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Renata Rogozińska


Given the widespread interest in the icon in the 20th century – in its form, profundity, rich religious content, and the aura of spirituality – it is hardly surprising that it also became an important source of artistic inspiration, multiple examples of which can be found in Polish art, especially that of the last 50 years. In the 1960s, artists such as Kazimierz Głaz, Józef Hałas, Henryk Musiałowicz, Jerzy Nowosielski, Wojciech Sadley, Jan Berdyszak, and Witold Damasiewicz initiated the revival of interest in Orthodox church art, different from that of the interwar period. In the following decades, Orthodox motifs, variously modified, were often taken up by Zbigniew Bajek, Ewa Kuryluk, Tadeusz Brzozowski, Magdalena Dmitruk, Eugeniusz Mucha, Alina Szapocznikow, Aldona Mickiewicz, Zbigniew Treppa, Romuald Oramus, Anna Myca, Marek Sobczyk, Christos Mandzios, Krzysztof Klimek, Magdalena Daniec, Leon Tarasewicz, Andrzej Bednarczyk, Ignacy Czwartos, Andrzej Desperak, Jacek Dłużewski, Tadeusz G. Wiktor, Marian W. Kuczma, Adam Molenda, and Władysław Podrazik.

The work of all these artists is presented against different problematic backgrounds, including the martial state in Poland and the related movement of independent culture. As far as the popularization of the icon is concerned, the influence of Jerzy Nowosielski deserves a special mention, and in particular his art, his theological reflection, and his aesthetics. It is also important to discuss the broader European background of the revival, especially the art of the Russian avant-garde.

The article argues that the inspiration drawn from the icon cannot be reduced to a superficial exercise in archaization. To the contrary, icons provoke artists to engage in various transpositions and create innovative solutions, which are often remote from the original and bear a clear mark of individuality. Borrowings such as the frontal presentation of figures, two-dimensional space, reversed perspective showing a divine rather than human point of view, luminosity, colour scheme and geometry, richness of materials, and, finally, painting technique, are used to “inject a drop of the sacred” into the bloodstream of the work of art. In view of the secularization process, references to the icon often come as a rejection of “culture turning into a desert” and an effort to reclaim the supernatural perspective.

keywords: contemporary art, Polish artists, icon, inspirations


How to paint the invisible? An encounter of two great religious-cultural traditions took place in the history of Christianity in Poland: the Eastern, Byzantine-Russian tradition and the Western, Latin tradition. The Eastern Orthodox Church was a constant element of the religious picture of the country; in some parts of Poland it was in fact the primary denomination. For many nations of the old Polish Commonwealth it constituted the fundamental element of their consciousness, shaping their culture and national identity. Thus the Orthodox Church is not a foreign element in Poland, but is inherently connected with its history. The Eastern Church tradition contributed significantly to the formation of the historical and the modern image of Poland. In the Ruthenian territories, historically within the limits of the Polish kingdom, the Orthodox Church was the medium through which the Byzantine art and culture was popularized. It also considerably influenced the religiousness and customs of the inhabitants of the whole country, of which the best proof is the cult of miraculous icons, first of all the icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa.[1]

The icon is still present in Poland: in the museum collections, antiquity shops, art-galleries, flee markets, churches and private houses. There are three functioning schools of icon writing.[2] Workshops and presentations of icon writing, usually authorized by individual artists or groups of icon-writers, are organized, especially during the so-called “meetings of cultures”. It is difficult to establish how many persons in Poland deal with icon-writing nowadays. Apart from the disciples of the above-mentioned schools, and authentic icon-writers, who combine the knowledge of painting techniques and the centuries-old tradition with profound personal faith, dozens of other painters produce icons. Among them, there are both educated artists, and many self-trained painters, who satisfy the needs of the ever-demanding market. “Icons” are also occasionally produced by students of fine arts academies, to repair their budget.

In view of the unrelenting popularity of icons, it is natural that they are an important source of inspiration in Polish art, and evoke sincere admiration of many artists. For many of them, acquaintance with iconic painting equalled to a kind of epiphany, and affected the character of their whole artistic creation.

The beginning of the artistic interest in icons dates back to the 1920. For some artists, especially those living in the Polish eastern frontiers, the art of the Eastern Church was an expression of national and religious identity. Yet even at that time, the old icons were appreciated mostly for their artistic value and spiritual effect. Contact with icons was not difficult, concerning their wide availability. Still, a particularly significant factor in their popularization was the activity of the National Museum in Lviv.

“It occurs to no one”, wrote in 1933 Leon Chwistek, who was inspired by the iconic painting in many of his works from various periods, “that in Lviv one can breath with high art, one can experience greatest emotions, not lesser than these experienced in Louvre or Florence. It is enough to betake oneself to the Ukrainian Museum in Mochnackiego street. […] Well, I went there myself, and I experienced greatest possible admiration and artistic ecstasy. Icons were red, gold and black; harmonies narcotizing like opium; Grotesque shapes multiplied eternally; the vision strengthening and growing more powerful; All this world is alive and fills the air. I cannot keep from being deeply touched, and I am overwhelmed by unusual passion and yearning. Though, actually, it has nothing to do with the Kantian disinterested contemplation, I know that it is this passion and yearning that form the criteria of the greatest heights of art.[3]

A few years later, right after the outbreak of the World War II, sixteen-year-old Jerzy Nowosielski finds himself in Lviv; he recalls his visit to the Museum: “In Lviv, my consciousness was attacked by a colossal number of icons, all first-rate works of art. Actually, it was only when I had experienced this that my way in life was outlined. Everything that I realized in painting later in my life was determined by the first contact encounter with the icons in the Lviv museum, even though it might have looked like departure. This encounter set me up for the rest of my life.”[4]

Also today strong emotions are not infrequent. “Less than a decade ago, while in Moscow, I stood for the first time before the icons by Andrei Rublev”, wrote another Cracovian artist, Andrzej Bednarczyk [Fig. 1]. “For a long time, I just looked at them as if I was enchanted. Deprived of the capability of rational thinking, I absorbed their perfection and truthfulness. I had seen the copies of the icons many times before, and schools had taught me to analyse them unemotionally; it all made the feeling even more surprising. Having recovered from that first impression, I asked myself two questions: why has an old painting, created several centuries ago, become a source of an astounding experience for me? And the other, which had been lingering in my head for a long time, but obtained its verbalization only then: how to paint the invisible?”[5]

[1] A. Mironowicz, Kościół prawosławny w dawnej Rzeczypospolitej, http://www.kik.waw.pl/ma/am3.htm.

[2] The first school of icon-writing, and of best reputation, has officially existed since 1991. it is a four-year tertiary-level Iconographic School in Bielsko Podlaskie, authorized by the Orthodox church. About 40 iconographers have graduated from the school. The school headmaster, father Leoncjusz Tofiluk, organizes annual iconographic workshops, which enjoy considerable popularity, and attract not only Orthodox youth. Two other schools have been created under the auspices of the Catholic church. They are: St. Luke’s Icon-Writing Workshop, at the Jesuit monastery in Cracow, and, created in 2004, a two-year School of the Christian East, at the Dominican monastery in Służewiec in Warsaw. The participants of the courses in icon-writing conducted by father Zygfryd Kot in Cracow, and of the iconicen plein air session in Stara Wieś in 2003 established a Catholic icon-writers’ group Agathos, whose artistic activity is concentrated on organizing exhibitions, en plein air sessions, and workshops.

[3] L. Chwistek, “Tragedia naturalizmu”, in: Droga 7–8, 1933, p. 649, quotation after: I. Luba, Dialog nowoczesności z tradycją, Warszawa, 2004, p. 106.

[4] Z. Podgórzec, Wokół ikony. Rozmowy z Jerzym Nowosielskim, Warszawa, 1985, p. 9.

[5] A. Bednarczyk, Spacerując pod złotym niebem, rozważania o poczuciu przestrzeni (pomiędzy św. Tomaszem z Akwinu a współczesnością), Kraków, 2001, qualification lecture for the II degree procedure, Faculty of Painting, Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, p. 4.

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