Uniwersytet Rzeszowski
Centrum Dokumentacji Współczesnej Sztuki Sakralnej
pl. Ofiar Getta 4-5/35, 35-002 Rzeszów
tel. +48 17 872 20 98

Julia Sowińska

Łódź, Uniwersytet Łódzki


A special place in the Polish architecture of the second half of the twentieth century is occupied by sacred architecture. On the one hand, it is due to the fact that in the communist era architects designing and building churches had the greatest creative freedom and independence; on the other, it results from the same specificity and the role of places of worship. In such spaces it is necessary to introduce a rich layer of meaning and symbolism and to skilfully create the right atmosphere and mood.

The decisions taken during the Second Vatican Council 1962–1965 did not include any detailed guidelines as to how churches should be designed. It seems that the idea and its essence were specified but the actual architectural forms were left to the artists. Hence a great diversity of formal solutions and directions of search, as well as a noticeable pluralism of forms.

An interesting group of objects built in Poland after the Second Vatican Council includes churches whose designers consciously look for inspiration in traditional art and traditional forms, subjecting them to modern reinterpretation. The paper presents and discusses examples of interesting ideas and solutions.

keywords: sacred architecture, the Polish post-conciliar architecture, contemporary art inspired by traditional art


The decisions taken during the Second Vatican Council 1962–1965 did not include any detailed guidelines as to how churches should be designed. The idea and its essence were specified but the actual architectural forms were left to the artists. This resulted in the great diversity of formal solutions and directions of search, as well as the pluralism of forms, which is especially noticeable in contemporary sacred architecture.

It is significant that during the years after the Second Vatican Council architects assertively rejected traditional forms. Such an attitude became a sign of artistic freedom and the escape from the influence of historical styles.

Very bold ideas were realized, which were attempts to answer the needs of contemporary man. The interpretation of a church as ‘domus ecclesiae’, serving the local community of believers, was pushed to extremes.  The statement made by W. M. Föderer while describing one of his projects is significant and characteristic of such attitude; he concludes: ‘The Catholic parish in Schaffhausen (…) gave me the opportunity to create a proper pastoral centre, in which the main room serves neither exclusively, nor predominantly, but simply – as a place for religious services, apart from being used for numerous secular events’.[1]

As a result, the ecclesiastical structure has been completely deprived of its uniqueness and symbolic meaning, thus deprived of sacrum. Although the starting point for such projects was the desire to create a place which would serve the community, surprisingly the communities did not receive them enthusiastically. The believers were apparently tired of looking at churches resembling ‘grain silos’ (fig. 1), ‘ski jumps’ (fig. 2), or ‘school gyms’ (fig. 3).

In the case of buildings as special as churches, the complete break with symbolism of meanings and continuity of tradition turned out to be a blind alley. In order not to lose the essence of a sacred construction, architects designing contemporary churches are more willing to look for inspiration in the traditional architectural form. It is important, however, that they do not imitate or create duplicated forms, but start a creative dialogue maintained thanks to modern solutions, since architecture should stimulate the spectators to undertake a search, and to form multidimensional associations.

Nowadays, when interpersonal communication and information transfer are so quick, architects, when designing churches, quite often use visual effects whose message is direct, and which evoke feelings based on connotations encoded deep in the human subconsciousness. It is connected mainly with the skilful use of light, which has long held a symbolic value. The struggle between light and darkness, day and night has always been associated with the fight between good and evil, the spiritual and material. In sacred buildings, a similar meaning is expressed by the space which opens upwards as well as the forms or individual elements which mark the vertical lines. That which is high and that which is low become metaphors of heaven and earth, sacrum and profanum.

A clear symbol is also the form of basilica, deeply rooted in human subconsciousness as a sign of Church.

The contemporary interpretation of basilica or a hall church is not easy and requires solution of numerous problems. On the one hand, the longitudinal arrangement of the interior causes that the space is directed to the altar, so that, according to the requirements of the Second Vatican Council, it is the centre which becomes the focus of the believers’ attention.[2] On the other hand, it is more difficult to meet the requirement relating to the creation of a strong bond between the believers and the altar, to gather them around this area and give the interior a community-forming character.[3]

An interesting way of interpreting the older forms was suggested by Marek Budzyński in the Church of Our Lord’s Ascension in Ursynów, Warsaw, built in the 1980s (1984–1989). The traditional three-aisle division was the ideological basis for the interior and its starting point (fig. 4). However, this division has not been completely realized, but only suggested by huge unclosed arcades, as if hanging in the air. Thus we are presented with the materialization of a psychological game with the spectator, which is characteristic of postmodernism: the spectator is aware of the great weight of individual wall fragments, deprived of an important supporting point. The effects of juxtaposing light and heavy elements and the impression of defying gravity are enhanced by the row of delicate lamps, as if hovering in the air just underneath the massive arches (fig. 5). Such a solution evoked a lot of emotions among the parishioners. They expressed their concern as to whether the construction is really stable and will not collapse.[4]

The wall surfaces, in which the arcades were built, are not only constructed in an unusual way, but are also originally placed in the interior space. They were divided into segments and arranged perpendicularly. In this way they enliven the composition and set the characteristic rhythm leading to the altar, leaving the homogeneity of space intact.


The open-plan character of this solution made additional lighting in the nave unnecessary. The exceptions are small holes hidden under the vault in the altar area, through which delicate, mystic light penetrates and brightens the space around the altar.

The main source of light for the whole church is the double windows, which are the contemporary interpretation of the Romanesque biforate style.

It is clearly visible, judging from the whole construction, that the architect paid careful attention to the materials used: brick of the warm red colour, rough field stone, bright wood and grey concrete, whose cold hue and austere character intensify the impression of monumentality and dignity.[5]

The altar area is also interestingly planned. The wall closing the presbytery, though flat, thanks to the play of colours becomes spatially diversified. The largest flat surface copies the basic shape of the church façade. Even the stone decoration is the same here. The background and, more importantly, the centrally situated cross and the accompanying arcades have been filled with bricks of a slightly brighter hue. In this way the impression of depth is created.

The cross placed on the facade leads the believers to the interior, the second one, behind the altar, is like a symbolic transition to the farther, deeper, unreal space (fig. 6 and 7).

It is a well-thought and creative project, undoubtedly one of the most interesting to have been realized in Poland since the Second Vatican Council. It involves numerous references to tradition, introduced by means of creative dialogue with the past. Also the references to specifically Polish tradition are explicit here, which becomes very significant in a place like Ursynów. The architect himself often emphasized that this construction is a search for roots, an attempt to ‘recreate our history, which has been destroyed so many times’[6].

The idea of the wholeness and the individual elements and their construction are impressive. But, after a while, a reflection comes. Should the removal of the pillars from the church interior evoke amazement rather than delight? For ages they have been a symbolic reference to the apostles who support the Church. In the original version of the project, the arcades were planned to be supported by the columns.[7] In the end, a less direct and thus modern solution was chosen, but was it not too provocative in terms of the symbolism of the Catholic Church?

An interior arrangement that can be associated with a pseudo-basilica was designed by Władysław Pieńkowski in the Church of St Dominic in Warsaw (1983–1994). The character of the space was determined by introducing a very dynamic supporting structure made of reinforced concrete. The slenderness of forms and sharp angles, the texture of brick walls and beams of light penetrating the interior bring to mind the aesthetics of Gothic cathedrals (fig. 8).

The individual supporting elements arranged at an angle suggest the existence of side spaces. Lowering the side surfaces of the roof intensifies the impression of a three-aisle construction.

Slender and delicate proportions characterize the Church of the Holy Trinity in Łódź, built in the 1990s (1990–2003). Its architects, Marek Grymin and Mirosław Rybak, decided to introduce more direct references to the basilica form. First and foremost, the composition of the interior depends on the clear three-aisle division, where the nave has been roofed with ‘a cradle’ and the lower aisles with a flat ceiling. White ribs, clearly standing out from the dark background of the aisle’s vault, mark the rhythm directed to the altar. On the central axis the space was closed with an apse, whose walls are covered with the most important mural here, presenting the Holy Trinity, in accordance with the church name (fig. 9). Slender pillars of neutral colour do not really draw people’s attention and consequently do not spoil the space cohesion. However, their finials in the form of an equal-armed cross are a stronger feature. They have been formed as a result of contact between the four arches located under the church’s vault.

Although the difference in altitude between aisles and the nave is substantial, such a solution is not suggested by the form of the church. Smooth lines and delicate forms are the most important links between the external and internal part.

In numerous constructions, the three-aisle arrangement visible inside is not reflected in the external form. One example is the Church of St. Albert Chmielowski in Łódź (construction: 1991–2000, project: Marek Grymin and Mirosław Rybak). The form of pseudo-basilica that is visible here is especially popular in the Archdiocese of Łódź. It is a simple form, arousing immediate associations with a church (fig. 10 and 11).

Sometimes, however, the aisle division, characteristic of a basilica, is also marked in the shape of the edifice. Such a solution was employed in the Church of God’s Mercy in Pabianice. It was built between 1989–1997, according to the project of Krzysztof Drożdż[8] (fig. 12).

The building, traditional in form, is very different from the original version of the project. Originally, the main elements of the composition were supposed to be slanting roof surfaces sloping to the ground. Thus, the form of parish complex was to be clearly separated from the background created by residential areas.[9] The designer suggested the form of permeating triangles as a repeated theme.

However, due to complaints that were expressed during an inspection of the building site, related to the tower shape and the height of the nave, the project was modified. The idea of a steep tower was rejected and replaced with a tower resembling the traditional finial of the adjacent chapel, which made it difficult to maintain the compositional cohesion of the building. The idea of permeating triangles forming the building was similarly rejected and the church was transformed into a traditional three-aisle basilica with a transept. Also the façade changed radically. It is now a simple enclosure of the nave with a centrally located high tower.

An interesting fact is that the church was composed on the building site in quite an unusual way. It is situated sideways to the church yard and consequently to the main path leading to the church. The decision not to situate the church frontally to the main route was imposed by the authorities because an oval square with the centrally located monument of Lenin was supposed to be built here.[10] Neither the monument nor the square has in fact been built but the imposed location of the church’s entrance makes it a part of a long tradition of orientating the Christian sacred buildings with a presbytery eastwards and the entrance westwards.

An unusual solution was used in the Church of Our Lady of Succour to the Faithful in Stary Kisielin (1992–1999). The asymmetry, almost invisible in the external form of the church, starts to have an effect in the interior (fig. 13 and 14). On the right, when facing the altar, we see the nave and the aisle of the same height. They have been separated by high arcades. On the opposite side, a solution typical of basilica was introduced: the aisle is significantly lower and has a pent roof above which a row of windows is located, which helps to light the nave.

As a result, a surprising combination of clear inspirations of basilica and a hall church was created. However, there is a question as to whether it is only a sort of architectural joke, a play with the traditional form, or rather the result of superficial and coincidental use of solutions.

Sometimes architects try to vary their projects at any cost. Unfortunately, very often the forms created are incoherent and unoriginal. This happened in the case of the Church of Blessed Ladyslav in Warsaw (construction: 1992–2001, project: Jerzy Czerwiński). Both in the external form and in the interior, the huge domes dominate, the largest of which is in the middle of the lengthened form of the church, a smaller one above the altar, and two relatively small ones are located symmetrically over the side chapels. One can be surprised by the eclectic form of the interior. Countless arcades distract attention. It is impossible to talk here about the simplicity and noble beauty recommended by the Second Vatican Council.[11]

However, the contemporary Polish basilica that arouses most emotions is the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Licheń, built at the turn of the 21st century (construction: 1993–2004). Architects perceive this building as a shame and disgrace for them. During conferences and discussions about sacred architecture it is ostentatiously left unsaid and even if there are some comments, they are merely critical allusions – everyone knows which building is meant but no one mentions its name aloud.[12] On the one hand, it has become a symbol of kitsch, on the other hand, however, it cannot be forgotten that it is an important pilgrimage destination (fig. 15 and 16).

Its architect, Barbara Bielecka, had not designed any church before; she specialized in monumental building, which seems to explain a lot.[13] In the design phase the monastic authorities ordered a reduction in the size of the basilica by 25 metres,  so that it is not larger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, otherwise it would be regarded as tactless[14].

In the end, a three-aisle basilica with transept was constructed, 139 m long (together with the steps leading to the entrance it is 150 m); the nave is 44 m high (as some people proudly remark, it is higher than the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris),[15] and the interior together with the dome is 75.6 m high. At night, the cross on the basilica is lit with red light so that it is clearly visible for passenger planes.

It may be interesting to add that on the cover of the book written by the architect about the basilica, this building was juxtaposed with the Pyramid of Cheops (we learn that it is this particular pyramid from the text).[16] In the book there are tables enabling us to compare the dimensions of the basilica in Licheń with famous buildings from various epochs and parts of the world.[17]

The monumental character and large size of the building can partially be explained by an event from the past – a vision of God’s Mother and Her announcement that a magnificent church devoted to Her should be erected in the vicinity of Licheń.[18]

The artists’ intention was not only to construct the largest building in Poland, seventh in terms of size in Europe and eleventh in the world, but also to create rich symbolism. Nothing is accidental here, for instance: 33 steps leading to the entrance symbolize the age of Jesus Christ, 365 windows refer to days of the year, and 52 doors represent the number of weeks in the year. The motif of barley ears is repeated in the whole construction. It is visible in the shape of window muntins, which resemble fields of grain, and in numerous decorative elements. Even slender columns, as the author claims, ‘are supposed to be associated with romance and loftiness of Chopin or with a walk in fields of grain.’[19] According to the author’s assumptions, an ear is a clear symbol of Communion bread and could also be related to country meadows and fields.[20]

Also the proportions and size of individual elements and of the whole construction are symbolic. But these relations are somewhat enigmatic. For instance the form of construction which supports the dome is supposed to imitate the composition of the canticle Magnificat…[21]

The architects intended to create rich symbolism but that which dominates is the monumentalism of forms from the past, the immensity of porticos, columns that reach the sky and the omnipresence of gold (it is hard to believe that gold was used only to arouse associations with the golden colour of Polish grain…).

The project may be criticized or made fun of, but it is an undeniable fact that this building, huge and expensive, was really created. The appropriate permits were granted, and the funds were raised.

There is a question as to whether it is merely a monument of pride, or an expression of a sort of megalomania? Or is it the fulfilment of a dream about creating an admirable and dignified building, recognizable from afar as a church?

All the above examples show how differently contemporary Polish architects look for inspirations in the traditional shape of the basilica, a shape that is deeply rooted in human subconsciousness and is a clear symbol of the Church for contemporary man.

It is also clear that the inspirations of the traditional architectural forms require a very creative attitude in order not to merely imitate or create duplicated forms, which fail to contribute any novelty to contemporary architecture. Evoking various connotations, they should stimulate the spectators to form multidimensional associations.

As Adriano Cornoldi wrote, in order to create a good sacred building it is necessary that the following meet simultaneously: an enlightened client, a competent liturgist and a talented architect. The Italian expert on the contemporary sacred art concludes that such a conjunction is still too rare.[22]


translated by Renata Latko

[1] W. M. Förderer, „Kunst für kirchliches Bauen“, Kunst und Kirche (1972), no. 35, p.114, quotation after: J. Nyga, Architektura sakralna a ruch odnowy liturgicznej. Na przykładzie obiektów diecezji katowickiej, Katowice, 1990, p.20.

[2] “Instrukcja o należytym wykonywaniu Konstytucji o liturgii świętej Inter Oecumenici from 26.09.1964”, in Ruch Biblijny i Liturgiczny, 1965, no.1, p.91.

[3] „Ogólne wprowadzenie do Mszału Rzymskiego 257” , in Wprowadzenie do Mszału Rzymskiego , Poznań, 1986, pp.9–81.

[4] The fragments quoted here are a part of a paper that was delivered by the author during the scientific conference „Die Basilika. Ein herausragender Bautypus der europäischen Architekturgeschichte” organized in Einsiedeln by the Swiss Werner Oechslin Library Foundation between 20–23 September 2007.

[5] “Kościół na Ursynowie Północnym w Warszawie. Z Markiem Budzyńskim i Piotrem Wichą rozmawia redakcja”, Architektura (1982), no.1, p.69.

[6] Ibid., pp.68–69.

[7] The original version of the project was presented in: ibid., p. 63.

[8] Archdiocese Archive in Łódź, Akta Kurii Diecezjalnej Łódzkiej. Akta dotyczące parafii pod wezwaniem Miłosierdzia Bożego w Pabianicach,1983.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Konstytucja o liturgii świętej, 124.

[12] P. Jasienica, „Kicz jak grzech”, Architektura – murator (2003), no.10, p.62.

[13] S. Weremczuk, Tajemnice Lichenia, Lublin, 2004, p.185.

[14] cf. Ibid., and Opowieści księdza kustosza, Wrocław, 2003, p.40.

[15] B. Bielecka, Świątynia Matki Bożej Licheńskiej, Wrocław, 2004, p.30; Weremczuk, p.189.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] E. Makulski, Licheń. Dzieje sanktuarium. Objawienia Matki Bożej, Katowice, 2004, p.29.

[19] Bielecka, p. 3.

[20] Ibid., p.20; Opowieści księdza kustosza, p.152.

[21] Bielecka, p.14.

[22] A. Cornoldi, “Caratteri dell’Edificio”, in L’Architettura dell’Edificio Sacro, ed. A. Cornoldi, Roma, 2000, p.77.

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