The motif of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the work of Janina Karczewska-Konieczna and Janina Stefanowicz-Schmidt

Grażyna Ryba

University of Rzeszów


The oeuvre of two Gdańsk-based female sculptors, Janina Stefanowicz-Schmidt and Janina Karczewska-Konieczna, abounds in religious themes. In the 1980s, the artists created bronze door decorations for new churches in Gdańsk-Wrzeszcz (Stefanowicz) and the city of Puri in India (Karczewska), both focused on the theme of the Tree of Knowledge and surrounded it with biblical scenes. The complex, interesting iconography of these works was the direct result of the artists’ cooperation with a number of religious figures of superior skill and personality, religious scholars and social activists. The analysis of story behind these two projects is an important contribution to the study of women’s sacred art; it also helps illuminate the mechanisms of cooperation between artists and religious figures in the process of creating religious art.

Keywords: Janina Stefanowicz-Schmidt, Janina Karczewska-Konieczna, Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, bronze church door, contemporary sacred sculpture, Gdańsk


The feminist current in art history has largely passed over the issue of religious art created by women remaining under the influence of Christianity; instead, it has given centre stage to approaches that challenge anything even remotely related to Christian culture. Other schools, in turn, marginalize the question of gender or ignore it altogether. In order to arrive at a more objective and comprehensive picture of contemporary art by women artists, it is therefore well-advised to include a closer look at the oeuvre of those among them who have worked for the Church as well. These include two Gdańsk-based sculptors: Janina Stefanowicz-Schmidt (born in 1930) and Janina Karczewska-Konieczna (born in 1934).

In the 1980s, cultural life in Poland concentrated mainly around Church organizations. These provided the setting in which the two artists met with important people of faith, such as scholars and priests known for their contributions to local communities. The cooperation which ensued between them bore fruit in the form of two bronze church door decorations, both of which address the well-known iconographic motif of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. The interpretations are interesting both for formal and conceptual reasons.


In June 1982, the Pallottine Fathers laid the cornerstone of a new church in Gdańsk-Wrzeszcz, consecrated to Our Lady of Częstochowa.[1] The building and its decorations were completed three years later under the supervision of Father Eugeniusz Dutkiewicz (1947–2002),[2] one of the founding fathers of the hospice movement in Poland, member of the underground Solidarity Movement during the Martial Law, organizer of culture and animator of the independent television network in the Tri-city. The bas-reliefs of the interior were commissioned from the nearby atelier of Janina Karczewska-Konieczna. The sculptor could already boast of a number of prestigious awards to her name at that time and her renown extended well beyond the artistic milieu of Gdańsk.[3] At the Pallottine church, Karczewska made bas-reliefs for the presbytery, with original iconography depicting the biblical sower and the multiplication of bread, the altar resting on sheaves of grain, the Stations of the Cross, and a composition depicting the adoration of Our Lady of the Rosary.

In 1983, when the construction of the new Pallottine parish church was at its peak, Poland welcomed a visit from Father Marian Żelazek (1918–2006),[4] a Divine Word Missionary working with lepers in India, later nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his service to the poor, the sick, and the outcast. It is rather unlikely that the friar saw the new temple during his visit, but the extraordinary surge in church construction throughout Poland clearly did not escape his attention. In 1984, the Pallottine team was already putting the finishing touches to the interior of the church and Father Dutkiewicz embarked on his new hospice project (Hospicium Pallotinum).[5] Father Żelazek was back in India, building a church for a new leper colony recently established on the outskirts of the city of Puri. In a letter dated 14 December, addressed to the “friends of the mission” in Gdańsk, he wrote: “On a visit to my homeland, I saw all the beautiful churches that you are raising from the ground with your own effort. I would like to request your help in building another beautiful church – a church in Puri, India. It is, believe me, an important missionary task and you can become personally involved in the work”.[6] The appeal did not go unheeded; responses came from his own order and laypeople alike. Father Eugeniusz Śliwka (1952–2005)[7] was chosen to coordinate the project on behalf of the DWM order. Donations poured in from Poland, while in Puri assistance came from Polish miners, who were building a coal mine near Calcutta at the time.[8]

Translated by Urszula Jachimczak

[1] “After the war, in 1945, the Polish Pallottine Fathers […] settled in the barracks left behind by the Germans and erected the chapel of Our Lady of Częstochowa, consecrated on the 15th of July 1945. […] In the 1970s, they received an authorization to build a residential object, followed, in the next decade, by approval for the construction of a church. The construction began on the site of the former barracks-chapel in June 1982. On the 5th of December, the lower church was consecrated and the cornerstone blessed by the Holy Father John Paul II was laid. The building was completed in November 1985; the parish of Our Lady of Częstochowa had been established two months earlier. On the 3rd of September 1989, the church was officially consecrated by Bishop Tadeusz Gocławski”,,18 [accessed: 2 Sept. 2012].

[2] P. Krakowiak, A. Stolarczyk, Ks. Eugeniusz Dutkiewicz SAC. Ojciec ruchu hospicyjnego w Polsce, Gdańsk 2007; P. Krakowiak, Pośmiertne wspomnienie o ks. Eugeniuszu Dutkiewiczu SAC, „Gazeta AMG Gdańsk”, October 2002, [accessed: 2 Sept. 2012].

[3] The most important publications devoted to the work of Janina Karczewska-Konieczna include Janina Karczewska-Konieczna. Ceramika, ed. L. Bułakowska, Gdańsk 2010; B. Pospieszna, Między liryką a sacrum. Wystawa rzeźb Janiny Karczewskiej-Koniecznej, Malbork Castle Museum, Malbork 2006 (with a broad bibliography including exhibition catalogues). Janina Karczewska-Konieczna has created sculptures for the interior of many sacred structures (the Church of Our Lady of Częstochowa in Gdańsk, the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in Gdańsk, St Mary’s Basilica in Gdańsk, the Cathedral and the Church of St James in Oliwa, the Dominican Church in Warsaw, the Church of St Catherine in Braniewo, the Chapel of the Sisters of St Elizabeth in Gdynia-Orłowo, the chapel of the divinity school in Pęplin, the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Szczecin, the Shrine of the Virgin Mary in Borek Stary near Rzeszów, the Church of St Joseph and St Jude Thaddaeus in Rumia, the church in Gniewino, the Church of Our Lady of the Poor in Stanisławów near Nieporęt, the Church of the Assumption in Wąglikowice).

[4] Ojciec Marian Żelazek SVD Ojciec Trędowatych, ed. T. Szyszko SVD, Warszawa 2008; A. Smreczyńska-Gąbka, Ogród nadziei, Warszawa 2011.

[5] As in fn. 2.

[6] Elsewhere in the letter, the friar wrote: “In November 1983, I returned to India to start the 35th year of missionary work in my adopted homeland. When I first set foot in Puri in 1975, I felt like a solitary sailor in the middle of an ocean… Puri – the centre of Hinduism […] with its human wave of Hindu pilgrims flowing towards the Jagannath Temple. Ten thousand of them arrive each day. The hunger for God and salvation pushes them closer and closer towards the temple […]. Our missionary work with the lepers is meant as a conscious testimony to human dignity and the love of God for man. In 1979, we opened a Centre for the religious dialogue, where minds can meet in a joint reflection on the values of Hinduism and Christianity”, a photocopy of the letter in the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art at the University of Rzeszów.

[7] More information on Father Eugeniusz Śliwka can be found in: R. Czajka SVD, Niezmordowany animator, „Misjonarz” 2006, vol. 2, pp. 30–33.

[8] J. Krasicki, A. Sujka, Drogami miłosierdzia, Verbinum 2008.

[9] A photocopy of the letter is stored at the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art at the University of Rzeszów.

[10] Cf. fn. 6. Puri is one of the most important centres of Hindu worship, concentrated around the Jagannath Temple (O.M. Starza, The Jagannatha Temple at Puri: Its Architecture, Art, and Cult, Leiden 1993).

[11] A photocopy of the letter is stored at the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art at the University of Rzeszów.

[12] A photocopy of the letter is stored at the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art at the University of Rzeszów.

[13] A photocopy of the letter is stored at the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art at the University of Rzeszów.

[14] The above is a probable reconstruction of events based on available documents and conversations with the two artists, including a conversation with Janina Karczewska-Konieczna on 16 July 2012. It was not possible to obtain detailed information regarding the circumstances of the two projects. I wish to extend my thanks to both artists for granting me access to the sources in their possession and to Ms. Karczewska for her drawings and sculptures she donated to the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art.

[15] The religious works of Janina Stefanowicz-Schmidt: the Pensive Christa at St Mary’s Basilica in Gdańsk, the Stations of the Cross and the tabernacle at the Church of St Andrzej Bobola in Sopot, the bronze door of the Pallottine Church in Gdańsk, the design of the presbytery, sculptures of Christ and the angel, bas-reliefs Tree, Cross, Sun at the Church of the Resurrection in Gdańsk, the Stations of the Cross at the Church of St Bernard in Sopot. The artist won the first prize at the exhibition entitled “Contemporary Art Inspired by the Christianity”. She was a member of the Pro Arte Sacra Foundation (Tradycja i współczesność. Akademia Sztuk Pięknych w Gdańsku 1945–2005, ed. W. Zmorzyński, pp.154–155).

[16] A photocopy of the letter is stored at the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art at the University of Rzeszów.

[17] Based on a private conversation with Janina Karczewska-Konieczna on 16 July 2012.

[18] Professor Marek Starowieyski (ur. 1937), a prolific scholar of patrology; Professor Janusz Stanisław Pasierb (19291993), art historian, poet, essayist; Eugeniusz Śliwka, PhD (1952–2005), missionary, theologian and Church historian; Jan Wojciech Góra, PhD (ur. 1948), theologian and university chaplain.

[19] Ibidem.

[20] “The bronze art foundry was established in Pleszów in 1976. In 1980, Julisz Kwieciński received the title of a „Master of Arts and Crafts” from the Ministry of Art and Culture, and seven years later the title of Plastic Sculpture Artist specializing in artistic metal casting”, [accessed: 3 Oct. 2012].

[21] A photocopy of the invitation is stored at the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art at the University of Rzeszów.

[22] As in fn. 9.

[23] Janina Karczewska. Wyposażenie świątyni katolickiej Niepokalanego Poczęcia Najświętszej Marii Panny w Puri (Indie), introduction and commentary by Marek Starowieyski, Pieniężno 1989.

[24] A copy is stored in the private collection of the artist.

[25] The dimensions of the central wings are 304 × 140 cm; of the extreme – 304 × 120 cm.

[26] As in fn. 16.

[27] Ibidem.

[28] Cf.: Ks. M. Starowieyski, Apokryfy Nowego Testamentu: Ewangelie apokryficzne, Warszawa 1980, p. 145.

[29] “in a symbolic sense, they can be treated as one” (M. Lurker, Słownik obrazów i symboli biblijnych, Poznań 1989, p. 49).

[30] As in fn. 16; cf. J. Machniak, Bóg i człowiek w poezjach i dramatach Karola Wojtyły – Jana Pawła II, Kraków 2007, p. 98.

[31] When closed, the inner wings form a 280 × 280 cm square; the plaques are 280 cm high and 165 cm wide.

[32] “I must say at the very outset that I am not a sculptor, but a painter by profession”, confessed the artist in an interview given to Janusz Janowski on 23 June 2010, [accessed: 5 Sept. 2012].

[33] Father Starowieyski’s term (1989, as in fn. 23, fig. 39).

[34] Ibidem, commentary to fig. 38.

[35] Ibidem, commentary to figs. 42–47.

[36]Und wenn ich falle…” : Begegnung mit Werken des Bildhauers Toni Zenz, ed. F. Hemmes, Freiburg im Breisgau 1986.

[37] Basic information about the artist can be found on: [accessed: 22 Sept. 2012].

[38] Basic information about the artist can be found on: www.knagatani.comKopiaPodobne [accessed: 22 Sept. 2012].

[39] Cf. fn. 29.

[40] The issue of the formal and conceptual aspects of contemporary bronze door art is addressed in: J. Madeyski, Tarnowskie drzwi brązowe. Pomnik Męczeństwa Narodów, Tarnów 1987;  W. Lippa, Brązowe drzwi katedry opolskiej, “Liturgia Sacra” XII, 2007, vol. 1, pp. 113–122; J. Madeyski, Bronisław Chromy, Kraków 2008, pp. 57–58, 62–63; G. Ryba, Tajemniczy model krakowski i włoskie projekty Bronisława Chromego, “Sacrum et Decorum. Materiały i studia z historii sztuki sakralnej” III, 2010, pp. 21–43; eadem, Oświęcimskie drzwi z brązu. Przyczynek do ikonografii św. Maksymiliana Kolbe, in: Limen expectationis. Księga ku czci śp. ks. prof. dr. hab. Zdzisława Klisia, eds. J. Urban, A. Witko, Kraków 2012, pp. 299–310; eadem, Na granicy rzeczywistości. Mistyk, droga poznania mistycznego i artysta współczesny, in: Fides ex visu. Okiem mistyka, ed. A. Kramiszewska, Lublin 2012, pp. 241–264; the publications mentioned include further references to specialist literature.

[41] Starowieyski 1989 (fn. 23), “Wprowadzenie”.

[42] Archives of the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk, personal file of Janina Stefanowicz-Schmidt.

[43] Cf. fn. 3.

[44] Interview with Janusz Janowski on 23 June 2010, [accessed: 5 Sept. 2012], cf. fn. 31.

[45] Magdalena Schmidt-Góra, a sculptor, scholar at the Department of Sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk; Katarzyna Konieczna-Kałużna, a ceramic artist, see: Dwie bezcenne damy z pasją, “Kultura i Sztuka. Megazin”,…/janina-karczewska-konieczna-i-katarzyna-konieczna-kałuzna [accessed: 5 Sept. 2012].

[46] Medal at the 4th Biennale of Sacred Art in Gorzów in 1990. The jury was chaired by J. Pasierb; the participants included Magdalena Abakanowicz.

[47] Parafia Zmartwychwstania Pańskiego w Gdańsku, ed. A. Pałucha, Gdańsk 2001, pp. 92–95.

[48] Stefan Duda CR, Rzeźba Drzewa Nowego Życia w kościele Zmartwychwstania Pańskiego w Gdańsku, Gdańsk,  9 Apr. 2000 (a photocopy of the sermon is available at the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art at the University of Rzeszów).

[49] Interview with the artist on 16 July 2012.

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