Anna Szmatuła does not immediately identify herself as an artist, and seems taken aback to be called an artist. She thinks of herself first as a child of God. The art she creates is inextricably bound up in her relationship with God. Each work begins in prayer to God, whose image she finds reflected in the face of each person and in nature. While painting an icon, she invokes the intercession and help of the saint whose image she is painting. She prays for the person who will one day own the painting or icon.
Drawing on her own prayer life, Anna understands that the purpose of an icon is to draw the faithful into a love-relationship of prayer, and that failing to pray through the icon is like being in love but never saying, “I love you.” And so she prays in reparation for the unresponsiveness those who own icons as decorative art, but who are not drawn by them to prayer.
Anna’s art breathes prayer. It also breathes a deep love of God, human beings and nature, which was instilled in her as a child. As the human person reflects the image of God, so her paintings reflect God’s love for persons. One of the most striking features of her portraits is the expressiveness of the eyes, which reveal depths of emotion, beauty and character.
Another characteristic of Anna’s work is the inclusion of texts into her paintings. Texts include poems, verses from the Bible, the writings of Pope John Paul II, and simple prayers of praise, such as “God is great” (Wielki jest Pan).
A deeply personal composition from the artist’s private collection is The Way, a work that commemorates yearly pilgrimages made to the Marian Sanctuary of Jasna Góra in Częstochowa, the beating heart of Marian devotion in Poland, and the home of the famous icon of the Black Madonna. For at least 375 years, groups of foot-pilgrims from parishes all over Poland have made their way to the sanctuary between the months of May and August to honor Mary, the Queen of Poland, especially on great Marian solemnities and feasts such as the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin on August 15th and the Feast of Our Lady of Częstochowa, Queen of Poland on August 26th.
The Way is profoundly evocative of the spirit of the yearly pilgrimage to Jasna Góra. In the lower right-hand corner, three dates appear – 1985, 1986 and 1989 – commemorating the first pilgrimages made by the artist and her children. The 1980s were a time of increasing hardship and hope in Poland; a time when the people’s faith was tested by severe government repression and strengthened by the pontificate of Pope John Paul II and devotion to Mary, the Queen of Poland, who has long been invoked by Poles in times of national trial and distress. The indomitable hope of the Polish faithful in the late 1980s is reflected in the words of the pilgrims’ hymn quoted along the bottom of the painting:
Lord, give us a great heart which would embrace the whole world.
Lord, give us a great heart which is courageous in the battle with evil.
New people will write the history with love, will show the way to renew people’s hearts,
New people will live their own lives, creating a new world together (trans. K. Northeast).
The people in the painting are Anna’s relatives, friends and fellow pilgrims who walked together along the pilgrimage way from Wrocław to Częstochowa year after year. To the left of the young boy in the foreground, there is a shadowy figure, symbolizing all who were absent. The painting is very personal to Anna. She would like viewers of the painting to bring to it their own interpretations.
When she was a child, Anna’s daughter Maria Magdalena, now an illustrator, created her own impression of the pilgrimage to Jasna Góra in linocut. The piece won a prize and is in the collection of the National Museum in Wrocław, Poland.
Anna is well-versed in the language of icons and accepts commissions for well-known icons as well as images in the iconic tradition.
Anna’s prayerfully conceived original icon of St (Maria) Magdalen Panattieri expresses what little is known of the fifteenth-century virgin and stigmatic. The icon’s dominant color is red, the color of royalty. St (Maria) Magdalen tenderly embraces the Cross, indicating the union of her suffering with that of her crucified Lord. The drapery around the crucifix suggests the shape of a heart, expressive of the saint’s love for Christ, a love that accepted suffering with Christ.
It is difficult to imagine a more meaningful gift for Catholics than an icon that draws the viewer into prayerful meditation that prepares and encourages him to embrace Christ and his Cross as the defining center of our lives.
For Anna, painting is a prayer and an expression of love, but it is also her way of spreading God’s love to those who cannot or will not be reached by words. For a Christian, there is nothing unusual or strange about preaching God’s love through images in this way. Out of the depth of his love, God became man, so we could see him, hear his voice and touch him. Out of the depths of his mercy, God commanded Saint Faustina to have an image painted, so that everyone who has eyes to see might be drawn into his merciful heart. Out of the depths of her prayer, Anna perceives the image of God in his creation, and through her art, reflects God’s beauty back to his creatures.
February 22, 1931
In the evening, when I was in my cell, I saw the Lord Jesus clothed in a white garment. One hand [was] raised in the gesture of blessing, the other was touching the garment at the breast. From beneath the garment, slightly drawn aside at the breast, there were emanating two large rays, one red, the other pale. In silence I kept my gaze fixed on the Lord; my soul was struck with awe, but also with great joy. After awhile, Jesus said to me,
“Paint an image according to the pattern you see, with the signature: Jesus, I trust in You. I desire that this image be venerated, first in your chapel, and [then] throughout the world.”
Diary of St Faustina, 47
Read more: Anna Szmatuła: The Way of the Cross
All the paintings and icons on this page are copyright Anna Szmatuła. The rights to the linocut belong to Maria Magdalena Szmatuła. All images are used by permission of their creators, and may not be reproduced without permission.
If you are interested in purchasing portraits, icons, religious art or other specially commissioned work by Anna Szmatuła, you can contact the artist through the Pastoral Centre. Put the tag “art and icons” in the subject line of your message.