Apokalipsa [The Apocalypse] by Grzegorz Bednarski. Escalation of Evil or a Message of Hope? *[1]

Renata RogozińskaUniversity of Arts in Poznań


The subject of the article are Grzegorz Bednarski’s illustrations for the Book of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine, published in a new translation from Greek in 2008 by a publishig house Wydawnictwo św. Wojciecha in Poznań. The pictures deftly connect tradition with modernity, both when it comes to their style and their theological message. Contemporary theological criticism usually tries to free the interpretation of The Book of Revelation from the analyses which see it as a literal, frightening description of the end of the world, choosing to emphasize instead its supernatural and religious aspects. Nevertheless, thanks to the iconographic invention and the expressiveness of painting, as well as the inspiration from the works of old masters, including German ones, the discussed illustrations have not become a narrative of God “softened” and “smoothened” by the “new religiosity” which tones down the difficult message of the Bible in order to assuage the believers’ fear of punishment and give them hope for eternal life. Through decreasing the dramatic features of some illustrations and most importantly, through being ordered by the translator and the church publishing house to spare his readers the particular cruelty for which the chapters eight, nine, sixteen and eighteen are notorious, the Kraków painter makes his viewers face the angry God who declares a war against his enemies and subjugates them by fire and sword. The work of Grzegorz Bednarski, deeply rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, seems to grow out of the belief that fear of the Lord, which is incidentally one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, is both a permanent element of man’s attitude toward his Maker, and a positive and indispensable part of our spirituality.

keywords: modern art, The Book of Revelation, Grzegorz Bednarski


I will start with a personal recollection. When in the spring of 2006 Wydawnictwo św. Wojciecha [St Adalbert Publishing House] asked me for advice whom of our artists they could entrust with making illustrations for The Apocalypse of St John, I replied without hesitation: Grzegorz Bednarski, of course. His candidacy seemed just perfect. What spoke for it was the character of all of his previous work, which had already been inspired by this esoteric book. There was, still fresh in my memory, the painting that was visionary and great not only by virtue of its size: Święty Jan na wyspie Patmos zjada książeczkę Wszechrzeczy podaną przez Anioła [St John eating the book of all things given him by an angel on Patmos island] (2000–2003) from the series Personifikacje [Personifications], exhibited in Galeria U Jezuitów” in Poznań in 2004.

In common understanding of the word “apocalypse”, it has strongly negative connotations. Synonyms of the adjective “apocalyptic”, found on the Internet, are: frightening, horrifying, terrible, horrible, monstrous, ghastly, horrid, macabre. They can be successfully applied to describe the works of this artist from Krakow, their catastrophic-surrealist aura, as indeed has been done repeatedly. His art has from the beginning been a vanitative-apocalyptic in its character, full of disclosed emotions, convulsion-torn bodies, tools of torture. Both in the debut series of paintings created in the turbulent years of the martial law in Poland (Wielkie metafizyki [Great metaphysics], Ni mas ni menos), and in the cycles initiated at the very end of the 1990s (Popielec [Ash Wednesday], Hedonista maluje Ukrzyżowanie [A Hedonist paints the Crucifixion], Personifikacje [Personifications]), the reality presented is undergoing far-reaching degradation, showing the most cruel, desperate dimensions of human destiny. This is the painting of the human condition, given that the term conditio suggests “a state of chronic suffering, which one must learn to endure”[1]. While demonstrating sensitivity to the beauty of the world in its phenomenal form, the still lives painted by Bednarski are imbued with an atmosphere of transience and quiet despair, too. “The entire human life is one big martyrdom”, said Jerzy Nowosielski in 1995. “This is the exercise of the death sentence in installments. [...] Because what is life. Life means waiting in the torture cell. These tortures are deferred, graduated, then there are more and more until there comes a moment of execution”[2]. But while Nowosielski – through specific measures inspired by the Orthodox icon painting – “transforms evil into good”, elevating it to a higher level of the so-called “metahistory”[3], Bednarski, who has similar sensitivity, shows it without any embellishments. He reaches both for the iconographic tradition of the Baroque, which had a predilection for images of martyrdom, and for the language of contemporary painting, which does not refrain from the most brutal and surreal decomposition of reality.

Yet The Book of the Apocalypse is not only a unique metaphysical thriller, full of images of extraordinary, inconceivable cruelty. It is also, and above all, a book of hope for an unusual, bright future, the new Jerusalem, eternal happiness in God’s kingdom. As a testimony to the special mystical religious experience, ecstasy and vision, it is of both epistolary and pastoral nature, as it was addressed to particular Christian communities subjected to persecution. St John wrote to them to show them the threat and the terrifying dimensions of the ongoing fight against the followers of Christ, but also to infuse them with courage and optimism by revealing the final victory of the Lamb.[4] Similarly, the painting cycles of the author of Personifikacje, focusing on the scandal of existence, lived and depicted (as befits an expressionist) in a way that is exaggerated, not free from pathos and exaltation, are not entirely embedded in the ghetto of the mundane reality, understood as trivial, materialistic. On the contrary, they remain in their own way open to the eschatological perspective, revealing the supernatural status of the human existence, understood in the spirit of Christianity, in accordance with the author’s outlook. They are an expression of rebellion of the artist’s manifesting his protest both against stripping the world of its higher, sacred sense, and against its nostalgic idealization, hiding the sense of fear, helplessness and the absurd. Thus, religious literature has always been an extremely important source of inspiration for him: The Bible, apocrypha and hagiography, in which there is room not only for hope, love, beauty, but also for the world full of blood and wounds. These literary influences are often treated with by Bednarski with much liberty, in a way that is extremely personal and full of fantasy, but also with deep reflection and respect for their enduring value.

Translated by Agnieszka Gicala

[1] A. Bielik-Robson, Inna nowoczesność. Pytania o współczesną formułę duchowości, Kraków 2000, p. 8.

[2] K. Czerni, Rozmowa z Jerzym Nowosielskim, in: Album Krakowskiej Sztuki, a programme on TVP Kraków broadcast in 1995 (production A. Kornecki).

[3] Cf.: R. Rogozińska, Ikona w sztuce XX wieku, Kraków 2009, pp. 288 ff.

[4] D. Mollat SJ, Apokalipsa dzisiaj, transl. into Polish by J. Zychowicz, Kraków 1992, p. 22.

[5] Apokalipsa świętego Jana Apostoła, Poznań 2008.

[6] The exhibitions took place in the Galeria Środowisk Twórczych in Bielsko-Biała (April 2009) and in the “Lipowa 13” Gallery in Lublin (June 2010).

[7] In: M. Kitowska, Powolne czytanie malowideł, in: Grzegorz Bednarski, “Galeria U Jezuitów” [exhibition catalogue], Poznań 2004, no pagination.

[8] F. Carey, The Apocalypse and shape of things to come, British Museum [exhibition catalogue], London 1999, p. 270.

[9] P. Ostański, Objawienie Jezusa Chrystusa, Ząbki 2005, p. 246.

[10] Ibidem, p. 246.

[11] Ibidem, p. 279.

[12] “Grzegorz Bednarski is a bit of a maniac. A maniac, or maybe even a missionary, of meaningful painting – paintings made ‘for a reason’, for a significant reason and for a significant purpose, images that are from the non-autonomous on principle”, aptly concludes M. Kitowska in the catalogue of Bednarski’s exhibition, quoted above – Kitowska 2004 (ft. 8).

[13] Ostański 2005 (ft. 10), p. 33.

[14] J. K. Pytel, Zasady interpretacji Apokalipsy, in: Apokalipsa 2008 (ft. 6), p. 15.

[15] Let us note, for example, that the eminent Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar sees the devastating plagues sent to sinners as “the anguish of sin itself”,and says that the punishments that precede the Last Judgement “boil down largely to that which people exert on themselves by their betrayal of God, and even to the self-destruction of creatures”. As a result, “the evil imposes a punishment on itself (see numerous psalms), while any punishment coming from God is meted out with love and seeks to improve” – H. U. von Balthasar, in: Księga Baranka. Medytacje nad Apokalipsą św. Jana, transl. into Polish by W. Szymona OP, Kraków 2005, pp. 71, 12, 72 [translation of the above passages into English – A. Gicala].

[16] E. Ehrlich, Apokalipsa. Księga pocieszenia, Poznań 1996, pp. 7–8.

[17] Cf. W. Hryniewicz OMI, “Miłosierdzia chcę, a nie ofiary”, in: “Tygodnik Powszechny”, 2001, no. 12, p. 17.

[18] Cf. W. Hryniewicz OMI, Piękno i siła nadziei, in: “Znak”, 2002, no. 561, p. 13–34.

[19] Hope for the Apocastasis, strongly seeking to be heard in the Eastern Church, has not been reflected in the official theology of the Roman Catholic Church.Benedict XVI explicitly refers in his Encyclical Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope) to the existence of hell and its eternity. It is his authority made the Christian West remove the perspective of the universality of salvation from its search. Benedict XVI said: “Grace does not cancel justice. [...] It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that eventually what you did on earth would as a result always have the same value”, Encyclical Spe Salvi, promulgated and published on 30 November 2007 (cited from www.vatican.va ). The traditional doctrine of hell, which is part of the catechism of the Catholic Church, speaks about it in a similar way.

[20] Inna twarz Hioba. Ze Stefanem Chwinem rozmawiają Katarzyna Janowska i Piotr Mucharski, in: “Tygodnik Powszechny”, 1999, no. 47, p. 8.

[21] M. Gryczyński, Zrozumieć przesłanie Apokalipsy, in: “Przewodnik Katolicki”, 2008, no. 28 (www.przk.pl).

[22] According to Wallis’ terminology, cf. M. Wallis, Przeżycie i wartość. Pisma z estetyki i nauki o sztuce 1931–1949, Kraków 1968, p. 188.

[23] Ostański 2005 (ft. 10), p. 262.

[24] Ibidem, p. 234.

[25] Ibidem, p. 250.

[26] R. Otto, Świętość, tłum. B. Kupis, Wrocław 1993, p. 42 [English version of the quotation after: R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy: an inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea ofthe divine and its relation to the rational, transl. by J.W. Harvey, London 1931].

[27] Ostański 2005 (ft. 10), p. 81.

[28] J. K. Pytel, Zbawcze przesłanie Apokalipsy dla Kościoła, in: Apokalipsa 2008 (ft. 6), p. 138. A similar interpretation can be found in the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar: “Wrath of the Lamb is as big as the anger of the Father; however, to reconcile the world with God, Jesus drinks the cup of the wrath of God down to the bottom, removes the agony and anguish of God abandoned by sinners, takes all the guilt of his brothers, people, and thus puts an end to the anger of God” – von Balthasar 2005 (ft. 16), p. 71.

[29] G. Duby, Czasy katedr, transl. into Polish by K. Dolatowska, Warszawa 1986, p. 67 [English version: G. Duby, The Age of the Cathedrals: Art and Society 980–1420, transl. by E. Levieux and B. Thompson, University of Chicago Press, 1983, p. 53].

[30] S. Kierkegaard, Pojęcie lęku, transl. into Polish by A. Djakowska, Warszawa, 1996, p. 50 [English version of the quotation after: S. Kierkegaard, The Concept of Dread, transl. by W. Lowrie, Princeton 1944].

[31] Ibidem, p. 188 [quotation not found in the English version – transl. into English by A. Gicala]

[32] Mollat 1992 (ft. 5), p. 5.

[33] Fr. Pytel’s words as quoted in: Gryczyński 2008 (ft. 22).

[34] W. Kilar, Święte słowa, in: “Tygodnik Powszechny”, 1999, no. 3–4 (supplement “Kontrapunkt”, p. II).

The full text of the article was published in the pages of "Sacrum et Decorum" III, 2010. Please send your orders to the University of Rzeszów Publishers or activate an electronic subscription.