Uniwersytet Rzeszowski
Centrum Dokumentacji Współczesnej Sztuki Sakralnej
pl. Ofiar Getta 4-5/35, 35-002 Rzeszów
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Grażyna Ryba

University of Rzeszów


The oeuvre of two Gdańsk-based female sculptors, Janina Stefanowicz-Schmidt and Janina Karczewska-Konieczna, abounds in religious themes. In the 1980s, the artists created bronze door decorations for new churches in Gdańsk-Wrzeszcz (Stefanowicz) and the city of Puri in India (Karczewska), both focused on the theme of the Tree of Knowledge and surrounded it with biblical scenes. The complex, interesting iconography of these works was the direct result of the artists’ cooperation with a number of religious figures of superior skill and personality, religious scholars and social activists. The analysis of story behind these two projects is an important contribution to the study of women’s sacred art; it also helps illuminate the mechanisms of cooperation between artists and religious figures in the process of creating religious art.

Keywords: Janina Stefanowicz-Schmidt, Janina Karczewska-Konieczna, Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, bronze church door, contemporary sacred sculpture, Gdańsk


The feminist current in art history has largely passed over the issue of religious art created by women remaining under the influence of Christianity; instead, it has given centre stage to approaches that challenge anything even remotely related to Christian culture. Other schools, in turn, marginalize the question of gender or ignore it altogether. In order to arrive at a more objective and comprehensive picture of contemporary art by women artists, it is therefore well-advised to include a closer look at the oeuvre of those among them who have worked for the Church as well. These include two Gdańsk-based sculptors: Janina Stefanowicz-Schmidt (born in 1930) and Janina Karczewska-Konieczna (born in 1934).

In the 1980s, cultural life in Poland concentrated mainly around Church organizations. These provided the setting in which the two artists met with important people of faith, such as scholars and priests known for their contributions to local communities. The cooperation which ensued between them bore fruit in the form of two bronze church door decorations, both of which address the well-known iconographic motif of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. The interpretations are interesting both for formal and conceptual reasons.


In June 1982, the Pallottine Fathers laid the cornerstone of a new church in Gdańsk-Wrzeszcz, consecrated to Our Lady of Częstochowa.[1] The building and its decorations were completed three years later under the supervision of Father Eugeniusz Dutkiewicz (1947–2002),[2] one of the founding fathers of the hospice movement in Poland, member of the underground Solidarity Movement during the Martial Law, organizer of culture and animator of the independent television network in the Tri-city. The bas-reliefs of the interior were commissioned from the nearby atelier of Janina Karczewska-Konieczna. The sculptor could already boast of a number of prestigious awards to her name at that time and her renown extended well beyond the artistic milieu of Gdańsk.[3] At the Pallottine church, Karczewska made bas-reliefs for the presbytery, with original iconography depicting the biblical sower and the multiplication of bread, the altar resting on sheaves of grain, the Stations of the Cross, and a composition depicting the adoration of Our Lady of the Rosary.

In 1983, when the construction of the new Pallottine parish church was at its peak, Poland welcomed a visit from Father Marian Żelazek (1918–2006),[4] a Divine Word Missionary working with lepers in India, later nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his service to the poor, the sick, and the outcast. It is rather unlikely that the friar saw the new temple during his visit, but the extraordinary surge in church construction throughout Poland clearly did not escape his attention. In 1984, the Pallottine team was already putting the finishing touches to the interior of the church and Father Dutkiewicz embarked on his new hospice project (Hospicium Pallotinum).[5] Father Żelazek was back in India, building a church for a new leper colony recently established on the outskirts of the city of Puri. In a letter dated 14 December, addressed to the “friends of the mission” in Gdańsk, he wrote: “On a visit to my homeland, I saw all the beautiful churches that you are raising from the ground with your own effort. I would like to request your help in building another beautiful church – a church in Puri, India. It is, believe me, an important missionary task and you can become personally involved in the work”.[6] The appeal did not go unheeded; responses came from his own order and laypeople alike. Father Eugeniusz Śliwka (1952–2005)[7] was chosen to coordinate the project on behalf of the DWM order. Donations poured in from Poland, while in Puri assistance came from Polish miners, who were building a coal mine near Calcutta at the time.[8]


The letter also included a postscript addressed to Janina Karczewska, who was then working for the Pallottines in Gdańsk: “we are building a new church in Puri and we dream of a beautiful altar and a beautiful relief of Our Lady like the ones you have made in some other churches”.[9] It was followed a month later (25 Jan. 1985) by a personal letter from Father Żelazek: “I received your address,” he wrote “and heard a lot about your art from Mrs. Folta [the wife of the Polish consul in Calcutta – G.R.], who often comes to see me here in Calcutta. I am building a new church in a place best described as a Hindu equivalent of »Częstochowa«.[10] As soon as I heard about you, a bold idea sprang to my mind to ask whether you might be willing to dedicate your talent to our mission and the new church. The church is round, shaped like a tent… and Puri is a seaside town. Please accept my cordial invitation to visit us in India. Should you accept my offer, I trust that our mission will support our enterprise with any FINANCIAL assistance necessary”.[11]

Intrigued by the exotic offer, the artist agreed to design and decorate the interior of the church and accepted Father Żelazek’s invitation to India. On 13 October 1985, another letter from the friar arrived: “Mrs. Folta informed me that you are planning to come to Puri for a month. I have already sent you an invitation through the consulate. You are most cordially invited. I will cover all your expenses on the ground: train fares, etc. Our little church is ready and waiting for you… On the outside, it is already a sight for sore eyes… It is you who will beautify it on the inside so that it can proclaim the Gospel of Our Lord though it cannot speak. […] Let me repeat my invitation once again… I promise to remember you in my prayers and ask you to pray for me in your turn”.[12] At around the same time (8 August 1985), Father Żelazek turned to the Polish consul in Calcutta with a request to support his visa application for the artist: “I have recently built a church at a very famous and prestigious spot in Puri, Orissa. Janina Karczewska-Konieczna belongs to the friends of the mission. It is my earnest wish that she may come here to give counsel, or rather, to take full charge of the interior design of the temple. The site is visited by foreign tourists and Hindus alike and a Polish contribution at this particular site would help promote the good name of our homeland. I would be very grateful to Ms. Karczewska-Konieczna and the Polish authorities back at home for allowing her arrival to be as prompt as possible”.[13]

In the end, the visa was approved and Janina Karczewska-Konieczna arrived in Puri to familiarize herself with the town, the church, and the local culture. After several weeks, she finally got down to work; soon, she was immersed in it body and soul. She created ceramic sculptures for the main altar with the depiction of the Last Supper, the tabernacle, the baptistery, the Stations of the Cross, the side altar of Our Lady, eight panels showing the Mysteries of Mary, the bas-relief of Madonna in the front elevation, and, last but not least, the bronze door of the church.

Before leaving for India, Karczewska had met with Father Dutkiewicz. The priest had told her about his plans of funding a sculpted bronze door for the Gdańsk church and the general idea for its iconography, dropping a brief mention of an upcoming competition in which the best design would be selected. Busy with her travel arrangements and later work in Puri, the artist lost touch with the Pallottine Fathers and held off presenting her vision of the subject.[14] This is perhaps why, in the end, another respected local artist, Janina Stefanowicz-Schmidt, the head of the School of Fine Arts in Gdańsk,[15] was approached with the same offer. The door she designed for the Pallottine Church of Our Lady of Częstochowa in the Wrzeszcz neighbourhood of Gdańsk was consecrated by the Archbishop of Gdańsk, Tadeusz Gocłowski, on 26 August 1986, at the local parish church fair. During the festivities, Father Dutkiewicz delivered a sermon in which he discussed the complex symbolism of the images, as well as their functional significance in the context of the structure and its surroundings.[16]

The bronze door of the Pallottine church provided an impulse for Janina Karczewska to use her own vision of the project in the interior of the church in Puri. Father Żelazek and his partners in Poland received her ideas with enthusiasm. The former requested that the project should also include additional scenes depicting the miracles of Christ on the inside side of the door. He hoped that the images would ultimately serve as the visual equivalent of the Bible for the edification of the poor and often illiterate Hindus, in the vein of the mediaeval Biblia pauperum.[17] The preparation of models was preceded by in-depth study of the Scriptures and the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. From the theological perspective, the projects were consulted with Catholic intellectuals such as Father Marek Starowieyski, Father Janusz Pasierb, Father Eugeniusz Śliwka, and Father Jan Góra,[18] who frequently visited Karczewska’s atelier, and gained their approval.[19] The ceramic bas-reliefs were burned out by the artist herself, while the door was cast in the foundry of the Kwieciński Brothers in Pleszów.[20] The process was supervised, on the side of the Divine Word Missionaries, by Father Śliwka.

After the work was completed, the sculptures of the church were showcased at a Polish missionary exhibition at St Mary’s Basilica in Gdańsk, and, following an official consecration (3 July 1988), handed over as the gift of Polish Catholics to Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar.[21] Once the sculptures were securely placed in Puri, Father Żelazek commented: “the work is in perfect harmony both with the architecture of the church and the local surroundings… Ms. Karczewska’s door, the gift of our Polish friends, was fully accepted by local Catholics and Hindus. It fits in well with the culture of India and speaks to the Hindu imagination. I have no doubt whatsoever that it has already become a sort of Biblia pauperum for the locals, who have always been sensitive to religious truth presented through the medium of art”.[22] The sculptures of Puri clearly made an unforgettable impression on those who saw them back in the artist’s workshop as well. Father Franciszek Starowieyski, the famous patrologist, provided them with an insightful commentary, later published in book form,[23] while Father Żelazek expressed his admiration by offering Starowieyski’s book as a gift to the artist with a personal dedication: “for the one who proclaims the word of God in Puri through the masterful work of her hands… God bless you” (17 Dec. 1990).[24]


The bronze door of Janina Stefanowicz-Schmidt was placed in the front elevation of the Church of Our Lady of Częstochowa in Gdańsk-Wrzeszcz, in the niche located on the axis that marks the entrance to the lower church, the extension of which is the triangular glazing in the upper church [Fig. 1]. The door is divided into four panels; the immovable, slightly narrower extreme wings are positioned at an angle to the middle panels, which are moved further back towards the interior [Fig. 3].[25] The figural composition in bas-relief stretches across all four wings, which, Father Dutkiewicz explains, symbolize an open book.[26] The axis is laid out by the trunk of an enormous tree with thick branches sprouting to the sides, gradually morphing into ever smaller and thinner boughs. The tree is at the centre of the composition. On the wings behind it, individual scenes in are shown in descending order in several panels full of tiny forms. In the shallow, subtly differentiated relief, the shapes are brought out with a sparing, synthetic line, so delicate at times that it becomes almost invisible, at the expense of the legibility of the composition. The rather lumpy texture derives from the artist’s choice of clay sculpting technique, which is based on the successive adding of tiny bits of material.

In his sermon, Father Dutkiewicz explained: “the stone pavement […] leads us to the threshold of the temple, towards a tree which stands as if it was rooted in our earth. This is the biblical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”.[27] In the central, movable panels, a naked figure of a man was placed within the contours of the trunk, sketched ever so slightly as to seem nearly invisible. In the artist’s vision, the figure represents our forefather Adam. According to the Apocrypha, it is from Adam’s body that the tree of the Cross sprouted, the same Cross that later stood at our forefather’s tomb.[28] The figure is cut in half by the vertical edge of the wings, symbolizing “the struggle between good and evil” in man. The central panels also contain several rows of very delicately sketched figures with faces turned towards the interior of the church behind the door. Above their heads, the words of the old Polish hymn, Bogurodzica, in their original spelling, are inscribed. The figures, Father Dutkiewicz explains, “represent the people who enter; their history, like the church itself, is forever linked to the Madonna, which is stated in the words placed in this part of the portal […] the text of the first document in the history of Polish religiosity and statehood”

The open book of the door, in the fixed wing to the left, shows a page from Genesis [Fig. 4]. At the top, between the slender boughs of the tree, a couple are locked in an embrace under the rising moon. The couple are surrounded by animals. Birds circle overhead; a trained eye can discern a lyrebird and a peacock unfolding their magnificent tails, a shoal of characteristic fish, as well as some prehistoric species: a flying pterosaur and a pair of herbivorous brachiosaurs. Several snakelike creatures twist around a branch below; in the background opposite, an outline can be seen of a female figure in a long robe, her head surrounded by a halo. Father Dutkiewicz explains that she represents “the hope of humankind, the woman through which God will beget the Messiah, the second Adam”. The scene at the very bottom shows delicate figures of a man and a woman walking along the seashore, their heads hung low – a scene of expulsion from paradise. The wing farthest to the right is filled with motifs from the Revelation. At the top, we see the Lamb and the interlocking letters Α Ω, below – an open book surrounded by old men and the beasts of the Apocalypse. Lower still, angels blow the trumpets and the saints rise from the dead. Further down, a multi-headed dragon approaches the Maiden with Child; below, small dynamic images represent the cataclysms of the end of days.

The bronze trunk of the tree finds its extension in the tree branches of the neighbouring park, which are reflected in the glass triangle in the upper storey of the church. Father Dutkiewicz describes them as “picturesque stained-glass images of nature. […] the stained-glass reflection of boughs, leaves, and branches provide the tree with a crown”. The triangular window completes the altar wall from within and provides the background for the crucifix suspended on its axis [Fig. 2]. The eternal lamp and the tabernacle are placed below. Seen through the window, the branches and the boughs can be read (to continue the metaphor) as the symbolic crown of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (identified with the Tree of Life[29]), from which the cross in the presbytery seems to sprout. At the same time, “the red light of the eternal lamp”, as Father Dutkiewicz notes, penetrates outwards through the “stained glass”, reminding passers-by “of the living presence of Christ, who dwells among us in the Eucharist. […] It crowns the axis of the »struggle between good and evil«, »the psalm of never-ending conversions« to ETERNAL LOVE”.

In this symbolic reading, the bronze door of the church and the window above it, architectural links between the sacred inside and the profane outside, become the key element that organizes the mutual symbolic interpenetration of the two spaces, and, in the visual dimension, the complementary coexistence of nature and art. The metaphorical meaning of individual elements is enriched by the symbolism of their basic raw materials, glass and bronze, as well as their combination.

In his sermon, Father Dutkiewicz also connects the symbolism of the door to Karol Wojtyła’s poem Myśląc Ojczyzna – powracam w stronę drzewa, thus enriching the meaning with the vision of our distinguished poet and allowing for a further multiplication of senses in the complementary analysis of word and image.[30]


The theme of an open book of life with the biblical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, suggested by Father Dutkiewicz, was also addressed by Janina Karczewska-Konieczna in the bronze door of the church in Puri, albeit in an altogether different manner. The door is composed of two movable wings with reliefs on both sides; after closing, the wings form a rectangular pictorial field [Fig. 6]. From the outside, the door is adjoined by two plaques, as if additional pseudo-wings, which are separate in terms of composition but related to the main scene in terms of content.[31]

Having no formal education in sculpture,[32] as she frequently tends to emphasize, Karczewska prepared successive ideas with graphic techniques (aqua-fortis and aquatint) that allowed her to combine thin, tiny lines with blots of varying intensity, a chiaroscuro handling of form, suffused with nuance and understatement [Fig. 5]. As a consequence, her work is notable for its painterly character and the differentiation of form that results from the translation of a graphic idea into three-dimensional space. The artist uses tiny, densely distributed lines to draw the almost flat scenes of the background; the web of delicate lines also defines the more plastic figures of the foreground.

On the outside, the pictorial field of the door wings is dominated by the image of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The roots and the crown divide the composition into three horizontal sections. The bottom one, under a canopy of roots, shows a crowd of figures spaced at rhythmic vertical intervals, which provide a robust base for the rest of the representation. The figures are an image of “humanity in Adam”,[33] awaiting salvation in the darkness of the earth.

The middle of the trunk forms the axis of symmetry, marked by the meeting edges of the door wings. In the lower, infernal sphere, it is almost invisible; emerging into view through the formal and thematic contrast between the sides of the door, it runs upwards, gradually dissolving at the top, under the circular outline of the sun, whose rays radiate evenly downwards, as if to unite both wings. On one side of the axis, which represents the good, the branches are more slender, overhung with leaves and fruit, with an occasional bird peeking through. Below, on the banks of rivers, among lush vegetation swarming with animal life, Adam reclines at the root of the tree, with Eve in the background [Fig. 7]. All the different species of plants are shown in great detail and animals are captured in their characteristic poses: a deer with its impressive horns, a pair of peacocks, a donkey, a wild boar, and an elephant. High above this serene and idyllic scene of paradise, the figure of the crucified Christ hovers in the sky. On the other side of the axis, the naked branches of the tree are painfully twisted, with a snake crawling between them and, below, an angel with a flaming sword expelling the first parents from paradise. In torrents of rain, Adam and Eve are seen running over the stony surface of barren land. Cowering, Eve snuggles up to Adam, whose head is turned back towards the angel; the angel points towards the snake as the source of sin and evil. The dove of the Holy Spirit flaps its wings overhead; along with the sun (the symbol of the Father) in the middle and the crucified Christ on the other side, it represents the Holy Trinity. In her notes, Karczewska emphasizes the synthetic nature of the composition as a whole and suggest an alternative title: The History of Christianity. She also points to parallels with the Tree of Jesse.

Father Starowieyski comments: “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is one that brings both life and death. Its blossoming branches held Him who referred to himself as life; the cross, then, is the tree of life. The dried up branches of the tree of death in their turn were hung with another fruit, Satan, who brought death to man. On the one hand, then, there is life: the joy of all creation and the man who presides over it; on the other…the earth that grows thorns and thistles, ploughed by the billions who descended from Adam and share his fate. […] But a Spirit keeps watch over mankind and the quickening grace of the crucified Redeemer flows from the Tree of Life. Humanity, which abandoned God through its ancestors, continues in the hope of returning and regaining the lost paradise”.[34]

The plaques on both sides of the door roll out around the edges of the Tree of Knowledge like pages of a book (symbolized by the door) and depict three biblical scenes each. On one side, they illustrate the protection that God grants to those who willingly submit themselves to His care: Lot’s escape from Sodom before its destruction, a group of Israelites huddled around the brazen serpent, Noah stretching his arms towards the rainbow that symbolizes the Covenant. On the other side, we can see, in descending order, the Tower of Babel, the sacrifice of Cain and Abel, and humanity perishing in the waters of the Flood. The scenes are meant to illustrate the human hubris and malice that aroused God’s wrath. The representations were not arranged chronologically and there are no clear frame divisions between them. It is possible to assume that the scenes on the opposite sides of the door correspond to each other. The Tower of Babel and the Gomorrah symbolize the fall of man, the brazen serpent and the sacrifice of Abel prefigure the sacrifice of Christ, while the flood and the arc of the rainbow below herald the New Covenant. The artist abandoned her initial idea of introducing excerpts from the Bible into the composition, primarily because of the language barrier in far-flung India.

Father Starowieyski does not share his personal interpretation of the scenes; instead, he relies on relevant quotations from the Church Fathers. Accordingly, he invokes the Venerable Bede, who contrasts the city of pride, symbolized by the Tower of Babel, with the holy city of the Church of Christ erected in the grace of the Holy Spirit, Maxim of Turin who points to the Flood as the figure of baptism, Severian of Gabala who describes Abel as a prefiguration of Christ, and Theodoret of Cyrrus, who also mentions the brazen serpent as an image of Christ.[35]

            In accordance with the wishes of Father Żelazek, the inner sides of the door depict the miracles of Christ. On the left wing, from top to bottom: The Miraculous Draught of Fish, The Raising of Lazarus, The Wedding at Cana. On the right, respectively: The Multiplication of Bread, and two events from the New Testament related to the healing of the blind. Once the door is opened, the scenes flank the entrance to the church, inviting those at the threshold to the interior.


The theme of the Tree of Knowledge is not frequently invoked in sculpted bronze door decorations. The examples discussed in this article are the only such instances in contemporary church door iconography in Poland. At the end of the 1950s, the theme was taken up by Toni Zenz (born 1915)[36] in Germany. The artist was working on the main entrance to the Church of Neu St Alban in Cologne [Fig. 8] and chose to employ highly stylized, flat, decorative, linear forms of vegetal ornamentation to symbolize the Tree of Knowledge. In the tangle of branches, he placed Adam and Eve with an apple; a bit higher up, the image of the “new Eve”, Mary, and Christ spread out as if on the cross. In the western portal of the Church of St Cunibert in Cologne, the same artist installed a stylized Tree of Knowledge with two thick branches whose thorny boughs frame successive scenes of the Old and New Testament [Fig. 9]. In 1988, Jurgen Suberg (born 1944)[37] created a bronze door for the western portal of the Church of St Sebastian in Magdeburg; it bore a vivid, fanciful depiction of Adam and Eve in Paradise [Fig. 10]. It is a cheerful, occasionally almost funny vision of the carefree life of our first parents “before sin”, seemingly devoid of deeper meanings. Thanks to appropriate stylization, even the tragic scenes of despair following the expulsion from paradise or the murder of Abel (shown at the bottom) fit in well with the rosy atmosphere of the whole. The inner side of the door is decorated with Christological motifs; their dramatic resonance puts them in stark contrast to the Old Testament scenes on the outside. As interpreted by the Japanese artist Kyoji Nagatani (born 1950)[38] on the door of the Church of SS Trinità e S. Basiano Vescovo in Gradella in 1994, the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life (traditionally treated as one in Christian iconography)[39] preserve their distinct form, symbolizing nature and existence [Fig. 11]. Their shape is slender but they bear a huge fruit carrying “the seed of life”.

Compared with these renditions, the works of Stefanowicz and Karczewska are not only outstanding in terms of form but also remarkable for their original and elaborate treatment of iconography.[40] This can no doubt be credited to the artists’ collaboration with religious circles. The Pallottine Father Dutkiewicz probably provided the first impulse with his initial idea of the door as the symbol of an open book and the Tree of Life. Taking this basic idea as their point of departure, the two artists interpreted it in ways characteristic of their individual style, temperament, personality, and understanding of the Bible. On the door of the church in Puri, the theme was elaborated thanks to Father Żelazek’s suggestions. Conversations with Father Pasierb, Father Jan Góra, Father Śliwka, and Father Marek Starowieyski likewise must have deepened Janina Karczewska’s reflection and influenced the conceptual side of her work. Father Dutkiewicz’s poetic homily, enriched with the verse of a distinguished poet, helped expound the meaning of Janina Stefanowicz’s imagery for the churchgoers. Father Marek Starowieyski collected his impressions of Janina Karczewska’s work in a scholarly publication. He noted: “The purpose of my commentary was clear: to explore the artist’s representation of the biblical scene and make it accessible to the viewer so that he could penetrate its depths as far as possible and gain as much as he can from it. Whether we want it or not, we are constantly treading on a precarious line along the shore, beyond which extends the immeasurable depth of God’s Word; it is its mystery that the theologian, the biblical scholar, the sculptor, the painter, the writer, and the musician continually strive to illuminate”.[41]


The two works represent different formal conceptions of sculpture. With its rich, differentiated forms, the emotional, painterly, exuberant style of Karczewska stands in stark contrast to the synthetic, linear and flat, rational, reflective and conceptual work of Stefanowicz. Karczewska’s representations are self-contained wholes enclosed in the pictorial field, at once introductions to and preparations for the colourful spatial images in the interior of the Puri church. Stefanowicz’s work is integrated into a complex whole which develops in space and symbolically connects different art forms with nature and with one another. Stefanowicz’s conception is less self-explanatory and requires a commentary, as required by contemporary trends, which call for art to transcend the boundaries of visual form.

In Stefanowicz’s work, the trunk of the Tree of Knowledge connects the scenes of Genesis and Revelation through the figure of a woman, shown both at the end of days and at the dawn of times in paradise. Karczewska, on the other hand, surrounds the Tree of Knowledge with biblical scenes from the Old Testament, which address the issues of sin and salvation. Stefanowicz also introduces a national theme, which, for an obvious reason, is absent from Karczewska’s design.

The two artists are nearly the same age and both studied at the School of Fine Arts in Poznań at around the same time. Janina Stefanowicz graduated from the Department of Sculpture in 1955, defending a graduation project under the supervision of Stanisław Horno-Popławski; her subsequent work can be seen as a tribute to the austere style of the master, even if it is less pompous in tone, more subtle and subdued. Her talent was recognized early on and even before graduation, Stefanowicz was appointed as an assistant in the atelier of Alfred Wiśniewski.[42]

Janina Karczewska began her studies a little later; she graduated with distinction in 1959. She prepared her graduation project during the painting course taught by Piotr Potworowski and Krystyna Łada Studnicka, and a smaller project on ceramic art under the supervision of Hanna Żuławska, honing her skills in graphic art with Zygmunt Karolak.[43] Her future husband was a student at the Department of Sculpture at the time; for that reason, she frequently had the chance to attend sculpture ateliers and open-air classes, working under the guidance of Alfred Wiśniewski when Janina Stefanowicz was already his assistant. Many years later, Karczewska recalled: “In a sense, it was with Mr Wiśniewski that I learned how to see sculpture in space…”[44] It was already during their studies that she and her future husband were invited to assist Hanna Żuławska in running her Ceramic Art Workshops in Kadyny, organized under the auspices of the School of Fine Arts in Gdańsk. The experience they gained under the guidance of Żuławska left an inedible imprint on their respective independent work; many years after graduation, they still belonged to the Kadyny Group, a circle of graphic artists associated with the workshops. Drawing from such diverse sources, Janina Karczewska translates her intoxication with worldly beauty into visual form with unbridled freedom, and gives plastic shape to themes rarely found in sculpture, such as water or air or the slender vegetation of a coral reef.

In 1964, Janina Stefanowicz created her first significant religious work, The Pensive Christ for St Mary’s Basilica in Gdańsk, a sculpture carved in granite (the favourite material of her master, Stanisław Horno-Popławski), cubic, austere, and rigorous. It was the dominant element of the Priests’ Chapel decorated by the artist [Fig. 12]. This was also the point at which Janina Karczewska began to produce the first linocuts of Madonnas, trying to capture the mystery of her own motherhood in graphic form [Fig. 13]. The experiences of the period bore fruit at different stages later on in her life, as she continued to create Madonnas to illustrate the mystery of the special period in a woman’s life: expecting a child, the miracle of birth, and the extraordinary bond that connects the mother and the new-born child [Fig. 14]. At that time, Karczewska was a teacher at a secondary art school in Gdynia. The first large commission from the Church came in 1979; it was to be the first and the last religious work created in tandem with her husband who passed away shortly afterwards. Together, they designed and produced the Seamen’s Chapel at St Mary’s Basilica in Gdańsk, the same in which Stefanowicz had earlier worked. Stefanowicz, on the other hand, was then busy at the Academy, laying the foundations for a new study track at the Department of Sculpture, devoted to “small sculptural forms and medallic art”

The lives of the two artists ran along parallel paths. Both were married to artists and looked to their husband for support in their work; both soon became widows. Their daughters continued their work.[45] Both artists dedicated themselves to pedagogy and educated a large circle of students. Both participated in many exhibitions and contests,[46] winning numerous awards. Both claim that the experience of motherhood, which put their artistic life on hold for a while, was the source of priceless knowledge that helped them to achieve the fullness of womanhood.

When Stefanowicz and Karczewska took up their respective projects dealing with the Tree of Knowledge, their renown in the artistic milieu of Gdańsk was already well established; the task, however, presented an artistic and intellectual challenge. The theme of the Tree of Life from the Pallottine Church later returned in Janina Stefanowicz’s altar for the Church of the Resurrection in Gdańsk in 1997.[47] The artist depicted the Risen Christ at the background of a cross encircled with a vegetal thread symbolizing the Tree of Life [Fig. 15]. The rector of the parish at the time, Father Stefan Duda, wrote: “The artist sculpted a tree unlike any other tree we know….It seems to allude to the idea of its main fruit, i.e. the Eucharist…The idea of the Tree of Life was supplemented with a sculpture of the Cross as the Tree of New Life. No wonder that the Cross is so magnificent, high, triumphant, covered with grapes and wheat. This is clearly not the cross of Good Friday, the cross of the Passion, but the cross of Easter Sunday”.[48] The graphic, elaborate tree motif recurs throughout Janina Karczewska’s oeuvre, the artist being so enamoured of the shapes of nature; in her religious work, it appears mostly in the ceramic representations of Our Lady of Fatima [Fig. 16].

Religious art, which gradually began to take up more and more space in the work of Janina Stefanowicz-Schmidt and Janina Karczewska-Konieczna, illustrates the striving to objectivize personal experience and the search for the meaning of life.

Karczewska considers art as an expression of desire and an act of thanking God for the gift of life. The artist enters the Church to facilitate man’s contact with divinity; in a sense, she becomes a prophet as she tries to convey her own experience of God, her own feelings and sensations, and not simply to copy commonly known patterns with greater or lesser skill.[49]

In the biographies of the two artists, life, art and faith are so tightly interwoven as to become inseparable; the Church provides them not only with artistic space, but also with support in the difficult moments of life, such as illness or death of those close to their heart.


Translated by Urszula Jachimczak

[1] “After the war, in 1945, the Polish Pallottine Fathers […] settled in the barracks left behind by the Germans and erected the chapel of Our Lady of Częstochowa, consecrated on the 15th of July 1945. […] In the 1970s, they received an authorization to build a residential object, followed, in the next decade, by approval for the construction of a church. The construction began on the site of the former barracks-chapel in June 1982. On the 5th of December, the lower church was consecrated and the cornerstone blessed by the Holy Father John Paul II was laid. The building was completed in November 1985; the parish of Our Lady of Częstochowa had been established two months earlier. On the 3rd of September 1989, the church was officially consecrated by Bishop Tadeusz Gocławski”, www.mbc.pallotyni.com/?historia,18 [accessed: 2 Sept. 2012].

[2] P. Krakowiak, A. Stolarczyk, Ks. Eugeniusz Dutkiewicz SAC. Ojciec ruchu hospicyjnego w Polsce, Gdańsk 2007; P. Krakowiak, Pośmiertne wspomnienie o ks. Eugeniuszu Dutkiewiczu SAC, „Gazeta AMG Gdańsk”, October 2002, old.gumed.edu.pl/uczelnia/gazeta/artykul.php?id=59 [accessed: 2 Sept. 2012].

[3] The most important publications devoted to the work of Janina Karczewska-Konieczna include Janina Karczewska-Konieczna. Ceramika, ed. L. Bułakowska, Gdańsk 2010; B. Pospieszna, Między liryką a sacrum. Wystawa rzeźb Janiny Karczewskiej-Koniecznej, Malbork Castle Museum, Malbork 2006 (with a broad bibliography including exhibition catalogues). Janina Karczewska-Konieczna has created sculptures for the interior of many sacred structures (the Church of Our Lady of Częstochowa in Gdańsk, the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in Gdańsk, St Mary’s Basilica in Gdańsk, the Cathedral and the Church of St James in Oliwa, the Dominican Church in Warsaw, the Church of St Catherine in Braniewo, the Chapel of the Sisters of St Elizabeth in Gdynia-Orłowo, the chapel of the divinity school in Pęplin, the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Szczecin, the Shrine of the Virgin Mary in Borek Stary near Rzeszów, the Church of St Joseph and St Jude Thaddaeus in Rumia, the church in Gniewino, the Church of Our Lady of the Poor in Stanisławów near Nieporęt, the Church of the Assumption in Wąglikowice).

[4] Ojciec Marian Żelazek SVD Ojciec Trędowatych, ed. T. Szyszko SVD, Warszawa 2008; A. Smreczyńska-Gąbka, Ogród nadziei, Warszawa 2011.

[5] As in fn. 2.

[6] Elsewhere in the letter, the friar wrote: “In November 1983, I returned to India to start the 35th year of missionary work in my adopted homeland. When I first set foot in Puri in 1975, I felt like a solitary sailor in the middle of an ocean… Puri – the centre of Hinduism […] with its human wave of Hindu pilgrims flowing towards the Jagannath Temple. Ten thousand of them arrive each day. The hunger for God and salvation pushes them closer and closer towards the temple […]. Our missionary work with the lepers is meant as a conscious testimony to human dignity and the love of God for man. In 1979, we opened a Centre for the religious dialogue, where minds can meet in a joint reflection on the values of Hinduism and Christianity”, a photocopy of the letter in the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art at the University of Rzeszów.

[7] More information on Father Eugeniusz Śliwka can be found in: R. Czajka SVD, Niezmordowany animator, „Misjonarz” 2006, vol. 2, pp. 30–33.

[8] J. Krasicki, A. Sujka, Drogami miłosierdzia, Verbinum 2008.

[9] A photocopy of the letter is stored at the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art at the University of Rzeszów.

[10] Cf. fn. 6. Puri is one of the most important centres of Hindu worship, concentrated around the Jagannath Temple (O.M. Starza, The Jagannatha Temple at Puri: Its Architecture, Art, and Cult, Leiden 1993).

[11] A photocopy of the letter is stored at the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art at the University of Rzeszów.

[12] A photocopy of the letter is stored at the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art at the University of Rzeszów.

[13] A photocopy of the letter is stored at the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art at the University of Rzeszów.

[14] The above is a probable reconstruction of events based on available documents and conversations with the two artists, including a conversation with Janina Karczewska-Konieczna on 16 July 2012. It was not possible to obtain detailed information regarding the circumstances of the two projects. I wish to extend my thanks to both artists for granting me access to the sources in their possession and to Ms. Karczewska for her drawings and sculptures she donated to the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art.

[15] The religious works of Janina Stefanowicz-Schmidt: the Pensive Christa at St Mary’s Basilica in Gdańsk, the Stations of the Cross and the tabernacle at the Church of St Andrzej Bobola in Sopot, the bronze door of the Pallottine Church in Gdańsk, the design of the presbytery, sculptures of Christ and the angel, bas-reliefs Tree, Cross, Sun at the Church of the Resurrection in Gdańsk, the Stations of the Cross at the Church of St Bernard in Sopot. The artist won the first prize at the exhibition entitled “Contemporary Art Inspired by the Christianity”. She was a member of the Pro Arte Sacra Foundation (Tradycja i współczesność. Akademia Sztuk Pięknych w Gdańsku 1945–2005, ed. W. Zmorzyński, pp.154–155).

[16] A photocopy of the letter is stored at the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art at the University of Rzeszów.

[17] Based on a private conversation with Janina Karczewska-Konieczna on 16 July 2012.

[18] Professor Marek Starowieyski (ur. 1937), a prolific scholar of patrology; Professor Janusz Stanisław Pasierb (19291993), art historian, poet, essayist; Eugeniusz Śliwka, PhD (1952–2005), missionary, theologian and Church historian; Jan Wojciech Góra, PhD (ur. 1948), theologian and university chaplain.

[19] Ibidem.

[20] “The bronze art foundry was established in Pleszów in 1976. In 1980, Julisz Kwieciński received the title of a „Master of Arts and Crafts” from the Ministry of Art and Culture, and seven years later the title of Plastic Sculpture Artist specializing in artistic metal casting”, www.brazart.pl [accessed: 3 Oct. 2012].

[21] A photocopy of the invitation is stored at the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art at the University of Rzeszów.

[22] As in fn. 9.

[23] Janina Karczewska. Wyposażenie świątyni katolickiej Niepokalanego Poczęcia Najświętszej Marii Panny w Puri (Indie), introduction and commentary by Marek Starowieyski, Pieniężno 1989.

[24] A copy is stored in the private collection of the artist.

[25] The dimensions of the central wings are 304 × 140 cm; of the extreme – 304 × 120 cm.

[26] As in fn. 16.

[27] Ibidem.

[28] Cf.: Ks. M. Starowieyski, Apokryfy Nowego Testamentu: Ewangelie apokryficzne, Warszawa 1980, p. 145.

[29] “in a symbolic sense, they can be treated as one” (M. Lurker, Słownik obrazów i symboli biblijnych, Poznań 1989, p. 49).

[30] As in fn. 16; cf. J. Machniak, Bóg i człowiek w poezjach i dramatach Karola Wojtyły – Jana Pawła II, Kraków 2007, p. 98.

[31] When closed, the inner wings form a 280 × 280 cm square; the plaques are 280 cm high and 165 cm wide.

[32] “I must say at the very outset that I am not a sculptor, but a painter by profession”, confessed the artist in an interview given to Janusz Janowski on 23 June 2010, www.zpap-gdansk.art.pl/stgal/karczewska.html [accessed: 5 Sept. 2012].

[33] Father Starowieyski’s term (1989, as in fn. 23, fig. 39).

[34] Ibidem, commentary to fig. 38.

[35] Ibidem, commentary to figs. 42–47.

[36]Und wenn ich falle…” : Begegnung mit Werken des Bildhauers Toni Zenz, ed. F. Hemmes, Freiburg im Breisgau 1986.

[37] Basic information about the artist can be found on: www.kunstatelier-suberg.de [accessed: 22 Sept. 2012].

[38] Basic information about the artist can be found on: www.knagatani.comKopiaPodobne [accessed: 22 Sept. 2012].

[39] Cf. fn. 29.

[40] The issue of the formal and conceptual aspects of contemporary bronze door art is addressed in: J. Madeyski, Tarnowskie drzwi brązowe. Pomnik Męczeństwa Narodów, Tarnów 1987;  W. Lippa, Brązowe drzwi katedry opolskiej, “Liturgia Sacra” XII, 2007, vol. 1, pp. 113–122; J. Madeyski, Bronisław Chromy, Kraków 2008, pp. 57–58, 62–63; G. Ryba, Tajemniczy model krakowski i włoskie projekty Bronisława Chromego, “Sacrum et Decorum. Materiały i studia z historii sztuki sakralnej” III, 2010, pp. 21–43; eadem, Oświęcimskie drzwi z brązu. Przyczynek do ikonografii św. Maksymiliana Kolbe, in: Limen expectationis. Księga ku czci śp. ks. prof. dr. hab. Zdzisława Klisia, eds. J. Urban, A. Witko, Kraków 2012, pp. 299–310; eadem, Na granicy rzeczywistości. Mistyk, droga poznania mistycznego i artysta współczesny, in: Fides ex visu. Okiem mistyka, ed. A. Kramiszewska, Lublin 2012, pp. 241–264; the publications mentioned include further references to specialist literature.

[41] Starowieyski 1989 (fn. 23), “Wprowadzenie”.

[42] Archives of the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk, personal file of Janina Stefanowicz-Schmidt.

[43] Cf. fn. 3.

[44] Interview with Janusz Janowski on 23 June 2010, www.zpap-gdansk.art.pl/stgal/karczewska.html [accessed: 5 Sept. 2012], cf. fn. 31.

[45] Magdalena Schmidt-Góra, a sculptor, scholar at the Department of Sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk; Katarzyna Konieczna-Kałużna, a ceramic artist, see: Dwie bezcenne damy z pasją, “Kultura i Sztuka. Megazin”, www.plezantropia.fora.pl/…/janina-karczewska-konieczna-i-katarzyna-konieczna-kałuzna [accessed: 5 Sept. 2012].

[46] Medal at the 4th Biennale of Sacred Art in Gorzów in 1990. The jury was chaired by J. Pasierb; the participants included Magdalena Abakanowicz.

[47] Parafia Zmartwychwstania Pańskiego w Gdańsku, ed. A. Pałucha, Gdańsk 2001, pp. 92–95.

[48] Stefan Duda CR, Rzeźba Drzewa Nowego Życia w kościele Zmartwychwstania Pańskiego w Gdańsku, Gdańsk,  9 Apr. 2000 (a photocopy of the sermon is available at the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art at the University of Rzeszów).

[49] Interview with the artist on 16 July 2012.

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