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Renata RogozińskaUniversity of Arts in Poznań

Abstract:

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

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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.

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It is the artist’s devotion to the ordering categories of the Judeo-Christian tradition concentrated, as if in a lens, in the inspired visions of a the prisoner of Patmos, that made him respond enthusiastically to the proposal of the publishing house. Two years later, a beautiful edition of The Apocalypse of St John, newly translated from Greek by Fr. Prof. Kanty Pytel, a biblical scholar from Poznań, and illustrated by Grzegorz Bednarski, appeared in bookstores.[5] Finis coronat opus – one might add, in conclusion, if not for the acute want accompanying this valuable editorial initiative. Due to a lack of adequate promotion, both of the book itself and of the paintings made for it, they have remained a little-known work. The original watercolours, purchased by the publishing house together with the copyright, were given the Archdiocesal Museum in Poznań but in fact they have been put away ad acta, that is: buried somewhere in the storage room. Two modest exhibitions in art galleries in Lublin and Bielsko-Biała were able to serve their popularization only in a limited way.[6] I am therefore using the opportunity to present this unprecedented work of sacred art, which revives the language of religious symbols and their fading meanings.

Transhistorical faithfulness to The Lamb’s Book of Life

Naturally, contemporary illustrators of The Bible largely differ from their venerable predecessors. Its visual setting is usually modest, sometimes even ascetic, which is consistent with the purist tendencies of the twentieth-century art. On the other hand, it can have an experimental and individualistic character. It does not want to be treated solely in terms of the Biblia Pauperum, teach the truths of faith as objectified and approachable. Released from didacticism and literalness, it is more of a creative commentary, interpretation, travesty, rather than artistic “carbon copy” of the biblical text. It says more about the artist and his or her times than about the subject of artistic reflection itself. The observed tendency towards artistic subjectivism, containment, autotelicity, is difficult to reconcile with the requirements of the art of illustration. After all, not only does “illustrate” [Latin: illustro] mean “honor” and even “become famous”, but above all “make clear”, “explain”.

Bednarski’s illustrations, complying with the style which he has followed for many years in his paintings, do not fit – of course – in the circle of the purist tendency. They are characterized by features well-known from his earlier paintings: deformation and fragmentation of human figures, poses and gestures full of emotion, a wealth of motifs seemingly randomly scattered on the surface, and in fact subject to the rigors of the structure and composition, disturbed proportions, overlapping multiple angles of perspective, contrasts of vast coloured fields with a strong chromatic saturation, here taking on symbolic meanings, sharp lines. All these characteristics reveal the artist’s exuberant temperament: “[…] I cannot stop my soul from a rush of emotions” – the painter wrote twenty years ago and that statement has not ceased to be valid.[7] On the other hand, these expressive images, entangled in a personal perception of the dilemmas of existence and an individual way of graphic articulation, and thus revealing empathy and a deep understanding of the content illustrated, are free from the wiles of exuberant graphic extravagance and excessive freedom of interpretation, characteristic of many of the existing works by this artiSt As is commonly known, many adaptations of the classics, especially in illustrative art, film and theater, consist nowadays in its “modernization” – which usually means cramming historical works in contemporary realities. The fashionable rush towards modernization has not spared The Apocalypse, omnipresent in the culture of the West, seen today mostly through the prism of twentieth-century disasters. This usually entails its desacralization, strips it of its message of love and hope for eternal life. In numerous works of the last two centuries the Inferno on earth was read without the prospect of Paradiso. “Cancel my subscription to the resurrection”, the legendary singer Jim Morrison sang in the song The End, resounding in Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now. Natural science, technology, politics or the arts are regarded as those which provide alternative forms of eschatological destiny, promising both disaster and rebirth.[8]

I do not suggest thus that the historicizing interpretations of The Apocalypse inevitably lead one astray, serve the messianization or – conversely – bestialization of our times. While maintaining an appropriate balance, they can point to its timeless and universal character. After all, all commentators of The Apocalypse agree that this is a prophetic book, containing the “everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” (Apoc. 14:6).

It seems that it was its transhistorical and extrahistorical character that Grzegorz Bednarski had in mind when making allusions to the modern times, sometimes even to his own biography, especially in scenes that are more than others symbolically open to the future. The people depicted in them are always dressed in contemporary clothes. In the illustration Aniołowie powściągają huragany, umożliwiając naznaczenie sług Bożych pieczęcią [Angels hold the winds, allowing the sealing of the servants of God] (Apoc. 7:1–4) the chosen ones are marked with Sigillum, which protects them by God’s power [Fig. 1]. The entire chapter is about the future victory of the Church, gathering people of “every nation, and kindred, and tongue”. In turn, in the picture Bestia z morza – symbol przemocy [The beast out of the sea a symbol of violence] (Apoc. 13:1–18) they find themselves between the beast out of the sea and the beast out of the earth [Fig. 2]. The former one, in accordance with the accepted interpretation, is the symbol of political power, the latter one – of spiritual power. They will find their embodiment “in various regimes and totalitarianisms with a pagan political structure, and in lust for power and honor reaching the point of absurdity”.[9] It is no wonder that the above-mentioned chapter has always created a strong temptation of modernization, to which fortunately Bednarski has turned out to be immune. The facial features of the beast have been given to Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, while the Soviet Union has been associated with the Grand Babylon, and our times have been called the epoch of the AntichriSt And another example: the illustration Wielka Nierządnica z pucharem obrzydliwości [The Great Harlot with the cup of abominations] (Apoc. 17:1–18) shows a dismal housing estate in the same colour as the content of the cup held by the wanton woman [Fig. 3], drunk “with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Apoc. 17:6). In a special way this is related to verse eighteen, pointing to ancient Rome: “And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth”. However, as in the prophetic and eschatic perspective Rome is the portent of the countries that will destroy the Church under the influence of Satan-Dragon, this desert landscape of a modern city (the desert in The Bible symbolizes, among other things, the reality devoid of a relationship to God) can be read as an allusion to the reality of Poland in the communist era, or, more broadly, to today’s world, mired in a “spiritual catastrophe”. The term “fornication” does not, in fact, have only the literal meaning. In The Old Testament the metaphor of prostitution referred to the pagan worship.[10]

Three illustrations are “signed with” Bednarski’s self-portrait. The most puzzling scene is Przemija świat zła – nadchodzi Nowe Jeruzalem [The world of evil is passing New Jerusalem is coming] [Fig. 4], in which the face of the artist, significantly multiplied, fills almost the entire space of the damned (Apoc. 21:1–8). It has the green color, which in The Apocalypse symbolizes death.[11] In the eighth verse we read that there belong “the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars […]. which is the second death” (Apoc. 21:8). A truly „sense-creating” nature of Bednarski’s painting, marked with earnestness, seriousness and profound deliberation, precludes the role of chance and does not allow treatment of the scene, and in particular of its lower, very personal fragment, in terms of a joke (an unrefined joke, we might add)[12]. However, foregoing investigation of specific meanings rooted, perhaps, in the artist’s biography, let us treat it as a sign, not the first and probably not the last one, of existential pessimism, that makes him look at the human drama as gloomily as on his own.

The fear of fear

Writing about the faithfulness of Grzegorz Bednarski’s illustration to the underlying passages of The Bible (which is not undermined by the subtle undercurrents remaining, after all, in line with the prophetic nature of St John’s book), one should ask, however, if it is only the faithfulness „to the letter,” or also an interpretation. The Apocalypse was written in a symbolic, and therefore ambiguous, language, giving free rein to one’s imagination, but also exposing one to manipulation. It is one of those books of The Bible to which the largest number of commentaries, including the artistic ones, have been devoted. For obvious reasons, they cannot be discussed here even briefly. Let us only mention that today’s Church sees in The Apocalypse primarily a theological vision of the panorama of world history, emphasizing its supernatural and religious aspect[13]. The Apocalypse particularly concerns the history of the Church in its prophetic and eschatic dimension[14]. Hence the theological criticism releases the interpretation of The Apocalypse from the analyses aimed to recognize in it a literal, horrifying description of the end of the world, and treats the cataclysms depicted there (following the opening of the seven seals, then the voice of the seven trumpets, and finally pouring the contents of the seven cups onto the earth) in symbolic terms. Apparently, they relate only to the spiritual reality, to the horror of sin, and symbolize the threat posed by man-made evil.[15] Its lesson is to be an incentive “to trust in the goodness and justice of God”, “to believe that God really loves us” and leads to his kingdom.[16] Cited in a nutshell, the position of the theologians, making The Apocalypse of St John a sort of a new Book of Exodus, carrying hope and comfort to Christians of all ages, may be treated as an antidote to the one-sided, catastrophic interpretation of The Apocalypse, common today, especially in popular culture, and to the pedagogy of terror applied by the Church in the past and recognized today as a sign of weakness and helplessness. It comes to the aid of expectations of a substantial number of believers, too. Many of them are departing from “God with bloodied hands”[17], who not only demanded the sacrifice of Isaac, and mercilessly punished the infidels (which is difficult to reconcile with the modern respect for the various, even religious differences), and who even “spared not his own Son, but delivered him for us all” (Rom. 8:32). Mention in this place may be made of the works by Gustaw Herling Grudziński, and especially his later stories: Ofiarowanie [Sacrifice], Opowieść biblijna [The biblical story] (1997), Podzwonne dla dzwonnika [The knell for the bell ringer] (2000), as an expression of dissent from the Just God, who appears to the author to be an Absurd God, strange to man and to human suffering. Similarly, some theologians, especially the Orthodox ones, believe that our thinking about God must be liberated from the vicious circle of revenge, retribution and hatred,[18] that the theology of sacrifice must be replaced with the theology of gift and that hope for universal salvation (Apocastasis) must be preached.[19] “The contemporary imagination, under the influence of traumatic experiences of the Holocaust, rejects the image of hell as a giant concentration camp that no one will ever leave”, argues Stefan Chwin[20].

Let us therefore ask the question about the resonance of these dilemmas in the series of paintings described here. Are they dominated by the message of eschatological optimism, based on the idea of consistency of the content of The Apocalypse with the teaching of Jesus, a tireless preacher of love, or just the opposite: by the bitterness derived from the terrible, cruel images?

The answer is not simple. Looking for it in the very style of the pictures, it must be remembered that, in accordance with the nature of Bednarski’s art and of The Apocalypse itself, they contain a substantial load of dramatic emotions. The participants of the press conference promoting the book found them “shocking and appalling”.[21] Nevertheless, I will venture to say that in comparison with many other depictions by this painter (even with the above-mentioned series Personifikacje), full of torture, pain, crying, these ones are distinguished by generally much greater restraint in applying the so-called “sharp” aesthetic values.[22] Thus, their dramatic expression is slightly more gentle. Even more important for the ideological expression of the work is the very choice of passages from The Apocalypse that are illustrated by Bednarski. The choice was made by a well-known theologian Fr. Prof. Jan Kanty Pytel, the translator and commentator of The Apocalypse, as mentioned above, who indicated to the artist not only specific chapters, but also individual verses. We cannot therefore regard as a coincidence the exclusion of the most controversial passages, describing the blood-curdling punishments which God exerts on the unfaithful, above all from the following chapters: eight, nine, sixteen and eighteen. The cataclysms described in them cause the destruction of humanity and the paralysis of the whole universe. It is hard not to hear in them echoes of the terrible verses of The Book of Ezekiel describing six men who descend to the city with devastating weapons in their hands and a command from God: “[…] smite: let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity: Slay utterly old and young, both maids, little children, and women” (Ezekiel 9:5–6).

In some cases the artist seems to follow the path corresponding to the intentions of the commissioners, meeting their demands also in terms of iconography. He deliberately chooses particular content and symbolic themes, emphasizing some and ignoring others, especially the ones that are problematic today. And it may not be a matter of chance that in the scene of the martyrs killed “for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held” (Apoc. 6:9–11) Bednarski omits the motif of the symbolic altar, impotrant in its symbolic aspect, and referred to in verse nine: “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the Word of God” [Fig. 5]. This altar is considered by exegetes a testimony that martyrdom is a sacrifice to honor God, or even, according to Ignatius of Antioch, a “sacrifice pleasing to God” (Ad Romanos: 2:2, 4:2). The painter spares us drastic images in the illustration Dzień gniewu Bożego [The day of Wrath of God] (Apoc. 14:14–19), described by St John in the symbolic images of harvest and vintage, and inspired, as indeed many others, by The Old Testament [Fig. 6]. As can be read in one of the comments, the number of those sentenced to eternal torment is truly terrifying: because their blood burst out „even unto the horse-bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs” (Apoc. 14:20). A thousand and six hundred furlongs is just as much as the length of Palestine from north to south, which means that the blood will flood the whole country.[23] This distance (4 x 4 x 1000 – the number of corners of the world, squared and multiplied by the symbol of the great multitude) would point to the global scale disaster. However, the bloody harvest is shown by the painter in a way that is almost generic. The motif neutralizing the atmosphere of terror is particularly the truck which is to transport the grapes to the “huge winepress of God’s wrath” outside the city (the punishment of God’s enemies was to take place outside the walls of Jerusalem, and therefore far from His holy presence). Its capacity is limited by the painter to 40 tons, as if in the intention of restraining the wrath of the Son of Man and reducing the number of people who are to be tortured.

The Church on the way to heaven

The Apocalypse is a prophetic book for a time of crisis, a time of a breakthrough. Hence, in our age, assessed as being particularly dangerous for the faith and the Church, its reading is considered highly desirable. Since the liturgical reform of the Second Vatical Council, the Church has cited many more passages of The Apocalypse than ever before, both in the Mass readings and in the liturgy of hours. Omitting the most dramatic parts, the Church distinguishes those which contain predictions concerning the fate of the Church, speak of its particular mission and ultimate triumph. It is significant that the translator chose exactly those passages. An example would be the scene featuring Nadprzyrodzona moc dwóch Świadków [The supernatural power of two witnesses] (Apoc. 11:3–5), containing an exceptionally strong dose of visionary expression and pathos [Fig. 7]. While commentators interpret the figures of the witnesses in different ways, they generally see in them a personification of the Church, which has been given great power from God: “And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed” (Apoc. 11:5). The Church – indeed persecuted and tortured – is essentially indestructible and victorious. In the following verses of chapter eleven, we read: „And after three days and a half the Spirit of life from God entered into them; and they stood upon their feet […]. And they ascended up to heaven in a cloud; and their enemies beheld them” (Apoc. 11:11–12).

Persecution of the Church is also the subject of the multi-threaded chapter twelve, which describes the struggle of Satan with the woman [Fig. 8]. Jan Kanty Pytel chose for illustration the verses describing the following moment:

And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.

And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood.

And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood […].

(Apoc. 12:14–16)

The figure of the woman is regarded in the exegesis as a symbol of the Church (and also of Mary, the People of God, Israel), the eagle’s wings symbolize in The Bible the supporting arms of God, God’s providence, and the interior of the earth opening up is the image of God’s grace. „The Church as the whole People of God is untouchable, and Satan cannot destroy it. […] The destruction of the Church is for Satan an impossible task”, as one of the commentaries states.[24] Similarly, the vision of the Lamb on Mount Zion (Apoc. 14:1–5) is explained as a vision of the Church “which among temporal plagues and storms remains immaculate, looking to Christ, faithful to him until the end”[25] [Fig. 9].

The gift of fear of the Lord

The choice of certain passages, made by a theologian and priest in one person, is difficult to be treated otherwise than as an expression of ecclesial correctness or even ecclesial flawlessness, aimed at promoting the optimistic and tryumphalist interpretations of The Apocalypse, which make it a balm to soothe the suffering of humanity and enhance the well-being of the Church. Fortunately, thanks to the artist’s creativity, and mainly thanks to the expressive nature of his painting, Bednarski’s work does not become a story about God, excessively “softened” and “smoothed” by the concepts of “new religiosity” (mitigating the expression of the difficult message of The Bible in order to make the faithful overcome the fear of punishment and give them psychological comfort derived from the hope that after death they can count on the unlimited mercy of God). What is the main vehicle of the frightening content is the image of the Creator himself that appears three times as the dignified ruler of the universe, having the characteristics of a king, an archpriest and a judge. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”, wrote St Paul in his Epistle to the Hebrews (10:30–31). A similar intuition can be found in Bednarski’s other visions, evoking “a terror fraught with an inward shuddering”[26] (misterium tremendum) rather than admiration and wonder (misterium fascinans). In the scene Pan świeczników i gwiazd [The Lord of candlesticks and stars] (Apoc. 1:12–20), “the first and the last”, with eyes “as a flame of fire” (Andrew of Caesarea wrote about them that they “enlighten the eyes of saints and burn sinners”)[27] and with feet “like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace”, he resembles the Eternal God as depicted in Romanesque portals, with paralysing majesty and supernatural power [Fig. 10]. Another illustration, inspiring not so much respect as horror, because saturated with a particularly high degree of cruelty, is Zwycięski Jeździec, Król królów i Pan panów [The victorious rider, King of kings and Lord of lords] (Apoc. 19:11–18). Christ whom we encounter here is not killed but killing, dressed in “a vesture dipped in blood” (Apoc. 19:13). Although Fr. Prof. Pytel is inclined to interpret this bloodstained figure only in relation to the mystery of redemption, seeing in St John’s description of “a reference to the redemptive passion” and to “the anguish and martyrdom of the Mystical Body”,[28] Bednarski does not refrain from showing Christ the Avenger [Fig. 11], who annihilates, as we read in verse eighteen, the free and slaves, the small and the great, and who gives their bodies to be devoured by birds. Contemplating the full horror of this scene, it is hard not to mention the apocalyptic poem about vengeance of God from the Book of Isaiah, who was St John’s major source of inspiration:

Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the wine-fat?

I have trodden the wine-press alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.

For the day of vengeance is in mine heart, and the year of my redeemed is come.

(Isaiah 63:2–4)

Cruel and ruthless God of vengeance, wielding a sharp sickle in his hand [Fig. 6], also appears in the scene Dzień gniewu Bożego [The day of God’s wrath] (Apoc. 14:14–19).

Saving the receivers – at the request of the translator and Church publisher – images of particular cruelty that chapters: eight, nine, sixteen, eighteen, are famous for, Bednarski, however, puts us in the sight of “a jealous God, who led the war into the enemy’s camp and used sword and fire to bend them to his will”[29].

***

“[T]he less spirit, the less dread. […] but the deeper it is, the the more profound is the nation. It is only a prosaic stupidity which thinks that this is a disorganization”[30]. These words of Søren Kierkegaard are both worth mentioning in the context of these illustrations and significant for the present times of “the fear of fear”, which constitutes a taboo and the most profound complex of modernity. Fear is now commonly treated as a form of repression of an individual, a sterile restriction which one must throw off like a restraining ballast in the name of unrestricted expression, joyful self-creation, apology of contingency and an attempt at emancipation from its shortcomings. In its desire that The Apocalypse should not be associated with nothing but horror and fear, the Church today – consciously or not – becomes part of this trend. Meanwhile, Grzegorz Bednarski’s work, including some of the illustrations analysed here, seems to stem from the belief that the fear of God, nota bene one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, is a permanent part of man’s attitude towards the Creator, and both a positive and an essential component of our spirituality. “A lack of dread”, let us repeat once again after the Danish philosopher, “results from extraordinary callousness”[31].

He that hath ears to hear, let him hear

Reading the Apocalypse is a truly risky adventure. Herder even allowed himself to say: „The fact that someone has never dealt with The Apocalypse is a sign of his mental balance”.[32] The risk undertaken by ​​Grzegorz Bednarski has paid off at least doubly. The result has brought us not only a bibliophile book in which words and images enrich and complement each other, combining tradition with modernity, hope and love with a fear of the wrath of the Creator and his inexorable justice. Subsequently, this time at the initiative of the artist himself, other paintings relating to all twenty-two chapters were created. “Commissioned by himself” and therefore free from any suggestion from the outside, they form a homogeneous stylistic whole with the earlier pictures, and would certainly be worth a separate discussion.

A considerable number of illustrations for The Apocalypse created by Grzegorz Bednarski to date, a variety of formal solutions used in them, a wealth of iconographic motifs, invite many possible analyses and interpretations, which, I hope, other researchers of his work will attempt in future. Depending on the individual preferences of their viewers, some images will inspire their admiration, others will be, perhaps, the object of criticism. Fr. Jan Kanty Pytel found “the most moving the illustration of the woman receiving the eagle’s wings to fly away from the dragon into the wilderness, and the two beasts, which together with the dragon form the diabolical triad”.[33] The author of the present paper particularly liked the last picture in the series: Wołanie o powtórne przyjście Jezusa [A cry for the second coming of Jesus] (Apoc. 22:6–21), referring to the mystery of the dialogue between God and man [Fig. 13]. The symbols of the eye and the ear, ambiguous, also in the context discussed, express the conviction that the content of revelation is absolutely certain, since it was passed to people by the Creator himself. “These sayings are faithful and true”, the angel tells the prophet in verse six, confirming the authenticity of everything that God revealed St John through his messenger. “And I John saw these things, and heard them”, the Apostle puts his authority at stake (Apoc. 22:8). “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last”, states Christ in verse thirteen, emphasizing his divine nature. It is therefore imperative to listen to the Revelation and, more importantly, make its lesson the content of one’s life. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear”: these words were repeated like a refrain already in Letters to the seven churches, representing the first part of The Apocalypse (1:4–3:22). God speaks to man and demands to be heard, wants the absolute obedience. “And let him that heareth say, Come answer”, order the Spirit and the Bride (Apoc. 22:17). “Amen. […] come Lord Jesus” (Apoc. 22:20) – St John answers Christ, and the Church repeats these words to this day at every Mass, changing only the formula of the invocation: „Lord Jesus, come in glory.”

An image-code, including a particularly great deal of abstract thinking, is complemented in the moving image of the inspired prophet, in which – analogously to the painting Pan świeczników i gwiazd (Apoc.1: 12–20) [Fig. 10] – it is easy to recognize Wojciech Kilar. This depiction may be seen as an expression of admiration for the musical achievements of the famous composer, in which a great role has always been played by religious inspirations and deep personal faith. “There really exists only a metaphysical reality. Only the mystery is certain… This paradox provides the basis for art, which cannot exist without the metaphysical and religious attitudes”,[34] said the author of the Missa pro Pace in response to the Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists, declaring his resistance to the painfully felt descaralization of the world and art. Let the words quoted above become the punch-line of this text.

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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).

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