There is no particular feature that attracts the eye in the landscape of southern Poland. The views do not offer a composition of natural elements which stand out as especially striking. Wooded hillsides and scattered lakes lend some relief to the often bleak Spring countryside. However, what does catch the eye in this often uninspiring scenery are the many Renaissance and Baroque churches. Gracing the hillsides, nestled in valleys, and dominating the town squares, these beautifully preserved churches are the architectural embodiment of Poland’s Catholic faith. Basilicas, shrines and chapels offer eloquent testimony to a Catholicism that has shaped the history and culture of a nation and people. And yet it is not the externally visible architecture of these churches, however culturally significant, that is most striking, but the beautifully ornate interiors.
The vibrant faith of a deeply religious people finds expression in lavishly decorated sanctuaries, elaborately sculpted altarpieces and painted ceilings, all harmoniously blended into a balancing whole with the structural elements which surround them. Devotionally inspiring artwork proclaims love for Our Lord, His Blessed Mother and His saints. The Polish peoples deep devotion to Our Lady is reflected not only in the numerous shrines dedicated to her but also in the many paintings, icons, murals and statues that adorn the beautiful interiors of their churches.
Walking into these churches on a sunny April morning is akin to stepping out of the darkness and into the light. Gazing around the interiors is to experience a sumptuous visual feast. At times the sheer extravagance of the often overwrought images and the decorative abundance overwhelms the senses. While a cascade of light pours in through the exquisite stained-glass windows above, one’s eye comes to rest on a scenic representation of a mystery of faith, and then is at once drawn to a particularly magnificent ornamental feature, and then immediately to an adjacent artistic tableau of a memorable liturgical feast. Caught up in these beautiful surroundings, there is a powerful sense of the deep devotion that gives rise to such artistic expression and the realisation that the life of faith nurtured here is not a rational abstraction but a lived reality. To describe the interior artwork of these churches as kitsch or tacky devotionalism is a simplistic reduction that not only reveals an ignorance of its meaning, but is also a failure to understand the deep and complex dynamics at work in the life of faith.
These beautiful images and artistic representations arise from an experience of the active presence of the divine in a people of deep faith, which yearns to find expression through the creative capacities of the human spirit. The decoration of places of worship is testimony to the powerful influence of God on a human spirit open to the divine impulses of grace and love. In the artistic soul of the poet, the musician, the sculptor or the painter, this divine influence powerfully impresses itself on the intellect and imagination in such a way that there is an irresistible urge to reproduce this experience in external imagery. This creative impulse of the Holy Spirit, who through the gifts of the artist exerts an influence on us, who through them are inspired to faith and devotion. As we meditatively gaze upon these beautiful works, our spiritual imagination is stirred and our faith is revitalised. We are drawn into the realm of a mystical reality as real, if not more real than that which we inhabit in our daily lives in the world. We share for a moment in the possibility of a transfigured reality and are caught up in a transformed vision of life which releases us from the stultifying drabness of a secular-centred world.
At a more fundamental level these churches prove the very existence of God. That the human creative intellect and artistic genius can apply itself in such a concentrated way to these magnificent achievements tells me that God is not a figment of the human imagination. The sense and experience of the divine, so intensely felt and then reproduced in ecclesiastical architecture and art is testimony to the potent impact of a transcendent experience in the heart and mind of man. These highest of expressions of the human spirit convince me that God is no mere psychological projection or social construct, but a living and intimate presence. Transcending the limitations of language and exploring the creative gifts of the human imagination these artists have sought to point us to the luminous truth of the very existence of God. Neither are the works of these master craftsmen merely symbolic, but for the person of faith these are in fact symbolic mediations of the divine presence and love.
Walking into these churches, one feels a quiet peace descending while gazing in awe at the delicate beauty of their interiors. This beauty invites one deeper into the mysteries that provoke such a sublime expression of faith and give rise to a prayer of thankfulness to God for His loving presence in this sacred space. The beauty of these sacred spaces ultimately direct our gaze to the irresistible beauty that resides in their sanctuaries, the Risen Christ truly present in the tabernacle. The glorious art and architecture in stone and glass, in plaster and mosaic speaks eloquently of this presence and gently draw our hearts and minds to love and praise of He who creates all that is beautiful.