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Tadeusz Boruta

Rzeszów, Uniwersytet Rzeszowski


Messianic-martyrological iconography has always been a crucial factor in shaping the Polish national identity, especially in the periods when Poland lost its independence. That was the case during the Partitions, the Polish-Soviet war, and the Second World War. Raised on the foundations of traditional Polish religiousness and the messianic philosophy of the literary-intellectual elites, martyrological iconography visualized the theological and historiosophical sense of suffering, the role of Poland among the nations of the world, and the eschatological perspective on history. Also in the 1980s, within the independent culture movement, artists frequently reached for this verified repertoire of those symbolic-expressive devices; considering the social and political context, it was a natural direction. The Cracow artists chose a different path, despite being deeply involved in the anti-Communist independent movement, and despite quite often searching for inspiration in the thought and tradition of the Church.  In the Cracow circles of painters, messianic-martyrological iconography was a marginal form of expression. That difference was undoubtedly rooted in the intellectual and cultural experience of the old Polish capital. After 1945, the theological-metaphysical reflection gave rise to a multitude of diverse but continuous artistic phenomena, extending in their continuum until today. This situation was certainly affected by several factors: the conservatism of the intellectual elites, the unbroken cultural continuum since the 19th century, the clerical character of the city (with many monastic orders and several seminaries, functioning even today, and the John Paul II Pontifical University, then named the Pontifical Academy of Theology), the activity of the weekly “Tygodnik Powszechny” and the publishing house “Znak”. Cracow being a large academic centre, with numerous higher education institutions and vast artistic-humanist circles, favoured the polarization of attitudes, from conservative to avant-garde ones. Nevertheless, the presence of an intellectually potent local Church – open to dialogue and the post-Council changes, but also boasting many distinguished personalities – could not remain unechoed in the creative work of the most  notable artists.

Keywords: mysticism, martyrology, personalism, independent art, iconography, Cracow


Messianic-martyrological iconography may be deeply rooted in the tradition of Polish art, but it was a marginal form of expression among the Cracow painters of the second half of the 20th century. This is a paradox of a kind, as this period includes the 1980s, the decade when the society, oppressed by the Communist regime, turned to the Church to seek a more profound sense of their painful experience. From the perspective of Polish culture, messianic-martyrological iconography was a crucial factor constituting national identity, especially in the periods of loss of independence. This was the case in the time of the Partitions, the Polish-Soviet war, and the Second World War. Formed on the foundations of Poles’ traditional religiousness and the messianic philosophy of contemporary literary and intellectual elites, martyrological iconography visualized the theological-historiosophical sense of suffering, the role of Poland among the nations of the world, and the eschatological perspective on history.

Also in the 1980s, within the independent culture framework, artists quite frequently reached for this already proven repertoire of signs and symbols; considering the socio-political context this seems quite natural. That was the case in other regions of Poland (outside Cracow), where messianic-martyrological iconography nearly became the stereotypical label for the whole independent culture phenomenon. This set of symbols was used both by the older generation (e.g. Edward Dwurnik, Łukasz Korolkiewicz, Marek Sapetto, Wiesław Szamborski, Jan Rylke, Jerzy Kalina, Andrzej Bielawski), and by debuting artists. Such young painters as Maciej Dowgiałło, Jacek Staniszewski, Leszek Żegalski, Jerzy Truszkowski and members of “Gruppa” expressed the ethos of the times in which they happened to live, using grandiosity or irony. The artists mentioned participated in a massive artistic-social phenomenon: around a thousand artists of various branches of art. Martyrological iconography entered the bloodstream of communication in the independent society. Clandestine publications, graphics, a seemingly infinite number of underground post office stamps, posters, billboards, street graffiti, church decorations of Easter Tombs, were teeming with martyrological signs and symbols.

Despite the popularity of the trend, ever since politically-engaged art exhibitions started to be organized in the 1980s, questions arose within the movement, and negative opinions and doubts appeared concerning the artist’s duty towards the society and the idea of artistic form.

In the beginning of 1986, the monthly “Znak” published the famous debate on Krystyna Czerni’s article “Crisis of the engaged art”. The author, dismayed by the artistic quality of independent exhibitions, stated: “I realized that this unsettling phenomenon has lost its temporary and incidental character and begins to conquer wider and wider circles of imagination. This imagination has been dominated by a fixed, actually quite limited, vocabulary of symbols and implicative-metaphorical expressions. Thus, the vocabulary includes: bars, chains, shackles, flags, all kinds of ties and bonds, and drapes – purple, obviously. But also candles, blind-covered eyes, cut wings, and blood-stained bandages, that is all the indispensable attributes and accessories that serve to keep us in the state of permanent national-memorial-martyrological festival, which Kisiel used to mock so much”.[1] At the same time, in her critical text, Czerni indicated the uniqueness and value of the Cracow exhibition held in the cloisters of the Dominican monastery, entitled Towards the person. The exhibition created “a kind of precedence in the recent history of exhibitions in church surroundings, a precedence that »strengthened hearts« to a greater extent than many other spectacles, organized »to honour« and »to commemorate«. Amidst historical tombstones, in the area of the cloisters, I suddenly saw our reality – not the collective, festive one, but our own, the one individually created in each of us, reflecting the human, not only the national drama – and yet not indifferent to the history happening now”.[2]

Krystyna Czerni aptly grasped the peculiarity of the Cracow figuration presented in the exhibition Towards the person [fig. 1]. The Cracow artists reached for Christian iconography as a result of their conviction that the emerging metaphysical perspective will offer a more profound, more culture-rooted insight into the human being. At the same time, Cracow-based painters manifested a distance from the stereotypical martyrological art, sign-based and poster-like, in which individual fates are unnoticeable, and the visual form is usually schematic and necessarily flashy. Even the members of the Cracow group “Wprost”, who had been creating critical, socially and politically engaged art since the 1960s, in the Dominican exhibition expressed the drama of existence in a lowered, more personal tone. The title of the exhibition unambiguously pointed at the source of this homocentrism, based on Christian personalist reflection. These artists’ attitude is to some extent symptomatic of a wider phenomenon, that is Cracow painting after 1945, which sought its own paths and a deeper sense in metaphysics. It must be noted, however, that the best works of that current did not draw on the martyrological-messianic tradition, but on Christian anthropology, especially mysticism.



It is difficult to discuss Christian mysticism in art, as the very experience of direct union with God escapes all attempts at description and illustration. Despite the fact that there is vast literature on the subject, almost all authors notice the elementary antinomy in the experience of an artist and that of a mystic. As for a poet, “the more fully he realizes the idea of a poet, the further away he is from the idea of a mystic […]. By definition, the more a poet is a poet, the more intensely he feels the need to share his experience with others […]. On the other hand, the more a mystic is a mystic, the weaker his urge to express his experience to others”.[3] Therefore it is very rare for a mystic to be an artist. This private, individual, emotional union with the personal God is “not for sale”, thus it does not need to be externalized by visual, literary or musical forms. “It is exceptional for a mystic to be obliged to share the mystical experience with others”.[4]


The mystics of Cracow need art

In Cracow, there are two such exceptions: two visionaries from the first half of the 20th century, sister Faustina Kowalska (1905–1938) and sister Karolina Olszowska (1900–1956). They were somehow similar: they were both apostles of Divine Mercy, they both received revelations, and were obliged to share them. In effect, they left a peculiar kind of mystic literature. They also both felt the need to illustrate their visions, which resulted in the creation of holy images. Being aware of their own limitations in the field of art, they searched for artists who would be able to produce paintings of adequate quality. In both messages there is a strong national accent, which places the two mystics in the current of mystic-messianic iconography.

While the figure of saint Faustina Kowalska is widely known, and the paintings representing her vision, Jesus I trust in you, spread the worship of Divine Mercy all over the world, Karolina Olszowska is known to few. Therefore, merely for the sake of this article, the life and message of the latter will be briefly presented below.

Karolina Olszowska, a tertiary, was born in the village of Lubień (near Myślenice);[5] her life was marked by poverty and suffering. Her disability prevented her from moving on her own. She lost her sight at a young age, which she then miraculously regained. She spent most of her life in Cracow, where she created prayer groups and shared her visions with others. She saw the sense of her suffering, as she believed to have been “chosen by God, One in Trinity, to bring to the world the revelation of the coming of the Kingdom of God. She believed herself to be a sacrifice offered to the Kingdom for Poland and for the redemption of all souls, as a volunteering penitent”.[6] She left several dozen notebooks, diaries and holy appeals, in which, in the 1940s, she had foreseen the end of the war, the fall of Communism, and the Polish Pope. She was familiar with the message of sister Faustina about the Divine Mercy, and she propagated it in her prayer group. There is a certain connection between that message and her own vision, represented in the crucifix created by Aleksander Trojkiewicz: the cross is four meters high, the body of Christ heavily bleeding, with a heart on His chest, from which beams extend, with the words “My people, speak unto me all your sorrows” [fig. 2]. Sister Karolina called the cross The Great Mercy. It is now placed in the Penance Chapel in the Jasna Góra monastery. Karolina Olszowska also provided inspiration for the creation of several oil paintings and embroidered chasubles; the works were realized according to her own drawings, in which she presented her revelations. The author of some of the paintings was Stanisław Witkowski. Two paintings present the Mother of God, who tries to stop the bloodshed of war and to protect mankind from mutual hatred and destruction; others present the vision of the Kingdom of God and the church of the Kingdom of God. This monumental church of the Kingdom of God, designed in an unusual architectonic form, was the most important work she wanted to realize.


Both those two mystics, and others known in the history of Christianity, were critically scrutinized by those in care of the magisterium of the Church. For the Church has always consistently expressed the opinion that only those mystic experiences can be approved that neither replace nor blur the entire understanding of the doctrine of the Church, the deposit of faith. Christian mysticism is the bridal union of the believer with the personal God in the Mystic Body of Christ, which is the Church; “this mysticism does not forget that an individual is incorporated in »the Body of Christ«, and thus must rely on the community of believers living in Christ (Ignatius Loyola: mysticism of service to Christ visible in Church)”.[7]

Therefore, despite a certain spiritual relation between art and religion, great caution must be applied to the declarations (both by the artist and the critic) of expressing a mystic experience in a painting, a literary work or a musical piece. Not every ecstatic, elongated form of the figures (El Greco), luminist expression (Rembrandt, Caravaggio), mysterious, surrealist narration, or conglomeration of esoteric signs and symbols realizes the mystic contemplation of God. They are merely artistic means, which enable communication and expression of spiritual content in a given cultural-religious context. “In this work which transfuses the invisible world into intelligible formulae, you are the masters. It is your profession, your mission; and your art is that of wresting its treasures from the heaven of the spirit and clothing them anew in words, in colour, in form, in accessibility”.[8] This artistic skill may be useful in illustrating, visualizing and apprehending the religious, transcendent, spiritual reality, especially the mystic experience. Regardless of the personal metaphysical experiences of the artist, we can examine how the whole artistic work or a single piece is rooted in certain spiritualities, we can describe the applied iconography, or debate whether the author appropriately – with respect to history – illustrates or expresses the noted states of mystic ecstasy.


Religious painting in Communist Cracow

Despite the programmed laicization of culture in the Communist period, the artistic circles of Cracow never abandoned religious references in art. While examining the art of the Małopolska region after 1945, one can observe a multitude, and a surprising continuity, of artistic phenomena that stem from theological-metaphysical reflection. A continuum of such phenomena can also be observed today. This situation was undoubtedly affected by: the conservatism of the intellectual elites, the uninterrupted cultural continuity since the 19th century, the clerical character of the city (with numerous monastic orders, several seminaries, and the Pontifical Academy of Theology), and the activities of the “Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly and the publishing house “Znak”. The academic character of the city, an effect of the great number of higher education institutions and the existence of vast artistic-humanist circles, fostered the polarization of attitudes, from conservative to avant-garde ones. Nevertheless, the presence of the local, intellectually potent Church, open to dialogue and the post-Council changes, and boasting many distinguished personalities, could not remain unechoed in the creations of the greatest artists.

It will not be an exaggeration to state that many Cracow artists, despite living in the Communist reality, looked to Christianity to find the sense of artistic creation.

In this aspect, the artistic circles of Cracow clearly stood out from the background of modern art, which usually sought its roots in left-wing or liberal ideas – rather distant from the Church. A local phenomenon was the presence of a large group of artists who derived their attitudes, the content, and the form of their paintings from metaphysical experience and profound religious reflection. It is the subject of this article to describe such attitudes and the differences between them, manifested in art and rooted in other spiritual formations. Therefore attention will not be extensively devoted to sacred art realizations, especially not those designed for church space, as their visual form is diametrically different from that presented in the official circulation on exhibitions. This duality, division into church art and exhibition art, is present, for example, in the works of some members of the avant-garde Grupa Krakowska. In the Podkarpacie and the Małopolska regions, it is surprising how many sacred interiors were decorated in a “godly” manner with paintings and sculptures by modern artists – e.g. Adam Marczyński, Wanda Czełkowska, Julian Jończyk, Janusz Tarabuła, or Danuta and Witold Urbanowicz. Undoubtedly, an important contribution to Polish sacred art are the polychromies and stained glass by Wacław Taranczewski, a colourist and professor of the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow; yet his paintings produced for the official exhibitions lack religious inspiration. No such duality is noticeable in the works by Jerzy Nowosielski [fig. 3], Eugeniusz Mucha, Teresa Stankiewicz [fig. 4], or Adam Brincken. All of their work: both the private/lay art present in the public space of exhibitions, and the art commissioned by the Church to function in the church space, is in fact homogeneous and derived from a profound theological insight. As Nowosielski claims, “the most significant point in my art programme is not to separate the spheres of the sacred and the profane”.[9]


Eschatological mysticism

Such a unique case of integrity of the artistic and religious mystic experience can be seen in the tradition and theology of the icon. This is because the Orthodox church treats the whole of reality as divinized, that is unified with God to a great extent. Thus, in all manifestations of life, both private and social, a mystic element can be found, for the reality of the Kingdom of God has already been given us, here and now, and will be completed in the moment of Parousia.

The effect that the Orthodox church has on the modern artists of Cracow is enormous. This is undoubtedly connected with the geographical closeness of the regions where the Eastern church dominates, and with the fact that many Cracow students came from Orthodox or Unitarian backgrounds. For them, after Lviv was separated from Poland, the capital of Małopolska became a natural academic destination. However, the presence of Orthodox-inspired art in Cracow was most significantly influenced by the work of Jerzy Nowosielski (1923–2011),[10] who managed to fuse the experience of modern painting (in particular, abstract painting) with the icon. At the same time, he was endowed with an extraordinary personality, which combined the artistic, theological, and cultural senses into a coherent whole; equally importantly, he was able to convey those senses in written texts and statements. Nowosielski, as he himself admitted, arrived at the icon starting from the experience of modern art. In the Orthodox religion, he found the justification for his own artistic intuitions, in which a painting is mystically comprehended as an angelic subtle being, which includes the contemplating viewer in the mystery of God. “A painting is preaching the Gospel. That is because it indicates that an eschatological reality may come to exist”.[11] “All painting is sacred, connected with eschatological hope”.[12]

In Nowosielski’s work there are many lay motifs which should be classified as sacred due to their theological grounding. These are portraits, landscapes, interiors, still-lifes, multi-figural scenes, but mostly female acts [fig. 5]. This is because he believed that a study of the female body sensitizes the viewers to the Edenic reality, where they experience the primeval harmony, untainted by sin and transience.

Why does a painter, in order to acquire the awareness of an artist, have to study a naked woman. Why? I shall refer to […] a text by Cennino Cennini. Namely, in his treatise on painting, he states that, having been banished from Eden, people took to various works, and also started to create art – Adam started to create art, he started painting. What could he find to paint, after being cast out of Paradise, away from a marvellous garden, to the cursed earth? He painted Eve, the one whom he remembered from before she ate the fruit.[13] Art is a spiritual act, which tries to lead us out of the situation of cast-outs from Paradise.[14]

Jerzy Nowosielski also authored numerous polychromies and icons, located in both Orthodox and Catholic sacred space. Although the subject of this article is not worship art, it must be mentioned here, to facilitate the understanding of the role and completeness of the artist’s creative personality. Moreover, he authored projects for the interior and architecture of churches, and expressed his original, profound reflections on theology and art in written texts and conversations. Taking all this into consideration, it can be definitely stated that Jerzy Nowosielski introduced religious painting and the associated issues into the sphere of the artistic experience of modern times. The greatness of his talent bridged the chasm between the sacred and the profane, which was created by the laicized culture and the Communist doctrine. The effects of his extraordinary personality can be noticed both among the artists of older generations, with whom he collaborated while painting churches: Adam Stalony-Dobrzański (1904–1985) and Witold Damasiewicz (1919–1996), and among the younger artists, especially his students, such as Władysław Podrazik (born 1953) or Krzysztof Klimek (born 1962). A conclusion is due that Jerzy Nowosielski marked modern Polish art with the imprint of the theology of the icon.[15]

The echoes of the eschatological mysticism of Eastern Christianity can also be observed in the abstract painting of Andrzej Bednarczyk (born 1960), Jan Pamuła (born 1944), and Tadeusz Gustaw Wiktor (born 1946). All these artists also make references to protestant theology in their works, and develop their own, original metaphysical reflection.


Affirmative mysticism

Integrity of the creative attitude, similar to Nowosielski’s, also based on religious experience can be found in the work of Teresa Stankiewicz (born 1928). She has authored numerous polychromies, stained glass windows, and sacred interior designs in Poland and abroad (especially in Austria). Besides those she has produced a great number of paintings presented at many different exhibitions. The form of her works – both the private ones and those for the church space – is coherent, and highly individualized: a testimony to her personal experience of the Mystery of Salvation [fig. 6]. Without a doubt, in her work there are traces of the tradition of icon painting, but rather that from before the Great Schism. Her inspiration is mediaeval art, especially Catalonian. In the composition of her paintings one can notice a certain fascination with the illumination of the oldest manuscripts. What links her works to the experience of modern art is the synthesized form of the figures and the surrounding, in its simplicity aiming at the ideographic representation of reality. At the same time, it helps retain the lyrical subtlety and chromatic sensuality. Describing the last paintings by Teresa Stankiewicz, Wojciech Skrodzki remarks: “First of all, the dissimilarity lies in the colour tones, and a slightly different sense of form, more free and generalized; the pictures are much less concrete with respect to meaning, although they still have the character of sacred experience of the world. They are such creations that most promptly invite the label: misterium mundi, as the hints of the form of the visible world that appear in them create this inimitable aura of the mystic secret”.[16]

A lyrical world is also created in the paintings and drawings by Jerzy Skąpski (born 1933). He is another artist that can use the same repertoire of forms to paint evangelical scenes for a church and to express himself in small, private pieces [fig. 7]. He is chiefly known for his monumental stained glass windows, which he produced for modern churches all over Poland. The extensive narration that he uses is constructed with artistic devices reminiscent of a child’s simplicity, and resembling Chagall’s compositions. Despite picturing sometimes tragic scenes, Skąpski seems to be reconciled with the world. In his painting, the Franciscan spirituality is visible: the mysticism affirmative of the whole experience of the time given to man.

A much sterner form is characteristic of paintings by Eugeniusz Mucha (1927–2012). He uses strong, expressive, “coarse” modelling, clear, intense colours, and very tight, multi-thematic composition consisting of many plots. Fascinated with folk art and provincial Baroque paintings from small wooden churches, he rejected academic knowledge and the form of socialist realism to pursue the goals of authenticity of expression and the communicative power of an artwork. All that considered, he also surprises the viewer with “fresh” and sincere religious thinking, which leads him to rich icon-creating invention in the numerous realized polychromies and in private paintings [fig. 8]. “It seems that the painter consciously humanizes religion, and brings universal, theological truths closer to the truth of individual, everyday existence (Nativity, 1972) [fig. 9]. He mixes »divine« time with »human« time. His religious art is considered »heretic« by some, and valued by others for the iconographic invention and the courage to testify to his own experience”.[17] The artistic attitude of Eugeniusz Mucha visibly relies on simple, but consistent asking of deep existential and theological questions. The answers that the artist formulates in his painting, especially in his last period, are a testimony to complete confidence in the Crucified and Resurrected Christ.


Impact of personalism and negative mysticism

A search for simple painting devices to express a mystical experience of trusting in God is what characterizes the works by Stanisław Rodziński (born 1940). His works are usually dark, with a strong luminist accent, which seems to be the proper carrier of the metaphysical tension. This light, which is given symbolic and expressive meaning, enters in a relation with the silhouettes of people, houses, and objects, thus creating the impression of divinization of the forms and the landscape. The effect is strengthened by the stern, thick, almost relief-like layering of paint – like the elementary, primal matter open to the act of the Spirit [fig. 10]. His painting is marked by Franciscan ascesis and simplicity, which, despite its austerity, was open to the world and the other human being. There are also hints of lessons from late Rembrandt, finding the theological foundations of his tenebrist art in negative mysticism.

Stanisław Rodziński’s childhood was marked by the sanctity and martyr’s death of his aunt, a Dominican, Julia Rodzińska (beatified in 2000), murdered in KL Stutthof. As the artist admits, his spirituality was undoubtedly influenced by the then academic chaplain who conducted the formative groups, Rev. Wacław Świerzawski (at present bishop emeritus in the Sandomierz diocese), and contacts with the circles of the “Znak” publishing house and the “Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly. Although all of Rodziński’s painting can be classified as sacred art, not many of his realizations are to be found in church space. The iconography of the artist’s paintings covers a whole spectrum of evangelical scenes (with the prevalence of Paschal themes), yet their individual character, and powerful load of psychological truth, favour private contemplation rather than the organization of a congregation. However, it is difficult to imagine modern religious art without Rodziński’s contribution: the artist consistently and broadly introduced Christian themes into the world of lay culture, and at the same time opposed those Church members who would like to see art as decorative, “unproblematic”, illustrating evangelical contents “sugar-glazed” with trivial beauty. In fact, Rodziński could be the subject of Jacques Maritain’s words: “And a Grünewald, a Zurbaran, a Greco – what gratitude we owe them for having thrust aside the barriers of extraordinary masterpieces, which threatened to confine the signs of faith”.[18]

The increased interest in Rodziński’s work came in the dark times of Martial Law, when a large group of artists became engaged in an independent exhibition movement, creating an alternative to the official artwork circulation. Boycotting the policy of the Communist regime, the artists started to display their works in churches and neighbouring, church-owned locations. Religious motifs were dominant in the expression of the existential state of both individuals and the society. In Rodziński’s work, there are several paintings that could be classified as martyrological (Pieta of the Wujek Mine, 1983; Mother (in memory of Rev. Jerzy Popiełuszko), 1984), but the muted emotions and the concurrent contemplative character of the paintings favours reflection extended by the religious rather than political dimension [fig. 11]. In this context, Stanisław Rodziński’s work became fundamental for the independent culture movement, as his self-governing attitude was not formed at that time as a result of political tensions, but was a consequence of earlier choices and internalized values.


Against the background of the independent culture movement, Cracow artists’ works clearly stood out as different: the elements of figurative art were quite prominent, and marked by the desire to represent the existence of man, both as an individual, and in social-political relations. Since the 1960s, Cracow was the base of the artistic group “Wprost”, whose members created articulate, engaged art. Their access to the independent culture movement, as was the case with Rodziński, was not triggered by the emerging political situation, but was rooted in earlier decisions. Unlike Rodziński, though, they did not declare themselves (except for Maciej Bieniasz) to be religious persons. And yet in their works, the members of “Wprost” often reached for Christian iconography, which they regarded as an important element of culture, facilitating the communication of senses significant to a human being. Since the very beginning of its existence, the group was almost journalistic in character: socially and politically engaged, diagnosing the reality, revealing its absurdity and hypocrisy. “Wprost” members frequently used martyrological iconography in their repertoire of artistic means; at the same time they created memorable symbolic works: Zbylut Grzywacz in his painting Shadow (1982), marks a worker’s back with scars from the image of Our Lady of Częstochowa; Jacek Waltoś, in A gate on both sides – Easter Saturday, from the cycle Triple Pieta (1983) introduces a Christological figure, emerging from a beam of light, among the people kneeling at the gate of the Gdańsk shipyard [fig. 12]; Leszek Sobocki (the author of the highest number of martyrological works) presents a half-naked act of a woman with her hands bound, with beams of light forming a cross behind her back (Polonia, 1982).


In the circle of Stanisław Rodziński and the group “Wprost”, at the beginning of 1980s, the activity of the younger generation started, who were just as strongly engaged in the independent culture movement. They were artists whose religious attitude was shaped by the personalist teaching of Pope John Paul II, the philosophical anthropology of Rev. Józef Tischner, reading “Tygodnik Powszechny” and the publications of “Znak”, and attending academic church groups of formative character. It is impossible to overlook the numerous publications, released and willingly read at that time, of Christian mystics, such as St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, Origen, or Thomas Merton. In the face of the crisis of humanity and interpersonal relations, of the experience of a life in a “refused”, “rationed” reality, of the government’s violating the society, the possible reactions could have been apathy, surrender, conformism, or internal exile into the so-called “small stability”. Yet many Cracow artists of the young generation chose a different path: searching for more profound, fundamental senses of their life. Naturally, those significant experiences pushed them towards faith and the Church, which, at that time in Cracow, offered diverse forms of religious encounters, deepened theological-philosophical reflection, and the company of open people who were skilled in conversation.

Those young artists, such as Grzegorz Bednarski and Aldona Mickiewicz, treated faith very seriously, and the many references to Christianity in their work do not only stem from cultural fascination, but from their inner conviction that the experience of faith is constitutive for each of them. The hunger for the metaphysical is visible in their painting, both in the themes and the visual form.

Grzegorz Bednarski creates in a vivid, expressive manner, in the whirlwind of abundant painting substance. With great ease, intuitively, he combines ecstatic forms of human figures or their fragments with drapes, elements of architecture, or objects, to produce elaborate, multi-plot compositions. He paints the mystical visions of the saints [fig. 13] and the scenes of their martyrdom. He also creates monumental cycles: Movement with an ecstatic figure [fig. 14], A Hedonist painting Crucifixion, or Ash Wednesday. Additionally, every few years he takes up the themes of St John’s Apocalypse.

Another artist, Aldona Mickiewicz’s painting is poles apart from Bednarski’s with respect to its expression, even though they share an attachment to the observable reality. Bednarski’s “Baroque ecstatism” is opposed in Mickiewicz’s painting by the static form and hushed contemplation. Also Aldona Mickiewicz undertakes themes of mysticism, but they are expressed by means of objects – used up, everyday things. She paints and draws Pascal’s Coat, Attributes of the Saints, Scala Mistica [fig. 15], or the table from the Cenacle. She is also interested in the objects used in the liturgy (Chasubles, Hortus conclusus from the cycle Paraments), objects that have been “prayed”, and prayer itself (Penitent women, Ex vota). The hunger for mysticism, manifested in her paintings, is perfectly visualized by a small painting Two tin vessels – for Jakob Böhme [fig. 16]. The whole frame is filled by the title vessels placed on a metal tray – nothing except those simple objects, and yet the subtle play of light and shadow on the tin material brings movement and life into the still-life composition. Illumination occurs: empty vessels are filled with symbolic light.


Among the Cracow artists active in the 1980s in the church-related, independent exhibition movement the dominating attitude was the personalist one;[19] those authors advocated metaphysics experienced in culture and the surrounding reality of people and objects, rooted in the Christian experience of God-Man. The artists believed that creative work in the centre of which there is the human being, work which shows both the beauty and the drama of human life, enables a momentary union of that which, in the everyday struggle, seems un-unifiable. By pulling the viewer out of the daily routine, insipidity, and hopelessness, for a moment this art reveals the – often lost – dimension of sense, inscribed in our humanity. This attitude also entails a mistrust towards abstract art, conceptual art, and all art that wants to be “pure”, focused on itself, aspiring to extra-personal, nirvanic mysticism. That is the kind of art that Jacques Maritain, a personalist, aptly diagnosed:

As to the order of action and human destiny, what can poetry as regulating moral and spiritual life, poetry to be realized in conduct, introduce into it except counterfeit? Counterfeit of the supernatural and of miracle; of grace and the heroic virtues. Disguised as an angel of counsel it will lead the human soul astray on false mystical ways; its spirituality, diverted from its own path and its own place, will, under the aspect of a wholly secular interior drama, provide a new sequel to the old heresies of the Illuminati. Purity! There is no purity where the flesh is not crucified, no liberty where there is no love.[20]


[1] K. Czerni, Kryzys sztuki zaangażowanej? Notatki na marginesie kilku wystaw, “Znak”, 1986, nos. 2–3 (375–376), p. 5. This and all other quotes from Polish translated by the translator/A.Ścibior-Gajewska.

[2] Ibidem, p. 12.

[3] H. Bremond, Poeta i mistyk, in: Antologia współczesnej estetyki francuskiej, Warszawa 1980, p. 72.

[4] This and other quotes from Rahner based on the Polish version: K. Rahner, H. Vorgrimler, Mały słownik teologiczny, Warszawa 1987, p. 240.

[5] Vast material on sister Karolina Olszowska is to be found in: Rev. F. Bobeł, Kronika Kronik Lubieńskich, vol. 2, Kraków–Lubień 2006. Besides numerous photographs, the book contains two texts: Z. Kazanowska, Wspomnienia o siostrze Karolinie Olszowskiej Pokutnicy od Krzyża Chrystusowego (1900–1956), pp. 129–157; D. Ślęczka, Fragmenty wspomnień o Karolinie od Krzyża, pp. 129–187.

[6] Kazanowska 2006 (fn. 5), p. 165.

[7] Rahner, Vorgrimler 1987 (fn. 4), p. 241.

[8] A fragment from the speech to artists, delivered by Pope Paul VI in the Sistine Chapel on 10th May, 1964.


[9] Z. Podgórzec, Wokół ikony. Rozmowy z Jerzym Nowosielskim, Warszawa 1985, p. 185.

[10] In recent years, Jerzy Nowosielski’s work has been comprehensively described by Krystyna Czerni in the publications: Nowosielski, Kraków 2006; and Nietoperz w świątyni. Biografia Jerzego Nowosielskiego, Kraków 2011. Owing to her efforts, the artist’s letters and his reflections on art have also been published: J. Nowosielski, Sztuka po końcu świata. Rozmowy, selected and edited by K. Czerni, Kraków 2012; idem, Zagubiona bazylika. Refleksje o sztuce i wierze, editing and introduction by K. Czerni, Kraków 2013; idem, Listy i zapomniane wywiady, editing and introduction by K. Czerni, Kraków 2014.

[11] Sztuka jest zawsze sztuką końca świata – z Jerzym Nowosielskim rozmawia Wacław Pyczek, in: Nowosielski 2012 (fn. 10), p. 72.

[12] Ibidem, p. 65.

[13] Malarstwo jest tajemnicą – z Jerzym Nowosielskim rozmawia Kinga Maciuszkiewicz, in: Nowosielski 2012 (fn. 10), p. 348.

[14] Podgórzec 1985 (fn. 9), p. 183.

[15] The relation between modern art and the icon is extensively discussed in R. Rogozińska, Ikona w sztuce XX wieku, Kraków 2008.

[16] W. Skrodzki, Wizjonerzy i mistrzowie, Warszawa 2009, p. 188.

[17] M. Kitowska-Łysiak, Eugeniusz Mucha, http://culture.pl/pl/tworca/eugeniusz-mucha [accessed: 14 Apr. 2015].

[18] J. Maritain, The Frontiers of Poetry, 1935; https://www3.nd.edu/Departments/Maritain/etext/frontier.htm [accessed: 15 Nov. 2015].

[19] More on personalism by the author: Personalizm w polskiej sztuce, in: Personalizm polski, ed. M. Rusecki, Lublin 2008.

[20] Maritain 1980 (fn.18).

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