Julia Sowińska

Łódź, Uniwersytet Łódzki


A special place in the Polish architecture of the second half of the twentieth century is occupied by sacred architecture. On the one hand, it is due to the fact that in the communist era architects designing and building churches had the greatest creative freedom and independence; on the other, it results from the same specificity and the role of places of worship. In such spaces it is necessary to introduce a rich layer of meaning and symbolism and to skilfully create the right atmosphere and mood.

The decisions taken during the Second Vatican Council 1962–1965 did not include any detailed guidelines as to how churches should be designed. It seems that the idea and its essence were specified but the actual architectural forms were left to the artists. Hence a great diversity of formal solutions and directions of search, as well as a noticeable pluralism of forms.

An interesting group of objects built in Poland after the Second Vatican Council includes churches whose designers consciously look for inspiration in traditional art and traditional forms, subjecting them to modern reinterpretation. The paper presents and discusses examples of interesting ideas and solutions.

keywords: sacred architecture, the Polish post-conciliar architecture, contemporary art inspired by traditional art


The decisions taken during the Second Vatican Council 1962–1965 did not include any detailed guidelines as to how churches should be designed. The idea and its essence were specified but the actual architectural forms were left to the artists. This resulted in the great diversity of formal solutions and directions of search, as well as the pluralism of forms, which is especially noticeable in contemporary sacred architecture.

It is significant that during the years after the Second Vatican Council architects assertively rejected traditional forms. Such an attitude became a sign of artistic freedom and the escape from the influence of historical styles.

Very bold ideas were realized, which were attempts to answer the needs of contemporary man. The interpretation of a church as ‘domus ecclesiae’, serving the local community of believers, was pushed to extremes.  The statement made by W. M. Föderer while describing one of his projects is significant and characteristic of such attitude; he concludes: ‘The Catholic parish in Schaffhausen (…) gave me the opportunity to create a proper pastoral centre, in which the main room serves neither exclusively, nor predominantly, but simply – as a place for religious services, apart from being used for numerous secular events’.[1]

As a result, the ecclesiastical structure has been completely deprived of its uniqueness and symbolic meaning, thus deprived of sacrum. Although the starting point for such projects was the desire to create a place which would serve the community, surprisingly the communities did not receive them enthusiastically. The believers were apparently tired of looking at churches resembling ‘grain silos’ (fig. 1), ‘ski jumps’ (fig. 2), or ‘school gyms’ (fig. 3).

In the case of buildings as special as churches, the complete break with symbolism of meanings and continuity of tradition turned out to be a blind alley. In order not to lose the essence of a sacred construction, architects designing contemporary churches are more willing to look for inspiration in the traditional architectural form. It is important, however, that they do not imitate or create duplicated forms, but start a creative dialogue maintained thanks to modern solutions, since architecture should stimulate the spectators to undertake a search, and to form multidimensional associations.

Nowadays, when interpersonal communication and information transfer are so quick, architects, when designing churches, quite often use visual effects whose message is direct, and which evoke feelings based on connotations encoded deep in the human subconsciousness. It is connected mainly with the skilful use of light, which has long held a symbolic value. The struggle between light and darkness, day and night has always been associated with the fight between good and evil, the spiritual and material. In sacred buildings, a similar meaning is expressed by the space which opens upwards as well as the forms or individual elements which mark the vertical lines. That which is high and that which is low become metaphors of heaven and earth, sacrum and profanum.

A clear symbol is also the form of basilica, deeply rooted in human subconsciousness as a sign of Church.

The contemporary interpretation of basilica or a hall church is not easy and requires solution of numerous problems. On the one hand, the longitudinal arrangement of the interior causes that the space is directed to the altar, so that, according to the requirements of the Second Vatican Council, it is the centre which becomes the focus of the believers’ attention.[2] On the other hand, it is more difficult to meet the requirement relating to the creation of a strong bond between the believers and the altar, to gather them around this area and give the interior a community-forming character.[3]

An interesting way of interpreting the older forms was suggested by Marek Budzyński in the Church of Our Lord’s Ascension in Ursynów, Warsaw, built in the 1980s (1984–1989). The traditional three-aisle division was the ideological basis for the interior and its starting point (fig. 4). However, this division has not been completely realized, but only suggested by huge unclosed arcades, as if hanging in the air. Thus we are presented with the materialization of a psychological game with the spectator, which is characteristic of postmodernism: the spectator is aware of the great weight of individual wall fragments, deprived of an important supporting point. The effects of juxtaposing light and heavy elements and the impression of defying gravity are enhanced by the row of delicate lamps, as if hovering in the air just underneath the massive arches (fig. 5). Such a solution evoked a lot of emotions among the parishioners. They expressed their concern as to whether the construction is really stable and will not collapse.[4]

The wall surfaces, in which the arcades were built, are not only constructed in an unusual way, but are also originally placed in the interior space. They were divided into segments and arranged perpendicularly. In this way they enliven the composition and set the characteristic rhythm leading to the altar, leaving the homogeneity of space intact.

translated by Renata Latko

[1] W. M. Förderer, „Kunst für kirchliches Bauen“, Kunst und Kirche (1972), no. 35, p.114, quotation after: J. Nyga, Architektura sakralna a ruch odnowy liturgicznej. Na przykładzie obiektów diecezji katowickiej, Katowice, 1990, p.20.

[2] “Instrukcja o należytym wykonywaniu Konstytucji o liturgii świętej Inter Oecumenici from 26.09.1964”, in Ruch Biblijny i Liturgiczny, 1965, no.1, p.91.

[3] „Ogólne wprowadzenie do Mszału Rzymskiego 257” , in Wprowadzenie do Mszału Rzymskiego , Poznań, 1986, pp.9–81.

[4] The fragments quoted here are a part of a paper that was delivered by the author during the scientific conference „Die Basilika. Ein herausragender Bautypus der europäischen Architekturgeschichte” organized in Einsiedeln by the Swiss Werner Oechslin Library Foundation between 20–23 September 2007.

[5] “Kościół na Ursynowie Północnym w Warszawie. Z Markiem Budzyńskim i Piotrem Wichą rozmawia redakcja”, Architektura (1982), no.1, p.69.

[6] Ibid., pp.68–69.

[7] The original version of the project was presented in: ibid., p. 63.

[8] Archdiocese Archive in Łódź, Akta Kurii Diecezjalnej Łódzkiej. Akta dotyczące parafii pod wezwaniem Miłosierdzia Bożego w Pabianicach,1983.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Konstytucja o liturgii świętej, 124.

[12] P. Jasienica, „Kicz jak grzech”, Architektura – murator (2003), no.10, p.62.

[13] S. Weremczuk, Tajemnice Lichenia, Lublin, 2004, p.185.

[14] cf. Ibid., and Opowieści księdza kustosza, Wrocław, 2003, p.40.

[15] B. Bielecka, Świątynia Matki Bożej Licheńskiej, Wrocław, 2004, p.30; Weremczuk, p.189.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] E. Makulski, Licheń. Dzieje sanktuarium. Objawienia Matki Bożej, Katowice, 2004, p.29.

[19] Bielecka, p. 3.

[20] Ibid., p.20; Opowieści księdza kustosza, p.152.

[21] Bielecka, p.14.

[22] A. Cornoldi, “Caratteri dell’Edificio”, in L’Architettura dell’Edificio Sacro, ed. A. Cornoldi, Roma, 2000, p.77.

The full text of the article was published in the pages of "Sacrum et Decorum" I, 2008. Please send your orders to the University of Rzeszów Publishers or activate an electronic subscription.