The villages were not ready for Jerzy Nowosielski

   "The faithful and tourists react differently to the design of this temple. Once I was showing it to a priest from France and I told him Jerzy Nowosielski was controversial and that some people like him and others don't. And he answered: ‘Thank God that no one remains indifferent,’" Fr. Jarosław Antosiuk, the parish priest of the Orthodox parish of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary in Cracow, observes.

THE WEEKLY TVP: To honor the 100th anniversary of the artist's birth, 2023 is the Year of Jerzy Nowosielski – esteemed painter, draftsman, set designer, educator, philosopher, art theoretician and religious thinker. Nowosielski was fascinated by the Eastern liturgy. He was an accomplised icon painter. The Orthodox Church in Cracow, the city where he was born and lived for many years, has one of the biggest collections of his sacred works. The question therefore is which of the icons in this church has made the biggest impression on you?

The icon that has a very special message is "Błagoobraznyj razbojnik" [The Penitent Thief], ... the image of the Good Thief on the cross next to Jesus Christ. He acknowledged his sins and was the first man on earth to be saved. Many consider this icon to relate to the artist’s life. If we look at the face of the thief we can see that it is Nowosielski’s self-portrait. Most likely this is how he saw himself. He was aware of his sins and faults and made no effort to beautify himself. As a man, he was quite simply genuine.

  I will tell you an unusual story. As we know, towards the end of his life, the professor [Nowosielski] had a weakness for alcohol and sometimes drank too much. The disease was sometimes stronger than him and he was not happy about it. That is why, here, in this temple, on Forgiveness Sunday, just before Lent, he would kneel in front of parishioners and beg them for forgiveness. He was doing it because he felt he was both offending them as well as creating the wrong impression of Orthodox Christians. He was able to humble himself in front of people and to admit his mistakes. That's why this image of the Good Thief is so true. Nowosielski was modest and humble and he believed in salvation. Humility is one of the qualities of strong and great people.

How did you meet him?

  I have been the parish priest of the Orthodox parish in Cracow for over 18 years. My first meeting with the professor was shortly after I started my service. My predecessor, Fr. Witold Maksymowicz, informed me how he was often asked to visit Nowosielski with the Holy Eucharist. The artist was a practicing member of the parish congregation and a person of deep faith, and such visits were very important to him. At the same time, alcoholism had already affected his mind -- he had memory lapses, was bedridden and had stopped leaving his house. I have to admit that the first time I went to the professor I was a bit worried. I remembered that when I was a student I heard of some of his controversial statements on theological topics. He is said to have described himself as being "a heretic both by inclination and nature." At that time I and other theologians would debate these statements for hours on end. But as soon as I met him, my worries immediately disappeared. I had the feeling that I had met an extremely kind and cordial old man.

  He always looked upon others with a great deal of tenderness and would usually start a conversation by asking how they were? Once, a parishioner asked me to take her to see him. She was very keen to meet him. The professor agreed. We went to his house and during the visit, he looked at the lady with a smile and asked her how she was. She burst into tears. It was an amazing experience for her. There is also a story I heard from his carer and friend Andrzej Starmach. One day he received a call that Nowosielski had stopped breathing. An ambulance arrived and paramedics performed CPR. Suddenly the professor woke up, opened his eyes, looked at the doctor and asked her: "How are you?".

Professor Jerzy Nowosielski in Cracow in 1995. Photo: PAP/Jacek
The professor was also very patient and calm -- a stoic, you might say. Once a man visited him and as he was leaving the artist gave him one of his works. Nowosielski's wife, Zofia, reproached him, saying: "Jurek, this painting was supposed to be part of your next exhibition. It is already published in the catalog. What are we going to do now?" Nowosielski said nothing. He just locked himself in his study. After a while he came out and in silence handed to his wife an identical painting to the one he had given to his guest. He simply painted it a second time. This, to me, was quite unusual. 

     It was only after I got to know him better, that I understood the meaning of his controversial statements. He wanted to shake up dormant feelings and break down stagnant thinking. His aim in making bold statements was to provoke and force others to reflect. He was also a professor at Cracow’s Academy of Fine Arts. The unique way he expressed himself has since served as an example often used in academia as a way of encouraging students to think more broadly and deeply about any given topic.

His way of thinking also stemmed from his deep spirituality.

  Faith was important to him throughout his life. He was brought up in a Polish-Ukrainian family. His father, a railway official, was a Uniate from the Lemko region [an ethnographic area in southern Poland traditionally inhabited by the Lemko people]. His mother was Catholic with German roots. Jerzy Nowosielski was baptized in the Greek Catholic Church. Later he had a period of exploration and rebellion. He studied the religions and philosophies of the East and even went through a period of atheism. Ultimately, he consciously decided to accept Orthodoxy, although the Greek Catholic rite remained very close to his heart. However, having studied various ideas and worldviews, he stopped at Orthodoxy and remained with it, having concluded its teachings to be the most valuable. And from that moment on, he never had any doubts about his religion.

  His path in Orthodoxy was very stable and clear. His words, published in the book "The Otherness of Orthodoxy", a compilation of his articles, prove it beyond any doubt: The moment has finally come when I regained my faith. It was not the same faith I inherited from my parents. It was completely different. Preceded by some information and experiences from the occult community. But the moment of re-enlightenment itself seemed to be independent. It was the moment of my re-entry into the Church -- the Orthodox Church.

His religious sensitivity was also reflected in his artistic work. He used to say he was not an icon painter, just simply a painter, and yet his sacral works are impressive. Most of the icons in the Orthodox church in Cracow are works by Professor Jerzy Nowosielski. How did so many of his paintings end up in this temple?

  This is mainly thanks to Fr. Witold Maksymowicz, who was a parish priest here between 1984 and 2004. He was a great fan of Nowosielski's works. He understood his art, considered it unique and made sure that there was as much of it in this place as possible. It was natural, given that the professor was our parishioner and took part in the services. One of our oldest parishioners, Alla Bałasz, recalls how Jurek (as she would call him) used to spend many hours in the church, praying and looking at the exisiting icons. She remembers how he saw the need to fill some gaps among them, not as an artist, but as a person participating in the everyday life of the parish. Thus, the changes he introduced in the iconography were the result of his deep thoughts and experiences.

Ikona jest charyzmatem, darem. Jest pewną tajemnicą, jak rodzi się ikonograf

Widać ogromny kryzys w sztuce sakralnej. Jestem zdruzgotany tym wszechobecnym kiczem – mówi brat Marcin Świąder.

see more
So it is that we see in the main part of the church -- a space created largely by the professor. Among other things, he worked on beautifying the 19th-century iconostasis. Some of the icons from that century had not survived so the resultant gaps had been filled in during the interwar period. However, Nowosielski decided they needed to be further refined. And so it happened. Thus, in the first row, we have icons of his that depict the "Dormition of the Mother of God" and Archdeacon Stefan, then the icon of "Pokrowa", i.e. the Protection of the Mother of God, and the icon of the Archangel Michael. On the right, we can see probably the oldest icon in the temple with the image of St. Nicolas. Scenes from his life are again supplemented by the artist, hence the work has acquired a richer and more dignified appearance. What was once a small icon is now a much large composition.

  The artist also designed and executed the painting of Golgotha [the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion]. Behind the altar, there are stained glass windows, designed by the professor and made by Cracow’s artists. Interestingly, during the work in the temple, Jerzy Nowosielski departed from his painting principles in order to maintain consistency with what was already there. For example, he used gold in the halos of icons to unify the compositions of the iconostasis, even though he did not consider gold as a color and never used it in his other works.

The spirit of Nowosielski is particularly felt in the All Saints’ chapel-refectory, the interior of which is covered with a polychromy he himself made. Here, we can see the sapphire iconostasis, originally ordered in the 1970s for the wooden Orthodox church of St. Ascension of the Lord in the village of Orzeszkowo in Podlasie. Rejected by the village community, the iconostasis ended in Cracow.

  The author of Jerzy Nowosielski's biography, critic and art historian Krystyna Czerni, writes about it extensively in her studies. The artist was invited to decorate the interior and paint the iconostasis in Orzeszkowo by Fr. Leoncjusz Teofiluk. Fr. Leoncjusz greatly appreciated the professor's knowledge of iconography, not only because the artist was a painter, but also because of his expertise in the history of art, philosophy, ancient architectural monuments, old icons and painting. He was inspirational. Contact with the professor influenced Fr. Leoncjusz's decision to organize iconographic workshops, and later to establish the Post-Secondary School of Iconography in Bielsk Podlaski, which gave rise to the revival of iconography in Poland.

  However, returning to Orzeszkowo, I will quote a short paragraph from Czerni’s publication, entitled "Nowosielski in Małopolska. Sacred Art" (published in 2015): The walls were to be covered with gray canvas, painted in blue and heather tones, the paneling -- in navy blue with a characteristic Nowosielski ‘marbled’ pattern, and the ceiling -- in white, with stars. The iconostasis itself was resonantly dominated by two colors: dominant blues, through deep sapphire tones, to brighter shades and intense, saturated red.

  Nowosielski's icons differed from those commonly found in Orthodox churches. They referred more to Western painting, hence they were not understood by local people. The villagers informed the parish priest that had they been displayed in the local church, they would have stopped attending the services. This is why the decision was reached not to put Nowosielski’s iconostasis there. A similar fate befell two icons that had been intended for the Orthodox church in Klejniki in Podlasie [hist. Kleniki] -- "The Last Supper" and "Deesis" [1982]. The local parish priest said that they were made of materials not suitable for an unheated temple.

Nowosielski himself allowed that placing his icons in small towns was premature, acknowledging that people were not ready for them.

  Nowosielski was definitely ahead of his time. Such precursors do not have it easy, because they are one step ahead of what is acceptable at the moment. The artist combined the tradition of icon painting with the achievements of the 20th-century avant-garde. Because his iconography was so different, some of his projects remained uncompleted and some of his works were destroyed or repainted. It must have been a painful blow for the artist. The professor lamented that he was too Orthodox for Catholics and too Catholic for Orthodox; that he was too modern and hence did not fit into the framework of the existing tradition.
What was the reaction of the parishioners to Nowosielski's icons at the Orthodox Church in Cracow?

  When it comes to accepting and not accepting icons, the reactions varied also in this temple. Only Golgotha was made at the explicit request of the parish priest. The remaining icons were at the professor's independent initiative and some parishioners criticized them or were even dissatisfied with them. Czerni writes in her biography that his work caused him a lot of humiliation. Also tourists visiting the temple react in various ways. Some are delighted and the interior stimulates them to pray. Others claim the aesthetics do not appeal to them. It's hard for me to say why this is happening. There are simply different people, tastes, aesthetics, spirituality. Some like gothic temples, others -- renaissance, others -- Greek architecture. This is the reality and you have to come to terms with it. Once, I was showing a priest from France around the church and I told him that Nowosielski's work can provoke such controversies and that some like his art and others don't. Then he shared with me such a deep thought, that it accompanies me to this day. He said: "Thank God that no one remains indifferent."

And how do you perceive these icons yourself?

  I'm used to this interior. For me, it belongs to this temple. It is an inseparable element, harmonious with the rest. It would difficult for me to imagine this space without Nowosielski's icons. However, I cannot say that I like all the artist's works. There are some that arouse mixed feelings in me. I need to think more deeply about how to receive them. The relation with an icon is always very intimate. Whether it is viewed up close or from a distance, it always gives the impression that the eyes of a saint are looking at us. However, when it comes to Nowosielski's sacral paintings, there is a certain discrepancy. From a distance, light shines from them, and when you come closer, the image blurs, a dark spot appears. There is no clear division into the sacred and the profane in his works. On one side you see an image of a lady, and on the other an almost identical image of the Mother of God.

Indeed, while painting icons, Jerzy Nowosielski did not adhere faithfully to the canon. He was transforming them into the present day. He had his own characteristic color palette and was adding elements of abstraction to religious compositions.

  You have to ask yourself, what the purpose of an icon is. The answer is simple. We need an icon so that a man does not imagine God, because imagination can lead us astray. We talk about following the canon when an icon is consistent with the teaching of the Church, has the right shape and color, and is made of the right material. An icon is supposed to show a transformed world, devoid of earthly or human imperfections. But most importantly, it is supposed to lead a man to commune with God, to prayer. And as I mentioned earlier, some kneel and pray before Nowosielski's icons, while others do not. So we are dealing with ambiguity in the reception of his works.

  Certainly Professor Nowosielski contributed to the rebirth of iconography and gave it a new direction. In the words of the Orthodox theologian and priest Fr. Henryk Paprocki: Undoubtedly, in the case of Nowosielski's icons, we are dealing with a creative development of the art of the icon, perhaps the greatest since the fall of the icon itself. Besides, in the age of chaos and contempt for humanity, the anthropological vision of transformed humanity, visible in every Nowosielski icon, gives hope not only for art, but also for man. Nowosielski's art preaches Christian optimism because it reveals that all contradictions will be reconciled and that reality is heading towards God, who is its ultimate fulfillment. At present, Jerzy Nowosielski's icons are the last accent, and an unusual one, in the centuries-old history of icons.

On the track of a murder and “The Nun”

Art collectors died in strange circumstances.

see more
There is a certain paradox in Nowosielski's sacred works. On the one hand, the artist blurred the line between the sacred and the profane, and on the other, he rebelled against any icon being placed in a museum or gallery space. According to him, an icon’s place was only in a temple. That is why we also have a chapel on the second floor of the church. We made an altar space there and services are held there. We administer the sacrament of Holy Baptism there every day. The professor would be very happy about it. It is worth adding that during his lifetime, the professor gave our parish the copyright to his sacred works. In doing so, he wrote that this donation was to support the parish’s maintenance. Its survival was very important to him. This donation is the professor’s extremely touching testament for us.

Were you ready when it came to saying good bye to him?

  Our relationship was primarily on a spiritual level. He was full of faith and was not afraid of death. For a believer, he just fell asleep. That's why I calmly accepted his departure into the other world.

  In retrospect, I can say I am extremely glad I had the opportunity to meet a man of great art. I became particularly aware of this when I read the fragment of his biography, in which Czerni describes his visit to the National Museum in Lviv. When Nowosielski looked at the art gathered there, he felt that in a moment he would simply burst or explode. How sensitive do you have to be to react like that? Each of us could ask such a question. Have we ever felt something similar when looking at paintings or icons? This sensitivity stayed with him to the end. When he was very ill and his hands couldn't work any more, someone asked him if he was still painting. He replied briefly, "Continuously." The paintings were being created inside of him, he simply materialized them on canvas when he still could. He left so much of himself and his work here that he is actually still with us.

– Interview by Monika Chrobak, Polish Radio journalist

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy

The year 2023 was established by the Parliament of Poland as the Year of Jerzy Nowosielski to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of this great painter, draftsman, scenographer, educator, philosopher, art theoretician and religious thinker.   Nowosielski was born on January 7, 1923, in Krakow and was associated with the city for most of his life. From an early age he was fascinated by the Eastern liturgy in which he was raised. He painted icons, mainly focusing on metaphysical figural compositions and landscapes. He designed and executed furnishings and polychromies in numerous Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches. He designed, among others, polychromies, iconostases, stained glass windows, Stations of the Cross and even liturgical vestments. They can be seen, among others, in the churches in Tychy, St. Spirit in Nowa Huta, Divine Providence in Wesoła, and the Orthodox church in Hajnówka. The Orthodox Church in Cracow has one of the largest collections of his religious works.
Main photo: Greek Catholic church in Biały Bór, designed and painted by Jerzy Nowosielski. January 2020. Photo: Wojciech Kryński / Forum
See more
Interviews wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Japanese celebrate Christmas Eve like Valentine’s Day
They know and like one Polish Christmas carol: “Lulajże Jezuniu” (Sleep Little Jesus).
Interviews wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Red concrete
Gomułka was happy when someone wrote on the wall: "PPR - dicks." Because until now it was written "PPR - Paid People of Russia".
Interviews wydanie 8.12.2023 – 15.12.2023
Half the world similarly names mothers, fathers and numerals
Did there exist one proto-language for all of us, like one primaeval father Adam?
Interviews wydanie 24.11.2023 – 1.12.2023
We need to slow down at school
Films or AI are a gateway to the garden of knowledge. But there are not enough students who want to learn at all.
Interviews wydanie 17.11.2023 – 24.11.2023
The real capital of the Third Reich
Adolf Hitler spent 836 days in the Wolf's Lair. Two thousand five hundred people faithfully served him in its 200 reinforced concreto buildings.