"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Art: The Divine Mercy Painting by Eugeniusz Kazimirowski [Updated]

Today is Divine Mercy Sunday, the Sunday so instituted by St. Pope John Paul II.  The idea traces back to a young Polish woman who has become one of the great saints of the 20th century, St. Maria Faustina Kowalska.  In honor of this occasion I would like to present and examine the great painting that St. Faustina commissioned to have painted based on her visions of Christ coming to her.  There are many versions which have cropped up since the original was painted back in 1934, but it is the original painting, painted by Eugeniusz Kazimirowski, that transcends. 




Last Thursday I had the great privilege to attend at my Church a private screening of a documentary on the making of the painting (“The Original Image of Divine Mercy: A Documentary”) and its convoluted history afterwards.  The death of St. Faustina in 1938, the death of the painter in 1939, the Nazi invasion, World War II, the Soviet occupation, and the communist repression of religion all caused the painting to be forgotten, abandoned, and then stored in an attic exposed to outdoor temperatures.  It is a remarkable history, which you can read here, but if you have the chance to see this wonderful documentary, do so.  Here is a movie trailer of it.






So while the original painting fell into obscurity, other painters tried their hand at St. Faustina’s description in her diary of the Christ of her visions, and their paintings took root in the culture.  That is why there are so many versions.  Of particular note is the 1943 version by Adolf Hyla, which you can see on the Wikipedia entry for the Divine Mercy image.  For me the Hyla version is most definitely inferior.  It’s less iconography and more like a cover art for a pop culture magazine.  The right hand is raised less in blessing and more in salutation; Christ’s face is Hollywoodish, the eyes don’t seem to convey mercy, and the head tilt makes Christ seem more like a buddy than God.  The more I look at the Hyla version, the more I’m turned off.

So why am I so attracted to the original Kazimirowski version? 

First, it’s restrained.  The simplicity of every element accentuates the message.  There is very little implied motion.  The right hand is fixed in position of blessing; the feet have come to a stop, though the position suggests that Christ has come forward.  The tunic hangs still, suggesting stasis.  The only motion is reserved for the left hand peeling open the lip on the tunic at the heart, letting forth divine light. 

Second, the right arm is in a position of balance and blessing.  It is directly level with the left arm, with the hand up in blessing.  Balance seems so important to the structure of the painting.  The light from the half opened lap reflects off the right hand, glowing in benediction.

Third, the dark background from which Christ comes forth is so suggestive.  One can read it as the darkness of evil and sin, or perhaps the darkness of pre-creation, or perhaps the darkness of everlasting damnation.  If the darkness contrasts behind Christ, then the bright figure of Jesus is the light of the world, the light of salvation, the light of mercy.

Fourth, the eye of the viewer is drawn in toward the light from the heart.  The lines all lead one to Christ’s heart.  The light is bright, natural, and mixed with red, suggesting the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side.  It is not over done and completely realistic in the way it points downward as the opening from the garment flap lifts from the bottom.


Fifth, Christ’s face is perfection.  It is His face that captures me.  It is a remarkable work of realism.  The hair and the beard are so humble.  Hair can suggest ego and preening.  Not here.  The beard is scraggly, the hair thin and modestly placed.  It is a peasant’s face, not one of royalty.  The eyes are looking down.  This might be the most remarkable feature of the painting.  The eyes are not looking into the viewer’s eyes.  They are not probing you.  It is not a moment of judgement.  It is a moment of mercy, of understanding.  Here is a detail of the head to mid body. 



 The documentary said that when Kazimirowski completed the painting, St. Faustina cried, not because he had captured her vision, but because she realized it was impossible to capture it.  In a way, the painting was a collaboration between Kazimirowski, St. Faustina, and St. Faustina’s spiritual director who modeled for the Christ, Fr. Michał Sopoćko.  Every week Faustina would come to the studio and have Kazimirowski rearrange in an effort to capture her visions.  It must have been difficult for the painter to have this intense young woman stipulating her vision and forcing change upon change.  However, the final product is a masterpiece.

Jesus, I trust in you.

Update April 5th, 8:09 AM:
Great article by Paul Jaskunas in First Things Magazine on St. Faustina, the documentary, and the painting, here.

8 comments:

  1. What a wonderful story. Thank you, Manny, for bringing it to our attention. Do you have a link to the full documentary, please?

    God bless.

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    1. No, unfortunately I don't think it's available on the internet. It's probably something you have to buy.

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  2. That has always been my favorite version also. I agree, much less fanciful addition.

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    1. I've been looking at the other versions, and I'm finding them repulsive. Thanks Kelly.

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  5. I love this... deep colours, a reflective expression on Christ's face, the light seems to imminate from His chest. It is a subtle painting which rings true

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    1. I thought you would like that Melanie. Thanks for stopping by.

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