Uniwersytet Rzeszowski
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Stanisław Rodziński

Cracow, Akademia Sztuk Pięknych


The text aims to show the crucial relationship between the creative process of an architect and artist, who undertakes a project for a church and for the Church, and his spiritual life and his faith. It is this relationship that has determined the creation of the greatest works of sacred art and architecture throughout the history of art and of the Church. The essence of good art is its universality. Texts by church hierarchs, including John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, may give artista both an inspiration and assistance in finding the meaning and form of their works. This applies equally to the relation of religious architecture to the landscape as well as the importance of sacred art in the lives of the faithful. Without this awareness, the architect and the artist often create objects which may just as well be department stores (galleries) and churches; ones in which the faithful will not find any inspiration of faith.

keywords: sacred art, sacred architecture, artist, faith, inspiration.


Looking at many churches which are built nowadays, at their form in the townscapes, or surrounded by valleys, woods and hills, recalling the views of almost eternal gothic, baroque, neo-baroque or neo-gothic churches, one wonders: why do we not build such churches any more? This question, however, does not concern architectural details or spatial solutions. The concern is caused rather by a certain degree of strangeness demonstrated in some contemporary churches in their surrounding landscape.

On entering these ‘modern churches’, it is difficult to find the presbytery or confessionals, which have somehow become lost in the interior due to thoughtless arrangement. Pews and kneelers are generally uncomfortable and inhibit rather than enhance the concentration which we seek inside a church. One of the natural signs of religiousness is what we call the habit of ‘stopping by the church’ for a short prayer or adoration. Inside some of the newly built interiors we get distracted by the atmosphere of the space, which does not support inner concentration, as it bears resemblance to a huge lounge, a storehouse or a hall of mass gatherings. It is upon this particular phenomenon that we shall reflect.

Every church was modern at the beginning. The Wiślica Collegiate Church was modern, St. Mary’s Church in Cracow was modern too, and so was the Aachen Cathedral. In the Renaissance and the Baroque some medieval interiors were rebuilt or even taken down, simply because they were regarded as unsuccessful or ugly. This was the case with the buildings of the famous gothic hospital of ‘Duchacy’ (the hospital Order of the Holy Spirit) on Holy Spirit Square in Cracow. They were demolished in order to give way to the Municipal Theatre, nowadays the Słowacki Theatre. Even Jan Matejko was unable to prevent this from happening. As a form of protest, he returned the sceptre which was presented to him by the municipal authorities, as an attribute of a spiritual interrex of, at that time partitioned, Poland.

I mention this not because my purpose is to arouse hope for the deconstruction of all those modern churches we are not pleased with. The point is that every epoch contributes to the way we experience and interpret faith. In the 1920s, two modern, as for that time, churches were built in Cracow: in Dębniki and in Borek Fałęcki. Meanwhile, over the entrance to the Jesuit basilica in Kopernika Street, a sculpture made by Xawery Dunikowski appeared, which depicted Christ. In 1946, Józef Mehoffer completed the Stations of the Cross which, next to Stanisław Wyspiański’s stained glass, are still regarded as great marvels of contemporary religious art. The Franciscan Friars did not conceal their doubts concerning these works when they decided to place them in their church in Cracow. They also took a risk when they ordered stained glass and an altar from Teresa Stankiewicz and Łukasz Karwowski.


The realizations mentioned above became deeply rooted in the townscape but they were a natural element of the current trend in housing architecture and public buildings. Wyspiański’s stained glass designs, which were ordered by the Franciscans although at that time it required courage, were of the same origin as Mehoffer’s stained glass designs, which won the contest and were chosen for realization in Fribourg, Switzerland, in spite of the fact that their author was unknown there.

Such extraordinary congress of the works of art from various epochs and trends in art (which also concerns Rouault’s paintings and Bazaine’s stained glass in the gothic Church of Saint-Séverin in Paris) is often a harmonious and natural composition of faith, prayer, and also knowledge and creative consciousness. Of course, this is not the right time or place for this problem to be discussed and analysed, the more so that in our context it has yet a different genesis. This harmonious development of our art and architecture was dramatically interrupted by the war.

After the war a period of reconstruction came, which was then followed by decades of architecture dominated by ideological interpretation. Those years lacked the natural and undisrupted contemplation on sacred art and architecture. Elimination of issues concerning the architecture of religious art took place, not only in the regular work of artists. These issues ceased to exist in the academic curricula of courses in architecture, as well as in the field of interior designing, painting and sculpture, all within the education of fine art. A specific ‘lack of imagination’ and a gap in knowledge and experience appeared in the consciousness of young artists. Every now and then this gap was filled in with casual information ‘from the West’, mainly France, about the so-called modern sacred art, new churches, polychromes, sculptures or stained glass. In my opinion, this very lack brought about the subsequent misunderstandings.

Construction of churches took years and required struggles with both the law and the communist authorities. If ever built, they were by nature memorials of faith and determination rather than works of art. In turn, the following ‘boom’ in designing and building was more of a demonstration of architectural vogues than of a naturally developing creativity, in which knowledge, talent and faith formed the spirit of modern religious art and architecture. The lack of knowledge, awareness and tradition, as well as trifling with the eternal relationship of every building, a religious one in particular, with the landscape, led eventually to absurdities detached from the sense of sacrum, from responsibility, and often from faith. It doesn’t mean that no beautiful modern churches have been built. However, to a large extent, the problem has remained.

Superficial perception of the role of the modern church, as a community of believers, was understood as an inspiration and served as a kind of encouragement to total freedom when it came to designing the shape and interior of a church. Building the church first and then setting its theological theme, interior design and furnishings was a common practice. Obviously such opinion shouldn’t be generalised. It ought to be mentioned that there are curial structures, bodies and commissions who take care of such issues and regulate them. Undoubtedly, the lack of competence and misunderstandings in both the designing and building of unsuccessful chapels and churches is a fact, and stems from both the designers’ arrogance and leniency on the part of the church authorities.

In the excellent book The Spirit of the Liturgy by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, (published in Poland in 2002 by Christianitas), one reads ‘The renewal of art that takes place in faith can be engendered neither by money nor by establishing a commission. This kind of art involves the gift of new perception. It is worth putting a lot of effort into returning to the seeing faith. Where it [this faith] is present, art will likely find its expression.’

The whole question concerns very serious matters. It involves honesty and the spiritual life of those who, at a certain point, take on the implementation of projects which may become the reality of our townscape, our perception of God and our faith at the same time. Without this kind of decisions we only tackle problems of little importance. As the Rev. Pasierb said, ‘In the projects of church interiors, sedilla in the presbytery will be replaced with sofas’. Nevertheless, complaining is insufficient by itself.

The matter also concerns music in the modern church. It concerns familiarising the believers with the evolution of art and various conceptions of culture. One of the fundamental documents is Letter to the Artists written by Pope John Paul II. Equally important is his homily preached during the sanctification of the renovated Sistine Chapel. As media hype surrounds and overwhelms an average man, such ‘lights’ may help him to experience what is new in religious architecture, music and art, for arts must  be part of people’s life, and not just an arena for scandals and social sensations.

Regardless of the background of times, civilization or the role of the media, the problem of modern religious art and architecture ought to be reviewed, and the previous ways ought to be adjusted and enriched with the experience of representatives of both the church and artists. What I mean here is a contest system, setting high requirements, concerning the architectural shape of the building, its existence within the townscape and the spiritual relation of the form of the church to its patron saint or dedication. It also involves a close cooperation between the creators of the church and the artists designing specific elements of the interior, furnishings, polychromes and sculptures. The theological programme of the church, as it was before, should form the basis of the design, and be reflected in the outer form, the interior or even the chapel. Also the conscious participation of the parish community in the creation of the church is crucial. The priest and the creators ought to clarify the afore-mentioned theological and artistic ideas. It is worth remembering that a layman’s sensible reflection may often be a source of inspiration for the authors of the project or raise their awareness of the necessity for corrections. For this reason, clergymen during their seminarial education are provided with the most essential knowledge in this field. Similarly, architects and artists are educated and prepared for working in the field of religious art. All this is done in order to protect this extremely important area of our faith from incompetence and from showy banalities, which are harmful to human faith and culture.

If changes take place around us and we accept what the present day brings into many areas of life, we should understand that by living and acting the church also changes the form of its influence. The Pope, once unapproachable, carried on the sedia gestatoria, surrounded by baroque fans, today talks with the faithful, almost joins the crowd, and he is still the same Vicar of Christ. Otherness is the otherness of times, otherness, the essence of which stays unchanged. A rural wooden church, that the generations have become used to, has not ended its activity, it still remains and stays close. Beautiful modern churches are and will still be the landmarks of time, and right next to them unsuccessful modern churches will be found. Just like near the splendid gothic cathedrals we can often observe unsuccessful and second-rate Gothic. Erected throughout the ages for God’s sake, neo-gothic and neo-baroque churches helped to avoid the risk of novelty and helped people become used to the existence of what had always existed. As John Paul II wrote in Letter to the Artists: ‘The history of art, therefore, is not only a story of works produced but also a story of men and women.’

As the church gets metaphysically filled with prayer and presence of generations of its believers, it becomes close, even though it may not be very beautiful in its architectural form and furnishings. One cannot forget the timeless role and the meaning of religious art and architecture. As it was with preceding ages, the forthcoming century’s religious art will still be a testimony to the talent of a given epoch, and also of its honesty and faith.


translated by Renata Latko

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