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ICONOSTASIS OF LIGHT


ADAM STALONY-DOBRZANSKI


The signature compsed by the artist in the form of Gothic tracery made up of the initials of his name and surname: AS-D, shaped as St. Peter's boat, and set on an equal-armed Greek cross.




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It seems that two biographies of the artist could be drawn up, the two true and yet quite different stories of his life. The first happening in the real world, and the other — the story of the master's creative imagination. And actually, the later seems to be the only true and important for us as recipients of his art. The first, despite appearances of reality, is, as a matter of fact, of secondary relevance. Of secondary relevance by way of its drama, which made Adam Stalony-Dobrzański live ultimately and exclusively in the world of his artistic vision. He'd settled there like an ancient anchorite, living a lonely, hermit life shared with his own imagination alone, and his own ... God.

And it all began so beautifully in 1904, east of Kiev. Loving mother, caring father, rich childhood of the first-born son of a respected judge in Mena in the Chernihiv district in the very heart of the Russian Empire. His childhood was rich not only materially, but above all spiritually and intellectually. His father, son of a proud Polish knight family remembering old victories in the fields of Grünewald, a great Polish patriot returning to the motherland after years of Siberian exile. And beside him was a loving and devoted mother, a Ukrainian, heir of the old-ritual Old Ruthenian culture that protected the original Kievan Ruthenia's spirituality, guarding the wealth and mysticism of the Byzantine icon.

The Great World War and then the Bolshevik Revolution had demolished this bright and sunny landscape dust to dust. All what was left were fodder beetles, daily physical work to upkeep the hiding parents and younger siblings, and the hope of Poland reborn after the century of partitions, where finally the Stalony-Dobrzanski family arrived in 1923 under the Polish-Soviet agreement on repatriation. But there was no place for the old harmony and peace either. This was the time of emerging nationalisms, of gathering under national and religious banners that would soon bring Europe into the trenches of the new apocalypse, to the battlefields of World War II. However, Adam Stalony-Dobrzański still belonged to that undivided world, which was able to combine the heritage of many cultures, nations, and religions. After all, he was an heir of the East and West of the European civilization, Latin and Byzantine culture, Polish and Ukrainian national traditions. It wasn't a good omen for the future, and already in junior high school he attracted hostility of more ''nationally'' oriented teachers.

But then he still could enjoy peace of mind. It was at the time of his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow (1927-1933) where he met great masters and teachers. This oldest and most famous Polish art school still remembered its brilliant founders, the creators of the artistic miracle of the Young Poland movement. There the artist received from prof. Ignacy Pieńkowski his creative Credo: It already suits me to address you — Dear Colleague, it suits and indeed I should tell you something for the road of life. Of course, you had already learnt here, in so many years at our Academy, that painting, and even the whole art, is nothing more than logic and decision. In secret, we know that something must be really loved — goodbye to you, Sir. The elderly professor, however, did not add that just for this secret one must pay the highest price. The price for love for what has already been severely prosecuted. For honour, faith, hope and beauty. Because then the ''Time of the Apocalypse'' was about to begin, and all the traditional archetypes of humanity were about to be soon invalidated.

And then the artist completely left his parallel world in which he had already settled. He left for the never-ending work on scaffolding and in stained-glass workshops, where year after year he created one after another new polychromes, mosaics and stained-glass windows. But even there, he had to be under the careful supervision of his guardian Angel. Because even that own homeland did not protect him from the aggression and anger of reality. He was a stranger for each party to this total conflict. So, there he was standing in front of a Nazi firing squad, having been fingered ''just in case'' as an Orthodox believer, i.e. a potential ally of the new, Soviet occupier, by his next-door neighbour, a famous post-war culture and media luminary. And after a while, he was a guest at NKVD torture chambers, where despite the promise of an ''unexpected car crash or suicide'' he refused the ''honour'' of being an undercover Communist agent in the Church community.

Eventually, his mastery had saved him. He was too great an artist, so his craftsmanship must have been unappreciated, and he must have been given a helping hand. Two of these hands were particularly strong. One was of Archbishop Karol Wojtyła, Metropolitan of Krakow, future Pope John Paul II, and the other of Archbishop Bazyli, Metropolitan of Warsaw, superior of the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church. They extended their patronage to the master, commissioning him to work not only in their dioceses.

But the ''Time of the Apocalypse'', in which the artist had come to live, although could no longer annihilate him physically, did not forget its duties at all. At the top of its artistic mastery it had yet managed to stamp his work with a seal of silence, a censorship ban, that had survived its Communist rulers by many decades. Only today, after more than 30 years since the artist's death in 1985, his art is returning to the living. It's returns in all its glory and riches, equal to the glory of the great masterpieces of the nameless masters of the Middle Ages. Because leaving for a desert, once upon a time and today, is the only way worthy of the Great Masters of Art. In this solitude, in the silence of their hearts, they can finally start a creative dialogue with the Universe itself, with their own God. To create for Him only. And such works imperceptibly acquire a universal, immortal, and timeless dimension unknown to everyday life.

The mature work of the artist began to appear very early, already in his junior high years, starting in 1924. It is then that a series of brilliant portraits were conceived, heralding the birth of a great painter. Dozens of sketches, drawings and paintings that reveal the depth of the portrayed persons' psyche and character. In his future works the artist would enrich the sense of drama and ability to portray the extreme states of human psyche with new formal discoveries. Besides the portraits, also many sketches and studies of horses from that period inspire admiration. Always in dramatic poses that feature the dreadful beauty of these still half-wild creatures.

He began his great adventure with mystery and sacred art quite accidentally, as often happens in such situations. Just before the graduation, in 1932, he was asked by fellow student Jan Władysław chicon for help in the decoration of the medieval wooden church in Markova, a village in Podhale, Poland's southernmost region  in the foothills of the Tatra range of the Carpathian mountains. This one job was enough for the artist to revive in him his native Eastern Byzantine awareness of art. The awareness of art as the honourable service of iconographer carrying to the earth an image and splendour of Heaven.

The artist's first, already individually procured, polychromes reveal his great fascination with folk culture. Following suit of the tradition that there in Krakow he had the closest ties with, i.e. the Young Poland movement, he ascended its ancient aesthetic canons to the Parnassus of art, thus joining the rank of such masters as Stanisław Wispa’s and Józef me Hoffer. The polychromes in Radom (1941), Bobbing (1943), and Michio (1954 — 1955) can easily be considered as one of the greatest masterpieces of wall painting in the entire history of this art.

When it seemed that the artist's lyrical genius was reaching its apogee losing itself in the decorativeness and fairy-tale-ness of folk ornamentals, he surprisingly took up the gauntlet thrown down to him by the physical and spiritual catastrophe that first Nazi and then Communists had spread all around him. He took it up in a new creative material — stained-glass. The artist's works were no longer a wonderful paradise garden waiting only for a waft of Angel wings, but they had become a battlefield of good and evil. A field of the battle fought in the domain of art in parallel to the constantly multiplied earthly wars.

And this battle requires state-of-the-art weapons. So, the artist reached out for Abstraction, Avant-garde, and Cubism. With unfathomable mastery, he governed the simplest geometric forms of which he built portraits of the giants of spirit — prophets, apostles, and saints. These are no longer the portraits of people we know from the earthly consort, but portraits of mythical heroes capable of confronting the all-encompassing and permanent Apocalypse. With these images, he filled the windows of churches in Trzebownisko (1950-59), Zawiercie (1956-69), Nysa (1958-64), Rzeszów (1957), Rozwadów (1954-60), Annopol (1961), Radom (1954), Bytom Odrzański (1967) and Tenczynek (1970-72), he lit them in the windows of the Orthodox church in Gródek Białostocki (1953-69), Warsaw-Wola (1956-83) and Wrocław (1964-91). He boosted the power of drawing with the energy of saturated colours reaching the depths of the ocean.

His art was enchanting and ... at the same time disturbing. It disturbed Communist rulers, who in 1960 on the opening day closed an exhibition of the artist's ''too-sacred'' stained-glass windows, and imposed on Adam Stalony-Dobrzański a censorship ban that would forever erase his name from the cards of Polish culture. A total ban on the exhibitions, publications and presence in the media, including even those operated by the Church. And, of course, they would ban screening of the 1958 film, now returning in the glory and splendour of the first prize at the Short Film Festival in Venice. The film by the famous Polish director Jan Łomnicki is an account of the creative process of the development of these unique stained-glass windows, the first in the world stained-glass for an Orthodox church, combining the glow of a Gothic stained-glass with the mysticism of a Byzantine icon.

But these repressions were not the most painful for the master from Krakow. I'm afraid – he told at some point his closest friends – about the future. Art and the artists who create it, have always had the gift of intuition, a premonition of the days to come. And today art is becoming the threshold of hell, it pretends to be the messenger of death. Wouldn't they already have known what our future holds without tradition, hope and faith?

Adam Stalony-Dobrzański did not establish his school, had no students and followers. Like the greatest masters he remained forever unequalled and lonely in his genius. His persona disappeared from public space, his work — even the stained-glass — slowly slid into the shadow. He died, forgotten, in Krakow in 1985. For another thirty years, the iconographer's work remained unknown to the faithful and to professionals — art historians, museum curators, and theologians. In many churches, the new generation of priests does not even know the name of the artist, who a few decades ago left in their temples the polychromes and stained-glass windows of magnificent class. In several churches the frescoes — due to soiling — have been covered with fresh engobe.

Thirty years — like those three days — have just passed. Today the sacred work of Adam Stalony-Dobrzański, having discarded the gravestone, stands in full glory in the eyes of spectators. It has become a guide for foreign observers to the Polish art of the 20th century. Many get amazed with its unique multiplicity of meanings — canonical, artistic, theological and these most precious, the rarest ... mystical.


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