Maria J. Żychowska
Cracow University of Technology
Father Piotr Cholewka was born in 1922 in a Silesian village of Marciszów near Zawiercie. In 1925, his family emigrated to Barlin in northern France. In 1943 he entered the Benedictine monastery of Wisques. In 1961, a papal indult authorized him to pursue studies and work outside the cloister.
He took on stained glass in 1953. He used traditional techniques and employed reinforced concrete to hold the pieces of glass together (dalle de verre), while also creating in synthetic materials, such as polystyrene. Most of his works date back to the period between 1955 and 1963, and with the exception of a few early designs, the majority are abstract. His stained-glass windows can be found in fifty churches, mainly in France and Belgium.
In Poland, he first appears in 1992 to present exhibitions of his creative output of 40 years entitled Beauty Shall Save the World. Their purpose is to show contemporary art, understood as abstract representation whose meaning and content is hidden under a composition of colourful blots. The only ensemble of stained-glass windows by Father Cholewka to be found in Poland is that present in the church of Saint John the Baptist in Kupno, near Kolbuszowa, produced between 1997 and 1998.
Keywords: stained-glass windows, art, abstraction, technique, Piotr Cholewka
Stained-glass art in Poland has long suffered from the lack of acceptance and understanding of contemporary trends among the general public. Jan Stanisław Pasierb once commented: “in Polish culture, for all its fascination with variously conceived »modernity«, there still persists a love for traditional forms, as well as an underlying mistrust of foreign thought”. Hardly an isolated phenomenon, this mistrust is characteristic of our continent at large: “In Europe, despite all the intellectual ferment and the creativity of its residents, culture is primarily a continuity of tradition.” And yet, any declaration, or so much as a suggestion, of one’s preference for figurative art with its meticulous drawing, over abstraction, is nowadays considered as nothing short of sacrilegious. It is not unusual to hear a disparaging remark: “But this is figurative. Whoever orders this sort of thing these days?” Still, it is not a general rule. Artists differ in their judgment of the aesthetic preferences prevalent among the public. Konrad Kucza-Kuczyński and Andrzej Miklaszewski, for instance, maintain that: “as a general rule, both parish priests and their parishioners seem to have a liking for modern art, so much so that they will often accept an actual avant-garde painting inside the church. Take for example the church in Nowe Tychy decorated by Jerzy Nowosielski. The church is widely acclaimed as remarkable, also by foreign architects.” Elżbieta and Andrzej Bednarski concur: “like most artists, we work on commission. Our patrons differ in the degree to which they try to impose their vision of form, content and deadline, but we believe that we must always seek to meet their expectations. It does not limit our artistic freedom as much as you would think; on the contrary, it often inspires us to overcome new challenges. At worst, it takes away some of the pleasure from the process. We always have complete control over the form of stained glass we design and produce; not so much over its content, especially if it is commissioned by the clergy, who tend to prefer figurative solutions and shun abstract art. The underlying assumption is that abstract representations would be incomprehensible to parishioners, whose money, after all, is used to finance them. It is difficult to agree with this view. We believe that abstract compositions placed in stained-glass windows can exert a much more powerful effect on the viewer than the best of holy images; they fit in with the interior more easily, help create its atmosphere, and underscore the sacredwith the luminosity of their mystical colours.”
Critics continue to insist that society should be educated to receive and understand contemporary art along with its abstract, processed form. However, when all reasoning fails, we should ask ourselves whether it is indeed necessary to shove incomprehensible messages down the public’s throat. Perhaps we could look for valuable solutions in more traditional currents, which are acceptable to the man in the street. It would be ill-advised to disregard objective reports of the predominant social preference for comprehensible art. Practice shows, after all, that a substantial majority of stained-glass pieces are traditional in style, and designers, quietly but consistently, adhere to the traditional canons of figurative sacred art, not necessarily out of conformism or a desire to sell their work.
The best art has always been elitist and will likely remain so. In sum, it seems that we have our own specific aesthetic preferences in Poland, different from those prevalent in Germany and France, where stained-glass windows produced since 1945 have been exclusively modern in style. Artists in these countries are vying to come up with ever more innovative formal and technical solutions, and traditional figurative stained-glass art is now a closed chapter.
In Poland, year 1992 marks the appearance of Father Piotr Cholewka. Piotr Cholewka believes that everyone should „acquire an ability to perceive […] beauty in the world”; he understands the world’s images as completely abstract representations, whose meaning and content should remain hidden under a composition of colourful blots. He is convinced this is the best way to convey messages. When couched in an abstract form, he argues, certain religious concepts and ideas can be easily perceived even by children; no other type of art is better suited to our times. The various historicisms of our era cannot truly represent modern art.
Over the eighteen years of Cholewka’s presence in Poland, many towns have hosted exhibitions entitled Beauty Shall Save the World, which present his creative output of 40 years. Their essential theme is focused on religious representations realized in stained glass.
Father Piotr Cholewka was born in 1922 in a Silesian village of Marciszów near Zawiercie. In 1925, his family emigrated to Barlin in northern France. He passed his final high-school exam in philosophy at the lower seminary in Cambrai in 1943, and soon after entered the Benedictine monastery of Wisques, where he was ordained as a priest seven years later. In 1961, a papal indult authorized him to pursue studies and work outside the cloister. He spent the following two years in a Carmelite monastery in Brussels. In 1963, he completed an internship at the Office of Urban Planning in Bordeaux, and went on to graduate from the Catholic University of Lyon with a degree in sociology. Between 1971 and 1987, when he retired, he worked first as a drafter, and later as a documentalist, at the Office of Spatial Planning and Urban Development of the New City of Melun-Senart on the outskirts of Paris. From 1987 to 1990, he acted as the spiritual tower of strength to the Polish émigré community associated with the Solidarity movement in and around Paris. He now lives in Lieusaint, where he serves as a chaplain at a local old-age home.
Piotr Cholewka recalls that he embarked on his creative path in the ceramic workshop of the abbey of Wisques, where he collected his first valuable experiences. He took on stained glass in 1953. He used traditional techniques and employed concrete to hold the pieces of glass together (dalle de verre), while also creating in synthetic materials such as polystyrene. Most of his works date back to the period between 1955 and 1963, and with the exception of a few early designs, the majority are abstract. His stained-glass windows can be found in fifty churches, mainly in France and Belgium. Many are located in the north of France, primarily in areas inhabited by large clusters of the Polish community, e.g. in the Polish Saint Stanislaus Church in Calonne Ricouart (1958), in Verlincthun, which holds a stained-glass depiction of Saint Roch (1953), and in Helfaut, with a stained-glass window portraying Saint Barbara (1957).
Very important are also the traditional stained-glass windows in the Church of Saint Curé d’Ars in Arras (1962). The foundations of the church were laid in 1954 and the structure was officially consecrated six years later. Jan Gondolo, the architect, had designed it in the form of a tent. An impressive stained-glass representation of the Holy Trinity filled the triangular space in the facade over the entrance. Other windows were placed around the single-nave interior of the church. This modern architectural form created a perfect framework for the presentation of abstract stained-glass windows. Piotr Cholewka commented: “the mere combination of the »harmony of colour« with suggestive graphic designs assures the immediate legibility of the spiritual message contained in every non-figurative piece of art!”
Between 1963 and 1971, Father Cholewka paved the way for new technology, as he began using polyester as raw material. One example is furnished by windows in the baptismal chapel under the belfry of the church of Saint Luke in Lyon, which were created in 1962. Again, these non-figurative images influence churchgoers through the symbolism of luminous colours: “Blue was the symbol of heaven; it represented the spiritual and the supernatural […] Dark brown expressed passion and death, and light red – resurrection. Yellow stood for the light of the Holy Spirit.” Stained-glass windows are not the only works by Father Cholewka in the church of Saint Luke. Sometimes he also designed other elements of the interior, such as altars, tabernacles, crosses, candlesticks, pulpits, ceremonial chairs, and mural paintings.
In the church of Saint Wulganus in Lens, stained-glass windows produced to the design by Piotr Cholewka were realized in the dalle de verre technique (1963). Much like his other works, they are abstract and speak only through light, colour, and the extraordinary dynamics of lines – „thanks to the sophisticated structure of profiles […] used in assembling the pieces of glass in the windows”.
The only ensemble of stained-glass windows by Father Cholewka to be found in Poland is that present in the church of Saint John the Baptist in Kupno, near Kolbuszowa, produced between 1997 and 1998. These are again entirely abstract representations, whose meaning and content is hidden under a composition of colourful and suggestive blots. The original composition fills the church mainly with colour and thus builds the atmosphere of the interior.
An important feature of Piotr Cholewka’s work is his use of mass-dyed blown glass. Slates of variable thickness vary greatly in the intensity of colour, and air bubbles frequently show through; the surface is uneven, marked with dents and ridges. The special way in which these pieces of glass disperse light endows it with a truly unique quality. It is this particular feature that Piotr Cholewka exploited when designing the windows of the church in Kupno.
The church of Saint John the Baptist in Kupno was built between 1914 and 1920 in the style of the so-called Vistulan neo-Gothic. The interior is decorated with ornamental figurative polychromes dating from 1962 to 1963 designed by Wacław Taranczewski, which, unfortunately have not survived to this day in their original form. In 1997, the first stained-glass windows designed by Father Cholewka were introduced; thematically, they were devoted to The Mysteries of Faith.
The artist explains that he employed three basic colours: blue, red and yellow, to symbolize the sky, blood and the sun, respectively, and combined them with a wide palette of green shades. In the most prominent part of the church, the chancel, a triptych depicting the Mystery of Incarnation, Mystery of Salvation and the Works of the Holy Spirit was placed. Through their contrasting colourful blots and the extraordinary harmony of abstract forms, these stained-glass windows serve to awaken spirituality and encourage reflection. The intention of the artist was to imbue them with multilayered content and rich symbolism. Let me quote from his description of the stained-glass window dedicated to the Mystery of Incarnation. The composition is dominated by “a red mass (red represents blood, life, birth, life’s dynamics, work, and activity, but also suffering and death). With an imperial stroke, a red hand reaches down from the sky (dark blue) to the earth below and touches the red, outstretched wings of an angel, who turns towards a veil shaped like a woman’s head. The head belongs to Mary, its blue colour symbolizing the saintliness of the Immaculate Virgin, and reveals vernal expanses of green and yellow, symbols of the glory and hope in conceiving the Son of God (green represents spring, while yellow stands for the shining light of Glory).”
Two stained-glass window cycles in the side naves depict events from the life of Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of the church. On the eastern side, panels portray the annunciation of his birth and his childhood. In accordance with the classical principle of stained-glass art, the windows are dominated by cold shades; the composition is tranquil, cheerful, with rather small blots which lack dynamism and intensity. It radiates tranquillity, moderation and harmony. On the western side, panels depict Saint John’s active life and death. Warm shades dominate. The colour scheme alone makes these windows dynamic; greater spots with slanting edges additionally attract attention. Two of these depictions are cut in half by a blue streak symbolizing the River of Jordan (The Baptism of Christ, Encounter by the River of Jordan). The Baptism of Christ visibly stands out from the ensemble; it is composed of three powerful areas of colour: two red blots with shades of green showing through and one distinctive ribbon of blue cutting through the painting from top do bottom.
The most expressive of the windows, however, is the stained-glass panel entitled The Confession of Faith, placed in the choir behind the organ, just over the entrance, to serve as “an evangelical symbol of the life of the Church”. The centre of the window is dominated by red; the vivid background employs a wide palette of yellows.
The frescoes of Wacław Taranczewski and the stained-glass windows of Father Piotr Cholewka together helped create an interesting sacred interior far away from large city centres, in a church with ordinary architecture. While the original frescoes were destroyed, the windows, despite minor technical defects, still shine as a significant achievement, which has not yet been adequately known or appreciated. They stand as a living testament to creative ability and symbolize changes in the attitude towards abstract art, so often seen as difficult in reception.
Let us pause at this point and make a remark, even if it is not directly related to the stained-glass windows of Kupno. It is common knowledge that man struggles with the passage of time; this struggle is also manifested in art. The powerful urge to leave behind a timeless trace is easily understood and we can find its numerous material expressions in history. The urge is shared in common by the commissioner and the artist. Even “the Sigismund’s Chapel at the Wawel Cathedral became the site of a duel between the artist and his patron, both vying for fame and glory. Bartolommeo Berrecci, the artist, hid his signature among the ten angelic heads in the dome, that is, the symbolic heaven, high above the tombstones of the royal sponsors of the chapel.” It is no different in our times, except that today only the select few ever get a chance to leave their own inscription. This explains why, whenever an opportunity presents itself, some seize it with excessive zeal, which often leads to self-commemoration in disregard of architectural demands, and the specific capabilities, skills, and predispositions of the artist. This excessive ambition often stems from an exaggerated conviction of one’s self-worth and the infinite value of one’s achievements. A certain lack of humility and empathy, and a reluctance to co-operate can be observed not just among stained-glass artists, but also in architecture. Fortunately, the phenomenon is still marginal. It is to be hoped that it will soon pass, to the greater benefit of contemporary art.
Translated by Urszula Jachimczak
 J.S. Pasierb, Światło i sól, Paris 1983, p. 50.
 Ibidem, p. 30.
 Z. Jazukiewicz, Sztuka kompromisu, in: “Przegląd Techniczny” 13, 1997, p. 13.
 E. Bednarska, A. Bednarski, “Odpowiedzi na pytania” zadane przez M. Tokarczyka dla MURATORA, typescript, owned by the author.
 Witraże w Kupnie. Katecheza piękna światła, texts by: P. Cholewka, K. Ivosse, Lieusaint 2004, p. 53.
 Ibidem, p. 6.
 Ibidem, p. 54–55.
 Ibidem, s. 7.
 www.diecezja.rzeszow.pl (last accessed on 15.09.2011).
 Wacław Taranczewski used his experience in easel and mural painting to create polychromes in many Polish parish churches, e.g. in Tarnów, Poznań, Nienadówka, Cmolas, and Góra Ropczycka. His final project was the creation of monumental mural paintings in the church of Saint Nicholas the Bishop in Bochnia. In 1965, to celebrate the approaching millenary of the baptism of Poland, he designed stained-glass windows for the Archcathedral of Saint John in Warsaw. He produced designs and cartons for all windows, a task which took him more than ten years to complete.
 They were produced by atelier “Inco-Veritas” from Wrocław.
 Witraże w Kupnie. Katecheza… (ft. 5), p. 10.
 Ibidem, p. 11.
 Ibidem, p. 24.
 Pasierb (ft. 1), p. 60.