The Light of the Icon in the Work of Adam Stalony-Dobrzański

Anna Siemieniec

(Photos: Piotr Kłosek)

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The history of 20th century Polish sacred art has been decisively influenced by the work of Prof Jerzy Nowosielski, painter, icon-writer, and theorist, who greatly contributed to the growing interest in the problem of sacrum in modern painting. Inspired by art and spirituality of the Christian East, Nowosielski’s creations filled a void left by a period of pronounced crisis of sacred art in Poland. He re-introduced the icon, which had been present in Poland’s sacred buildings since the Middle Ages and was again discovered in Russia and Western Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, as a revelation, a spiritual discovery for those yearning to contemplate Truth, Good, and Beauty. 

At the same time, Jerzy Nowosielski’s art gave rise to a number of debates surrounding the nature of contemporary sacred art. Should it be rooted in tradition – a plastic vision of sacrum of the people of the past? Or should it seek contemporary forms of expression? Like Nowosielski’s art, which is a dialogue between tradition of the icon and contemporary form, the answers to these questions are not unequivocal. 

Nowosielski was not alone in his plastic intuitions, however. A study of his work is not complete without the mention of his collaboration with Prof Adam Stalony-Dobrzański. Stalony-Dobrzański, a Cracow professor and Orthodox artist, is little-known, which is a serious omission in the history of Polish art. His work, which can be found in Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant sacred buildings in Poland, is the result of a powerful and intensely authentic vision of sacrum, a vision that was even stronger than Communist censorship. 

In the beginning of the 1960s, the work of Prof Adam Stalony-Dobrzański (1904-1985), lecturer and Lettering Chair at the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts, was banned by the authorities of The People’s Republic of Poland. His last exhibition, which was held in 1960 in Katowice, was closed right after the opening due to the sacred subject matter of the works, while the catalogue was confiscated, as it was considered to be “a prayer book.” Up until the end of 1980s, academic scholarship on Stalony-Dobrzański’s work, his exhibitions, and even mention of his art were not possible in public.

Despite these adversities, Adam Stalony-Dobrzański worked continuously in sacred spaces – he created stained glass, polychromies, and mosaics. Today, on the threshold of a deeper understanding and analysis of his art, we realize we are faced with the work of an artist whose creations paved the way for sacred art – beyond confessional divisions, beyond disagreements on sacred aesthetics. 

Adam Stalony-Dobrzański skilfully rooted his work in the tradition of Christian art – the icon tradition, but at the same retained freshness of form and connection to contemporary experience of plastic arts. He accomplished this most clearly in stained glass and it is through this medium that he is being discovered nowadays. 

It is also stained glass that was the subject of the artist’s first exhibition after 23 years, “The Creation of Light”. It took place between 20 October and 30 November 2011 in the Sophia of Kiev Museum in Kiev. The choice of place was deliberate: Adam Stalony-Dobrzański was born in Ukraine. His father was Catholic, while his mother was of the Old Ritualist confession. It was Ukraine where his juvenile artistic sensibility was formed and there, in Orthodox churches, he would experience the mystery of the light of the icon. “We intended to display stained glass in an Orthodox space, to people who, on the one hand, are able to experience the icon, but on the other hand don’t have a feel for stained glass,” Michał Bogucki, the custodian of the exhibition, explained. “The work of Adam Stalony-Dobrzański was absolutely surprising to them – they discovered the icon in the stained glass matter.” 

In three rooms on the first floor of the Sophia of Kiev Museum selected works were chosen out of around two hundred stained glass windows designs. Twenty eight large-format plastic film prints made from photos of realized stained glass pieces were displayed in seven black rectangular show-cases and two original stained glass pieces and original paper designs were shown. 

Adam Stalony-Dobrzański’s stained glass is the work of an artist standing on the crossroads of cultures, confessions, and aesthetics. Stained glass – colourful pieces of glass penetrated by light – the very substance he created in, is integrally connected to the Western art of Gothic cathedrals. He combined this medium perfectly with iconography taken from Orthodox art. His stained glass representations are mostly based on the composition schemes of the icon. The Mother of God images of the Eleusa or Hodegetria type, realized in the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God Church in Gródek Białostocki (1953-1955), are excellent examples of creations based on the traditional patterns of the Russo-Byzantine art. The vertical depiction of the slender saintly figures is also a clear reference to the icon standard, as exemplified by the stained glass of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul Minor Basilica in Zawiercie (1950-1964), portraying St. Mary Magdalene and St Veronica. 

Adam Stalony-Dobrzański’s stained glass does not resemble the written icon merely in its Russo-Byzantine patterns. Prof Stalony-Dobrzański was the Chair of Lettering at the ASP in Cracow, so that the writings complementing the contents message of the representations are an integral part of the composition of his works. He supplemented his visions with inscriptions from the Holy Scripture and other liturgical texts. Stalony-Dobrzański built the scene tangibly with writing – building and ‘writing the icon’, expressing the mystery of the represented substance with words – and thus created a relation between word and image. 

The plastic structure of his stained glass pieces was based on juxtapositions of geometrical forms and colourful glass pieces outlined with black metal. As if in a kaleidoscope, they glitter with unpredictable sets of colours and arrangements of triangles and rhombuses. He was familiar with Cubism and geometric abstraction. The faces of saints, often in abstract, unreal colours, are a reflection of these artistic movements. He intuitively pre-figured contemporary icon painting developed by Jerzy Nowosielski – the conjunction of the icon tradition, its inner geometry and abstraction, and a search for these plastic values in contemporary art. 

Adam Stalony-Dobrzański achieved this synthesis in the medium of stained glass, which was unknown to Orthodox art. He surprised with his vision and openness of reflection on themes in sacred art, which he pursued regardless of the difficulties caused him by contemporary Communist authorities and the sometimes poor levels of art in many of the newer sacred interiors in Poland. 

His works are a creation of a man in search of a dialogue beyond confessional divisions. Keenly committed to ecumenism, he acted as lay advisor to the Metropolitan Council of the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church for the Metropolitan Basil. In 1960s and 70s he corresponded with the then Metropolitan of Cracow, Archbishop Karol Wojtyła – Blessed John Paul II. Their conversation touched upon the condition of contemporary art, sacred art in particular, and the question of direction which art should take in order to fulfil the authentic needs of the Church. 

Unlike Jerzy Nowosielski, who left extensive commentary on his work, Adam Stalony-Dobrzański did not complement his concept of art with theoretical deliberations, apart from the above mentioned correspondence. He was more of a practitioner than a theoretician. It is thus striking how much of an influence he exerted on the person and work of Jerzy Nowosielski. In the first half of 1950s, the artists collaborated as master and student in Gródek, Jelenia Góra, Dojlidy or Grabarka, to name but a few projects. They were undoubtedly united by the East, the Orthodox, and the icon. They were also brought together by openness to contemporary form and its bold juxtaposition with the tradition of Orthodox Church art. 

Adam Stalony-Dobrzański’s creations, hitherto overshadowed by Jerzy Nowosielski’s works, are worthy of deeper recognition and analysis. Without this, the history of Polish contemporary art, sacred art, and the art of stained glass in particular, lacks an extremely important element that sparked new interest in the art of icon in Poland. 


Written by: Anna Siemieniec, the University of Wroclaw, Poland

Translation: Iva Jevtič, Tomasz Limberger

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