In 1923 a teenager named Helena Kowalska attended a dance in Lodz, Poland. While she danced that evening, a naked Jesus covered in agonizing wounds appeared at her side. “[H]ow long will you keep putting Me off?” He asked her. The music halted and all the people but Jesus disappeared from sight.
It was not the first time she’d had such a supernatural experience. She’d begun hearing the voice of Christ at the age of seven, or so her diaries would later claim. That night she left the dance and headed straight to a cathedral, where she prostrated herself before the altar to pray. A voice told her to go to Warsaw and enter a convent. She obeyed, leaving for the city with one dress and no belongings. Thus began her short life as a nun, which would eventuate in her unlikely canonization, decades after her death, as Saint Faustina.
Faustina (1905-1938) was troubled all her life by supernatural visions. In her diary she describes numerous encounters with Jesus, Satan, the Virgin Mary, demons, and angels. She repeatedly hears the voice of Christ, who insists on her complete submission to God’s will, obedience toward superiors, and a life of suffering for the souls of others.
Other nuns labeled her a delusional eccentric, a “hysteric,” mentally unsound. Modern readers may likewise wonder if she suffered from schizophrenia or clinical depression. Today, however, Faustina is revered as the obscure nun whose visions would lead to the creation of the Feast of Divine Mercy, which Catholics around the world will celebrate this Sunday.
Since its establishment in 2000 with her canonization, the feast has been associated with the Divine Mercy image, for which Faustina is also responsible. The painting is the subject of a new documentary: “The Original Image of Divine Mercy: The Untold Story of an Unknown Masterpiece.” Directed by Daniel DiSilva, the film focuses on the history of an image that has been popularized beyond its original context and early history.
The genesis of the painting was a vision Faustina experienced in 1931 while living in a convent in Plock, Poland. Jesus appeared to her in her cell wearing a white garment, she writes in her diary: “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.” Jesus then commands her to paint this image and have it blessed on the first Sunday after Easter, to be known as the Feast of Mercy.
Understandably, Faustina did not act on this command right away. She didn’t know how to paint, and who was she to know that she wasn’t delusional? Her Mother Superior seemed to think she was, and so did her confessors.
She continued to have visions of Jesus and hear His voice, even while suffering a kind of spiritual despair repeatedly described in her diaries: “The abyss of my misery was constantly before my eyes,” she laments. “Every time I entered the chapel for some spiritual exercise, I experienced even worse torments and temptations.” Later, she writes, “I shudder at the recollection of this past torture. I would not have believed that one could suffer so, if I had not gone through it myself.”
She would not find an outlet for her vision of the painting until 1933, when she moved to live in a Vilnius convent and came under the spiritual direction of an understanding priest named Michal Sopocko. Unlike her past confessors, Sopocko seems to have trusted Faustina’s visions and chose to act on them. He arranged to have her work with a Polish painter named Eugeniusz Kazimirowski. The three of them—the priest, the nun, and the artist—met in an atelier to work on the image, with Sopocko serving as a model and Faustina doing her best to describe her resplendent vision for the men.
The artwork that resulted disappointed her at first, but she would come to see it as the fulfillment of God’s command. When Sopocko blessed the painting on the first Sunday after Easter in 1935, she would see the Jesus figure come alive with movement and make the sign of the cross. She would also arrange to have reproductions of the image produced in large quantities. Thousands of these small “holy cards” would be distributed, a step that proved fateful given what history had in store for Vilnius.
Few cities were more precariously positioned in the 1930s. Vilnius had been annexed by an independent Poland following the First World War but was threatened by rival dictators of greater powers: Hitler to the west, Stalin to the east. The city would fall to the Soviet regime in 1940, only to be overtaken the following year by Nazi forces.
After the Second World War, Lithuania once again became part of the Soviet Union, which made it impossible to keep the original painting on display in Vilnius. The government shut down many churches in the city and even turned its Jesuit church into a museum devoted to atheism. The painting was eventually smuggled into Belarus and kept in a country church, where it remained for much of the Soviet occupation. Meanwhile, artists in Poland, relying on reproductions, painted copies for numerous churches. The image gained in popularity as Archbishop of Krakow Karol Wojtyla, the future pope and spiritual foe of the USSR, initiated the process of her beatification in 1965.
Still, the question remains: why did the obscure painting born in the mind of a young Polish nun become so popular? Why did it become a modern icon of lasting relevance?
In part, the new documentary credits the painting’s virtues as a work of iconography. With gentle simplicity, the image visualizes the message of God’s mercy and compels the viewer to confront Jesus eye-to-eye.
Relying on interviews with various priests and bishops, DiSilva’s documentary also credits Catholic resistance against the Soviet Union. The painting’s ascendance certainly fits neatly into the Cold War narrative of the West’s triumph over Soviet repression. Following the collapse of the USSR, the Lithuanian archdiocese managed to have the painting restored and publicly displayed, in a small chapel renovated specifically for its veneration. This week, as the Church prepares for the Feast of Divine Mercy, the chapel is alive with the sound of prayer and song as hundreds come to celebrate Faustina’s mission.
Surprisingly, the documentary does not consider the possible role of the Holocaust. It surely bears mention that in the very heart of the “City of Mercy,” as Vilnius is sometimes called, some forty thousand Jews were crammed into ghettos before being taken to a nearby forest and shot into pits by Nazi soldiers with the help of local collaborators. From a Catholic perspective, Faustina’s message of mercy might well have served a need to cope with the atrocity of the Holocaust in Europe. There is nothing triumphant in this line of inquiry, however, and DiSilva has chosen to celebrate the painting as an icon of divine love and joy.
This presentation is true to Faustina’s vision, but only to a point, for her diaries make clear that divine mercy entails profound suffering. She repeatedly writes of a desire to suffer as Jesus did and characterizes her torments as blessings. She once describes asking Jesus for a thorn from his crown; the following day she feels a thorn piercing her scalp, which she interprets as the fulfillment of her wish, and an opportunity to suffer for the sake of sinners.
Her persistent self-denial is perhaps the most difficult notion for western readers to accept. Her struggle to stifle her will, to silence her tongue, and limit her life to “the will of God” may seem to us radical and freakish. Politically speaking, it may actually be harmful. Yet her ambition is so consistently and ardently described that initial skepticism about her mental state gives way to something like awe.
That her cloistered, passionate life has bequeathed a new tradition of worship in the modern era is a remarkable development. It can be attributed as much to her willingness to suffer, and to the turns of history, as to her celebrated painting of Divine Mercy.
Paul Jaskunas is a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the author of the novel Hidden.