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Renata Rogozińska

University of Arts in Poznań

Abstract:

Graduate of the School of Fine Arts in Poznań, Danuta Waberska has spent the vast majority of her professional life in the service of the Church, specializing in the field of sacred art. This work has taken up thirty years of her life. Today, her paintings can be found in many churches, museums, religious community centres, and private collections throughout Poland and abroad. Before supernatural themes first emerged in her paintings, the newly minted artist (who leaves the School of Fine Arts in Poznań in 1969) worked within the New Figuration movement, expressing typical moods of existential pessimism, the drama of alienation, and spiritual emptiness

In subsequent years (at the turn of the 1970s and the 1980s), Waberska shows an increased interest in spiritual matters and the related symbolism of geometry and light. Readings in the mystics, Zen Buddhism, symbolic poetry, and depth psychology provide a mine of inspiration for her figural scenes, still-lifes, landscapes, and semi-abstract paintings. The first biblical paintings in the Jacob Wrestling with the Angel series appear, and Signs inaugurate the motif of Tobias and the Angel, later taken up on several more occasions. A spiritual breakthrough in 1985 pushes the artist to devote herself entirely to the service of the Church and sacred art. Her religious paintings primarily include depictions of the face of Christ, the Divine Mercy, the saints and the blessed of the Western Church, and Marian images. Waberska is remarkable for her artistic skill and innovative iconography, the aura of deep faith which emanates from her canvases, her complete devotion to religious art, and numerous evocative depictions of the metaphysical dimension of human life. All this makes her an important and noteworthy figure in the field of Polish Christian art. Her impressively large (and still growing) oeuvre calls for serious in-depth research, which, it should be hoped, will soon be undertaken

Keywords: religious art, sacred art, Christology, hagiographic images, Danuta Waberska

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Graduate of the School of Fine Arts in Poznań (today: University of Arts),[1] Danuta Waberska has spent the vast majority of her professional life in the service of the Church, specializing in the field of sacred art. This work has taken up thirty years of her life. Today, her paintings can be found in many churches, museums, religious community centres, and private collections throughout Poland and abroad.

Before supernatural themes first emerge in her paintings, the newly minted artist (who left the School of Fine Arts in Poznań in 1969) worked within the New Figuration movement, expressing typical moods of existential pessimism, the drama of alienation, and spiritual emptiness [fig. 1]. The pervasive melancholy of Waberska’s early works is further deepened by subversive titles, such as Dialogue or Conversations; it turns out that the artist basically converses with herself alone. Stripped of all individual features, the interlocutor is as foreign and inscrutable as the depersonalized crowd of “figures exiled from plenitude and unity”[2] seen in several paintings of the period. In Journeys and the first pieces of the Windows cycle, the multidimensional symbolism of windows and mirror reflections, as well as the dialectic of opening and closing, together investigate the complex boundary between various levels of reality. In both cycles, the boundary appears impassable, which further intensifies the experience of alienation, often turning into a sense of almost paralyzing incapacity. While illustrative of the broader movement in fashion at the time, Waberska’s painting in the 1970s also notably stands apart. Reflective and nostalgic, it shuns the extreme forms of expressionism practised by Francis Bacon and his ilk. Evident in these works is a respect for the rules of (nearly) academic composition, a well-balanced structure, and mild harmonies of colour. In many of the paintings, silhouette figures with barely visible contours are cast against an abstract background of mildly opalescent geometric surfaces, all in subdued colours.

The end of the 1970s inaugurates another extensive cycle of paintings, City. In terms of atmosphere, the first pieces hark back to the earlier period. Monochromatic and drily geometric, the cityscapes yawn with emptiness, a clear expression of the artist’s agnostic worldview [fig. 2]. Some paintings, however, already begin to exemplify the growing importance of light, still rather formal and emotional in character, but also increasingly symbolic. Imperceptibly, light becomes the source of supernatural meaning, at first enigmatic and free from explicit religious connotations. It turns into a vehicle of epiphany, suffusing every outline with an impalpable, glimmering vibration. Rays seep in through fleecy clouds, flow towards darkened streets, break through windows, and, reflected by water, explode in a magical dance of glints and glimmers (City – Piece III, 1981; A Moment of Sun, 1984). One moment and it will turn into the “Host of the Sun” (Night III, 1982; Way, Truth, Life III, 1987) and thus acquire a sacramental sense. A similar process can be observed for landscapes (Lake in Łagowo, 1979; Białe Lake – Osieki, 1977). In formal terms, Waberska’s paintings are now suspended between reality and imagination, the luminist tradition of colour painting and forays into metaphysical abstraction, which makes it reminiscent of the work of another Poznań-based artist, Edmund Łubowski.[3] The individual brushstrokes are not discernible; colour sections interpenetrate, creating surfaces which are smooth and clean, but also full of vividness and life. Diffuse outlines create an impression of mistiness and introduce a general atmosphere of mystery.

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The increased use of luminist effects is also accompanied by an intrusion of straight lines (White Landscape (Big Window)), 1978; Hazy Landscape, 1980). As the poet Tadeusz Żukowski rightly remarks, “at first the vertical and the horizontal appear, infusing the painting with spatial dynamism and introducing basic ‘fixed points of reference’, both for the character in the painting and the viewer. The lines represent the basic coordinates of the world: up-down, north-south, left-right, east-west. When a horizontal and a vertical line come together, the result is a cross. The seemingly unproblematic intersection of two straight lines leads into the depths of hitherto marginalized Judeo-Christianity, with all the consequences of further choice”.[4]

In this period, Waberska also begins to attach symbolic meaning to other archetypical figures, such as the circle, the triangle, and the square, now shown as mystical mandalas and symbols of wholeness. At once canonical and epiphanous, the figures permit Waberska to escape the pressures of the ego and endow her paintings with a more universal meaning [fig. 3]. It would be a mistake, however, to see them only in their Christian dimension. From times immemorial, geometry has served as a visual vehicle for philosophical and esoteric truth by uncovering the pure principles that determine the structure of the universe. At the turn of the 1970s and the 1980s, Waberska takes an interest in Eastern religions, Gnostic doctrines, and mysticism; readings in the mystics, Zen Buddhism, symbolic poetry, and depth psychology provide a mine of inspiration for her figural scenes, still-lifes, landscapes, and semi-abstract paintings. All differences in theme and style aside, her work presently begins to express a craving for order and plenitude, a quest for liberation from the transient towards the infinite and the eternal. The novel formal features and the deepening spiritual resonance of her work do not go unnoticed. Waberska receives many flattering reviews and wins three awards (in 1976, 1979, and 1981) at the prestigious nationwide Jan Spychalski Competition dedicated to the famous Poznań-based painter, whose pieces are still admired for their formal beauty and unique poetic and metaphysical aura.

Signs

1978 marks the appearance of the first pieces in the Jacob Wrestling with the Angel cycle [fig. 4]. In 1984, Signs inaugurate the motif of Tobias and the Angel, later taken up on several more occasions [fig. 5]. The scene is set in a suburban street, with lampposts and road signs, all of which are both real and symbolic at the same time. In both cycles, the religious story is updated to illustrate the necessary and unchanging sense behind all that exists – in every place and time.

In this gradual, yet impressively consistent, manner Waberska inches ever closer towards the domain of religious art. She already deals with Judeo-Christian themes, but still remains independent of the Church and its approval, which gives her unrestrained freedom in the choice and interpretation of themes. The two cycles reflect her intellectual and spiritual struggles, a wrestling with narcissistic isolation not unlike that of Jacob, and a slow but sure process of opening up to new, Christian regions of the sacred. Jacob Wrestling with the Angel II (1978) and Jacob Wrestling with the Angel III (1979), as well as successive Signs, have much in common with the earlier cycles of Windows and Cities. Motifs taken from nature continue to be filtered, synthesized, and ordered in a lucid, almost crystalline manner. The technique of nebulous colour spots enhances the pervasive sense of mystery. However, a substantial shift can already be noticed on a conceptual and emotional level. The appearance of biblical figures endows the urban setting with a sacred dimension, until now introduced by means of geometry and light. It also serves to personalize it. After all, Judeo-Christian theology, now explored in greater depth, teaches not about a thing but about a person: the God of monotheism is a personal God. With this move, Waberska finds herself only a step away from the third stage in her development towards religious art.

The human face of God

 

An important milestone comes with the study of the face of Christ from the Shroud of Turin, completed in 1985. The supernatural icon is a well-known motif of religious iconography. As a conceptual model for iconic painting, it represents the miracle of faith and a visible sign of divine presence. The motif acts as a channel for sanctifying grace and the place of theophany, especially in the teachings of the Eastern Church. For Danuta Waberska, it marks an absolute breakthrough. The icon of icons inspires her conversion and becomes the spiritual prototype of her subsequent art. In the phenomenal Road to the Centre (1985), the Face of Christ is shown suspended over a cityscape steeped in twilight [fig. 6].

The veneration of the Holy Face was never confined to Eastern Orthodoxy; it resonated equally well with the spirit and piety of the Western Church. The difference was that Eastern Christianity mostly contemplated the Transfiguration, while the West focused on the Passion. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, for whom the Face was the vector (Latin: “the one who carries”; “carrier”, from vehere, “to carry”; via, “road”) of life, wrote: “The words in Isaiah: »No stateliness here, no majesty, no beauty, as we gaze upon him, to win our hearts. Nay, here is one despised, left out of all human reckoning; how should we recognize that face?« – these words were the basis of my whole worship of the Holy Face. […] I too, wanted to be without comeliness and beauty, unknown to all creatures”.[5]

Danuta Waberska’s religious art, however, gives centre stage to a vision of divinized humanity purged of the traces of martyrdom. This certainly holds true for the group of images inspired by the shroud of Manoppello, which, according to tradition, was created when Christ rose from the dead (Shalom II, 2006). The Glorious Jesus is also encountered in numerous depictions of Divine Mercy, again linked to the religious meaning of the divinely inspired prototype. According to its theology, rooted in the vision of St Faustina (who describes Jesus as one “glowing like the sun”), the image of Divine Mercy represents not an actual, but an ideal man, clothed in the light of glory, and is indicative of the Passion and grace flowing from Christ’s pierced side.[6] The first painting of Divine Mercy dates back to Waberska’s artistic breakthrough of 1985; the following years bring several more [figs. 7–9]. At the time when art busies itself with deconstructing basic aesthetic and ethical categories, the icons of the Merciful Jesus and the Holy Face give Waberska a sense of immersion in a primordial, supernatural order, enchanting her with the clarity of pure and stable values. Today, her depictions of Divine Mercy intended for public worship can be found in numerous chapels and churches throughout Poland. Sites in Poznań alone include: the Church of the Presentation Of Christ in ul. Bluszczowa, the Church of St Stanislaus Kostka in Winiary, the Church of the Conversion of St Paul in Os. Piastowskie, the Church of St John Bosco in Winogrady, the Church of St Joseph (belonging to the Barefoot Carmelites) in ul. Działowa. They can also be found in Swarzędz, near Poznań, (the Church of Our Lady Help of Christians), in Tyniec (the Church of St Peter and Paul), Płock (the Church of St Hedwig), and even in such far-flung places as Tanzania and Brazil.

An in-depth iconographic and stylistic analysis of this large group of paintings merits serious treatment in a separate article. At this juncture, allow me to make several remarks of a more general nature. The image of Divine Mercy has been strongly determined by the vision of St Faustina. For this reason, Danuta Waberska mostly remains faithful to existing traditional renditions of the subject, specifically those by Eugeniusz Kazimirowski and Adolf Hyła. This is particularly true of the figure of Christ, to which she introduces only very slight modifications. The treatment of the background, however, is quite innovative. Image of Divine Mercy I (1985) and two other paintings from 2002, for instance, contain allusions to the cosmic and Eucharistic reach of mercy, which are absent from the prototypes. The move can be seen as referring back to a vision St Faustina received after the first painting by Kazimirowski had been completed. In her vision, the saint saw two rays, white and red, flowing from the pierced side of Christ and breaking through the Host to embrace the whole wide world. The paintings in Swarzędz [fig. 8] and Tanzania (2004) both include allusions to this vision, which occurred on Easter Saturday in 1935: “In the evening of the same day, when I had gone to bed, I saw the image going over the town, and the town was covered with what appeared to be a mesh and nets. As Jesus passed, He cut through all the nets and finally made a large sign of the cross and disappeared”.[7] Even though this group of paintings also includes less successful pieces, most are remarkable for the skilful use of a variety of tools derived from the luminist, colourist tradition. Thanks to the unbounded power of her faith, but also much more easily quantifiable skills such as the masterful technique of transposing light to colour, contrasting light and darkness, and harmonizing carefully chosen colour palettes, Waberska brings to life the essential triad of colour, value, and light. Light is the principal actor in the images of Divine Mercy; it gives them their symbolic and emotional resonance, and enhances the evocative power of the vision, which straddles the boundary between reality and imagination. Similar features appear in Heart of Jesus in Tyniec (the Church of St Peter and St Paul, 2010) [fig. 10].[8] In all the above examples, attention is instantly drawn to the face of Christ with its accurate outline and meticulous modelling, sending forth might and glory. Seen against the on-going deformation of the human figure in modern art, which often removes the human face, the timeless beauty of Waberska’s images never fails to attract attention. It bears repeating, however, that this beauty is rooted in conventions now largely discarded, which only continue to function within the domain of devotional art.

The traditionalism of symbols, attributes, and techniques in the depictions of Divine Mercy can be justified by Waberska’s respect for their prototypes, treated as revelations of divine grace and objects of worship. However, a number of other devotional images painted for church purposes seem to reflect the artist’s surrender to the conservative tastes of her clients. The Vatican no longer takes a dim view of contemporary art; successive popes (Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI) have declared their openness to new developments. Actual artistic practice, however, remains far removed from official proclamations. For theological reasons (the theology of Incarnation), as well as out of respect for tradition and a concern for those who find contemporary art difficult to grasp, the Polish Church expects Christian art to conform to a legible realist-idealist formula, i.e. to repeat history. Such guidelines are the basis of Waberska’s Marian images: Our Lady of St Benedict, of Brazil, of Olives, of Camomile, and of Sunflowers. Framed in decorative floral patterns, these Marian paintings are characterized by a conventional scenic prettiness, bringing the distant object of worship closer to the homely sphere of folk piety. It is of little wonder that they appeal to many churchgoers. They radiate honesty, religious fervour, diligence, knowledge, and show a clear mastery of colour; what they lack, however, is a shape more in tune with the art of our time.

One cannot help but agree with the accepted Church opinion, here formulated by Joseph Ratzinger, that “the image of Christ and the images of the saints are not photographs. Their whole point is to lead us beyond what can be apprehended at the merely material level”.[9] By depicting the material, the painting should serve to make the immaterial visible. There is no need to idealize the bodies of saints, even though many decision-makers in the Church still see the mannerism as an antidote to physical concreteness. Late Nazarene aesthetics, with its maudlin images, continues to reign supreme. This is particularly true of portraits painted for the purposes of canonization or beatification, which often sacrifice human truth in an effort to place emphasis on the charisma of the saint. In Waberska’s oeuvre, examples of such “ideal portraits” include: the canonization portrait of St Rafał Kalinowski (1991) and the beatification portrait of Father Michał Sopoćko (2008), as well as the Vision of Saint Faustina (2005). It is only thanks to the theological insight and artistic diligence of the artist that these images still stand out from the larger mass of hagiographic paintings, which equate sainthood with pathos and sentimentality.[10] The portraits of Edith Stein, also known as St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, O.C.D., are more successful [fig. 11]. Waberska worked from a photograph, which allowed her to capture the physical resemblance and introduce an array of symbols and artistic means to illustrate the spiritual fervour of the saint.

The conventional character of a group of devotional paintings, which, as was shown, resulted from an artistic compromise with the expectations of church officials and the tastes of churchgoers, does not detract from Waberska’s outstanding achievement in the field of sacred art. Even the historicizing paintings of the Baroque Church of St Francis Seraphicus in Poznań (1988-89), which by necessity conform to accepted stylistic requirements, include a number of original theological insights, iconographic ideas, and innovative solutions in terms of colour and composition. Waberska is remarkable for her artistic skill, the aura of deep faith which emanates from her canvases [fig. 12] and their innovative iconography [fig. 13], her complete devotion to religious art, and numerous evocative depictions of the metaphysical dimension of human life. All this makes her an important and noteworthy figure in the field of Polish Christian art. Her impressively large (and still growing) oeuvre calls for serious in-depth research, which, it should be hoped, will soon be undertaken.[11]

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Translated by Urszula Jachimczak


[1] This study is the first, as yet imperfect, attempt to take a more comprehensive look at the oeuvre of Danuta Waberska, which has been studied in a rather piecemeal fashion until now. The article is primarily based on my own knowledge of the paintings and a personal interview with the artist. Existing literature is scant on the subject, comprising only a handful of catalogue notes and short impressions published in the press, of very limited value to the scholar. Notable exceptions include two texts by Agata Ławniczak (in: Danuta Waberska. Malarstwo, exhibition catalogue, Contemporary Art Wing. Lubuska Land Museum in Zielona Góra, 1985) and Tadeusz Żukowski (Figura i Osoba albo zmagania z Obrazem, www.muzeum.poznan.pl/www2/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=42:waberska-u-przyjacio-wystawa-malarstwa&catid=35:wystawy-czasowe&Itemid=2 [accessed: 21 Dec. 2012]). Żukowski’s essay was distributed in printed form during the exhibition Waberska u przyjaciół, Archdiocesan Museum in Poznań, 30 June – 31 August 2008. I would like to thank the artist for the help I received from her while working on the article and for making her photos available to me.

[2] Żukowski, as in fn. 1.

[3] R. Boetner-Łubowski, W kręgu światła i koloru. O twórczości Edmunda Łubowskiego, Poznań, 2001, p. 44.

[4] Żukowski, see fn. 1.

[5] Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Last Conversations, 5 August 1897.

[6] J. Salij OP, Teologia obrazu Pana Jezusa Miłosiernego, “W drodze” 6, 1982, pp. 14–15.

[7] S. M. Faustyna Kowalska, Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska. Divine Mercy in My Soul, Stockbridge 2011, p. 135.

[8] For more information on the development of the worship and iconography of the Heart of Jesus, see: E. Klekot, Najświętsze Serce Jezusowe – sceny z życia symbolu, “Konteksty” 51, 1997, vol. 3–4, pp. 55–66.

[9] J. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, San Francisco 2000, p. 133.

[10] At the same time, the portrait of Father Michał Sopoćko is a testament to the breadth of Waberska’s theological knowledge and her responsible approach to every church order. This is evident in the artist’s commentary to the painting, excerpts of which are presented here: “In my explorations for the portrait of the Blessed Father Michał Sopoćko, I was inspired by the words of the holy liturgy, spoken during the mass right before the consecration: »Truly, O Lord, you are the Holy One, the source of all holiness«. […] The Eucharist, represented by the successive circles steeped in paschal light, is the first and the most important Source of sanctity. Acting in persona Christi, the Blessed Michał Sopoćko understood that Mystery and lived it out in a truly heroic manner. Even though it was intended for a beatification ceremony, the painting is in its essence Christocentric. The saints do not refer us back to themselves. Their role is like that of an icon: to take the viewer into the depths of Mystery, point to the metaphysical realm, the realm of God. All the anatomical details, the »physical« and »corporeal« aspects of humanity are purely relative. It is not the figure of Father Sopoćko that matters, but the Mystery of Mercy, of which he is at once the addressee and the custodian. Who he was and who he became testifies to the revelation of God, which he accepted. Michał Sopoćko is shown at a relatively young age; the confessor and spiritual mentor of Saint Faustina only begins to discern the incipient, still hidden experience of the Mystery that has always been present and confessed in the Church. […] In his modesty and simplicity, he seems intimidated by what is happening to him. Deeply moved by his calling, he feels unworthy. As a man of faith, however, he is at peace. »Armed« with the instruments of prayer (the breviary and rosary), in a simple, slightly worn cassock, he stands erect, a providential man called to proclaim the message of Mercy. A certain parallel with Saint Joseph suggests itself here, that of the beloved who first needs to experience his own annunciation to fully and responsibly participate in the calling of Mary. […] The archetypal stairway from Jacob’s dream […] symbolizes the unity of the Church – the community of those already saved and those still in pilgrimage. Father Sopoćko straddles the boundary between the two worlds; he belongs to both, but gradually leaves one to be wedded to the other. The stairway also represents the ascent through the degrees of virtue and the kenotic elevation of the cross. The rays and circles contain two letters, alpha and omega, which, according to the Revelation, represent Christ the Pantocrator. My purpose was to depict a humble servant completely devoted to the Mystery of Mercy, a servant who never loses faith even when his understanding fails him” D. Waberska, Teologiczne założenia obrazu beatyfikacyjnego bł. ks. Michała Sopoćki, “W służbie miłosierdzia” 10, 2008, www.wsm.archibial.pl/wsm49/art.php?id_artykul=617 [accessed: 21 Dec. 2012].

 

[11] The limited scope of this study made it necessary to leave out several important contexts of Waberska’s oeuvre. The relationship of her early paintings to the New Figuration movement, for instance, deserves separate attention, as does, albeit for a different reason, the artist’s interest in New Age. It would also be interesting and important to perform an iconographic and aesthetic analysis of the images of Divine Mercy in the context of other paintings which deal with the same theme. The current state of research, however, would make this a challenging task. The iconographic and stylistic changes in the image of Divine Mercy have not yet become the subject of systematic study. Another important issue to be addressed by future research is a discussion of Waberska’s oeuvre from the perspective of contemporary sacred art, its mission, achievements, trends, developments, etc. Many paintings still call for a closer scrutiny, including the cycles Road, Journey, Way of the Cross, Vision, In the Window.

 

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