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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.




JERZY UŚCINOWICZ - THE SUBTLE LIGHTS OF ICON

Genuine icons fall down from the sky. They descend on us like saint angels, like tongues of fire. That's how it always has been in the Divine order. In the vertical direction, not horizontal. Recently however — and that's how it's been for more or less one hundred years — icons travel through the world also horizontally. They travel in space, from east to west. And although reasons for their journey through the world were different, and it was rather physical than spiritual relocation — it has become a fact of life. Not always received with due theological understanding and reverence, more as a sign of wealth or a snobbish addition to private collections — icons keep going west. They mark their presence there.

 

Along with this journey and their incorporation in various religious communities and cultural traditions, the interest has grown in the entire Christian world in the icon writing techniques as well as in the sacred value and theological interpretation of this art. The phenomenon of their presence in the Orthodox East and their absence in the Latin West has been investigated in many ways. Interest has grown in icons' history, including the history of divergence of the both artistic ways of Christianity. It has to be admitted that icons hit the road through the Christian West a little earlier and probably it wouldn't have been possible without their rediscovery in the early twentieth century in the East, when it ceased to be a ''black board'' — as it was once called. And it happened even before Malevich hanged his famous ''Black Square'' like an icon in the ''beautiful corner'' of the house. Icons ceased to be «black boards» anymore when they begun to take off from icons the black marks of ''historical eclipse'', and when after renovation by conservators they exploded with so far unexpected palette of colours. Then we saw them luminous and freed from layers of varnish imposed on them year after year. They again became ''windows to eternity'', windows to another world. There were no ''veils'' on them anymore. No blackness. There were all colours of the created and uncreated worlds. Owing to that «rediscovery» of icons after their first travel through their native Orthodox world, the Christian West became somehow prepared for their adoption at home. Primarily in theological terms. It was there that most of fundamental treaties were written by Trubetskoy, Fr. Bulgakov, Fr. Florensky, Berdyaev, or subsequent Uspensky's and Evdokimov's dissertations. They revealed the ''double life'' of icons, not only as extraordinarily sophisticated works of art, cultural phenomena and witnesses to the Orthodox Church's history, but first and foremost as fundamental philosophical and theological messages. Icons proved that they ''could talk''. They are like a language, which in its semiotic principle, by way of real symbols of the supernatural Divine world, again testifies of the world and its quest for Salvation. And in terms of its power of expression this testimony appears to be superior to any other way of human action already tested in numerous variants. Everybody has learned this. It happened not only because of the colours, although they were the first to reveal it. Reverse perspective, geometric abstraction, semiotics, and multilayer and time/space pictorial attributes — these are just some of the merits of the captivating and mystical language of icons.

 

Only recently, because in principle only after World War II, icons began their real life in the Western world. And even if the Orthodox East remains their true homeland, their presence in the Roman Catholic, or even iconoclastically oriented Protestant, West is no longer surprising. Icons have crossed the traditional boundaries of the Orthodox culture. They may be found today not only in art galleries and museums, but also in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches of the West, which is particularly pertinent to Poland, mostly owing to Adam Stalony-Dobrzański's and Jerzy Nowosielski's works.

*

 

Poland has always been a case of cultural and religious borderline. In part it has belonged to the Latin and Western Catholic culture, in part to the Greek-Slavic and Eastern Orthodox world. Any borderline case is always intriguing, it provokes reflections and checks — how it is on the both sides of the border. Although the break-up of the two Churches — Western and Eastern — has become a painful and quite durable caesura in the history of Christianity, but since recently, along with sharpening of the ecumenical awareness, more and more they reveal mutual interest. We witness a lively exchange of ideas and values, and various forms of religious worship. And yet it has happened not only once to art, particularly the art of icon and architecture. In this case it refers to the monumental icons written on walls of Latin Gothic churches in the early Jagiellonian era, and the typical Gothic architecture of Lithuanian-Belarusian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches of the 15th and 16th centuries. Examples are the preserved to this day the Russo-Byzantine frescoes in Gothic churches in our eastern borderland. This is so in the polychrome funded in 1326 by King Władysław Jagiello for the Holy Trinity Chapel in Lublin Castle, where Russian painters tightly covered all walls with magnificent icons; in the Collegiate Church in Wiślica funded in 13590 by King Casimir III the Great, on the chancel walls of which some beautiful fragments have been preserved of Byzantine iconography from circa 1400; in the Collegiate Church in Sandomierz, today the Cathedral Basilica of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the chancel of which was adorned in circa 1423 with beautiful Eastern icon paintings; and finally it is so in the Holy Cross Chapel in Wawel Cathedral, one of the most important sites-symbols of the Polish history. That's where in 1467-1477 the Russo-Byzantine decorative painting from Pskov school was created, which today ranks among the most precious treasures of Wawel Cathedral. These remarkable paintings — in admirable harmony with the Gothic geometry of vaulted roof divisions — are the best evidence of Poland's and Krakow's traditional role in initiating and sustaining the dialogue between Western and Eastern cultures. The uniqueness and beauty of these masterpieces consist in the synthesis and harmonious relation of the Gothic architecture and the Byzantine icons.

 

Although from the multiplicity of similar objects not too many have still remained, the number of old foundations and the artistic grandeur of preserved works testify that, despite numerous constraints imposed on themselves by both — the Catholic and Orthodox — Churches in mutual contacts, and despite inclination to maintain a permanent isolation, the art, quite contrarily, manifested its independence. Great founders contributed to it. Artists themselves have made it.

 

Tracing the contemporary journey of icons from East to West, and at the same time following the earlier roads of cultural interplay in the Polish borderland — Adam Stalony-Dobrzański introduced his art to interiors of Orthodox, as well as Catholic and Protestant, churches. This art was difficult for either side, since it stood as if in between the divisions and zones of influence delineated by the both, Eastern and Western, Churches. He introduced a new and revealing phenomenon of stained-glass icon. This entry was double-dangerous for the artist, but also double-attractive and appealing for the artists and his public alike.

 

The Orthodox liturgy and arts, specifically imbued with the expectation of the Parousia, constantly refer to angelic beings, as those that in sacred mysteries accompany Christ as the High Priest and Pantocrator: ''When the Son of Man comes in his glory with all of his angels, he will sit on his royal throne'' (Matthew 25:31). It is mainly this angelogical identification, though perhaps this is only my intuition, which had a direct impact on the stained glass created by Stalony-Dobrzanski — on their network of graphic plane divisions, and their holistic iconic picture — a symbolic translation of the ''angelic powers''. The luminous and bodiless hierarchies of angels, archangels, and cherubim presented here under the appearances of geometric shapes arranged in polyphonic troops of various configurations, accompany, well, indeed even build, the figures of Christ, Our Lady and the saints shown in the stained glass windows. They all are here as if clad in them, they shine the light of God together: ''In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven''.(Matthew, 5:16).

 

Stalony-Dobrzański's stained glass remain anchored in the tradition of iconic, they are different. Their semiotic reception principle is built of harmoniously consonant geometric figures of angeolological abstractions. Figures — angels. These figures are cited here according to their Orthodox understanding and meaning. Because angels are perfect messengers and intermediaries between the Absolute and the created world. They transmit the light of transcendence. As said the Holy Fathers of the Church, we receive the uncreated light of Divine Grace just through their intermediation — the concentrated ''second light'' of God. This is discussed by St. Dionysius the Areopagite. These angelic powers, as secondary or second lights, carry the light of Divine Grace that enlightens and safeguards the temple against invasion of ''spirits of darkness, fallen angels''. They have no bodies, so there they have been cited as the geometric characters-abstracts. Triangles, rhomboids, trapezoids, squares, and their excellent, consonant polyphonic arrangements — these are the troops of angels, angelic choirs, and hierarchies. Certainly their use by Stalony-Dobrzański is not accidental — it is a combination of the idea of Eastern theology of expression developed by the figural and abstract/ symbolic iconography with the Western way of stained glass imagery, using its excellent light transmission characteristics. But there is also an admirable synthesis of many arts: the artistic traditions of antiquity, Byzantium, and of the art of free artistic creation brought by Islam, but also the modern art of the twentieth century completely freed from canons. In Dobrzański-Stalony's works they are like a form of fusion of sensory awareness with extrasensory awareness. They are the real testimony of mediation in this work of the subtle beings' reality. The works do not illustrate the subtle beings, but they are like an iconic response of the artist's imagination and artistic sensitivity to their existence. It is clearly felt.

 

The old, beautiful examples of the synthesis of Gothic architecture with the art of icons, referred to in the introduction to this essay, have now in Poland their magnificent continuation in the works of Adam Stalony-Dobrzański — his stained-glass icons. And it needs to be clearly underlined that this bold encounter of the art born in between the East and West, in between the expressionist and cubistic tradition and the canon of icons, in between the Western Gothic architecture and the liturgical-spatial structure of the Eastern temple, fits perfectly well in Catholic and Orthodox churches alike. Mutual exchange of value occurs here — as in the past — both ways.

 

The body of Adam Stalony-Dobrzanski's work does not stay closed. It opens up to the future. It has its message for today's state of consciousness and artistic intuition, and in particular also for the present condition of homo religiosus. Especially in his pro-ecumenical aspirations, so much tuned up today. This confirms that the contemporary Polish culture is still a culture of religious borderland. Belonging to the cultures of not only Western but also Eastern Christianity, it still draws from the ambiguous religious and cultural heritage of a variety of nations and communities that have made their home there. It still lives on this heritage.

 

Today the art of the both Churches cannot be parted, divided, or separated. Because the both Churches live in the condition of potential unity. They enliven each other in mutual contact and dialogue. Just as the analytical Western thinking has an invigorating impact on the synthetic state of the Eastern awareness, so the East, awoken in mysticism and symbolically and iconic quest for synthesis, inspires the West, too minimalistically and abstractly oriented today. In the art of the two — Eastern and Western — Churches the Christian world returns to its original unity. This unity already fulfils itself and materialises here in a direct and open way. In this synthesis the art acquires its full meaning and reaches its purpose. It fulfils itself in something, which actually has been its original vocation. And Adam Stalony-Dobrzyński's outstanding work gives us today an explicit testimony of this.

 

Jerzy Uścinowicz


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