The figure of St Francis in the art and thought of Jerzy Nowosielski. Interior of the Reformed Franciscan Church of the Immaculate Conception of Holy Virgin Mary in the neighborhood of Azory in Kraków (1977–1978)

Krystyna Czerni

Kraków, Uniwersytet Jagielloński


One of the most popular saints, St Francis, canonized in 1228, remains “ecumenical”, venerated also by the Eastern Orthodox Church. The saint of Assisi proved especially important for the spirituality and art of the Kraków-based avant-garde painter and Eastern Orthodox thinker, Jerzy Nowosielski, who lamented that the Western Christian consciousness had completely flattened the main ideas of the saint, reducing them to naïve sentimentality. Turning back to St Francis, the artist hoped for a renewal of Christianity and the revival of contemporary theological thought. Important elements of the Franciscan tradition in Nowosielski’s art show up in his so-called Franciscan crosses: polychrome images of the crucified Christ of the croce dipinta, croce storiata type, modeled on the San Damiano Cross. Nowosielski painted dozens of such crosses, both for liturgical purposes (to fit at the top of an iconostasis or a tetrapod), and for private devotion. The figure of St Francis also appeared several times in his monumental art: the polychromes in the churches in Olszyny (1957) and in Zbylitowska Góra (1956–1957), as well as in the mosaic entitled The Stigmatization of St Francis produced for the church in Izabelin near Warsaw (1980); these, however, have not survived to the present day. His most interesting and elaborate “Franciscan” project is the interior of the Reformed Franciscan Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Holy Virgin Mary in the neighborhood of Azory in Kraków, harking back to the canon of Reformed Franciscan churches: the Stations of the Cross and the large altarpiece. These works combined the spirituality of the icon with avant-garde esthetics; the artist also infused them with iconographic motifs from the Eastern Orthodox tradition: the Mandylion (used twice), the theme of Anastasis, the Orant, the Plashchanitsa serving as the last Station of the Cross (Jesus is laid in the tomb), and the images of the three convicts in scenes of the Passion, alluding to the Eastern Orthodox worship of the Good Thief. The multi-eyed depiction of the Seraph is rooted in an earlier, Byzantine angelological iconography; the stigmatization of St Francis, in turn, is modeled on 13th Italian iconography but also on the image of St Francis as seen in the stained-glass window produced by Stanisław Wyspiański for the Franciscan church in Kraków at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. The elaborate symbolism of the retable of Azory combined Franciscan themes with motifs of the Eucharist and the Passion, drawing profusely on the Eastern Orthodox tradition; thanks to its concise and ascetic form, as well as its audacious colors, it took on a truly monumental dimension.

Keywords: Jerzy Nowosielski, Franciscans, contemporary icon, St Francis, Kraków, monumental painting, Stations of the Cross


“Whatever became of St Francis?”, Jerzy Nowosielski pondered in an interview with Zbigniew Podgórzec. “Even in his own lifetime, his basic ideas were all distorted… His conception of a non-ordained community without a monastic rule, governed only by the precepts of the gospel, everything was stood on its head already in his lifetime. […] Today, his message has been reduced to naive sentimentality. […] the elements of St Francis’s mystical experience have been completely neglected”.[1]

To this day, St Francis of Assisi remains one of the most popular saints; in the 20th century, he entered the realm of popular culture, becoming a cult hero of novels, films, operas, and musicals. He has gone down in history and legend as the most attentive listener of Christ’s teaching (Alter Christus), a rich youth who encountered Christ and, unlike the hero of a well-known biblical parable, did not go “away sorrowful” (Matthew 19, 22), but abandoned everything for the sake of a poor and humble life. Our fascination with St Francis seems rooted in the perennial human longing for simplicity and freedom from money, material possessions, and institutions, as well as our need for a life attuned to the rhythms of nature.

St Francis was canonized as early as 1228 and remains one of the ecumenical saints; he shows up in the liturgical calendar of the Lutheran and Anglican Churches and is likewise venerated by the Eastern Orthodox Church. The important and revolutionary nature of his ideas, which combined poverty and charity rooted in a mystical bond with the suffering Christ, was a recurring theme for Jerzy Nowosielski, who often underlined the spiritual affinity between St Francis of Assisi and the most popular Eastern Orthodox saint, St Seraphim of Sarov, the last to be canonized before the revolution of 1917. The Eastern Orthodox priest and poet, Jerzy Klinger,[2] the spiritual master of Jerzy Nowosielski, was a great worshipper of both St Seraphim and St Francis. An icon depicting St Seraphim of Sarov hung over the deathbed of Nowosielski until the very end; years earlier, he had already found “far-reaching and elaborate analogies in terms of worldview and religion between these two mystics, so distant in time and space”.[3]

The figure of St Francis made several appearances in the monumental sacred art that Nowosielski created for the churches of the Roman rite. As an Eastern Orthodox artist working in Catholic temples, Nowosielski preferred to depict the saints of the first millennium, active before the great schism, and thus to emphasize the shared Byzantine tradition of both Churches. Hence, his multi-figural hagiographic images featured, alongside the prophets, kings, and priests of the Old Testament, characters such as apostles, evangelists, fathers of the Church, monks and hermits of early Christianity, as well as the common believers and martyrs of the first millennium.[4] And yet, St Francis (1182–1226) proved especially important to the spirituality and art of this Kraków-based painter and thinker. According to Nowosielski, Western Christian consciousness has “completely flattened” the central ideas of St Francis’s message, including his “absolutely special attitude toward the natural world, particularly that of animals”. Turning back to the saint of Assisi, the painter hoped for a renewal of Christianity and a revival of contemporary theological thought. “I believe,” he said, “that our approach toward the animal kingdom, the blind spot, the barren territory that the Christian experience leaves us with in this field, is one of the primary reasons for the crisis of Christianity in the Western world”.

Important elements of the Franciscan tradition in Nowosielski’s art show up in his so-called Franciscan crosses: polychrome images of the crucified Christ, accompanied by scenes and figures of the Passion painted on additional planks along the vertical beam. A cross of this kind, also referred to as an Italian cross, or Italian Passion, features in the literature of the subject as croce dipinta, croce storiata.[5] The oldest preserved icon of this type is the famous San Damiano Cross (2nd quarter of the 12th century); St Francis himself is reported to have prayed before it. In the past, croci storiate would be found at the top of the altar partition in medieval Italian churches, and their meaning and symbolism were thus described by Nowosielski: “A Franciscan cross is simply an Italian image of the Crucifixion, placed at the top of the Italian iconostasis. The Crucifixion scene is rounded out with the figures of Holy Mary and St John the Theologian and, more often than not, glimpses from the Passion. It is a very elaborate, magnificent, and majestic composition, full of extraordinary expressiveness; one of such Crucifixion scenes became the theme of St Francis’s contemplation. Similar images have survived in Italian churches from the dawn of the Renaissance. They have acted as a sort of keystone that binds together the Christianity of the East and of the West. In recent times, we have been witnessing a return to these shared iconographic images of all Christianity”.[6]

In his practice as an artist, Nowosielski produced dozens of such crosses, both for liturgical purposes, to fit at the top of an iconostasis or a tetrapod, and for private devotion. The oldest preserved example was modeled on the famous San Damiano icon and intended for a chapel at the monastery of the Convent of the Sisters of Saint Hedwig the Queen of Servants of the Present Christ in Kraków; at the beginning of the 1960s, the artist donated the cross to Wacław Świeżawski, the future bishop of Sandomierz [fig. 1]. Nowosielski’s Franciscan crosses found their way into Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches in Kraków, Tyniec, Wrocław, Wesoła, Warszawa, Bielsko Podlaskie, and Górowo Iławeckie, as well as into many private collections.[7] The last and the largest of those unfinished crosses was placed in the chancel of the Church of St Dominic in the neighborhood of Służew in Warsaw.[8]


[1] Z. Podgórzec, Rozmowy z Jerzym Nowosielskim, Kraków 2014, pp. 125, 73.

[2] Cf. W. Hryniewicz, Wprowadzenie do teologii ks. Jerzego Klingera, in: J. Klinger, O istocie prawosławia, Warszawa 1983, p. 20.

[3] J. Nowosielski, Zagubiona bazylika. Refleksje o sztuce i wierze, Kraków 2013, p. 360.

[4] Cf. K. Czerni, “A czto to takie czorne?”– historia powstania i recepcji polichromii Jerzego Nowosielskiego w cerkwi greckokatolickiej pw. Zaśnięcia Najświętszej Marii Panny w Lourdes (1984), in: Mit – symbol – mimesis. Studia z dziejów teorii i historii sztuki dedykowane profesor Elżbiecie Wolickiej-Wolszleger, Lublin 2009, pp. 359–391; M. Porębski, Realizm eschatologiczny Jerzego Nowosielskiego, in: idem, Nowosielski, Kraków 2003, pp. 113–114.

[5] Cf. D. Campini, Giunta Pisano. Capitini e le croci dipinte romaniche, Milano 1966.

[6] Podgórzec 2014 (fn. 1), pp. 324–325.

[7] Cf. K. Czerni, Katalog projektów i realizacji sakralnych Jerzego Nowosielskiego, in: eadem, Nowosielski, Kraków 2006, pp. 209–215.

[8] K. Czerni, Krzyż z kościoła oo. Dominikanów. Warszawa-Służew, Warszawa [no date given, November 2003].

[9] Cf. K. Czerni, Nietoperz w świątyni. Biografia Jerzego Nowosielskiego, Kraków 2011, pp. 189–191; J. Nowosielski, Listy i zapomniane wywiady, ed. K. Czerni, Kraków 2015, pp. 102–111, 183–184; K. Czerni, Nowosielski w Małopolsce. Sztuka sakralna, Kraków 2015, pp. 46–61.

[10] Nowosielski 2015 (fn. 9), p. 183.

[11] Cf. K. Künstle, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst, vol. 2: Ikonographie der Heiligen, Freiburg im Breisgau 1926, pp. 237–254; L. Réau, Iconographie de l‘Art Chrétien, vol. 3: Iconographie des Saints, part I: A–F, Paris 1958, pp. 516–535; C. Frugoni, Francesco e l‘invenzione delle stimmate, Turyn 1993.

[12] R. Goffen, Spirituality in Conflict. Saint Francis and Giotto’s Bardi Chapel, University Park–London 1988; G. Basile, Giotto – Le storie francescane, Milan 1996.

[13] Z. Ameisenowa, Średniowieczne malarstwo ścienne w Krakowie, “Rocznik Krakowski” 19, 1923, pp. 97–103.

[14] Parish archives of the Church of the Elevation of the Holy Cross in Zbylitowska Góra, Parish chronicle, entries by parson E. Lis from 1996, 1998.

[15] Information given by Professor Krystyna Zwolińska, cf. Czerni 2011 (fn. 9), p. 303.

[16] Quoted in: A. Petrowa-Wasilewicz, Uśmiech księdza Alego. Dzieje parafii świętego Franciszka z Asyżu w Izabelinie, Warszawa 2001, p. 104.

[17] Cf. also Nowosielski 2015 (fn. 9), pp. 228–229.

[18] Parish archives of the Church of St Francis of Assisi in Izabelin, Parish chronicle, 1980 entries.

[19] T. Wyszomirski, Myśl teologiczna Jerzego Nowosielskiego, “Życie Katolickie”, 1984, vol. 10, p. 83.

[20] K. Brzezina, Pierwotne założenie kościoła Niepokalanego Poczęcia Najświętszej Marii Panny na Azorach w Krakowie (lata 30. i 40. XX wieku), in: Trwałość? Użyteczność? Piękno? Architektura dwudziestego wieku w Polsce, ed. A. Zabłocka-Kos, Wrocław 2011, pp. 63–68.

[21] Cf. J.S. Wroński, Kościół pw. Niepokalanego Poczęcia NMP, oo. Franciszkanów-Reformatów, Azory, ul. Chełmońskiego 41, in: idem, Kościoły Krakowa zbudowane w latach 1945–1989, Kraków 2010, pp. 134–139, figs. 45–50.

[22] J. Skąpski, Klasztor na Azorach, “Tygodnik Powszechny”, 1976, vol. 3, p. 6; J. Popiel SJ, Eine Kirche in Kraków – Azory, “Das Münster”, 1979, vol. 3, pp. 198–199.

[23] W. Smereka, Drogi Krzyżowe. Rys historyczny i teksty, Kraków 1980; J. Kopeć CP, Stations of the Cross. Dzieje nabożeństwa i antologia współczesnych tekstów, Poznań 1985.

[24] Cf. K. Czerni, „Projekt, zupełnie zresztą bezkompromisowy” – niezrealizowana polichromia Jerzego Nowosielskiego dla kościoła akademickiego KUL w Lublinie (1962), in: Niezrealizowana polichromia Jerzego Nowosielskiego dla kościoła akademickiego KUL. Wystawa prac z Galerii Starmach. KUL. 22 lutego – 9 marca 2015 r., exhibition catalogue, Lublin 2015, pp. 3–15.

[25] Cf. Jerzy Nowosielski. Via Crucis, Galeria Słowiańska, Kraków 2000; R. Rogozińska, Jerzy Nowosielski. Sztuka na dnie piekła, in: eadem, W stronę Golgoty. Inspiracje pasyjne w sztuce polskiej w latach 1970–1999, Poznań 2002, pp. 246–255.

[26] Podgórzec 2014 (fn. 1), p. 68–69.

[27] Cf. H. Paprocki, Droga zmartwychwstania. Esej o Drodze Krzyżowej w Wesołej, in: Jerzy Nowosielski 2000 (fn. 25), pp. 4–7.

[28] J. Nowosielski, Sztuka po końcu świata. Rozmowy, Kraków 2012, p. 50.

[29] Nowosielski 2015 (fn. 9), pp. 291–292.

[30] Cf. Czerni 2011 (fn. 9), pp. 86–90, 171–172.

[31] S. Rodziński, Szaleństwo malarza, “Sztuka Sakralna”, 2003, vol. 4, pp. 22–25.

[32] Podgórzec 2014 (fn. 1), p. 75.

[33] M. Rzepińska, Kościół na Azorach, “Konteksty”, 1996, vol 3/4, p. 11.

[34] B. Brzuszek O.F.M, Kult św. Franciszka z Asyżu w polskich prowincjach reformatów (1621–1900), “Studia Franciszkańskie” 1, 1984, p. 221.

[35] Ibidem, p. 222.

[36] B. Brzuszek O.F.M, Kult Najświętszej Maryi Panny w Zakonie Braci Mniejszych Reformatów w XIX wieku, in: Niepokalana. Kult Matki Bożej na ziemiach polskich w XIX wieku, eds. B. Pylak, C. Krakowiak, Lublin 1988, p. 319.

[37] Cf. R. Mirończuk, O obrazie Ekstaza św. Franciszka El Greca, in: El Greco – Ekstaza świętego Franciszka z Muzeum Diecezjalnego w Siedlcach, Zamek Królewski w Warszawie – Muzeum, Warszawa 2014, p. 75–91; L’immagine di San Francesco nella Controriforma, exhibition catalogue, eds. S. Prosperi Valenti Rodinò, C. Strinati, Roma Calcografia, 9 dicembre 1982 – 13 febbraio, Roma 1982; A.J. Błachut O.F.M, La stimmatizzazione di S. Francesco nella pittura sacra polacca, “Archiwum Franciscanum Historicum” 75, 1982, pp. 421–429; J. Puciata-Pawłowska, Rafał Hadziewicz (1803–1886). Życie i twórczość, “Teka Komisji Historii Sztuki” 2, Toruń 1961, pp. 348–350.

[38] Cf. K. Krüger, Der Frühe Bildkult des Franziskus in ItalienGastalt- und Funktionswandel des Tafelbildes im 13. und 14. Jahrhundert, Berlin 1992, pp. 211–214, figs. 95–103; R. Wolff, Der heilige Franziskus in Schriften und Bildern des 13. Jahrhunderts, Berlin 1996.

[39] W. Bałus, Witraż ze świętym Franciszkiem, in: idem, Sztuka sakralna Krakowa w wieku XIX, part II: Matejko i Wyspiański, Kraków 2009, pp. 125–135.

[40] A. Różycka-Bryzek, Bizantyńsko-ruskie malowidła w kaplicy zamku lubelskiego, Warszawa 1983, p. 32.

[41] Ibidem, p. 33.

[42] Podgórzec 2014 (fn. 1), pp. 72–73.

[43] Ibidem.

[44] Cf. M. Branicka, Ikona św. Jana Chrzciciela – Anioła pustyni z Odrzechowej w zbiorach Muzeum Budownictwa Ludowego w Sanoku, “Materiały Muzeum Budownictwa Ludowego w Sanoku”, 2001, vol. 35, pp. 24–44, fig. 12; A. Sulikowska, Ikony Jana Chrzciciela w kolekcji Muzeum Narodowego w Warszawie – ciało anioła, męczeńska śmierć, święte zwłoki, “Rocznik Muzeum Narodowego w Warszawie”, 2013, vol. 2, pp. 184–216.

[45] Cf. K. Czerni, Nowosielski, Kraków 2006, s. 158; eadem, Projekty i realizacje sakralne Jerzego Nowosielskiego dla cerkwi greckokatolickiej, in: Światło Wschodu w przestrzeni gotyku, ed. K. Pasławska-Iwanczewska, Górowo Iławeckie 2013, p. 48.

[46] Mistrz współczesnej ikony. Z Jerzym Nowosielskim rozmawia Marian Słomczyński, “Za i Przeciw”, 1978, vol. 1, pp. 12–13; reprinted in: Nowosielski 2012 (fn. 28), p. 242.

[47] IV Biennale d’Arte Sacra, Stauros Internazionale, Communicato Stampa No 3, Sezione Europa a cura di Mary Angela Schroth, Pescara [no date given].

[48] Transcript from an interview with Father Jacek Koman, 23 April 2013, Kraków [personal archives of K. Czerni].

[49] Podgórzec 2014 (fn. 1), pp. 205, 425–426.

[50] Model, którego nie ma? Czy w Polsce są kościoły posoborowe? [discussion – a statement by architect Przemysław Gawor], “Znak”, 1999, vol. 8 (531), pp. 46–47.

[51] T. Cyz, Uwaga, blog entry from 29.10.2010; [accessed: 16 Feb. 2011].

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