‘I reached Lubień in lovely autumn weather, I did not need to take out my warm clothes, because the priest had sent a coat. At dusk we took a look at the church,’ Mehoffer wrote to his wife Jadwiga from a small village called Lubień near Piotrków Trybunalski on 1 November 1942. He went there to finalize his works on the wall paintings in the parish church which he had been carrying out for several months.
On the way to Lubień, we pass the village of Rozprza, then Straszów, going through fields with scattered buildings. The monotony of the lowland landscape, which we are traversing, at some point becomes almost overwhelming. Did a similar feeling accompany Józef Mehoffer while he was travelling from Krakow to Lubień in the autumn of 1942?
Lubień is located on a small patch of land amid forests. When we enter the village, we immediately notice a brick structure of the church, which towers above the vast plain, slightly further away from other buildings. It bears the name of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of Poland. The temple was erected in 1932 to architect Stefan Szyller’s design. And thus two artists – ranked among the most prominent Polish artists of their era – left their mark in this village unfamiliar to most, far from large cities.
Fr Andrzej Knaś, a parish priest from Lubień, asked Mehoffer to make the wall paintings in the church at the beginning of February 1942. The artist did not seem to hesitate too long before he took on the task. His correspondence with the Lubień parish priest is a powerful testimony to the extraordinary wartime circumstances in which he created his work. In his letter written shortly after the visit of Fr Knaś, Mehoffer informs him that ‘by strange coincidence’, the Krakow’s ‘State School of Applied Arts happened to have a supply of paints and brushes on sale’ and at the same time offers several significant technical tips regarding construction works, with great attention to every detail: ‘in addition, you will need good supply of turpentine (about 100 litres). (…) It requires a greater amount of linseed oil, because the walls must be covered with varnish. I think approx. 400 litres of oil will be needed. You will need an iron pot for boiling the varnish – if you had a large iron cauldron (for making jam), it could be used (…).’ We can also learn from the correspondence that the transport of the painting materials – divided into several parts – between Krakow and Lubień was taken care of by a female Lubień resident who had “experience in transporting various materials and who was equipped with a certificate from the School of Applied Arts (…) in order to avoid a possible inspection on the train” .
Thanks to the letters exchanged between the artist and priests from Lubień, we can establish that July and August saw a number of preparatory works in the church, while the painting process inside the temple started in September. Some time before the works on the wall paintings began, the main initiator of the whole project, Fr Andrzej Knaś, had been arrested by the Germans and was later killed in the Auschwitz extermination camp. The parish was then entrusted to Fr Ewaryst Gałązka, who enthusiastically committed to works on decorating the temple. Major works on the wall paintings lasted less than three months. In November 1942, when they were almost completed, Józef Mehoffer wrote in the the Lubień Parish Book in: ‘I feel delighted that once again in my life I was able decorate a village church. It is my wish to see as many works of art as possible scattered across the vast areas of our homeland, multiplied and germinating like seeds, carried by beneficent winds and chance.’
The main idea behind the wall paintings in the Lubień church is the glorification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who gave her name to the church. The chancel features two large-sized symbols, images of calls from the Litany of Loreto – the Tower of David and the Ivory Tower. They depict fortified castles, surrounded by gardens with avenues lined with cypress trees, their towers and balconies populated by sitting angels. One of them, with a harp in his hand, stands at the gates of the Tower of David. The angels also hover over the fortified towers and on the vault of the chancel. They look as if they were cut out of paper, like Christmas ornaments. This part of the wall painting is complemented by a depiction of the Polish nativity scene situated in the nave. The Easter mysteries are referred to in two compositions in the rainbow – The Flagellation and The Resurrection. The nave, on the other hand, features a depiction of the Four Evangelists, filled with naive charm. Highly stylized, semi-abstract paintings on the vault resemble ranks of angel wings, perhaps the seraphim and cherubim accompanying the majesty of God, as in the vision of prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. The atmosphere of Mehoffer’s work corresponds with the church altars designed by architect Stanisław Pospieszalski.
Therefore, undoubtedly, the wall paintings in the Lubień church constitute a kind of catechism, a simple message containing the truths of faith. Mehoffer endowed it with a hint of deliberate naivety, which is not always understood. On the basis of religious symbolism, he created a world of magical scenery, appealing to the child’s imagination, perhaps in an attempt to escape the dreary reality.
A testimony to the artist’s particular devotion to this work is present in one of his last depictions titled Self-Portrait with Angels (1944; property of Art and History Museum in Fribourg), where he portrayed himself against the backdrop of a cartoon for the decoration of the chancel of the Lubień church.
Beata Studziżba-Kubalska – art historian,NMK curator. Specializes in Polish art of the 19th-century and the turn of the century.
A photography exhibition titled To Decorate a Village Church will be on display in the Józef Mehoffer House until 24 January 2016.