“Who will paint you as beautiful as you are?” Search for the most beautiful version of the image of the Divine Mercy – Dorota Lekka

A competition for a new image of the Merciful Jesus was announced in 1954. The Polish Episcopate organised it on the initiative of Blessed Rev. Michał Sopoćko. This version of the image was to be different in principle, not resembling the previous ones. Because of the objections articulated by bishops, Sr. Faustina’s confessor launched a competition for a new image that would refer to the Revelation contained in the Holy Scriptures – Dorota Lekka writes, taking a closer look at the history of the creation of the various “Jesus, I trust in you” images.

The image “Jesus, I trust in You” is very well known. But it does not come – which some might find surprising – in a single form. In fact, there are two, perhaps even three versions of the image that the general public is aware of. Chronologically, these are the paintings by Eugeniusz Kazimirowski (from 1934), Adolf Hyła (1944) and possibly Ludomir Sleńdziński (from 1954). However, hardly anyone knows – at this point this might be an even bigger surprise – that there are hundreds of original versions of this painting.
The history of the image of the Merciful Jesus[1], which constitutes one of the essential aspects of the cult of the Divine Mercy and probably promotes the cult the most, began in 1931 with a revelation given to Sister Faustina (1905-1938) in a convent cell in Plock on February 22, 1931. The saint, recalling this event, wrote in her Diary: In the evening, when I was in my cell, I saw the Lord Jesus dressed in a white robe. One hand raised to bless, the other touching the robe on his chest. From the tilt of the robe on his chest came two great rays, one red and the other pale. I silently gazed at the Lord; my soul was seized with fear and great joy. After a while, Jesus said to me, “Paint a picture according to the drawing you see, with the caption: Jesus, I trust in You. I desire that this image be venerated first in your chapel and then throughout the world.” (Diary, 47).
Following the vision, Father Michał Sopoćko, Sr. Faustina’s confessor, commissioned  Eugeniusz Kazimirowski, a painter from Vilnius, to paint the image. The painting, completed in 1934, was based on the instructions of St. Sister Faustina, who visited the artist’s studio several times a week. We know, however, that Sr. Faustina was disappointed with the final result. Lamenting to Jesus in the pages of the Diary, she wrote: “Who will paint you as beautiful as you are? Then she heard the words that were also later written down: Not in the beauty of paint or brush is the greatness of this painting, but in My grace (Diary, 313). The painting then gained the future Saint’s approval and became a key work in promoting the cult of the Divine Mercy. Since 2005, it has been housed in the Holy Trinity Church in Vilnius, since converted into the Divine Mercy Shrine.

Various versions and the Episcopal competition

Earlier, Kazimirowski’s image of the Merciful Jesus was popularised, among other ways, by pictures that circulated during World War II. Numerous copies of the image were made, as were analogous versions strongly alluding to the Vilnius work. An example – from the Warsaw Uprising –  is the picture Christ – King of Mercy by Łucja Bałzukiewicz, published in 1937 in Cybulski’s publishing house in Cracow [2]. The figure is a copy of the Vilnius painting, the difference being that Christ’s eyes are pointed directly at the viewer, and the nimbus around Jesus’ head is bright and radiant. In many temples, one can find analogous paintings containing minor or major differences. In the Church of St. Karol Boromeusz in Warsaw’s Powązki cemetery, one can see a painting of the Merciful Christ with a figure stylised according to the Vilnius painting, with the eyes looking downward but with a visible, clear floor.A painting of the Merciful Christ, in which the tilted robe refers to the Vilnius version is on display in the Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland in Marymont,Warsaw. Still, other elements, especially Jesus’ face and gaze – directed straight ahead, were reimagined by the artist.

Relatively quickly, new paintings began to appear, which were no longer more or less faithful copies of Kazimirowski’s image or some kind of reference to it but completely new versions created following the guidelines of Jesus given to Sr. Faustina[3]. These are paintings in which the whole figure of Jesus in a white robe is captured, where one hand is raised to bless, and the other touches the robe on his chest, from the tilting of which two rays come out: red and pale – precisely as Jesus instructed (cf. Diary, 47). As the guidelines did not include information about the background, it remains a matter of discretion. Many painters chose to refer to the time and place of the event by painting specific landscapes or architectural elements. Such a new approach was chosen by, among others, Piotr Siergiejewicz (1939-1940 – parish church in Kamionka, Belarus) [4], Henryk Uziembło (1942 – parish church in Ląd), and especially Adolf Hyła (1943 – the chapel of the Congregation of the Mother of God of Mercy in Wroclaw and 1944. – convent chapel of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Cracow-Łagiewniki). It was Hyła’s painting – which St. Faustina did not participate in painting but which was made according to the instructions contained in the Diary – that gained the greatest popularity in the Divine Mercy cult, quickly becoming famous for its graces. It is the most frequently copied painting for sacred interiors today. Adolf Hyła himself produced 247 versions of his work [5].

Zdzisław Eichler (1943 – Church of the Capuchin Fathers, Miodowa Street in Warsaw) took a very authorial approach to the painting, placing the ruins of ruined Warsaw in the background and choosing to depict Jesus himself with a light Sarmatian moustache and long, blond hair. He also added the symbolic elements of a lamb under a red ray and a plant under a white one. Similarly, Bolesław Rutkowski (1953 – St. Florian’s Cathedral in Warsaw) placed a church – being rebuilt from war damage – in the background of his painting. Kazimierz Kwiatkowski (1947 – Franciscan Church in Warsaw) decided to show the risen Christ on a hill and placed the inscription “Jesus, I trust in You” in the nimbus. An original concept was also created by Stanisław Kaczor-Batowski [6] (1943 – Church of the Divine Mercy in Krakow, Smolensk Street), in whose painting a large, luminous nimbus – not mentioned in the Diary – is conspicuous.

As a result of the growing popularity and freedom to show images of the Divine Mercy based on private visions not yet confirmed by the Holy See (one had to wait until 1968 for the cult’s approval), a competition for a new image of the Merciful Jesus was announced in 1954. The Polish Episcopate organised it on the initiative of Blessed Rev. Michał Sopoćko [7]. This version of the image was to be different in principle, not resembling the previous ones. Because of the objections articulated by bishops, Sr. Faustina’s confessor launched a competition for a new image that would refer to the Revelation contained in the Holy Scriptures.

The Church’s competition committee – respecting the above postulate – chose the painting by Ludomir Sleńdziński, which depicts Jesus the Merciful entering the Upper Room through a closed door [8]. Choosing this scene wasn’t accidental, for it has to do with the fact that the Feast of the Divine Mercy takes place on the Second Sunday of Easter. Although not established at the time, Jesus’ command was known from the pages of the Diary – in churches, the Gospel passage in which the Risen One comes to the disciples in the Upper Room and institutes the Sacrament of Penance (John 20:19-23) is read.

On October 5, 1954, the General Episcopal Commission approved the image painted by Sleńdziński for public reverence throughout Poland. The image became the third most recognisable version of the “Jesus, I Trust in You” painting, but it never gained popularity among the faithful that could equal Kazimirowski’s or Hyła’s paintings.

Subsequent orders by Rev. Sopoćko

It is worth stating that new versions of the Divine Mercy image are still being produced today. Despite this, there is no shortage of voices critical of the very idea of painting new versions of the image. These objections are summarised in the statement that Kazimirowski had already painted the “proper” image and that Sr. Faustina gave personal instructions only to him. Perhaps some antidote to this criticism might be offered by observing that although only Sr. Faustina saw the apparition of Jesus, neither the bishops nor Rev. Michał Sopoćko were bothered by her absence when commissioning the new painting as part of the 1954 competition.

What’s more, Blessed Rev. Michal Sopoćko himself, whose testimony, though priceless, is nevertheless only that of the saint’s confessor, sought the most successful and beautiful image of Christ, both while he was still in pre-war Vilnius and after he arrived in Białystok in 1947. This is proven by the fact that the saint’s confessor commissioned paintings of the Merciful Jesus from several artists – Zofia Baudouin de Courtenay, Antoni Michalak, Tadeusz Okoń, and the already mentioned Ludomir Sleńdziński [9]. He also commissioned many paintings for Marian priests in England and the USA, who were dedicated to promoting the cult of the Divine Mercy there.

Confirming Rev. Sopoćko’s actions is in his correspondence, which has survived to this day. For example, in a letter to Rev. Chrościechowski dated April 1, 1955, we read: I have ordered a few more paintings from artists, but one has failed, and the other hasn’t finished. And in a letter to Mother Ksawera Olszanowska of the Congregation of Our Lady of Mercy in Cracow dated January 26, 1957, he wrote: (…) Mrs. Rudzka (Czarnowiejska 8 m. 1) has quoted the painting, but I cannot go to see it. Therefore, please inspect it and let me know if it is the most beautiful of all that have been painted so far, as some people have informed me [10].

We can treat as an intriguing curiosity the information that Rev. Sopoćko’s initiative sometimes went beyond the framework of the rather precise entries of the Diary. The future Blessed ordered more paintings of the Merciful Jesus from Ludomir Sleńdziński, but… with inscriptions other than the one Jesus explicitly instructed, namely: “Jesus, I trust in You.” One of these paintings bore the inscription Pax vobis, and the other “Peace be unto you.” Rev. Sopoćko wanted to present both of these paintings to the bishops’ conference in 1966 as a gift from himself. His wish was that the painting with the Latin inscription Pax vobis should be presented by the bishops as a gift to the Pope.  The one with the Polish title, after Holy See approval, should be adopted as a model for their dioceses. However, there was no agreement on such “postulates” from the Episcopate. As a result, the inscriptions Pax vobis and “Peace be unto You” were painted over. Today the painting with the Pax vobis inscription is in St. Anthony’s Church in Sokółka, and the other in the chapel of the Metropolitan bishop of Białystok.

This story shows that Rev. Michał Sopoćko himself did not stop with the original version of the painting by E. Kazimirowski, constantly searching for the most beautiful versions of the image, and did not faithfully adhere to the command of Jesus, who said: Paint the picture according to the drawing you see, with the caption: Jesus I trust in you (Diary, 47). These words are an obvious attempt to link private revelation with biblical revelation by referring to the Gospels, which was certainly intended by Rev. Sopoćko, a great promoter of the cult of the Divine Mercy, to help the Church approve that cult. Nevertheless, this is an example of a departure from Jesus’ explicit recommendation. St. Faustina asked, at the request of her confessor, if there could be an inscription “Christ, King of Mercy” (Diary, 88). At the confessor’s renewed question, Jesus answered her: Jesus reminded me, as He told me the first time, that is, that these four words must be made visible. These words are Jesus, I trust in you. (…) I give people a vessel with which to come for graces to the source of mercy. This vessel is this image with the caption: Jesus, I trust in You (Diary, 327).

Versions with the closed door of the Upper Room in the background were painted not only by L. Sleńdzinski. Also, Adam Styka (1957. – Sanctuary of the Divine Mercy of the Congregation of Marian Fathers in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, USA) or Adolf Hyła (1955. – Zawadzkie, Chapel of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Elevation of the Holy Cross; 1955. – Wojska, the parish church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus; 1955. – Gliwice, the parish church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross – here, unfortunately, with a burning heart, which is an inappropriate element for the iconography of the Divine Mercy image). Also, Robert Skemp, (1982. – a gift to the Holy Father, who donated the image to the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Tanzania, and many others).

Inculturation mission

Examples of authorial renditions are plentiful, and none of them are inconsistent with the private revelation that Sr. Faustina received, as all Jesus’ guidelines are followed. Jesus ordered the painting and promised to grant graces through it, but this does not mean that He meant only this one image. Every subsequent painted image enjoys the promise of God’s gifts, as evidenced by the fact that the Savior Himself began to grant graces very early on through the painting by Adolf Hyła from the St. Joseph’s Monastery Chapel in Łagiewniki, now called miraculous, just as He grants many graces through the painting by Jan Chrząszcz, which is in the Basilica of the Divine Mercy in Lagiewniki. He also grants them to every person who confidently turns to God through this image, whether in their local parish church or the comfort of their own home. Testimonies of such divine action would probably not accommodate books.

Since Jesus Himself did not limit His gifts to the image painted by Eugeniusz Kazimirowski, to whom St. Faustina gave instructions and, we should add, was greatly saddened by the effect, there is no reason to put restrictions on creating new images of Him. Besides, such a practice is an absolute necessity arising from Christianity’s inculturation mission, also linked to the conciliar imperative of aggiornamento[11]. This postulate also includes updating preaching at the visual level, with the language of contemporary visual culture adapted to the language of the audience. The practice of creating new images is also related to the centuries-old tradition of Western Church painting, which does not rely on the canonical icon, but advocates artistic, stylistic pluralism (cf. Vatican II, Constitution Sacrosanctum concilium, no. 123: the Church considered no style as her own) [12].

There is another issue that raises some concern. It has to do with the depiction of Jesus against a landscape background. Rev. Sopoćko believed that depicting the Savior in such a way depreciates the paintings as images of the Merciful Jesus from Sr. Faustina’s vision. However, it is worth noting that in the history of art, painting the events from the Salvation History within the context of the current era was a matter of course. Hence, in many paintings showing the Crucifixion, Mary with the Child, etc., we encounter various backgrounds that directly refer to locally recognised landmarks. This common practice renders one’s work more contemporary and is used to induce the viewer to participate in the depicted events.

This principle can also be applied to works depicting the Merciful Christ. Although it must also be admitted that the black background in Kazimirowski’s painting creates an important, broad symbolism through the dialectic of light and darkness, this is not an obligatory condition. The backgrounds encountered in many places, which refer to the painting’s installation site, admittedly constitute an interpretive narrowing of the work to a specific area. Still, on the other hand, it is a depiction of God’s work occurring precisely in a particular area. Just as Jesus came to Sr. Faustina’s cell in the evening on February 22, 1931, He wanted to come to all people at any time and place. The historical reference to the cell of the Płock monastery is the least relevant aspect of the cult for the pastoral practice of any parish and any place to which the work to which Jesus bound many salvific promises is destined. However, both the darkness and the door of the Upper Room in the background create an indescribable wealth of topical references. In contrast, the landscape backgrounds, in the case of many versions, create a rather idyllic effect. They can distract from the essential representation and message of the figure of Jesus, shifting the emphasis from a spiritual encounter toward a painterly narrative.

The artists participating in the project of Political Theology and the St. John Paul II Institute of Culture from the Angelicum in Rome, are currently attempting to paint a picture using their own, unique, contemporary painterly language, as if it were St. Faustina who came to them today with Jesus’ command: Paint a picture according to the drawing you see, with the caption: Jesus I trust in You. I desire that this painting be venerated first in your chapel and then throughout the world. Through this image, I will grant many graces and therefore let every soul have access to it. (Diary, 47). And all in all, this visual “access” is what the project organisers and participants are trying to provide.

Dorota Lekka

The author is an art historian and doctor of theology.

[1] There are several terms for this image: the Merciful Jesus, Jesus, I Trust in You, the image of Divine Mercy, or, more recently, the image of Mercy Incarnate. Around World War 2, one can find the names Christ-King of Mercy and Most Merciful Savior, eagerly used by Rev. Michał Sopoćko.

[2] Cf. J. Nowiński, Cztery wczesne wizerunki Chrystusa Miłosiernego: rysunek S. Kreduszyńskiego, fresk Felicjana Szczęsnego Kowarskiego w Hołubli, obrazy Henryka Uziembły w Lądzie i Jana Wałacha w Czerwińsku, Artifex Novus” 2017, no. 1, p. 66. Barbara Cichońska reports that “Łucja Bałzukiewicz, a painter from Vilnius (1887-1976), at the request of Rev. Sopoćko, made two copies of Kazimirowski’s painting in 1937 – one for the Redemptorist Fathers in Vilnius, the other for the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, also in Vilnius. Bałzukiewicz’s copy was the model for the Merciful Jesus pictures published in Krakow in 1937.” B. Cichońska, Historia trzech obrazów Jezusa Miłosiernego autorstwa Ludomira Sleńdzińskiego, “Biuletyn konserwatorski Województwa Podlaskiego” 14, 2008, p. 8.

[3] There is also no shortage of paintings depicting Jesus in a completely arbitrary way, and according solely to the painters’ artistic vision; for example, in the Sacred Heart of Jesus is depicted, Christ is presented in a crown or shown in an incorporeal way, as a phantom on the clouds. It also happens that the inscription “Jesus, I trust in you” is changed or is not placed at all. These elements do not belong to the proper iconography of the Divine Mercy image. Rev. Prof. Janusz Nowiński, pointing to four early images of the Merciful Christ, gave examples of completely free renditions: for example, Alexander May’s watercolour shows the Merciful Jesus with insurgents and Felicjan Szczęsny Kowarski’s fresco, with very extensive iconography, shows Christ in a red robe as a judge. Cf. idem, Cztery wczesne wizerunki Chrystusa Miłosiernego, op. cit.

[4] “In churches throughout Lithuania, especially in Vilnius, paintings conform to Kazimirowski’s pattern, with the information that Rev. Michał Sopoćko consecrated them. Among them, there is a painting by W. Skwarkowski in the church in Murowana Oszmianka, donated as a votive offering, consecrated by Rev. Sopoćko on December 20, 1940, and a painting by Piotr Siergiejewicz from 1939-1940, painted at the request of Rev. Józef Grasewicz in the church in Kamionka.” B. Cichońska, Historia trzech obrazów Jezusa Miłosiernego autorstwa Ludomira Sleńdzińskiego, op. cit. p. 8.

[5] Adolf Hyła produced the first painting in 1943 as a votive offering to the chapel of the Sisters of Mercy in Cracow. However, since it did not fit the design of the frame in the altar, the sisters commissioned the artist to paint another image to fit the retable. The new 1944 image was consecrated on April 16, 1944, the first Sunday after Easter (today, the Feast of the Divine Mercy). In 1954, as a result of Rev. Sopoćko’s intervention, the artist revised the image – he painted the landscape with a dark background and a tile floor under the Savior’s feet instead of a path. The 1944 image – which is still housed in the St. Joseph’s Convent Chapel of the Congregation of Our Lady of Mercy – became famous for its graces quite early on and gained the most popularity in the iconography of the Merciful Jesus and the cult of Divine Mercy. It is the most copied image chosen for sacred interiors.

[6] Because Adolf Hyła’s original painting was rectangular and did not fit into the altar niche, the superior of the Krakow religious house, Irena Krzyżanowska, commissioned a second painting from Adolf Hyła to fit the side altar. At the same time, Michaela Moraczewska, the Superior General of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy from Warsaw, ordered a painting of the Merciful Jesus for Łagiewniki from the Lviv painter Stanisław Batowski, which was brought to Łagiewniki in the fall of 1943. The dilemma over which painting to place in the Łagiewniki chapel was resolved by Cardinal Adam Sapieha in favour of Hyla’s work: “Since this painting was offered as a votive offering, let it be in the chapel. I will find a worthy place for the other one.” That place turned out to be the Church of the Divine Mercy on Smolensk Street, where Batowski’s painting still resides today. Stanisław Batowski had already painted a picture of the Divine Mercy for the chapel of the Congregation of the Mother of God in Warsaw, but this version was burned during the Warsaw Uprising. After this event, the Superior General commissioned the painter to make another painting for the convent house in Łagiewniki. And at the same time, Adolf Hyła painted his version that was placed in the monastery chapel.

[7] Rev. Sopoćko noted in his Diary: “In September 1953, the bishops, gathered at a retreat in Częstochowa, decided to remove these images from the churches as coming from a private, officially unverified revelation. At that time, I began to argue that the painting could be treated as depicting the Savior at the time of the institution of the Sacrament of Penance, that is, based on public revelation (Jn 20:19n). I was instructed to paint a new picture, different from the previous ones. I announced a competition for such a painting, which did not produce a result. Finally, Mr. Prof. Ludomir Sleńdzinski undertook to make such a painting”. [7] Bl. Fr. K. Sopoćko, Diary, Białystok 2015, p. 124.

[8] Adolf Hyła refused to participate in this competition, as he believed it was a compromise that did not serve the cause of the cult of the Divine Mercy. In a letter to Rev. M. Sopoćko, he wrote: “This compromise, among other things, is to compose the image of the Merciful Christ in such a way that it simultaneously depicts a scene from His life described in the Gospel and several details from Sister Faustina’s vision. The result of this compromise, however, is an image that does not depict the Gospel scene and tightens the concept of God’s mercy. After all, according to the Gospel (John 20:19-24), the Lord Jesus, after entering the Upper Room through the closed door, greeted the assembled disciples with the words: “Peace be unto you!” and showed them the wounds of his hands and side, breathed the Holy Spirit upon them, and spoke the words with which he instituted the Sacrament of Penance. In the picture, there is only the floor and the door of the Upper Room, but Christ Himself does something else: He shows the rays of Blood and Water gushing from His side and blesses. At the same time, this image limits the concept of God’s mercy as expressed in Sister Faustina’s vision, for it tightens it only to the mercy manifested in the Sacrament of Penance.” https://www.faustyna.pl/zmbm/obraz-historia-nabozenstwa/?wide=true#more-849, accessed 18/10/2021. Antoni Michalak and Tadeusz Okoń’s images were rejected.

[9] Rev. Sopoćko commissioned the painting from Sophie Baudouin de Courtenay in 1948, writing in a letter to Rev. Julian Chróściechowski: “Yesterday I commissioned another one from the artist Mrs. Sophia Baudouin de Courtenay in Warsaw,” and in another letter on January 14, 1949 he wrote: “Currently in Warsaw I have commissioned a new painting of the Most Merciful Savior. I don’t know how it will turn out.” B. Cichońska, Historia trzech obrazów Jezusa Miłosiernego autorstwa Ludomira Sleńdzińskiego, op. cit. p. 9.

[10] Ibid, p. 17.

[11] It is about the necessity of modernising, updating, and adapting to today, literally making the message of salvation more relevant to modern times.

[12] Cf. J. S. Pasierb, Teoria sztuki sakralnej w postanowieniach Vaticanum II, CT 40(1970) vol. 3, p. 12. “The Council declared solemnly that there is no “ecclesiastical” or “Catholic” style, that it was never the ambition of the Church to have its separate esoteric language – including artistic language. This formulation is analogous to the decision to introduce native languages into the liturgy. This artistic pluralism has not been admitted so openly before. Yet, almost the entire history of Church art confirms this principle, as one can find several pieces of evidence that the Church used the stylistic language of all eras. Only in the arid 19th century did some people come up with the idea of creating a separate “Catholic art,” such as in the “Brotherhood of St. Luke” in Beuron or elsewhere. It is to be assumed that the principle of pluralism also means allowing all artists to experience religious issues and wishing to express themselves in the field of sacred art.” Ibid.