki zaangażowanej? Notatki na marginesie kilku wystaw, “Znak”, 1986, nos. 2–3 (375–376), p. 5. This and all other quotes from Polish translated by the translator/A.Ścibior-Gajewska.

[2] Ibidem, p. 12.

[3] H. Bremond, Poeta i mistyk, in: Antologia współczesnej estetyki francuskiej, Warszawa 1980, p. 72.

[4] This and other quotes from Rahner based on the Polish version: K. Rahner, H. Vorgrimler, Mały słownik teologiczny, Warszawa 1987, p. 240.

[5] Vast material on sister Karolina Olszowska is to be found in: Rev. F. Bobeł, Kronika Kronik Lubieńskich, vol. 2, Kraków–Lubień 2006. Besides numerous photographs, the book contains two texts: Z. Kazanowska, Wspomnienia o siostrze Karolinie Olszowskiej Pokutnicy od Krzyża Chrystusowego (1900–1956), pp. 129–157; D. Ślęczka, Fragmenty wspomnień o Karolinie od Krzyża, pp. 129–187.

[6] Kazanowska 2006 (fn. 5), p. 165.

[7] Rahner, Vorgrimler 1987 (fn. 4), p. 241.

[8] A fragment from the speech to artists, delivered by Pope Paul VI in the Sistine Chapel on 10th May, 1964.


[9] Z. Podgórzec, Wokół ikony. Rozmowy z Jerzym Nowosielskim, Warszawa 1985, p. 185.

[10] In recent years, Jerzy Nowosielski’s work has been comprehensively described by Krystyna Czerni in the publications: Nowosielski, Kraków 2006; and Nietoperz w świątyni. Biografia Jerzego Nowosielskiego, Kraków 2011. Owing to her efforts, the artist’s letters and his reflections on art have also been published: J. Nowosielski, Sztuka po końcu świata. Rozmowy, selected and edited by K. Czerni, Kraków 2012; idem, Zagubiona bazylika. Refleksje o sztuce i wierze, editing and introduction by K. Czerni, Kraków 2013; idem, Listy i zapomniane wywiady, editing and introduction by K. Czerni, Kraków 2014.

[11] Sztuka jest zawsze sztuką końca świata – z Jerzym Nowosielskim rozmawia Wacław Pyczek, in: Nowosielski 2012 (fn. 10), p. 72.

[12] Ibidem, p. 65.

[13] Malarstwo jest tajemnicą – z Jerzym Nowosielskim rozmawia Kinga Maciuszkiewicz, in: Nowosielski 2012 (fn. 10), p. 348.

[14] Podgórzec 1985 (fn. 9), p. 183.

[15] The relation between modern art and the icon is extensively discussed in R. Rogozińska, Ikona w sztuce XX wieku, Kraków 2008.

[16] W. Skrodzki, Wizjonerzy i mistrzowie, Warszawa 2009, p. 188.

[17] M. Kitowska-Łysiak, Eugeniusz Mucha, [accessed: 14 Apr. 2015].

[18] J. Maritain, The Frontiers of Poetry, 1935; [accessed: 15 Nov. 2015].

[19] More on personalism by the author: Personalizm w polskiej sztuce, in: Personalizm polski, ed. M. Rusecki, Lublin 2008.

[20] Maritain 1980 (fn.18).

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