Monumental frescoes and mosaics

Jan Henryk Rosen

The US is a home to one of the largest Roman Catholic communities in the world. Artists originating from or associated with the Eastern lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth contributed greatly to the development of the religious art of the Catholic Church in the US. They often created their main works for the entire Catholic community and not only for the Polish diaspora. Indeed, one of the most prominent Roman Catholic artists in the US in the 20th century was Jan Henryk Rosen (1891 –1982), a Polish painter who is famous for his monumental mural and mosaic works. Rosen was born in Warsaw into a family of Jewish origin that converted to Calvinism (Presbyterianism). He changed his faith as an adult and became a devout Roman Catholic. In the interwar period he settled in Lviv, where he painted magnificent murals inside the restored Armenian Catholic Cathedral, frescoes in the chapel of the Roman Catholic theological seminary, and in the chapel of the Palace of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Lviv. In the early modern period, the Armenian community in Lviv played a crucial role in the lucrative trade and cultural interactions that existed between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire and Persia. Members of this group could often trace their origins to Crimea, Anatolia, the Caucasus and Iran. The interior of the cathederal showcases the group’s extensive interactions with Islamic civilization. As Joanna Wolańska, a Polish art historian rightly points out, “cornices of the pillars are decorated with stalactite work (ornamentation consisting of numerous corbelled squinches clustered together) carved in stone, its forms evidently derived from Islamic art. Ornamental motifs of similar provenance also adorn the archivolt of the chancel arch”. Rosen also painted the interior of several churches in Lviv. He was also commissioned to paint the frescos in the chapel of the theological seminary in Przemyśl.

The Polish King Jan III Sobieski (1674-1696) became a prominent motif in Rosen’s works. This included the Polish embassy in Washington, D.C. Sobieski, himself partly of Ruthenian origin, was a typical Polish Roman Catholic aristocrat from the Eastern lands of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. His life was also shaped by other religions and ethnic communities. He was particularly linked with Red Ruthenia (present-day Western Ukraine) where he was born.

In 1937 Rosen left for the United States. He stayed in America until his death in 1982. During the 45 years he spent there, he made about 50 works. These murals and mosaics can be found in various Roman Catholic, Protestant and Greek Catholic churches. One of Rosen’s most prominent works can be seen at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, which is the main church of the Episcopal Diocese of California. The church has appeared in several prominent films. For instance, Alfred Hitchcock filmed an abduction scene for his final film Family Plot in the cathedral in 1975. Other film appearances include The Pleasure of His Company (1961), Bullitt (1968), and Milk (2008). Rosen also created the mosaics in the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea in Washington National Cathedral, which is part of the Episcopal Church. Its neo-Gothic design is closely modelled on the English Gothic style of the late fourteenth century. The cathedral is the third-largest church building in the United States. Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States and First Lady Edith Wilson are buried in the cathedral. Rosen presided over the iconography committee of the Roman Catholic Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. He was responsible for much of its decor, including composing the large mosaic of Christ Pantocrator (Christ the Almighty), which is largely an Orthodox or Greek Catholic theological conception. The shrine is the largest Christian church in North America. Perhaps his greatest creation is the largest mosaic in the world, set in the dome of the Roman Catholic New Cathedral in St. Louis.

This painting of St Kateri, the “Lily of the Mohawks”, with other Saints of the Americas is found in the USCCB building in Washington DC. It was painted by Jan Henryk Rosen., Source: Flickr, Photo: Lawrence OP