Henry Swiatek Jr. recalls the first time he stood face to face with the giant mural four stories above the altar in the former St. Luke’s Roman Catholic Church on Walden Avenue.
He was on scaffolding with his father, restoring artwork, and they were examining the iconography that Jan Henryk de Rosen created in the church during the 1950s.
“I knew it was important but not how important,” he said. “I didn’t know about the Castel Gandolfo or the National Cathedral in Washington.”
Swiatek began studying de Rosen, and learned that he was a Polish painter who created mostly religious-themed murals and mosaics that can be seen in churches throughout the world. He was the first artist since Michelangelo to be invited to Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence outside Rome, to paint frescoes in the papal chapel.
Despite his accomplishments, few people recognize the significance of de Rosen’s body of work today. Even fewer know that at least four of his large murals are in a Buffalo church, and six more murals are in a Hamburg chapel.
“He was a giant,” said Swiatek, who has restored sacred art in churches along the East Coast for 40 years. “Most sacred art or religious illustrated art are studies of masters like Raphael or Michelangelo. De Rosen’s work is original. He used ancient techniques and ancient themes, but he resynthesized them into an entirely new art form. That is why he is so important. This should be appreciated, and it should be known.”
De Rosen was commissioned to create four large murals at St. Luke’s in Buffalo: “God the Father,” “Annunciation,” “Passion of Christ” and “Mother of Mercy,” and one mosaic, “Divine Mercy.”
They shine like gold.
“Divine Mercy” draws you like a magnet to its brilliant display of 6,000 mosaic tiles that form the image of Christ.
“God the Father in Glory,” the one that turned Swiatek’s head in 1981, roars from its sun-soaked perch on the sanctuary ceiling. One local art expert described the dynamic of de Rosen’s work.
“It’s like a rock concert,” said Elizabeth Otto, associate professor of art history and executive director of the Humanities Institute at the University at Buffalo. “Imagine when it was first revealed. People must have been brought to tears because it would have completely changed the space in their experience of that church.”
Another six of de Rosen’s large murals are installed in Father Justin’s Rosary Hour chapel on Lakeshore Road in the Town of Hamburg.
By time he came to Buffalo, de Rosen was well-known throughout the world. Pope Pius XI invited him to paint two historic murals at the papal summer home in 1933.
De Rosen also created one of the largest dome mosaics in the world, a fiery montage that attracts tourists from around the world to St. Louis Cathedral in Missouri.
Among his works in Washington, D.C., where he lived after moving to this country in 1939, is “Christ in Majesty.” Created from thousands of glass pieces, it covers 3,610 square feet at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
De Rosen arrived in Buffalo in the mid-1950s at the request of the Rev. Maximilian T. Bogacki, then pastor at St. Luke’s and an expert in Polish and Eastern European history, according to Swiatek.
“I called him the ‘Polish Ayatollah,’ ” Swiatek said of Bogacki. “He was that persuasive. He traveled to Washington, D.C., where de Rosen was working as an archival professor of religious art at Catholic University of America. He convinced de Rosen to come to Buffalo to work on his church.”
De Rosen worked on the St. Luke’s artwork for six months in 1956. It is believed he added Dutch beer to liquefy the beeswax he mixed with pigment to achieve the long-lasting brilliant jewel tones in his art. Before he set down color on the church’s bare plaster walls, de Rosen applied gold leaf, which makes his murals shimmer.
“It’s mind blowing,” said Brett Swiatek, the third generation of Swiateks who does art restoration. “Every piece of art that you see at St. Luke’s was gilded with gold leaf. In Byzantine art, gold represented the kingdom of God.”
“You must remember, de Rosen’s father came from 18th century Russian iconography,” Henry Swiatek added. “De Rosen brought that expression into his time frame. His palette visually is so beautiful it’s like a bouquet for the eye.”
But de Rosen’s artwork at St. Luke’s nearly went away.
In 1993, when the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo closed St. Luke’s as part of a parish reorganization plan, an auction was held to sell its contents. Amy Betros, a former restaurateur, was looking for a site to open a mission.
“Every single thing in the church was up for sale,” Betros said recently, sitting in her office. “But there was one thing in the entire church that was not for sale, the ‘Divine Mercy’ mosaic. I knew something about it was special.”
Betros recalled watching as workers began taking down the ornate fixtures that decorated the church. She knew the altar was next. Above the altar was de Rosen’s artwork.
“They were going to strip everything. I got sick,” Betros said. “I ran up to the woman overseeing the sale and told her: ‘Please don’t sell those. We are going to buy this church. You’re ruining it.’ ”
One year later, Betros and Norm Paolini purchased the church and its contents, for the most part intact. They opened St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy in one of the city’s poorest, crime-torn neighborhoods. Today, it serves as a meeting place for the neighborhood with a school, food pantry, shelter and religious center. Mass is celebrated daily.
“It symbolized a rebirth not only for the building,” said Betros, “but for the entire neighborhood.”
The murals in Hamburg – six large oil paintings on canvas – were completed by de Rosen in his Washington studio in 1979 when he was almost 80. They were shipped here, said Father Marcel Sokalski, who resides at the Franciscan chapel.
The chapel is open to the public, but Sokalski said it gets few visitors.
“Last year, we had 30 pilgrims from Montreal who came on a bus,” he recalled. “Some people see it as art. Some people see it as devotion.”
Sacred art holds a special meaning for people, UB’s Otto explained.
“They saw it daily in their local churches,” she said, “so it really transformed their spiritual lives. It’s gorgeous and powerful. De Rosen is one of those artists who did that for a lot of people, and it’s interesting that he’s been forgotten.”
“De Rosen’s story echoes 20th century history,” Otto added, “but it’s also an immigrant’s tale shared by many who lived in Buffalo at that time. What’s really interesting about him is his family was Jewish and had converted to Calvinism in the 19th century, a conservative group of Protestants who really didn’t make that much religious art. De Rosen himself then converted to Catholicism, and his religious conviction comes through in the work.”
He died in 1982, almost penniless.