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While the ruins of Nimrud and Palmyra are turning to dust, and pneumatic hammers destroy priceless works of art of ancient cultures, it is impossible not to mention discussions going on over recent decades about the importance of the image in contemporary culture. These issues are recalled, among others, by David Freedberg in the preface to the Polish edition of his monumental work about the power of images. A native of southern Africa, the scholar wrote his text at a time when in the Middle East the madness of massive-scale destruction of the cultural heritage of humanity was only in its infancy, while the countries of Eastern Europe, liberated from the yoke of communist rule, were getting rid of the remaining symbols of the hated regime, which were most often unsightly and of no artistic value. However, currently it is difficult to compare the two phenomena and it would be an oversimplification to reduce them to a common denominator, which is the fear of the power of symbols and images, regardless of any political, religious or economic conditions.
In recent years in Poland, several publications have been devoted to the relationship between art and politics, among which the collection of essays by Piotr Piotrowski entitled Sztuka według polityki. Od Melancholii do Pasji is especially noteworthy. Obviously, those studies have failed to exhaust the subject, consisting of, among others, the phenomena which constitute an emanation of the national mythology, martyrdom and messianism. On the other hand, popular science essays tend to subject those issues to fashionable deconstruction, which is often superficial and methodologically misguided as it is difficult to deconstruct phenomena that are not fully recognized, by relying almost entirely on ideological stereotypes.
The relation of sacred and religious art to political and national motifs, including the martyrdom and messianic ones, defines the axis of the latest issue of “Sacrum et Decorum”. In relation to the iconography of St John of Dukla, the issues are discussed by Rev. Cyprian Moryc, focussing on paintings which adorn the parish church in the home town of this saint.
Until recently, one of the largely overlooked areas in the twentieth-century history of Poland was the so-called Volyn massacre, i.e. the extermination of the Polish population living in the borderlands of the Second Polish Republic, conducted by Ukrainian nationalists during the last world war. Renata Rogozińska devotes her text to Stanisław Kulon’s drawings relating to those tragic events, and reveals this little-known theme present in the work of the aged sculptor.
Messianic and martyrdom themes and references to the current socio-political situation can often be encountered in the decoration of the Lord’s tombs, which have been erected in Polish churches during the Easter season since the 16th century. In the period of the partitions of Poland, those arrangements included symbols of the insurrections, while in the years 1939–1945 – allusions to the reality of the German occupation. In less dramatic periods of the history of Poland, the predominant references have been ones with a more universal character, such as the orange uniforms displayed in a Warsaw church this year, reminiscent of Christian martyrs dying in the Middle East. The national symbols used in the decoration of the Lord’s tombs during the politically turbulent 1980s are discussed, using the example of churches in Poznań, in the text by Rev. Leszek Makówka, published in the current issue of “Sacrum et Decorum”. The political conditioning of art in the period of the Independent Culture Movement is also present in the reflections by Tadeusz Boruta, who, presenting Krakow’s painting of the late 20th century, stresses above all the importance of mystical experience in the work of the artists of that circle.
Freedberg’s text mentioned at the beginning refers, among other things, to bloody war scenes captured in photography and film; it also deals with increasingly sophisticated methods of image manipulation and the growing distrust of viewers towards the visual message. Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that many of them flee from the turmoil and horror of aggressive images present in the sphere of the profane into the realm of the sacred space of old churches, where the temporal distance deprives images of literal realism, emphasizing the element of arbitrariness contained in the conventional renderings characteristic of past epochs. In those (and more recent) arrangements of church interiors, artists often depart from the excess of decoration in favour of calm, uniform colour for the walls, usually pure white, conducive to prayer and contemplation. This instinctive iconoclasm, puzzling to researchers, probably stems partly from cultural syncretism, depriving images of deeper meaning and causing the decline of symbolic thought in increasingly secularised societies. The phenomenon also has a more disturbing aspect related to incompetent, careless conservation or deliberate destruction of works of art found in churches, which are not protected by state guardianship unless they were created a sufficiently long time ago. Such is the fate that often befalls murals, especially since their restoration is connected with high costs which can be avoided by employing amateurs with limited knowledge and skills or, simply, by painting over the unwanted compositions. That is the reason why, in the study of contemporary sacred art, texts that document and analyse murals are of so much importance. In the present volume, an effort of this kind is undertaken by Hubert Bilewicz, who attempts to reconstruct the now non-existent frescoes by Zofia Baudouin de Courtenay in the churches of Gdańsk.
Moreover, the combination of politico-religious relations in the former state of Prussia is discussed in the paper by Rev. Marek Jodkowski, who presents the ideology behind the architecture and decor of one of the churches in Giżycko. Topics present in the previous volume are continued by Krystyna Czerni in her text devoted to the work of Jerzy Nowosielski.
Placing another volume of “Sacrum et Decorum” in readers’ hands, the editors hope that the studies and materials contained within it will meet with as much kind interest as did the papers published on the pages of our journal in the previous seven years.
Translated by Agnieszka Gicala