Uniwersytet Rzeszowski
Centrum Dokumentacji Współczesnej Sztuki Sakralnej
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Rev. Leszek Makówka

Katowice, Uniwersytet Śląski


Developing since the Partitions, Polish messianism always strengthened in the periods when the Polish state and the existence of the Polish nation were threatened. In the first half of the 1980s, this tradition, intensified after the proclamation of Martial Law, found its expression in the Easter compositions of Christ’s Tomb. These arrangements constituted an independent, typically Polish phenomenon, joining the liturgical tradition with the national martyrology. The traditional motifs of Holy Week decorations were thus enriched with objects and symbols related to the contemporary social and political situation. In large cities, the compositions were also built by professional artists from the circles of Independent Culture. In this article, to exemplify this phenomenon, Christ’s Tombs from Poznań churches in the years 1982–1985 are presented. By subjecting those compositions to artistic critique, it is hypothesized that the analysed works nevertheless escape the application of the traditional art-historian’s tools, and that they constitute a unique phenomenon that must also be analysed from other research perspectives. The custom of building Christ’s Tombs is also discussed in the context of European religious art inspired by Paschal themes in the second half of the 20th century.

Keywords: Christ’s Tomb, Passion, contemporization, martyrology, messianism, instrumentalization, independent culture, church, Poznań, Martial Law, social-political situation, religious art


The aim of this article is to present Christ’s Tombs as a religious, sociological, and artistic phenomenon, and to extend the perspective beyond the point of view of the history of art alone. The time frame for the analysis is the first half of the 1980s, after the proclamation of Martial Law in Poland. In that period, Christ’s Tombs in Polish churches became increasingly focused on national themes, and the peak of this tendency came in the Holy Week of 1985, the first after the priest Jerzy Popiełuszko had been murdered. In the second half of the 1980s the trend began to dissipate. The first part of this article is a discussion of the phenomenon based on the example of Christ’s Tombs in Poznań churches. The analysis is based on the subject literature and on searches conducted in Poznań-based, mostly church-owned, archives and in the collections of the authors of the analysed designs. Unfortunately, the material obtained does not impress: documentation of Christ’s Tombs, if surviving at all, is random. Therefore the author did not venture to conduct a systematic analysis of the phenomenon, but instead focused only on the presentation of the messianic and martyrological themes featured in Christ’s Tombs in Poznań churches in the period 1982–1985. The presentation is a starting point for the second part of the article, in which an attempt is made at viewing Holy Week decorations from various research perspectives. It must be emphasized that this attempt is merely an introductory proposal or, as signalled in the title, a small contribution to the wider discussion.

            One of the most difficult moments in Poland’s 20th-century history was the proclamation of Martial Law on the 13th of December, 1981. In response, the Catholic Church in Poland almost instantly placed its churches, facilities and infrastructure at the disposal of the society, afflicted by severe restrictions. In fact, throughout the whole of the 1980s the vast majority of the clergy [IU1] supported the opposition, creating an alternative to the official socio-political and cultural life. This support also included artistic life, and it was in the Church and in church space that its main current, named the independent culture, emerged and developed. As Anda Rottenberg states, this was not without reason. First in the period of the Partitions and then during the Nazi occupation, churches were a place where Polish songs were allowed and where Polish customs were observed in a natural way. The same happened in the times of Solidarity, when churches became a sanctuary for most artists,[1] for whom the Church functioned, to some extent, as a patron. Christian culture weeks, exhibitions in church vestibules, meetings with representatives of the artistic world, and wide reception of their works by ordinary people, who “suddenly” became interested in art,[2] played an invaluable role.

Many independent artists programmed their works to touch upon the current issues. Themes related to the contemporary socio-political situation appeared in church space especially in traditional holiday decorations, such as Nativity scenes or Christ’s Tombs.[3] The latter in particular were clear manifestations of Polish messianism and martyrology, translated into the language of the current tragedy of Martial Law and the years that followed.

            Being a decorative form inscribed in the liturgy of the Holy Week, Christ’s Tombs have a centuries-long tradition. The flourishing of this genre came in the 18th century, when the arrangements began to receive more sophisticated forms, lavish ornaments, and mobile elements.[4] At the same time, the underlying theme of the Passion was (and still is) an excellent opportunity to weave in the ideas of national martyrology and Polish messianism, modified in accordance with the political and social contexts. Obviously, the trend intensified during the uprisings and World War II.[5] Similarly to earlier realizations, Christ’s Tombs of the 1980s were compositionally close to Baroque arrangements, designed in the form of a multi-plane environment, with an illusory space built in a theatrical manner.

             It is clearly visible that “politicization” of Christ’s Tombs occurred in the first half of the 1980s, after Martial Law had been proclaimed. The phenomenon intensified after the murder of priest Jerzy Popiełuszko in 1984. At that time, Christ’s Tomb often became a kind of political manifesto, and visiting it at Easter – a patriotic manifestation.[6] The designs were enriched with Solidarity symbols; authors sometimes drew on imagery from the times of the Nazi occupation, or even earlier, 19th-century heritage. The most significant Christ’s Tombs of those times were built in Warsaw and Cracow.

            Frequently, the creation of Christ’s Tombs involved professional artists, especially in larger cities. Unfortunately, there are no detailed statistics regarding the churches in which Holy Week decorations were produced by professionals and those in which the Tombs were built by the parish staff or the parishioners themselves. The available data reveals that in Poznań, a large centre of independent culture,[7] the number of “artistic” Tombs was smaller than the number of non-professionally constructed ones. The most famous Christ’s Tombs created by Poznań artists are those by Bolesław Musierowicz and Wojciech Müller.

            In the composition of the 1983 Christ’s Tomb in the Dominican church in Poznań [fig. 1], the author, Bolesław Musierowicz, placed several dozen black crosses in the foreground, to commemorate the victims of Martial Law. The crosses stood on the church floor and the faithful put flowers between them. Thus the whole arrangement evoked associations with a cemetery. In the middle, over the ground split in two, two black slabs – a cracked tombstone – implied that this was an empty grave. Above it, a half-transparent veil, draped in the shape of V for victory, was stretched up. The light coming from the grave lit it from below, which gave the effect of dematerialization. In the background, clearly visible letters read “Resurrection”, in the characteristic Solidarity font. The Tomb built by Musierowicz at the Dominicans’ the following year featured fewer elements [fig. 2]. Above the empty tomb, a black frame was hanging askew. From the grave, white light shone up the tulle veils. A crucial element of the composition were the many crosses of various shapes and sizes, all brought by the congregation. They created a multi-coloured, fluctuating space in the central part of the arrangement. The crosses symbolized the suffering, offered to the Resurrected Lord with hope for a change of fate in the near future.[8]


            A different concept was at the base of the composition produced in 1985 by Wojciech Müller (with the collaboration of Juliusz Kowalski and Andrzej Piątek) in the church of Our Lady of Sorrows [fig. 3]. The Passion was viewed as a mirror for self-contemplation, reflecting the human mind and the world. A deep hole was dug in the earth which the artists brought to the church. A small bridge leading to the grave was situated in the axis of the altar. At the bottom of the grave, there was a mirror with a spotlight above it. Whoever leaned over the grave could see their own reflection, and looking up – their shadow cast on the shroud-like screen over the tomb.[9]

            The realizations presented above are three of the most interesting ones produced in Poznań in the 1980s, and their authorship is beyond doubt. However, there are other compositions documented, that the author is familiar with, whose attribution is very difficult. In those works, typical motifs appear that were also used in Christ’s Tombs in other Polish cities: V for victory (1985, St Michael’s church), Polish colours (1982, St Ann’s church), newspapers (1984, St Adalbert’s church), bread (1983, St Michael’s), bars and a cellar, arranged so as to resemble a prison cell (1984, St John Cantius’ church), an anchor[10] (1984, Our Saviour’s church), the cross and the contours of Poland (1983, St Adalbert’s, fig. 4),[11] sometimes bordered with barbed wire (1984, St Martin’s church), candles, grave lanterns (1984, the Pallottines’ church), elements associated with the martyrdom of priest Jerzy Popiełuszko, such as a black cassock hung on the cross (1985, St Ann’s), writings created with the characteristic Solidarity font (1983, St Roch’s church), and – commonly recognizable in Poznań – the monument for the Victims of June 1956 (1985, Holy Trinity’s church, fig. 5).


The above-mentioned examples of Poznań Christ’s Tombs, built in the first half of the 1980s, have been presented in this article to serve as a starting point for the next step: indicating research problems that arise in the analysis of martyrological and messianic themes in Holy Week decorations.

            In some cases, professional artists were engaged in the design and realization of the Tombs; in other cases, the whole work was performed by non-professionals. This genetic dichotomy resulted in noticeable discrepancies between particular works, concerning the quality and artistic value of the compositions; they were usually described by critics as oscillating between professional artwork and plebeian art. It seems methodologically erroneous to analyse Christ’s Tombs merely in the categories of art. Applying a wider research perspective is justified by the close connection of those realizations (being not only decorations but also elements of the liturgy) with the Paschal Mystery. Including national-martyrological themes in those compositions, in the period of Martial Law repression, and in tandem with the anti-Communist attitude manifested by the faithful, only reinforced the perception of Christ’s Tombs as a religious-social phenomenon, whether they were professional or non-professional artworks. Therefore, art history or art criticism alone do not offer sufficient tools to evaluate this phenomenon.

            Analysing the artistic value of Christ’s Tombs, it becomes obvious that the more literal the persuasive devices, the lower the value of the composition. Another consequence of the trend was the discrepancy between the aspirations of the artists and the expectations of the Church hierarchy. One of the most serious accusations against the independent art of the 1980s in Poland is the superfluous use of religious iconography, especially that related to the Passion. At that time, as in the period of the 19th-century uprisings, this imagery was seen as a means to propagate the message of the fight for independence. Art became “a mystery of martyrology and suffering of the Polish nation”.[12] The sign of the cross became an important component of the collective consciousness, and functioned, besides other symbols, as a commonly understood signal, used by the society that rebelled against the Communist authorities. As Aleksander Wojciechowski admits, “after 1981 symbols, signs and gestures became a comprehensible language of understanding, while in the conflict situations between the people and the authority they formed a language of social divide”.[13] Also the cross was a crucial element of that language.[14] The excess of patriotic-religious symbolism in Passion scenes, and its regular application in the fight against the Communist regime, inevitably led to the trivialization of the associated content. It is worth noticing that certain Christian symbols used in the new iconographic context, returned after centuries of being absent from churches. One example is the early-Christian anchor, understood as the symbol of the cross, hope for salvation, and being strong in faith.[15] For the needs of the independent art of the 1980s, the anchor was borrowed from the vocabulary of Fighting Poland during the Nazi occupation.

            The marriage of Paschal and national elements raises certain controversies from the theological perspective. In messianism, the nation, understood as an ethnic group and identifiable through the community of language, was promoted to the rank of the subject.[16] The subjective nature of the nation, in confrontation with its martyrology, created the idea of Polish messianism within the Christian tradition.[17] As a result, the nation understood in this way began to exist also as a theological category. This lead was already investigated in Polish theology in the 1980s.[18] Promoting the nation to the rank of the absolute, as the Romantics did,[19] creates a serious problem of competition with the religious absolute, that is God. And yet, although this problem was acknowledged already in the Romantic period, it did not prevent the rebirth of Polish messianism in each subsequent dramatic moment of the nation’s history. Reactivation of the messianic ideas (seeing rebirth of the state as similar to the resurrection of Christ) in the 20th century was fostered by the fact that for some time Poland was the only country that took up the (luckily, almost bloodless) fight against the Soviet occupant and the Communist ideology, and spurred other socialist countries to action. The analogy between the mission and suffering of Christ and the fate of Poland, noticeable in many works of art, concurred with the anthropomorphization of the figure of Christ and contemporization of the drama of Golgotha, as in the earlier periods. The realism and expressionism of many visual representations, their frequently sorrowful tone, and emotional character stood in striking contrast to the rationalist attitudes, devoid of all sentimentalism, which had previously dominated in art.[20] In the case of Christ’s Tombs of the 1980s, with the current state of research, no general conclusions can be drawn; the “theological content” of the artworks must not be reduced to another restaging of the Polish messianism drama. First of all, this interpretation is prevented by the scarce available documentation. Until we have access to broader knowledge of the phenomenon, the only option is to analyse Christ’s Tomb arrangements individually, without any attempts at generalizations. The suggested methodological caution is of vital importance, due to significant theological differences between the national themes introduced in the compositions. The messianic motifs in Christ’s Tombs, illustrating the nation’s elevation to the role of the Messiah, are dissimilar from martyrological motifs, in which the nation is not seen subjectively, but collectively, and which correspond to the suffering of Christ. Signs and symbols used in the composition of Christ’s Tombs are ambiguous, and their sense is comprehensible only in the given context.

            It is most interesting to compare the situation of religious art in Poland and Western Europe at that time. In Polish Christ’s Tombs, the observed characteristics are subjectivity of the nation, and application of an event from Jesus’ life to illustrate the nation’s martyrology. In the west of Europe, the art inspired by the Passion, free from the social-political context, also underwent the process of contemporization and subjectivization, although in this case the instrumentalization was oriented differently: towards the anthropocentric dimension of Christ’s Passion. It was connected with the prevailing opinion that religious art can represent only the human aspect of Christ – only those elements that are in concord with the existential experience. In extreme situations, which were also the prevailing ones (Francis Bacon, Herbert Falken, Werner Knaupp, Antonio Saura, Georg Baselitz), the religious motif became merely a pretext for the artist’s personal message. As a result, religious art related to the Passion came to be a projection of modern man’s condition. It needn’t necessarily be seen as an extraordinary situation – every piece of art communicates the consciousness and the emotional turmoil of the artist’s generation – were it not for the fact that the proportions between the elaborated theme and the personal (conscious or unconscious) reinterpretation were significantly disturbed. For a great number of authors, Christ’s suffering and death turned into a code for an existential event. Christ, humanized, no longer a figure of religious thought, became a tragic hero of our times, prone to doubt and despair, living through modern torments.[21] Both these phenomena: Polish messianism and western anthropocentrism, although formally rather distant, are characterized by a similar process of reduction of the Christian content through individualist contemporization. In the case of Polish messianism, it was the sacralisation of the nation. In the case of the West – sacralisation of man and his dramatic existential experience.


[1] A. Rottenberg, Sztuka w Polsce 1945–2005, Warszawa 2005, p. 283.

[2] B. Tracz, R. Ciupa, Kultura niezależna w Kościele, Katowice 2011, pp. 9–15. On the activities of the Committee for Independent Culture, cf. A. Ruciński, Działalność Komitetu Kultury Niezależnej w latach 1982–1989, „Przegląd prawniczy, ekonomiczny i społeczny” 1, 2013, no. 4, pp. 47–54; B. Tracz, Kościół mecenasem i parasolem ochronnym, “Poza Cenzurą” (IPN’s supplement to “Rzeczpospolita”) 28, 2009, pp. 4–5.

[3] Many of them featured Passion motifs; cf. R. Rogozińska, W stronę Golgoty. Inspiracje pasyjne w sztuce polskiej w latach 1970–1999, Poznań 2002, p. 29.

[4] Christ’s Tomb is a part of the liturgy of Good Friday, commemorating the burial of Jesus through a symbolic adoration (of the place, cross, figure, or painting) and Eucharistic adoration (of the Blessed Sacrament). In some countries, including Poland, the Tomb is the place where the liturgical ceremonies of Good Friday end, and it is the background for the dramatized rituals of Christ’s burial (depositio), visitation of the Tomb (visitatio), and resurrection (elevatio). The custom of building Christ’s Tombs emerged in Western Europe with the development (from the 10th century on) of dramatized liturgy. Since the 16th century, besides the figure of Christ and the cross, the Tombs also contained the Host in a box or in the monstrance. Inside the Tomb there were also cloths needed for the staging of resurrection. In the Baroque, the ceremony of Christ’s Tomb was noticeably enriched and the tradition of the faithful religiously visiting the Tombs thrived; cf. Z. Gorczewski, Boży Grób, in: Encyklopedia Katolicka, eds. W. Granat et al., vol. 2: Bar – Centuriones, eds. F. Gryglewicz, R. Łukaszyk, Z. Sułkowski, Lublin 1995, cols. 882–885.

[5] Noted in the history were the Tombs built during the Nazi occupation in the academic church of St Ann in Warsaw, by students of the Academy of Fine Arts, members of Iuventus Christiana, on the initiative and under the supervision of architect Beata Tyrlińska. Besides the religious content, the Tombs also visualized the martyrology of the Polish nation; cf. D. Kaczmarzyk, Groby Wielkotygodniowe w kościele św. Anny 1939–1944, “Więź” 17, 1974, vol. 4, pp. 112–120; also cf. J. Jaworska, Polska sztuka walcząca 1939–1945, Warszawa 1985.

[6] “[In Warsaw] The longest queues were always at the Jesuits’ in Świętojańska street, at St Ann’s in Krakowskie Przedmieście street, and at St Mary’s in Nowe Miasto district. And after 1984, of course, at Stanisław Kostka’s, where next to the Lord’s Tomb was the fresh grave of priest Jerzy Popiełuszko, the martyr of faith and freedom. At that time, the Church was channeling the national aspirations, like it never did afterwards… and never before, except during the January Uprising.” – says Maciej Rosalak, Grób Pański, “Poza Cenzurą” (IPN’s supplement to “Rzeczpospolita”) 28, 2009, p. 1.

[7] One of the aspects of the independent movement was cultural activity. Outside the censorship-controlled system, literary periodicals were published, and independent artist groups were established. An important element in that play was Poznań Teatr Ósmego Dnia (Theatre of the Eighth Day). After Martial Law was proclaimed, several underground printing houses functioned in the city, e.g. Oficyna Wydawnicza “Syzyf”, Wydawnictwo ”Spółdzielnia”, Wydawnictwo ”Głosy”, Wydawnictwo CND, Niezależna Inicjatywa Wydawnicza “Errata”, Samodzielna Oficyna Literacka i Wydawnictwo im. Lecha Zondka. Wielkopolska Inicjatywa Wydawnicza functioned in Piłah gave Poznań as the place of publication in their prints. An important opinionating role was played by “Czas Kultury”, published since 1985. In Poznań, young writers had their periodicals, e.g. “Już Jest Jutro”, or “Woskówka”. Very often the venues of exhibitions and performances were churches; for instance the Theatre of the Eighth Day performed in Maximilian Kolbe’s church in Konin and the Holy Family church in Piła. Cf. P. Zwiernik, NSZZ Solidarność i opozycja demokratyczna w Wielkopolsce 1980–1990, Poznań 2010, p. 27.

[8] Rogozińska 2002 (fn. 3), p. 30.

[9] Rogozińska 2002 (fn. 3), p. 147.

[10] Rottenberg 2005 (fn. 1), pp. 283–284.

[11] The map of Poland appeared as a crucial compositional element of the Tomb built in St Martin’s church in Warsaw, in 1982. The map was white and red, with Pietá in the centre. Under the map there was the writing – “Christ is dead” – which thus referred to Poland as well, as “the Christ of Nations”. It must be added that Polish colours were often associated with the symbolism of blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side. In the church of the Capuchin order in Warsaw (1983), the map was the background for the monstrance, and so the Host was visible against the map in the location of Warsaw; Rogozińska 2002 (fn. 3), p. 28.

[12] K. Czerni, Kryzys sztuki zaangażowanej? Notatki na marginesie kilku wystaw, “Znak”, 1986, nos. 2–3 (375–376), pp. 4–13.

[13] A. Wojciechowski, Czas smutku, czas nadziei, Warszawa 1992, p. 10.

[14] Rogozińska 2002 (fn. 3), p. 28.

[15] D. Forstner, Świat symboliki chrześcijańskiej, Warszawa 1990, p. 427.

[16] Moje herezje antynarodowe, Maria Janion’s conversation with Jarosław Kurski, http://wyborcza.pl/1,75478,3374302.html#ixzz320LvPpAa [accessed: 30 Oct. 2015].

[17] Currently, messianism is invoked by the movement for the enthronement of Christ as the King of Poland.

[18] Cf. Polska teologia narodu, ed. C.S. Bartnik, Lublin 1988.

[19] Also Zygmunt Krasiński believed that nations originated by God’s act, especially the Polish nation, as the chosen one, cf. A. Fabianowski, Myśl polityczna Zygmunta Krasińskiego, Ciechanów 1991, pp. 6–7.

[20] Moje herezje… (fn. 16).

[21] L. Makówka, Podróż w głąb siebie. Przedstawienia pasyjne jako szyfr wydarzenia egzystencjalnego, in: Człowiek w podróży, eds. Z. Krawczuk, E. Lewandowska-Tarasiuk, J.W. Sienkiewicz, Warszawa 2009, pp. 103–113, 356–357.

 [IU1]I’m not sure what was meant by ‘vastly’. Was it that the vast majority of the members of the clergy supported the opposition or that the support from the clergy as a whole was very large ( then ‘the clergy  greatly supported the …’).

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