A Memorial by Cyprian Godebski over the Ocean, a Swan Song of Academic Religious Sculpture

Andrzej PieńkosUniversity of Warsaw, Warsaw


Cyprian Godebski is the author of numerous monuments and tombstones, among others in Austria, Belgium and Russia, but he worked primarily in France. His works can be found in Paris (the best known among them are the headstones of H. Berlioz and Th. Gautier), Monte Carlo and Brittany. Probably the biggest extant work by Godebski, little known in Poland, is the stone group Madone des naufragés [Our Lady of the Shipwrecked] on the Atlantic promontory Pointe du Raz in the westernmost region of Brittany. Godebski, who spent most of his life in France, was connected with numerous ties to this region. Apart from this group, the most visible of this relationship is the bronze monument to general A. Le Flô, Godebski’s friend from St. Petersburg (the general was a French ambassador there) in the main square in Lesneven near Brest (1899).

Our Lady of the Shipwrecked (1901), commissioned from Godebski by Count de Trobriand, was going to be a private memorial to local sailors, modelled on several similar ex-votos on the shores of Brittany. However, the republican departmental authorities did not issue a permit to erect a religious monument in a public place. The refusal of the authorities was connected with the approaching decision about the separation between Church and state in France. The conflict was particularly severe in Brittany, which was considered the stronghold of traditional Catholicism, but it was also the home country of the philosopher Ernest Renan, an Anti-Christ in the eyes of some right-wing circles. The conflict escalated in 1903, when the so-called sardine crisis hit very badly Breton fishermen and various political camps, including the Catholic Church, tried to use it to expand their influence. Finally Godebski’s sculpture was erected thanks to the determination of the Bishop of Quimper, to whom it was presented by the artist as a votive sculpture in memory of his son’s death in Tonkin. Our Lady of the Shipwrecked was created in 1901–1903 in Carrara. The ceremonial inauguration of the figure, accompanied by a Mass, took place on 3rd July 1904. It was attended by approximately 20 – 30 000 pilgrims and the bishop attending the celebration paid tribute to Godebski.

Madone des naufragés follows ancient tradition of placing crosses and religious figures on mountain tops and coastal rocks. We can find a particularly large number of colossal religious figures in the French sculpture of the 19th century, especially from the period of the religious awakening supported by the government of the Second Empire. Our Lady of the Shipwrecked differs, however, from the huge statues of the Virgin Mary erected at that time in France through its strong realism and lack of obvious allusions to Romanesque, Gothic or Baroque depictions.

In contrast to his predecessors, the creators of large, static allegories or saints’ figures, Godebski portrayed almost a genre scene. However, what makes Our Lady of the Shipwrecked special, are the non-artistic factors described above. It was erected in the heat of the political and religious fight in France, when the secular Republic was on an anti-Church offensive, leading to fundamental legal decisions. Did the artistic concept of the sculpture, including the undoubtedly most interesting solution of the emotional tension between the sailor and the child Jesus was consciously adopted by Godebski because of this conflict? We do not know that.

The creation of the sculpture was initiated by lay people, but finally it was executed under the patronage of the Church, and it eventually turned into a new place of worship of the Virgin Mary in Brittany.

keywords: Cyprian Godebski, religious sculpture, academic art, Great Emigration, Brittany, ex-voto


Cyprian Godebski is the author of monuments scattered across many countries of Europe, including the memorials to Aleksander Fredro and Nicolaus Copernicus in Krakow, Adam Mickiewicz in Warsaw, Agenor Gołuchowski in Lvov, the imperial marshals Laudon and de Lacy in Vienna’s Arsenal, Gratitude to France in the Polish school in Batignolles in Paris, Adrien-François Servais in Halle near Brussels; tombstones, such as that of count Matwiej Wielhorski and actor Vasily Samoilov in St Petersburg, Hector Berlioz, Constantin Guys and Théophile Gautier, in the cemeteries of Paris; allegorical decorations of the Invalides House buildings in Lvov and the Casino de Monte-Carlo. It is not known whether the great monuments of the liberation of Peru in Lima and the Battle of Sevastopol in the Crimea, designed by him (and in most biographies recognized as completed), have ever been made. However, it is certainly known that the statues of Franz Liszt in Weimar and Henri Vieuxtemps in the Belgian Verviers (in most biographies also considered to be completed) have not been made. The works and the life of one of the most famous late nineteenth-century Poles, Misia Godebska’s father and grandson of another Cyprian, a hero of Napoleon’s epic and a poet, who had fallen in the battle of Raszyn, still hide many secrets.[1]

Possibly the largest surviving sculpture by Godebski, and certainly one of the most forgotten Polish works, is the stone group sculpture Madone des naufragés [Madonna of the shipwrecked] [Fig. 1, 5–7], standing on the Atlantic cape Pointe du Raz in the department of Finistère, the foremost west region of Brittany.[2] The place, a jagged spur of rock with a height of several meters, which continues into the ocean in the form of a few wild islands, is characterized by raw beauty (almost no vegetation except lichens and heather), an eloquent witness to the threatening presence of the ocean. Godebski’s sculpture is the only object there apart from the lighthouse and the buildings of the military station.

Translated by Agnieszka Gicala

[1] Cf. dictionary entries: A. Ryszkiewicz, Godebski Cyprian, in: Słownik artystów polskich i w Polsce działających, vol. 2, Wrocław 1971, p. 379–384, K. Mikocka-Rachubowa, Godebski Cyprian, in: Saur Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon, vol. 56, Munich–Leipzig 2007, p. 389–390. All is still totally unclear about e.g. Godebski’s French investments, i.e. ceramics factory in Fontainebleau, his own or leased quarries in the Pyrenees or the status of his grand houses in Paris. The state of research on Godebski’s place in the Parisian and the Polish émigré artistic life of the era also remains scarce. The dissertation by Małgorzatat Dąbrowska-Szelągowska Les sculpteurs polonais et la France 1887–1918 (written at Université Paris X) has not been published. The activity of dozens of Polish sculptors working in the nineteenth century in France has so far been the subject of only two, very preliminary articles: Rzeźbiarze polscy w Paryżu, 1830–1914, by K. Mikocka-Rachubowa, in: Między Polską a światem. Od średniowiecza po lata II wojny światowej, Warszawa 1993, pp. 171–199, and the present author’s Paris foyer de la sculpture européenne. La contribution polonaise, in: “Ikonotheka” 14, 2000, p. 89–122. The first attempt to outline the artist’s activity in France is the article by J. Chrzanowska-Pieńkos, A. Pieńkos, Dzieła Godebskiego, in: “Spotkania z zabytkami”, 1994, No. 6, p. 38–39.

[2] Archival research and finding this object were made possible for the present author thanks to a grant from the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education: “Cyprian Godebski. The model career of a Parisian sculptor”. The author extends special thanks to those without whom that research would nothave been possible in such a wide range: Yann Celton of Archives diocesains in Quimper, Małgorzata Leguellec-Dąbrowska of the Musée Départamental Breton in Quimper, Françoise Danielle of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Brest. Godebski’s relations to Brittany were for the first time examined by S. Pisarska-Leclère, Un Polonais en Finistère, in: “Art de l’Ouest”, 1993, p. 214–221. The catalogue of an exhibition devoted to Polish painters in Brittany (Les peintres polonais en Bretagne 1890–1939, Quimper 2004), mentions Godebski’s relationships with the region only briefly (pp. 11, 126–127).

[3] The idea to raise a monument to the General was proposed to the Council of Lesneven by Godebski himself, having learned – after the friend’s death – of an idea of commemorating him in the town. Work began in 1896 so this is a sculpture contemporary with his monument to Mickiewicz in Warsaw, and indeed much better artistically. In addition to the excellent characteristics of the soldier and diplomat (among Godebski’s works, it is comparable perhaps only with the face and stature of his father-in-law, Servais, in his monument in Halle), it is an interesting arrangement of scenes in bas-relief on the pedestal, depicting Le Flô’s deeds, that attracts attention.

[4] Quoted by: F. Tanter, Notre-Dame-des-Naufragés à la Pointe du Raz, in: Chretientés de Basse-Bretagne et d’ailleurs. Les archives au risque de l’Histoire. Mélanges offerts au chanoine J.-F. Le Floch, ed. Y. Celton et al., Quimper, 1998, p. 345. This sketch has not been found, the members of that committee are not known, either. The origin of Godebski’s concept, reaching the beginning of his work, also remains unclear. It is already in 1875 that the artist exhibited in Warsaw a sculpture of Madonna and Child, supposedly destined for Brittany: “[...] the draft statue of Virgin Mary with baby Jesus, to be made for Brittany, 40 feet in size, recommends itself by the extraordinary idea. The Virgin kneels with one knee slightly raised, in a furrowed coat, leaning forward, holding in both hands the Divine Infant that has a serene, pleasant face and seems to bless the world with both hands. Let us imagine this huge, bronze statue on a church on a rock over the ocean, when the golden aureola of Virgin Mary reflects the last rays of the sun, and we will understand that the impression must be unexprimable” –  Władysław Bartkiewicz wrote then (after the exhibition) in “Bluszcz”, 1875, No. 26, p. 205.

[5] The unveiling on September 14, 1903, of his monument, designed by Jean Boucher, in his hometown Tréguier next to the cathedral, also caused a lot of tension throughout the region. Father Millon, a writer and an archaeologist from Rennes, referred to it on the occasion of a ceremony at Pointe du Raz: “Facing the monument to the author of La Vie de Jesus, so insulting to Christ, one should place the Calvary, in Pointe du Raz, in this land watered by so many maternal tears, one should place the image of the one whose name, full of hope, all of our sailors do not cease to call upon: Stella Maris” (quoted in: D. Giacobi, Autour de la statue de Renan, in: “Les Cahiers de l’Iroise” 154, 1992, avril–juin, p. 37).

[6] Cf. K. Mikocka-Rachubowa, Scultori polacchi a Firenze nella seconda e Carrara meta dell’Ottocento, in: Carrara e il mercato della sculture, ed. S. Berresford, Milano 2007, p. 234. The enquiry in the Archivio di Stato in Massa, central for the region, and Accademia in Carrara, as well as consultations with local experts on the subject, have unfortunately not confirmed any of these tracks. The works by Godebski in Carrara is, of course, mentioned in the sources of that time, in the National Museum in Warsaw, and there are also photographs of him in the local quarries.

[7] On the pedestal, there is a metal foundation plaque attached in an ornamental frame, with the inscription: “This statue, the work and the gift the sculptor Godebski, was erected thanks to the efforts of His Eminence Francois-Virgile Dubillard, through devotion of his dear faithful of the diocese, to the glory of the Patroness of Sailors on the Jubilee of the Immaculate Conception, and as a testimony of gratitude for Catholic charity in times of the sardine crisis (1903), was blessed and unveiled by His Eminence Cardinal Laboure, in the presence of many bishops, priests and faithful, on July 3, 1904”.

[8] Details of the background of the origin of the sculpture and its unveiling were dutifully reported by Tanter 1998 (ft. 4), p. 343–346.

[9] Lettre pastorale de Monseigneur l’Evêque de Quimper et de Léon… annonçant l’érection de la Statue de Notre-Dame-des-Naufragés à la Pointe-du-Raz, Quimper, 1904, p. 11.

[10] This speech was thus summarized by an anonymous author of the booklet Inauguration benediction et de la statue de Notre-Dame-des-Naufragés a la Pointe-du-Raz, Quimper 1904 (a special supplement to “La Semaine religieuse” of 8 July 1904), p. 13. It is the only record of the contents of this speech, in which there is an interesting theme of Breton independence, surprising in the mouth of usually quite conservative Godebski.

[11] So far, we have been unable to find any trace of them or confirm the attribution.

[12] This story is not clear. Misia Godebska, whose diaries are not a particularly reliable source, complained of the artist neglecting paternal responsibilities towards her as well as his other children. Ernest was, according to her, to have got into bad company and was subsequently confined in a boarding school, then sent (as a penalty?) to work in overseas colonies and die in Tonkin (the name of the northern province of Vietnam under French protection, today’s Bac-Bo). So was the dedication made by the sculptor associated with an act of expiation when saw his guilt as a father?

[13] In which he clearly surpassed his teacher in Paris, a renowned academic sculptor, François Jouffroy.

[14] Lettre pastorale 1904 (ft. 9), p. 13.

[15] There is very rich literature concerning the complex question of realism in sculpture. See especially: B. Foucart, Emmanuel Frémiet, le réalisme clinique, in: “Beaux-Arts Magazine” 66, 1989, mars, pp. 39–43; C. Chevillot, Réalisme optique et progrès esthétique: la fin d’un rêve, in: “Revue de l’art” 104, 1992, no. 2, p. 22–29. See also: A. Pieńkos, „Zbyt wiele rzeczywistości”. Uwagi o paranoi XIX-wiecznego realizmu, in: Rzeczywistość. Realizm. Reprezentacja. Materiały seminarium metodologicznego Stowarzyszenia Historyków Sztuki. Nieborów, 26–28 października 2000, ed. M. Poprzęcka, Warszawa 2001, pp. 99–114.

[16] Note that many years earlier, in a work depicting two French soldiers from the war in 1870, Godebski had presented a similarly static composition, with an inner dramatism expresses in gestures of care in one of the figures (a group of bronze in the Polish Library in Paris). Similar direction can be seen in sculptures of groups of people designed by other artists for the commemoration of that war, for example, in Louis-Ernest Barrias’ monument Defense of Saint-Quentin in 1870 (1881, has not survived) or in the sculpture by Antonin Mercié Quand Même! (Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek) – both works stately France-Marianne rescues a falling soldier.

[17] Cf. among others: L. Nochlin, Realizm, transl. into Polish by W. Juszczak and T. Przestępski, Warszawa 1974, pp. 73–77 [English version: Harmondsworth, 1975]; M.P. Driskel, Representing Belief: Religion, Art and Society in the 19th Century France, Pennsylvania State University, 1992. About the complex conditions of “religious realism” in the art of the late nineteenth century I wrote in: Okropności sztuki. Nowoczesne obrazy rzeczy ostatecznych, Gdańsk 2000, chapter Cierpienie Chrystusa i walka o realizm, pp. 196–210.

[18] Information about the anniversary celebration along with photographic documentation: www.plogoff-pointeduraz.com/documents/statuenotredamedesnaufrages accessed on 27 Sept. 2010.

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.