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

Grażyna Ryba

Rzeszów, University of Rzeszów


The essence of sacred art, especially of modern one, can be captured primarily via an analysis of religious and artistic phenomena, in which their visual realisation is only one of the elements. The paper discusses modern examples of realisation of Stations of the Cross in different spatial and symbolic contexts. The aim of the study was to present the method of arrangement of the sacred interior and different forms of sacralisation of outer space through the creation of a set of Passion compositions associated with both paraliturgical services and individual devotion. The paper presentes projects by: Adam Brincken and Maciej Zychowicz in the Church of Christ the King in Jarosław, Bronisław Chromy on the grounds of the Church of the Transfiguration in Królówka, Jan Siek in the Church of St Maximilian Kolbe in Oświęcim and Jacek Kucaba in Bydgoszcz.

Keywords: Maciej Zychowicz, Bronisław Chromy, Jan Siek, Jacek Kucaba, Stations of the Cross, modern Polish calvaries


The dominance of Passion themes should be considered a characteristic of contemporary sacred and religious art,[1] and Stations of the Cross are among the most interesting artistic achievements, including the field of sculpture. It should be emphasized that the sculptural composition (alto-relief or bas-relief sculpture) operates in the conventional space of the painting but simultaneously, due to its dimensions, enters the real space, creating a fluid sphere in which life and art permeate each other.

The expression and reception of the representations of the Way of the Cross – a cycle which creates a special visual narrative – depends largely on its place of exhibition, which may be either the church interior, the boundary between the sacred and the profane, or the open non-sacred space.

In the sacred interior, the Way of the Cross is not just a sequence of carved or painted images that build a special scenery related to the architecture but, above all, it is a materialisation of the transcendent element: spiritual experiences of the artist, and then of participants of the Passion service or people devoted to individual prayer. The expression of figures and forms brought into being by their creator is completed by written reflections, often of outstanding literary quality, frequently created under the influence of a particular work of visual art. Thus that work of art constitutes an element of the event unfolding in time and space, and combining action, word and image. The aesthetic dimension of that event, often taken into account by the author of a representation of Stations of the Cross in the way of shaping their environment, tends to be overlooked in analyses done by art historians, who focus primarily on formal and ideological aspects of a work of visual art.[2]

The arrangement of representations of the Way of the Cross outside the sacred interior opens up new possibilities for an artist’s expression. Artworks in the boundary space, in which the place occupied by the viewer determines in a particular way the symbolic reception of a work, include Stations of the Cross built into the church fencing. At the boundary between the sacred and the profane, representations of the Passion are located on carved church doors, very often fitting within a specific historical context associated with a particular place where the church was built. Modern calvaries – sculptures in the open space – are an equivalent of the Way of the Cross enclosed within the walls of a church or in its surroundings. Some of them are part of monumental compositions, usually with a commemorative character associated with lay people or secular events. They give a special dimension to places and facts that they are to commemorate by their sanctification.


The years 1992–1999 saw the accomplishment of interior decoration in the newly built Church of Christ the King in Jarosław.[3] The rector, Rev. Andrzej Surowiec, entrusted the creation of the concept of the whole as well as the painting and sculpture to Adam Brincken[4] and Maciej Zychowicz, who collaborated with him.[5] The artists’ proposal fulfilled the expectations of the investor, who believed that art in the church “should not be naturalistic but symbolic”. It is to be characterized by “incompleteness, an understatement. A comprehensible fragment – a sign – a symbol should be complemented by forms close to abstraction so that the recipients have to interpret the rest themselves”.[6]

In a small, single-space interior one clearly feels the invisible boundary between a light chancel with the accompanying chapels in the altar area[7] and a darker nave built on the plan close to a square. Its diversified, postmodern wall divisions were used to arrange the fourteen Stations of the Cross, which dominate this part of the church interior [fig. 1, 2].

Individual scenes in the form of coloured reliefs take place on the walls of the building but Brincken and Zychowicz included in the composition the space of the nave by introducing the structures formally close to the representations of the Stations, created by the church furniture (pews and confessionals). This procedure makes the people who enter the space of the nave become elements of the composition, forming configurations varied over time; they constitute a variable factor of the whole, incorporated, regardless of their knowledge and will, in the drama of Christ’s Passion as shown by the artists.

The sequence of The Way of the Cross, surrounding the nave, is defined by planes of beige marble cladding but more often by dark, almost black wooden panels, which in the upper sections are broken by the alternating rhythm of faults and contrasts with bright marble tiles and white plaster of the wall above. The black panels become extended in the space by heavy blocks of confessionals. Rows of benches, also black, with sides broken at the top by sharp, short cuts, correspond with it.

On the border between black and beige at the bottom and white above there are stations of The Way of the Cross, in which human figures emerge from semi-abstract, sharp, dark shapes with a rich texture. Bas-relief shapes are marked by red, white and gold streaks, which sometimes take the form of smooth or corrugated brass fields, which are part of the background. The same, glistening yellowish metal forms adorn the confessionals, and the figure of the priest sitting inside as well as the penitent kneeling beside the priest or only a bright purple stole with characteristic embroidery, also designed by the artist, create an unambiguous formal analogy to the figurative elements of each station. Due to a lack of space, during the service of the Passion the faithful sit in the pews and watch the priest walking from station to station, as if the procession of Christ walking to his death, almost as motionless as the surrounding images of the Passion. These, however, form a sequence arranged as a story which moves with the priest around the worshippers, expressing their participation only with rhythmically repeated words and gestures. This experience of a liturgical community is replaced by an intensification of individual experiences during private celebration of the Way of the Cross, when a worshipper walks along the Stations of the Cross alone, focusing only on their representation.

Pairs of reddish columns, running in front of the wall at the transverse axis of the nave, wall pillars and arcaded niches as well as semicircular balconies of the galleries break the flatness of the walls, fuse them with the interior space and provide a setting for particular sequences of the Way of the Cross, suggesting different, changing roles to people celebrating the Passion or just contemplating the work by Brincken and Zychowicz, or staying in the church for any other purpose. The rhythm of the path is discretely marked by a sequence of white uniform rectangles placed between the stations and differing only in texture from the background wall.


Thanks to being placed under the round balconies and a clear division by stripes of white wall, the first representations (station I, stations II and III as well as IV and V) gain stage setting [fig. 3]. Such a composition imposes on the viewer an involuntary role of the viewer-participant of a drama in three scenes. The viewer occupies the place designed by the artist for the curious or hostile crowd, as described in the Gospel account of Christ’s sentencing to death.

Positioned on two sides of the impressive glass door, devoid of framing in the form of a finial and the distinctive base of dark wood panels, the next two stations (VI and VII) are slightly less visible against the light brown background of delicately veined marble. At this point, the Way of the Cross is dissected by the artery in the church architecture, and the scenes of the Passion are also passed by those who do not participate in the service, and even sometimes do not see the representations showed on the stations, like once some passers-by indifferent to Christ on his way to his place of execution.

With the change of direction of the Way of the Cross, its sequence, marked by a path of marble slabs, is penetrated by the penitentiary zone, accentuated by block-like confessionals. In this part of the cycle, a curious viewer or an indifferent passer-by of the previous sequences can become a penitent, confronting the story of their own fall and conversion with the Passion of Christ. The experience the Sacrament of Penance allows the faithful to identify with the suffering of Jesus, gives them a possibility to experience more personally the next scenes of the drama of the Passion, growing until the tragic finale.

Another change in the narrative direction of the Way of the Cross is preceded by a glazed square bay dominated by the expressive, abstract forms of an unusual stained glass window, ascending in violent vertical lines [fig. 4]. The lines grow from a band of black boards, symbolizing the continuity of the way, which correspond to the material of the confessionals and panels accompanying the first stations. Yellow and blue streaks with touches of red, crossed by dark lines of the soldering iron, surround the viewers, dramatically invade their consciousness, building tension which prepares them to experience the last stage of the Passion of Christ: seven stations integrated into four towering blind arcades [fig. 2]. They are included in two segments by massive pillars lined with light brown marble, and the division is reinforced by reddish columns which enter the space of the nave. Despite this, preservation of the continuity of the black panelling line visually unites individual stations and the inclusion of the confessionals in it symbolically weaves the drama of man’s fall and repentance in the last stage of the passion and death of Christ.

The epilogue of the Way of the Cross, dominant in the space of the nave, is constituted by the scene of the Resurrection, placed in the light zone of the sanctuary.

The bas-relief stations combine abstraction with figurative elements [fig. 5, 6], and operate varied relief with the rich texture of unconventional materials, often introducing sunken-relief. Strong, bright colors draw attention to selected elements of the sculptural composition but they are not always subordinate to it; streaks, often placed hastily, constitute a kind of curtain, partly hiding the spatially modelled shape. Similarly, the stained glass placed in front of the glazed wall, hides the image of the profane, which is outside [fig. 4]. The colours are also important in the symbolism of the whole interior of the Jarosław church: the black of the timber defines an infernal zone of death and sin, the beige marble may be identified with earthly existence, the white wall above means heaven and the patches of gold highlight the presence of God, stepping into the human existence.

About the concept of the interior decoration of the Jarosław church, Maciej Zychowicz writes:

Together with Adam Brincken, we tried to build a possibly integral space in a certain opposition to the impersonal nature of the new housing estate, where the church was erected. […] The whole is fastened by as if a tectonic fissure, which acts as a modern ornament, wanders through the various materials of the walls, arranges the location of the Way of the Cross, introduces confessionals in its course as its semantic and formal complement. Through openness of the composition, the use of negatives (e.g. in the representation of witnesses of the Passion of Jesus), the very Way of the Cross tries to invite the faithful to participate in those events and to ask the question about their place in the situations represented. The keystone of the whole is the main altar, whose compositional frame is constituted by the pole of a cross, […] subordinate to time and destruction. This pole is split by an openwork form of the gate-like cross, from which reigns (or, actually, from which comes down to the people), the figure of the risen Christ.[8]


The space of the church interior as the location of a sculpture, and in particular of Stations of the Cross, is an important issue in Maciej Zychowicz’s accounts and achievements. The concept of the artist’s work in Jarosław is part of a sequence of works concerning the Passion: from the Way of the Cross and the interior design in the church of St Hedwig in Krakow (1987–1990) to Stations in the church of St Urban in Kobiernice (2005–2008) and projects of sculptures of the Way of the Cross in Chełm. In each of these accomplishments, the church interior is regarded by Zychowicz as a space of encounter and confrontation of man with God, and the task of the sculpture is to prepare and arrange the plane of that encounter via a kind of dialogue of the author of those visual forms with the recipient.[9]

The interiors of the post-conciliar churches, usually single-space ones, do not have a uniform division into distinct architectural zones. A fluid imprecise space creates large opportunities for the creator of an interior design. In the concept by Brincken and Zychowicz, such a space creates a work of art that is open, that involves a person entering the church, proposes different roles, multiplies meanings, blurs boundaries between the literal and the symbolic reality and thus builds the sacred character of the interior, corresponding to the sensitivity of modern man.[10]


Królówka is a village mentioned already in Middle Ages, consisting of several settlements picturesquely scattered over Wiśnicz Foothills. In the years 1937–1943 on one of the hills in the middle of a settlement, the Church of the Transfiguration was erected,[11] whose tower, visible from afar, dominates the area. The church hill, encompassed by two roads, is preceded by a large square which opens the view of the front elevation of the church with its dominant, tall tower. The churchyard cemetery – the boundary area between the sacred space of the church and the profane of the settlement – is surrounded by a stone fence, which in the south runs right beside the road, and delimits a relatively large area near the body of the church [fig. 7]. Next, the wall gradually approaches the church, and in the north stands right on the edge of the slope, which marks the natural border of the churchyard. Incorporated in the wall there are shrines with Stations of the Cross. They were erected in the years 1984–1985, commissioned by the then rector, Rev. Jan Łysek. Both the fence and the shrines were built of sandstone while the figures were made ​​of bronze, according to Bronisław Chromy’s design, by Stefan Kowalówka,[12] who also cooperated with the sculptor in other projects.[13] Each of the shrines, topped with a sloping roof, contains an openwork arcade closed with a semicircular arc, inside which the sculptural compositions were placed [fig. 8]. The curvature of the bronze arc segment bearing the name of the station divides horizontally the openwork arcade into two parts – scenes, of which the larger, top one contains the main representation while the lower one is its complement [fig. 9].

The composition of each station is highly fragmented and dynamic; operating primarily by means of expression of the contour of slender, moved forms. Slender silhouettes of Christ and the saints are depicted in long robes and their gestures are smooth and harmonious whereas the angular contours of the figures of torturers or reluctant bystanders are expressively twisted and deformed.[14] Silhouettes of animals and scarce objects emphasizing the situational context enrich the composition and at the same time intensify the expression of the whole. An openwork background makes the slightly marked internal modelling visible only at a closer look. Thus, despite the fact that individual scenes of the Way of the Cross are directed towards the churchyard, they also make an impression when looked at from the outside, from beyond the immediate vicinity of the church.

It is vitally important that each scene has as its background a fragment of the rural landscape – with houses, trees and the road [fig. 10, 11]. Thus the scenery of the cycle changes depending on the seasons of the year, and even with the weather, affecting the mood changes of individual scenes. A variable part of the background is also constituted by passers-by, busy with their own affairs and unaware of, or insensitive to, the drama depicted in the image whose involuntary part they become for a moment, just like in the past many people were indifferent to the actual Via Crucis of Jesus. Thus, by setting the Stations of the Cross in the scenery of the village, among concrete elements of the landscape, well-known to all members of the rural community, Bronisław Chromy performs ​​sacralisation of the space extending far beyond the grounds belonging to the church in Królówka.

The first scenes are set against the background of a building of the local co-operative and the road running just behind the wall, in the next scenes the road begins to recede, the horizon is obscured by trees and shrubs growing on the hillside, and the last scenes: Crucifixion, Deposition from the Cross or Entombment tower above the valley and buildings, evoking associations with the view stretching from the summit of Golgotha. The world of the profane, therefore, is not opposed to the sacred sphere but is combined with it ​​harmoniously, enriching its reception. Most of the stations are less accessible from the outside due to the terrain but the field of the openwork arches embraces fragments of the church architecture, giving it a special expression from the perspective of the Passion of Christ, and therefore may also invite reflection of random passers-by.

Stations of the Cross incorporated into church fencing are very common[15] but the work of Bronisław Chromy – through a kind of space subjugation – constitutes one of the more interesting examples of this type. The artist himself did not speak about his accomplishment in Królówka but in the context of that work the words of Jerzy Madeyski gain special meaning: “The real and lasting element […] in Chromy’s art is space and thinking in its terms: space and environment, which – in his case – change into the imperative of a concept. Into the already existing […], and thus in a way enforced element of his sculpture, elevated to the rank of a spatial arrangement”.[16]


In the shadow of Auschwitz, the museum of the German death camp, new housing estates of the city of Oświęcim are developing. In one of them, in the years 1980–1984 was erected a church dedicated to Maximilian Kolbe,[17] a martyr who gave his life for a fellow prisoner in Auschwitz.[18] Among the authors of the church interior was Jan Siek, the creator of the sculptural decoration of the front door,[19] and Jerzy Skąpski, the designer of the stained glass windows.[20]

Twice a year, on the third Saturday of Lent and the Sunday after All Souls’ Day, the Sobriety Brotherhood and the Catholic Intelligentsia Club in the parish of St Maximilian organise a pilgrimage – the Way of the Cross in the intention of the prisoners who died in the camp and of people emaciated by addictions.[21] Individual stations are contemplated in different parts of the vast Auschwitz II Birkenau [fig. 12],[22] and then the faithful go to Mass to the parish church [fig. 13].

Those returning from the Way of the Cross in Auschwitz, but also everyone entering the church of St Maximilian, pass from the outer zone, dominated more or less by the awareness of the existence of the nearby camp, and encounter a symbolic boundary space of the plane of three carved bronze gates leading to the church interior. They were mounted in the recesses of the central part of the church façade, formed from narrow, vertical wall segments, rising towards its axis, divided by strips of stained glass and topped with a cross. It is a kind of triptych, in which each gate is a separate but complementary plane. On the gates scenes of prisoners’ tragedy are shown, woven into the updated biblical narrative and referred to during meditations on the Way of the Cross on the grounds of the camp. Consequently, participants of the service associate the memory of the place with the events documented in bronze images.

In the upper part of the composition, comprising the rectangle of the main entrance, there rises the solitary figure of St Maximilian in a prison camp uniform, dominating the whole scene. The figure is surrounded, like a halo, by a circle of the crown of thorns inscribed in the entire width of the field. Below, there is a dramatic scene of selection for the gas chambers with the characteristic profiles of the Gestapo and their victims – crowded, terrified prisoners hurriedly taking off their clothes and then being rushed to the death chamber.[23] These scenes, known from photographic documentation, took place on the ramp of the camp; descriptions of witnesses are cited during meditations on station III of the Auschwitz Way of the Cross right at that place and then also at the ruins of subsequent crematoria, where stations V and VII are meditated upon.

On the single-leaf door on one side of the church, the tragedy of the children of Auschwitz is depicted. In the upper part there is a Christmas scene, set in the misery of the camp barracks. The solemn joy of this event contrasts with the terrifying image below, showing the drowning of babies in a barrel of water by the camp’s female guards in front of terrified and helpless mothers.[24] These scenes illustrate the witnesses’ accounts that are read in part of the camp designed for women, where – during the course of the Auschwitz Way of the Cross – station IV is meditated on. Sculptural representations arouse associations with the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem.

The most impressive door of the church of St Maximilian depicts Jesus on his Way of the Cross among the prisoners of Auschwitz [fig. 14]. In the centre, there is an inscription: Trust, I have conquered the world and the scene of the Resurrection, taking place against the background of a gate that resembles the opening of a crematorium oven.[25] Subsequent stations are arranged around this composition, so that each of them, being a link to the tragic sequence of events, also refers directly to the central representation.

Sentencing Jesus to death takes place under the supervision of slaughterers in characteristic uniforms with truncheons in their hands (Station I). Christ taking the cross on his shoulders is accompanied by his Mother and emaciated figures of prisoners (Station II), who together with Christ stagger at the first fall (Station III). The next scenes are blurred in an anonymous crowd of emaciated figures, in which only the cross is a distinct and consistently repetitive form. The limp body of Christ in the scene of the second fall is picked up by a prisoner bearing the features of St Maximilian (Station VII). In the meeting with women, accompanied by haggard Auschwitz children, the figure of the Saviour barely emerges in a thin, delicate line against the background of the cross (station VIII). Christ is stripped of his garments together with prisoners arriving at the camp, and their belongings, taken away from them, are piled at the foot of the cross (Station X). The body of Christ hanging on the Cross grows from a stack of human remains in the midst of the terrified crowd (XII). In the scene of Jesus taken down from the Cross, the Madonna mourns him, surrounded by a pile of human bodies (XIII), and his tomb is located under layers of corpses prepared for burning (XIV). In each of the Stations, the form of the Cross returns unchanged, defining the rhythm of the narrative.

All scenes depicted on the doors leading to the Church of St Maximilian form two layers of meaning: the timeless one – religious, making objective the meaning of suffering and death, and the secular one, which consists of separate images, embedded in a specific historical context evoked by the realities of the camp ruins at the time of the Stations being celebrated there.[26] During the contemplation of the bas-relief doors, the experience of matter comes alive, the word takes on the shape of an image, and the creator of the work with his interpretation of the drama becomes a mediator of that experience. The expression of the scenes is strengthened by: the symbolism of bronze and the form of a gate, having multiple meanings in Christian art.[27]

After crossing the church doors, decorated only on the outside, a person enters a large single-space interior with walls finished with jointed brick. The semi-darkness of the nave contrasts with the zone of the chancel, light-flooded and dominated by a monumental cross with a hanging stole, growing from black granite with a shape resembling a triangle sewn on the chests of Auschwitz prisoners. Stations of the Cross are also inside the church but they are reduced to simple crosses encircling the walls in an alternating rhythm. The closed, austere interior brings silence and calm. The contemplation of abstract signs of the cross, devoid of any story, leads to reflection on the meaning of life, suffering and death, and the essence of good and evil. This is a clear opposition between the profane area outside with a detailed dramatic narrative in the boundary zone (on the doors) and the thought-provoking ascetic zone of the sacred in the interior.

For a person exiting, the culmination of the experience of prayer within the walls of the church is constituted by a huge colorful stained glass window depicting the apocalyptic vision combined with the apotheosis of the martyrs of Auschwitz: Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein [fig. 15].[28] That multicoloured, as if immaterial image woven of light, that can be admired fully only inside the church, is located directly above the entrance decorated with realistic three-dimensional bas-reliefs that are of uniform colour of bronze, visible only outside the church walls. Thus the antinomy of the sacred interior and the profane outer space is complemented by a division into vertical zones. The juxtaposition of contrast between the scenes on the doors with the austere chancel and the richness of colourful expression of the stained glass window above the entrance forms three distinct stages of human suffering: dramatic experience, quiet contemplation and apotheosis at the end of time.[29]

Contemporary sacred art often uses the symbolism of juxtaposition of bronze and glass. It was also used, among others, by Bronisław Chromy in the decoration of the door and the window above it in the front elevation of the church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Nowy Sącz[30] or by Janina Stefanowicz-Schmidt in the church of the Pallotines in Gdańsk;[31] however, the decoration of the church of St Maximilian in Oświęcim is one of the most extensive accomplishments of this type.

Symbolic spheres in the urban space develop gradually and not entirely predictably, they are constantly changing, sometimes they disappear, yielding room to others, sometimes they develop being overgrown with meanings. In Oświęcim with its 40 thousand inhabitants, particularly noteworthy is a set of phenomena resulting from the location of the museum of a German extermination camp within the city borders. These include the creation around the church of St Maximilian of the Christian sacred sphere whose radiation extends far beyond the walls of the church. The multi-layered symbolism, present within it, with its keystone of the service of the Way of the Cross, connects the past with the present and constitutes an expression of the Christian attitude in philosophical reflection on the Holocaust. Individual events arranged in the logical structure of a religious and aesthetic event, operating diverse means of expression, have grown gradually and only in general terms had been foreseen by the creators of the parish of St Maximilian Kolbe in Oświęcim.[32]


On the outskirts of Bydgoszcz lies Fordon, once an independent town (until 1973), gradually absorbed by the growing metropolis.[33] On the north east, the district is enclosed by the Fordon Hill (55 meters above sea level).[34] One of the picturesque valleys crossing the hill became, at the beginning of World War II, the place of execution of Bydgoszcz civilians, murdered by the Germans. Already during the occupation the place earned the name of the Valley of Death,[35] and by 1945 the inhabitants of Bydgoszcz had spontaneously begun to celebrate there the Way of the Cross in the intention of the murdered.[36] The Fordon services of the Way of the Cross gave rise to the Passion mysteries, organized there since 2001, bringing together thousands of the faithful.[37] Independently of the secular martyrdom complex, built there in the 1970s, in the years 2004–2008 a set of Stations of the Cross was erected there according to the design by Jacek Kucaba. Together with the Church of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, the Stations form the sanctuary of Bydgoszcz Calvary – the Golgotha ​​of the 20th century.[38]

Pilgrims precede the Way of the Cross with the Holy Mass in the Church of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs. Leaving the church, they pass the entrance to the Valley of Death, symbolic graves of the murdered and sculptures referring to the dramatic circumstances of their martyrdom, and then they follow the path up the Fordon Slope. Among the trees and shrubs growing there, two-meter-high crosses of polished sheet metal were set there, denoting subsequent stations [fig. 16]. On the surface of each of them there are, asymmetrically scattered, small forms shaped like an equal-armed cross; one of these forms – the negative – is filled with a scene cast in brass, illustrating a particular station, while the others – the positives – are covered with mirror-like sheet metal reflecting the sky and trees as well as the face of a person who comes closer to find another tiny image showing the scene of the Passion of Christ [fig. 17]. Next to it, on a stone base, rests a bronze book containing a description of the station.

The trail first leads through the woods, then suddenly turns, trees disappear and the terrain gradually unfolds, revealing the monumental structure of the twelfth station, commemorating the death of Jesus and of the tens of thousands murdered in different places of execution of the 20th century [fig. 18]. It is a white stone wall with a length of 24 and a height of 12 meters, made ​​up of 716 identical modules in the form of equal-armed crosses. The wall is seemingly unfinished, uneven and cracked in the middle so that there is a gap which is filled with an openwork crucifix made of silver steel. In the lower parts of the wall several stone modules are replaced with brass ones. They are decorated with reliefs that refer to wartime and post-war Polish martyrdom. These reliefs in a naturalistic way reflect the scenes shown in the photographs which record individual events.

The plane of the wall with restless, ragged edges – despite its huge size – makes an impression of extreme lightness and even immateriality. This effect is due to the dominance of white stone modules almost merging with the background of the sky. In addition, when seen at an angle, the wall undulates and bends, and its cross-section almost resembles a narrow vertical bar, as if the construction was devoid of the third dimension. Similarly, an almost immaterial record of the symbol creates an outline of a transparent silhouette of Christ, crucified and victorious at the same time, shaped by lines collapsing with tiny faults which resemble the arrangement of pixels in a digital image. The culmination of the path occurs when pilgrims stand in the wall opening, inside steel beams defining the contour of the cross. Then before their eyes stretches the view of a wide valley, divided into even quarters of the city buildings. Under special circumstances, the white wall of the monument is to be used as a background for the projection of multimedia presentations and films. In this way, the “new media” will enrich even more the artistic aspect of the service of the Way of the Cross at Bydgoszcz Calvary.

Jacek Kucaba, the author of the complex, declares that the form of the station has been designed so that by combining “the Way of Christ with the way of man in the 20th century […], everyone could symbolically see themselves and their own conscience in this context”.[39] In contrast, the wall-monument “is a combination of two symbols: suffering and salvation […]. You can read [it] in many ways: as a form of a symbolic, vertical cemetery, a kind of Gate to Heaven or an open book of memory”. The artist emphasizes that “the plane of the wall is open, incomplete – as if new crosses could still join. The new building will also be unfinished in this endless quest for love and forgiveness whose path everyone follows through their life”.[40]

The last two stations – again in the form of two-meter crosses – lead to a secular monument,[41] situated slightly lower, from which – by making a loop walk – you can go to the church of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs. The pilgrimage finds its unique epilogue in images on the church door, showing scenes from the life and death of Rev. Jerzy Popiełuszko and the events of the years 1945–1989 leading to the collapse of communism.[42]

In the concept of Bydgoszcz Calvary, there occurs not only the sacralisation of space associated with the national martyrdom, commemorated earlier by secular projects. As a result of the location of the monumental structure of Station XII at the culmination of Fordon Hill, the past was combined with the present of the city, stretching at its feet. Other links of the chain of memory were included in the scenes depicted, among others, on the doors of churches scattered below, within the city, starting from the Church of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs to the oldest parish church in the heart of the old town.[43]

Among the calvaries erected in Poland today, the one which is accomplished on Fordon Hill is undoubtedly the most innovative. Its shape is probably due to the attitude of the artist, who believes, “that art should speak the language of its time, describing the memory of the past using the language of the present”.[44]


The examples discussed above are characterised by sensitivisation, typical of modern art, to the relationship of a sculptural composition with the environment both in an interior and in the open air, either ordered or left in its natural state.[45]

The Way of the Cross is a space in which there occurs a kind of transformation: the sacralisation of the human being. At the same time, incorporating a work of art in the liturgical action gives the whole the features of an artistic event, in a sense parallel (from the point of view of an art historian) to many contemporary artistic activities. Participants of a service perform specific gestures, joining in the chorus repeating fixed elements of paraliturgical action elements and the texts of reflections prepared by the clergy refer to their personal attitudes. These reflections sometimes arise spontaneously and do not always receive a written form; however, it also happens that, under the influence of an artistic expression of visions of Stations of the Cross, texts are created that are characterised by a high literary level and published in a large number of copies. Among the numerous comments on the stations in Jarosław, the reflections of Archbishop of Przemyśl, Rev. Józef Michalik are noteworthy.[46]

The Church of Christ the King in Jarosław is an example of the growing importance of the Way of the Cross in the design of contemporary sacred interiors, typically ascetic and devoid of excess decoration characteristic of old churches, in which individual stations were often almost imperceptible. The nature of this service corresponds to the individualism of contemporary civilization and allows for uniting individual and communal experiences more than many other forms of worship; hence the multiplicity of search concerning formal solutions of artistic expression of the Way of the Cross. Among them, the work by Brincken and Zychowicz is one of the more interesting proposals.

There are many forms of sacralisation of the space outside the church, connected, among others, with its architectural shape and location within a settlement.[47] The tall tower of the church built in a specially selected place, for example at the top of the hill – as in Królówka – constitutes a point of reference for the inhabitants, the sound of bells regulates the rhythm of work and extraordinary events in the life of the parish community.

The Way of the Cross outside church walls leads to the sacralisation of space in a linear way, developing in time with its own, specific dynamics. When it is celebrated at the boundary between the sacred and the profane, in the sphere of ritual tension between them, it enhances the perception of the manifestations of reality through the prism of metaphysical experience. A simple measure of framing the real landscape of the village and introducing it in the scenes of the Passion of Christ by Chromy in the wall surrounding the church in Królówka may be considered an example of artistic exemplification of this phenomenon.

Secularisation of public space, often carried out institutionally,[48]​​ can to a certain extent be contrasted with the process of its sacralisation,[49] in the realities of Poland present even during the fight with communist ideology, and particularly pronounced after the fall of communism. It happens spontaneously, as during services at Auschwitz and is sometimes made permanent by the art as a result of a deliberate action of an artist, as it was in the Bydgoszcz Valley of Death – “the Golgotha ​​of the 20th century”.

Places of martyrology are naturally sacred spheres because they are inextricably linked with the memory “of suffering, on which in a way is based the essence of the sacred experience”.[50] The symbolic significance of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau camp goes far beyond the Polish borders, and is interpreted differently depending on the cultural specificity of different nations. That is why in this area there are no visible signs of any religion. The Way of the Cross, celebrated there periodically and combined with a pilgrimage to the relatively distant Church of St Maximilian, includes this area in the realm of the sacred of Christianity while the church constitutes the closing of the journey.

It is different in Bydgoszcz with its several thousands of inhabitants: the “islands” of the sacred (churches, monuments, museums) containing references to martyrdom lead from the centre towards the calvary, the Way of the Cross is connected with the symbolic “ascent to the top”; Fordon Hill with its crowning monument “Golgotha ​​of the 20th century” is its culmination and the silhouette of the crucified and risen Christ seems to bless the city situated at the bottom of the hill.

Modern calvaries are monumentalised versions of the Way of the Cross. These are mostly open-air complexes of Passion sculptures, usually located on hillsides, in places of traditional paraliturgical services. They are typically located outside built-up areas but are related to a nearby sanctuary. They may be regarded as a reduced form of the great historical calvaries[51] which attempted to copy the spatial arrangement of Jerusalem’s Via Crucis and where chapels, often richly furnished, were erected at particular stations. Built in relatively large numbers since the mid-20th century, they may be regarded as one of the manifestations of the aforementioned extreme popularity of Passion services and the related art in contemporary Polish religious culture.[52]


The essence of sacred art, especially of modern one, can be captured primarily via an analysis of religious and artistic phenomena, in which their visual realisation is only one of the elements. For the artist, it is a tool of creating (directing) events according to the scenario outlined by theology and liturgy, which itself is to be “a work of art inspired by faith”.[53] In order to activate the recipients, the artist uses the methods known from the theory of open work, allowing freedom of interpretation within the limits of the binding doctrine. The unique examples of realisation of the Way of the Cross in different spatial and symbolic contexts, presented above, break away from the mindless and easily comprehended imitation of solutions known from the art of old masters. They testify to individual artists’ profound reflection on both modern art theory and the post-conciliar Church documents that encourage “the search for new creative forms […] corresponding to the aesthetic sensibility of modern man […] avoiding conformity in this field”.[54]


Translated by Agnieszka Gicala


[1] Cf. R. Rogozińska, Inspiracje pasyjne w sztuce polskiej w latach 1970–1999: w stronę Golgoty, Poznań 2002.

[2] Services dedicated to the Passion of the Lord are usually a subject of the study of contemporary religiosity in cultural anthropology, often with the use of performance theory. Those studies emphasize the importance of space in which the event takes place, also in the symbolic dimension, while the work of art and its value as an important component of the phenomenon is underestimated (cf. K. Baraniecka-Olszewska, Ukrzyżowani. Współczesne misteria męki Pańskiej w Polsce, Toruń 2013).

[3] The church was erected according to the designs by Ewa and Jacek Gyurkovich in the years 1988–1992 (“Rocznik Archidiecezji Przemyskiej” 1997, p. 158).

[4] Adam Brincken (born 1951), professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow (the artist’s biography in: 175 lat nauczania malarstwa rzeźby i grafiki w krakowskiej Akademii Sztuk Pięknych, eds. J.L. Ząbkowski et al., Kraków 1994, p. 383).

[5] Maciej Zychowicz (born 1957), author of numerous works of sacred art (the artist’s biography on the website of the Institute of Art Education, Academy of Special Education in Warsaw: http://iea.edu.pl/index.php/iea/index/pl/kadra/64, accessed: 27 Sept. 2013).

[6] A statement by the rector of the Parish of Christ the King in Jarosław, Rev. Andrzej Surowiec, during a conversation with the author of the present paper on 5 August 2011. It should be noted that the rector not only boldly introduced contemporary art inside the church, but also prepared the faithful to receive the message so that the projects by Brincken and Zychowicz were accepted by the parish community. Subsequent Stations of the Cross were reproduced in calendars issued by the parish, and the rector explained the meaning of the forms proposed by the artists.

[7] The light altar zone also contains the baptistery area.

[8] M. Zychowicz, Przestrzeń sakralna – wspólnota drogi i wspólnota świętowania, paper presented at the conference “Architektura – bezgłośny szept emocji. Integracyjna rola miejsc duchowych w miastach XXI wieku”, organized by the Union Internationale des Architectes and the Association of Polish Architects in Warsaw on 6 October 2007. Elsewhere, the artist writes about the Way of the Cross in Jarosław: “Slightly different is the openness and dynamics of an earlier Way of the Cross, designed for the Church of Christ the King in Jarosław. Those objects are, out of necessity, closed (if only for the reason that timber is their basic material) but their external shape, trying to respond to the internal drama of the forms, is irregular and tending towards openness […]. In the stations themselves, the figurative representation was mostly limited to the figure of Christ. Other participants of the drama (the torturers, the crowd) as well as the load that overwhelms him, are removed into the sphere of anonymity and reduced to abstract forms which fall on him or accompany him. There appear, however, Simon of Cyrene and Veronica as negatives and fragments of figures who are trying to persuade the viewers to enter into those roles” (idem, Czas twórcy, czas dzieła, paper presented at the conference “Fides ex visu”, organized by the Institute of Art History, Catholic University of Lublin, 20–21 May 2010).

[9] In his own commentary to his works, the artist writes: “My attempt to look at the Way of the Cross refers to a specific optics of perception of the situation of the drama, of looking that is saturated emotionally and applies the narrowing of the plan, selectivity of seeing and variability of the perspective. […] It is a dialogue that tries to open up to the audience, involving them in the dramatic events of the Passion, trying to make them participants in those events, but also trying to establish contact with the architectural space of a modern church for which it is designed” (idem, Czas twórcy, czas dzieła, as in fn. 8).

[10] Interiors of this type may arouse objections in supporters of tradition, who perceive the church as an escape from the present and prefer to function within the established routines.

[11] The church was built according to a design by Czesław Boratyński. It was blessed during the war, on 8 August 1943, but consecrated by Bishop Jerzy Ablewicz, Ordinary of Tarnów, only in 1966 (Schematyzm diecezji tarnowskiej 2005/2006, Tarnów 2006, p. 148).

[12] The information is based on the parish chronicle in the Archives of the Parish of Transfiguration in Królówka.

[13] In the same period he made The Way of the Cross according to Chromy’s design for the Church of St Maximilian in Tarnów.

[14] They sometimes resemble figural motifs on ancient Greek vases.

[15] Among the most famous ones are the Stations of the Cross on the slopes of the Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa, made by Pius Weloński in the yars 1901–1912.

[16] J. Madeyski, Bronisław Chromy, Kraków 2008, p. 49.

[17] The church of St Maximilian Kolbe in Oświęcim was built according to the design of Krakow architects Elżbieta and Andrzej Bilski (P. Szafer, Nowa architektura polska. Diariusz z lat 1976–1980, Warszawa 1981, pp. 170–171, 178–179); the history of efforts to build the church is thoroughly presented in the publication by Rev. S. Górny Z dziejów starań o budowę kościoła św. Maksymiliana Męczennika w Oświęcimiu, Rzeszów 2002.

[18] Among numerous publications concerning the saint, particular attention is deserved by: L. Dyczewski, Święty Maksymilian Maria Kolbe, Warszawa 1984; A. Frossard, “N’oubliez pas l’amour”. La Passion de Maximilien Kolbe, Paris 1987 among others.

[19] The door was made by the sculptor Jan Siek (b. 1936), professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, famous for numerous sacred accomplishments (the artist’s biography in: 175 lat nauczania…, as in fn. 4, p. 392). The door was created between the years 1986 and 1989.

[20] Stained-glass windows were made according to the design of Jerzy Skąpski (born 1933) in the Krakow Studio of Anna Zarzycka in 1994 (M. J. Żychowska, Witraże Jerzego Skąpskiego, in: Witraże Jerzego Skąpskiego – monumentalne szkłem malowanie, exhibition catalogue of the Museum of Architecture in Wrocław, Wrocław 2005, pp. 12 and 13; which contains more information on the artist). More on this work by Skąpski can be found in: G. Ryba, Narodziny witrażu i jego znaczenie w kontekście wnętrza współczesnej świątyni, paper presented at the VII International Scientific Conference “Tradycja i współczesność. Sztuka witrażowa po 1945 roku”, Katowice, 10–12 Oct. 2013, organised by the Association of Stained Glass Lovers Ars Vitrea Polona, the Museum of Architecture in Wrocław and the Silesian Cultural Heritage Centre in Katowice.

[21] The Way of the Cross on the grounds of the Auschwitz camp has been organised on the first Sunday after All Souls’ Day since the early 1980s and – since 1987 – during Lent (the parish chronicle, the Archives of the Parish of St Maximilian Kolbe in Oświęcim).

[22] “The National Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau was established thanks to the efforts of former prisoners, which was formally confirmed by the Polish Sejm Act of July 2, 1947 on the commemoration of the «martyrdom of the Polish Nation and other Nations». The Place of Remembrance covers an area of two extant parts of the camp, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a total of 191 ha, of which Auschwitz I includes 20 ha, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau has 171 ha. In the museum, there are several hundred camp buildings and ruins, including the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria, several kilometers of the camp fence and roads, and the railway ramp at Birkenau”; source: http://pl.auschwitz.org.pl/m/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogcategory&id=9&Itemid=45 [accessed: 12 Apr. 2013].

[23] The scene of selection of prisoners reflects the accounts in numerous memoirs and scientific publications, such as F. Piper, Eksterminacja, in: Oświęcim. Hitlerowski obóz masowej zagłady, ed. W. Michalak, Warszawa 1977, pp. 108–124.

[24] The events depicted on the door are described, among others, by J. Wnuk, Dzieci polskie oskarżają, Lublin 1975, p. 108 ff.

[25] The whole sentence whose last part is written on the door is: “In the world you will have hardship, but be courageous: I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).

[26] The author of the door in Auschwitz makes excellent use of a mental shortcut, abstracting from rich source materials a synthetic overall picture of the reality of the camp, rendered in the light of the message of faith. The reasons for the unusual expression of the work may also be traced in the personal memories of the artist, who in his childhood experienced the horrors of the occupation, even witnessing an execution. The sculptor mentions this in an interview Duchy i bunt rzeźbiarzy, “Gazeta w Krakowie”, a supplement to “Gazeta Wyborcza” 1998, No. 268.

[27] The Auschwitz doors were discussed more extensively in: G. Ryba, Oświęcimskie drzwi z brązu. Przyczynek do ikonografii św. Maksymiliana Kolbe, in: Limen expectationis. Księga ku czci śp. ks. prof. dr. hab. Zdzisława Klisia, eds. Rev. J. Urban, Rev. A. Witko, Kraków 2012, pp. 299–310.

[28] The author of the stained glass, Krakow painter Jerzy Skąpski, is also the creator of the Auschwitz poster the original of which was included in the permanent exhibition at the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem (Żychowska 2005, as in fn. 20, pp. 12–13; G. Ryba, In statu nascendi visum. Z prac twórców współczesnego witrażu krakowskiego, exhibition catalogue, Documentation Centre of Contemporary Sacred Art, University of Rzeszów – Art Exhibition Office in Rzeszów, Rzeszów 2011).

[29] This subject was developed by the author more extensively in her presentation Pérmeation des espaces. L’intérieur comme l’asile de la mémoire et la sublimation du sentiment at the conference “Esthetics and Spirituali​ty: Places of Interiorit​y”, 16–18 May 2013, Leuven, organised by Katholieken Universiteit Leuven.

[30] G. Ryba, Na granicy rzeczywistości. Mistyk, droga poznania mistycznego i artysta współczesny, in: Fides ex visu. Okiem mistyka, ed. A. Kramiszewska, Lublin 2012, pp. 249–255.

[31] Eadem, Interpretacja motywu rajskiego drzewa poznania w twórczości Janiny Karczewskiej-Koniecznej i Janiny Stefanowicz-Schmidt, “Sacrum et Decorum. Materiały i studia z historii sztuki sakralnej” VI, 2013, pp. 139–142.

[32] The construction of the church of St Maximilian and the organisation of religious services on the grounds of the camp is also a now forgotten symbol of the ideological struggle against the communist propaganda of the Polish People’s Republic, which distorted the history of World War II.

[33] J. Umiński, Bydgoszcz – przewodnik, Bydgoszcz 2004, p. 119.

[34] Środowisko przyrodnicze Bydgoszczy, ed. J. Banaszak, Bydgoszcz 1996.

[35] Historia Bydgoszczy: 1939–1945, ed. M. Biskup, vol. II, part 2, Warszawa 2004, p. 87.

[36] http://www.dolinasmierci.pl/ [accessed: 10 Oct. 2013].

[37] Ibidem.

[38] J. Derenda, Bydgoszcz w blasku symboli, vol. II, Bydgoszcz 2008; Kalwaria Bydgoska Golgota XX wieku, ed. J. Jędrzejczak, Bydgoszcz 2009; Bydgoszcz: nowe sanktuarium “Kalwaria Bydgoska – Golgota XX wieku” , Catholic News Agency, http://system.ekai.pl/kair/?screen=depesza&_scr_depesza_id_depeszy=398994 [accessed: 10 Oct. 2013].

[39] A passage from Jacek Kucaba self-commentary attached to the project. Elsewhere in this text the artist writes: “The wall itself – referring also to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem – is a universal symbol across cultures, inextricably bound to suffering, sacrifice and hardship. The wall, through which you can walk and see the panorama of Fordon, forms the boundary between the past, which gave the foundation for the present […]. In the 20th-century monument of Golgotha there will be placed urns with ashes and earth from places of martyrdom and memory associated with the 20th-century European history – in this way the place of martyrdom of Bydgoszcz will be connected with the history of Europe and in this place a symbol of the continent’s collective memory and the events that had a significant influence on the formation of the contemporary identity of people and nations” (text in the artist’s private archive).

[40] Ibidem.

[41] It is a monument created by Józef Makowski, erected in 1975. It depicts “broken ears of corn on high columns like martyrs’ hands outstretched towards the sky”. On its pedestal there are plaques with the names of people who were murdered in the Valley of Death (monument in the place of execution in the Valley of Death in Bydgoszcz, http://www.odznaka.kuj-pom.bydgoszcz.pttk.pl/opisy/4/byddol. htm, accessed: 28 Sept. 2013)

[42] Two double-leaf doors made in 2009 by Jacek Kucaba, the author of the foundation of Bydgoszcz Calvary.

[43] The door was made by Michał Kubiak in 2003.

[44] A passage from Jacek Kucaba’s Autokomentarz, as in fn. 39.

[45] The spiritual dimension of space is also increasingly the subject of scientific discourse, expressing itself in numerous publications; cf. e.g. Sacrum w architekturze i przestrzeni życiowej człowieka, ed. A. Bańka, Poznań 2005; E. Klima, Przestrzeń religijna miasta, Łódź 2011; Miasto i sacrum, eds. M. Kowalewski, A. M. Królikowska, Kraków 2011.

[46] Józef Michalik, Droga Krzyżowa. Medytacje, Warszawa 1997.

[47] According to M. Eliade: “[…] temples are replicas of the cosmic mountain and hence constitute the pre-eminent “link” between earth and heaven”. A church tower is one of the symbols of the “axis of the world”, around which space becomes organised, its hierarchisation through valorisation expressed in a sign (M. Eliade, Sacrum i profanum. O istocie religijności, Warszawa 1996, pp. 31 ff, English quotation after the translation by J. Tillard and R. Trask: https://archive.org/stream/TheSacredAndTheProfane/TheSacredAndTheProfane_djvu.txt).

[48] In the period of the Polish People’s Republic, these were e.g. obstacles related to the construction of churches or organisation of religious ceremonies.

[49] The symbolic structure of cities mirrors the axiological chaos of modernity to an increasing extent and many controversial accomplishments even become manifestations of the cultural war of the representatives of different ideologies.

[50] M. Madurowicz, Sfera sacrum w przestrzeni miejskiej Warszawy, Warszawa 2002, p. 113. According to Madurowicz, “Suffering […] is removed from the sphere of the profane because it is not transmitted immediately, which is obligatory in the secular sphere; moreover, the profane seeks the complacency of its participants, in the name of being blind to certain values ​​or even of cursory treatment of the real world” (ibidem).

[51] Cf. J. Kopeć, Kalwaria, in: Encyklopedia katolicka, VIII, pp. 414–420; J. Barcik, Kalwaria Pacławska, in: ibidem, pp. 420–421; A. Obruśnik, M. Wrzeszcz, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska , in: ibidem, pp. 421–424. A more extensive bibliography can be found there.

[52] Among others, Chełm Calvary erected in 2011 on the site of weekly Passion services on the slopes of Chełm Mt. Jacek Kilciński from Siemianowice is the author of the concept and the sculptures (T. Boniecki, Chełmska kalwaria, “Niedziela. Edycja lubelska” 2011, No. 24); the Beskid Calvary on the slope of Matyska Mt, completed in 2009 and designed by Czesław Dźwigaj (http://www.golgota-beskidow.pl/stacje.htm, accessed: 27 Sept. 2013). There are records of about 13 sites of this type created after 1945 (Atlas of Holy Mountains, Calvaries and Devotional Complexes in Europe, ed. Amilcare Barbero, published by Istituto geografico De Agostini, Novara 2001, p. 172). Unfortunately, the artistic value of those accomplishments is often embarrassingly low. Sometimes investors reject interesting proposals awarded in specially organised competitions and commission much worse projects (Chełm Calvary).

[53] John Paul II, Spotykamy się ze sobą w pytaniu o człowieka, a meeting with representatives of science and art, Vienna 12 September 1983, “Osservatore Romano” 1983, Polish issue, No. 9, p. 14 (transl. A. Gicala).

[54] Instrukcja Episkopatu Polski o ochronie zabytków i kierunkach rozwoju sztuki kościelnej z 16 IV 1966r., [in:] Dokumenty Duszpastersko-Liturgiczne Episkopatu Polski (19661993), ed. Cz. Krakowiak et al., Lublin 1994, p. 304.

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