Uniwersytet Rzeszowski
Centrum Dokumentacji Współczesnej Sztuki Sakralnej
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Anna Sieradzka

University of Warsaw



The religious painting of Pia Górska, a Polish artist active in the 1920s and 1930s, is sparsely preserved and little known. Her most outstanding works include two images painted in 1938-1939: Holy Virgin of Loreto (Patron Saint of Aviators) at the Church of St Francis of Assisi near the Warsaw airport of Okęcie and St Jude Thaddaeus in the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. The paintings are characterized by their original treatment of iconography, which combines the dictates of tradition with the artist’s lyrical realism.

Keywords: Pia Górska, religious painting, St Jude Thaddaeus, Holy Virgin of Loreto


As an artist, Pia Górska (1878–1974) is nowadays largely forgotten;[1] she is better remembered for her writing, especially her written memories of Józef Chełmoński and the autobiographical volume Paleta i pióro (The Palette and the Pen),[2] than for her painting [fig. 1]. Born in Wola Pękoszewska as the youngest child of Jan Górski and Maria Górska, neé Łubieńska, rich landowners whose manor house served as the venue of vibrant cultural and social life up until the First World War, she was named after Pope Pius IX, who had died shortly before her birth.[3] The Górski family was very religious and the artist’s eldest brother, Ludwik, acted as an unofficial go-between for the Catholic Church of the Kingdom of Poland and the Holy See (for which reason, the family palace in at 8 Foksal Street in Warsaw was often referred to as “the Polish Vatican”).[4] The youngest of four brothers, Konstanty Maria Górski, was a well-known art historian, writer and literary scholar, who had a significant impact on young Pia’s intellectual and artistic development.

Her art education began when several young painters, such as Eligiusz Niewiadomski, Feliks Cichocki, Józef Rapacki, Sylweriusz Saski, and Józef Mehoffer started vacationing at her family house during the summer holidays. Mehoffer suggested that the young disciple should primarily focus on studies from nature. From 1894 onwards, Wola Pękoszewska also welcomed frequent visits from Józef Chełmoński from the nearby village of Kuklówka, the artist that Pia respected the most, if not utterly idolized, and to whom she was indebted for an interest in landscape painting, evident in her early work.[5]

Her further education in the 1890s included visits to the ateliers of famous Krakow-based artists such as Jacek Malczewski, Jan Stanisławski, Leon Wyczółkowski, Józef Mehoffer, and Adam Chmielowski (Albert Chmielowski’s brother), organized through her brother Konstanty (Kocio)’s extensive network of contacts.[6]


After 1900, Pia Górska gave up painting for some time. In 1908, she moved to live with her widowed mother in Warsaw and decided, as her unpublished memoirs tell us, “to emancipate myself from the protection of my family (I was 28 at the time) and go out into the street all by my myself (HO! HO!), to attend interesting public lectures and courses”. Further on, we read: “how lucky I am to have no husband, but enjoy my freedom”.[7] Pia dedicated herself to teaching; she organized, and later audited, kindergartens, wrote religious talks for the youngest children, issued guidelines for teachers of religion, and taught in local kindergartens and orphanages. In order to raise funds for her institutions, she produced sketched portraits, which received praise from the press[8] but came in for scathing criticism from Józef Chełmoński.[9]

It was only in 1921 that, following the advice of Zofia Stankiewiczówna, a famous graphic artist, she enrolled in the School of Painting run by Konrad Krzyżanowski. After Krzyżanowsk’s death, she began auditing classes at the atelier of Tadeusz Pruszkowski at the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw. She was over 40 years old at the time. When Pruszkowski asked: “How do you feel at our school?” she replied “A bit like a stately matron trying to dance mazurka, not sure she can keep up”.[10] Always critical of her work and skills, she remembered:

My first year at the Academy was difficult, not because of my relationship with other students but because of the studies themselves. I knew little but had a lot of mannerisms after years of drawing little portraits and cloying photograph-like studies. I understood nothing of transposition; I could copy but not compose. Add to this the woolly outlines, the colour scheme exclusively based on tone scales. I had a really hard time! After a year, I gradually managed to break some old habits, found my feet in new work, and began to earn praise and distinctions.[11]

Indeed. Górska first showcased her paintings at student exhibitions organized at the School of Fine Arts; after graduation in 1928, she exhibited mainly at the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts (where she became a full member; as a woman, she could not be accepted to the guild-like Brotherhood of St Luke in Warsaw, the first society for the graduates of Pruszkowski’s atelier), and later still at the Institute for the Propagation of Art, as well as at multiple international exhibitions. Her works generally met with favourable critical reception.[12]

In the 1920s, her work primarily consisted of realistic portraits. The model was shown in the foreground. Painted flatly, the portraits were toned down in colour, with scant chiaroscuro and scale effects, and remained faithful to the model’s features. Many depicted melancholy images of small children. As a true disciple to Pruszkowski, Górska also did not shun idealized depictions of young girls and women, stylized after the early Italian Renaissance, and often shown with symbolic soap bubbles or butterflies, as well as fairy tale themes [figs. 2, 3].

Around 1932, we can observe a change in Górska’s approach to her own art. She writes: “I am devoting myself entirely to painting again. I am changing my style and my methods, I am looking for better forms of expression. The archaizing style of my earlier days seems dead to me. I am preoccupied with other questions, I put an emphasis on texture, I am looking for colour. Will I find it, will I get there, can I do it – I don’t know. In any case, I feel really happy to be painting again and glad to have my life aglow with the great light of art. I am thankful to God that I chose this path”.[13]

The years in the lead-up to the Second World War witnessed some of her most mature work; notable for their harmonious colour and fine chiaroscuro effects, the paintings exude an aura of melancholia and meditation, often coupled with a symbolic dimension.

After the family palace at Foksal Street (along with Pia’s studio) burned to the ground in September 1939, Pia moved back to Wola Pękoszewska, where she spent the occupation years at the house of her nephew, Andrzej Górski. In 1947, she settled in Krakow, taking up residence with her other nephew, Franciszek Górski, the son of her beloved brother Konstanty, whose villa at Krasińskiego Street became one of the most important Catholic and intellectual venues of Krakow.[14] She seldom painted at that time, confessing bitterly: “I don’t believe in the painting of old people”;[15] instead, she returned to writing, publishing historical and historical-religious novels (such as Miasto Dawidowe (The City of David) published in 1955), memoirs (Paleta i pióro (The Palette and the Pen), 1956, published again in 1960), as well as frequent articles in Catholic press.[16] Much of her literary output has remained in manuscript and typescript form.[17] Górska died on June 13, 1974 and was buried at the Rakowicki Cementary in Krakow. Her oeuvre, the bulk of which was either destroyed or dispersed during WWII, is currently in the possession of her family in Krakow and Poznan; a handful of paintings made it to museum collections.[18]

It may strike one as a paradox that religious themes, frequent in the art of so many members of the Brotherhood of St Luke (Antoni Michalak, Jan Zamoyski, Jan Wydra), are only incidentally touched upon by Pia Górska, who was well-known for her religious fervour both in writing and in everyday life.

Only a few such paintings can be found in her oeuvre: The Three Wise Men of c. 1928[19] and the Visitation (Mary and Elizabeth) of c. 1931,[20] only known to us from reproductions, as well as the Holy Virgin of Loreto (Patron Saint of Aviators) and St Jude Thaddaeus, both dating from 1938–1939 and preserved in the churches for which they were originally intended. Titles such as Saint (1928), Madonna (1928), Holy Wanderers (1932) and St Veronica (1936), recorded in exhibition catalogues and press notes, suggest that such paintings could have been more in number.

The Three Wise Men [fig. 4] shows monumental figures standing out from the barely sketched background in the dazzling light of the guiding star of Bethlehem. Despite the realism of their features and attire, the individualized, hieratic depictions of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, exude solemn dignity. The Visitation (Mary and Elizabeth) [fig. 5] is artistically less accomplished. Two female figures are shown facing each other and shaking hands. They are clad in loose tunics, their heads, as befits married women, covered with black veils. Long braids of light hair flow down from under Mary’s veil, which symbolizes her virginity. In the background, pitched-roof buildings can be discerned behind the high bushes; their architecture resembles outbuildings around a Polish manor house rather than a Middle Eastern town. Luminous halos surround the heads of the women. The archaic concept behind the painting harks back to the spirit of the early Italian Quattrocento, with its hieratic, static figures, painted in a flat and schematic manner. As with The Three Wise Men, not much can be said about the features of colour and texture.

Holy Virgin of Loreto (Patron Saint of Aviators)[21] [fig. 6] was probably painted in 1938 for a small makeshift wooden church of St Francis of Assisi in the vicinity of the Okęcie airport in Warsaw; it may have been commissioned for the main altar by the priests or the pilots themselves. In 1920, following an 8-year-long campaign of the Italian Society of Air Travellers, Pope Benedict XV had proclaimed the Virgin of Loreto the patron saint of all air travellers, and in particular of aviators.[22] From the 1980s onwards, the painting has been kept in the Patrons of the Parish Chapel in the newly built stone church at Hynka Street, also named after St Francis.

The painting shows all the basic iconographic features of the theme, known from the Middle Ages: the Holy Virgin is shown erect, clad in a richly decorated coat and a flowing robe, with the Child perched on her left arm. However, Górska enriched the traditional vision not only with luminous rays, which seem to form Mary’s second coat, but also with the decision to simultaneously depict another subject, that of the miraculous transfer of Mary’s little house from Nazareth to Loreto in 13th-century Italy. Hoisted by two angels in the background, an enormous structure is readily recognized as the Basilica of Santa Maria della Santa Casa, enclosing the 1315 Loreto House along with a figurine of the Holy Virgin. Having travelled around Italy in her youth, Pia Górska must have known the Loreto sanctuary firsthand. The artist situated the event in a Polish landscape, placing the Vistula River and the buildings of the Old Town in Warsaw in the background. In the greyish blue sky, a few silvery airplanes circle overhead…

Besides the innovative elements of iconography, the painting is also special on account of its technique and the treatment of colour. Painted with soft and free-flowing brushstrokes, Mary stands out from the sketchy monochromatic landscape with the luminous, contrasting colours of her garments.[23]

The most famous among the religious paintings of Pia Górska (and the best known in her entire oeuvre, even though often not associated with her name) is the image of St Jude Thaddaeus in the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw [fig. 7] (copied for many other churches throughout Poland).[24]

The painting was ordered for the church by Maryla Sobańska in 1938. Górska described her work on the commission to her sister-in-law, Jadwiga Górska, neé Strojnowska, in a few letters from 1946-1966:


I had hardly addressed religious themes before, because I thought I lacked the necessary skills. I took up the task with great reluctance, everything went badly; I had no model, not to mention any artistic vision. When I finished the painting, I saw it as a failure. And I still haven’t changed my mind. The hand is badly drawn, the lines of the face seem unsure, even asymmetrical! I couldn’t do it better, apparently, or perhaps my laziness is to blame. Someone jokingly told me the words: “Wunderbare Bilder sind immer schlechte Gemälde”. Thank God, despite these artistic shortcomings, people still pray and receive grace in front of the painting![25]


In another letter, she wrote:

I am touched…to hear that the painting of St Jude is overhung with votive offerings. It is not about the painting, it is about the faith of the people. I am sure that if a cheap lithograph was put there, they would worship it all the same! The painting was ordered by Maryla Sobańska, I had no artistic vision and little enthusiasm for the task. As far as I remember, the hands are terrible and the drawing shaky! …In the end, I decided to show Jude as a poor Polish man, a Polish “poverello”.[26]

The cult of St Jude Thaddaeus dates back to early Christianity but only became widespread in the 18th century, especially in Austria and Poland. At that time, the saint began to be venerated as the patron of lost causes, in which one could only hope for his intervention.[27] Iconography often shows him as a young man in a long tunic and a coat, with a variety of attributes. Ever since the 18th century, he has usually been shown carrying a medallion with an image of Christ; legend has it that it was with an image of Jesus that he once cured Abgar, the King of Edessa, of leprosy.

Górska followed the tradition; she painted the saint in the convention of an icon that alluded to his Byzantine representations, which she must have known from her earlier Italian peregrinations. St Jude Thaddaeus is shown in half figure, his young face covered with a short stubble and head surrounded by a golden halo. A blue coat hangs over his vermillion tunic, and its hood is drawn out over the shoulders. In the saint’s hands, a mandylion with the face of Christ in a golden frame studded with precious gems can be seen; a thin walking cane supports his right arm. The figure is flat and schematic against an equally flat light background with sketchy walls of Jerusalem drawn to resemble mediaeval Italian architecture. At the bottom, a ribbon inscription reads “ST JUDE THADDAEUS. + 28 – X” (28 October, the saint’s feast in the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church). The small painting sits in dark, thick frames almost entirely covered by numerous votive offerings that have accumulated over decades; votive plaques cover the nearby kneeling stools. The painting is always surrounded by bouquets of fresh flowers.

Wojciech Skrodzki is one of very few art historians to have devoted any attention to the religious paintings of Pia Górska. In his assessment, the image of St Jude Thaddaeus shows a sense of decorativeness typical of Górska’s art in general. It also “has parallels in her literary and artistic fascinations with old Italy”. However, it would be difficult to agree with his praise of her “vivid sense of colour”, more appropriate in the case of the Holy Virgin of Loreto.[28]

A closer look at the technique of St Jude Thaddaeus hardly sends one into raptures; however, it does not justify a judgement as harsh as that expressed by the artist herself either. What has proved of enduring importance is its significance for the worshippers. Pia Górska’s religious paintings, therefore, can aptly be described as “faith-filled images”, as Joanna Lubos-Kozieł once beautifully and aptly described the 19th-century painting of Silesia.[29]


Translated by Urszula Jachimczak


[1] No entry on Górska, Pia is to be found in Słownik artystów polskich i w Polsce działających. Malarze, rzeźbiarze, architekci, vol. 2, Warszawa 1975; in post-WWII publications, the artist is briefly mentioned in: W. Skrodzki, Polska sztuka religijna 1900–1945, Kraków 1989, p. 81; W. Bartoszewicz, Buda na Powiślu, Warszawa 1966, pp. 101–104; E. Charazińska, Maria Pia Górska, in: Artystki polskie, exhibition catalogue, ed. A. Morawińska, National Museum in Warsaw, Warszawa 1991, pp. 166–167. An extensive chapter on Górska is included in a popular monograph by A. Okońska, Żywoty pań malujących, Warszawa 1981, pp. 151–184. The most detailed and insightful analysis of the life and work of the artist can be found in Beata Patała, Pia Górska (1878–1974) – zarys monografii, Warszawa 1999, unpublished MA thesis written at the University of Warsaw under the supervision of  Anna Sieradzka, typescript available in the library of the Institute of Art History at the University of Warsaw.

[2] P. Górska, O Chełmońskim, Warszawa 1932; ibidem, Paleta i pióro, Kraków 1956.

[3] M. z Łubieńskich Górska, Gdybym mniej kochała. Dziennik lat 1889–1895, Warszawa 1996, p. 21.

[4] T.S. Jaroszewski, Pałac Zamoyskich na Foksalu, Warszawa 1987, p. 92.

[5] Patała 1999 (fn. 1), p. 32.

[6] Ibidem, pp. 9–10.

[7] P. Górska, W kraju ciszy i burz, typescript in a private collection; quoted after: Patała 1999 (fn. 1), p. 11.

[8] J. Wendorfówna, Chwalebny dyletantyzm, “Tygodnik Ilustrowany”, 1910, no. 19, p. 375.

[9] Górska 1956 (fn. 2), p. 65.

[10] Ibidem, p. 226.

[11] Górska (fn. 7), p. 57.

[12] Patała 1999 (fn. 1), pp. 16–25.

[13] The manuscript of Pia Górska’s autobiograpy for the editorial board of the Polish Biographical Dictionary, private collection, p. 9, quoted after: Patała 1999 (fn. 1), p. 47.

[14] Ibidem, p. 28

[15] Ibidem.

[16] Ibidem, pp. 59–68.

[17] Besides the Autobiografia, private collections include the typescript of: Kraj mojej młodości, W kraju ciszy i burz, Wspomnienia i pamiętnik.

[18] These include: Po zachodzie, 1899, National Museum in Krakow, and Portret we wnętrzu (Portrait of Róża Raczyńska), 1936, Raczyński Family Foundation in Rogalin, affiliated with the National Museum in Poznań.

[19] The Three Wise Men, oil on metal, unsigned, presented at an exhibition in Warsaw’s “Zachęta” in 1930 (“Przewodnik Towarzystwa Zachęty Sztuk Pięknych”, 1930, no. 50, p. 17, item 1), reproduced in: “Bluszcz”, 1930, no. 5, p. 11.

[20] Visitation (Mary and Elizabeth), oil on canvas, unsigned, presented at an exhibition in Warsaw’s “Zachęta” in 1930 (“Przewodnik Towarzystwa Zachęty Sztuk Pięknych”, 1932, no. 71, p. 18, item 232), reproduced in: “Tygodnik Ilustrowany”, 1932, no. 8, p. 15.

[21] Oil on canvas, 150 × 100 cm, unsigned.

[22] J. Duchniewski, entry: Loretańska Matka Boża, in: Encyklopedia katolicka, vol. 10, Lublin 2004, p. 1379.

[23] Skrodzki 1989 (fn. 1), p. 81.

[24] Oil on canvas, 50×40 cm, unsigned; the painting is only briefly mentioned in the monograph devoted to the church, see: E. Kowalczykowa, Kościół Świętego Krzyża, Warszawa 1975, p. 100.

[25] Pia Górska’s letter to Jadwiga Górska, neé Strojnowska, Krakow 17.12.1959, manuscript at the Krasiński Library in Warsaw; quoted after: Patała 1999 (fn. 1), p. 46.

[26] Pia Górska’s letter to Jadwiga Górska, neé Strojnowska, Krakow 12.10.1957, manuscript at the Krasiński Library in Warsaw; quoted after: Ibidem.

[27] M. Jacniacka, entry: Juda Tadeusz, in: Encyklopedia Katolicka, vol. 9, Lublin 2000, pp. 196–197; R. Knapiński, Credo Apostolorum w średniowiecznej i nowożytnej ikonografii kościelnej, in: Symbol apostolski w nauczaniu i sztuce Kościoła do Soboru Trydenckiego, ed. R. Knapiński, Lublin 1997, pp. 331–401.

[28] Skrodzki 1989 (fn. 1), p. 81.

[29] J. Lubos-Kozieł, Wiarą tchnące obrazy: studia z dziejów malarstwa religijnego na Śląsku w XIX wieku, Wrocław 2004.

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