Polish-Lithuanian Cathedral Style

Tadeusz Żukotyński
Adolfas Valeška

  • Josaphat Kuntsevych

At the end of the 19th century, Polish and Lithuanian immigrants created an original architectural style in the US that was deeply rooted in the art of their homelands. The style was called ‘cathedral’ and this became a genuinely North American genre of Catholic church architecture. It can be found throughout the Mid-Atlantic states, the Great Lakes and to a lesser degree in New England. The name of the style was derived from the often monumental character of the churches, which were not necessarily cathedrals. These churches are generally distinguished by their rich ornamentation both inside and outside. The decorations reflect the tastes of the Lithuanian and Polish immigrants, with religious symbols and statues of saints prominently displayed throughout. There was a heavy inclination towards Renaissance and Baroque ornamentation in the style, as well as the designs of famous churches in Lithuania and Poland. The preference for Renaissance and Baroque forms stemmed from the cultivation of memory regarding the ‘Golden Age’ of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This period occurred in the sixteenth and the first half of seventeenth centuries, when it formed one of the largest and most powerful states in Europe.

Basilica of Saint Josaphat in Milwaukee, Source: Shutterstock

The Basilica of St. Josaphat, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is an excellent example of the cathedral style due to its grandeur and opulence. The church was finished in 1901. At that time, the only building in the US with a larger dome was the United States Capitol. The temple had the fifth largest copper dome in the world when it was built. In 1929, St. Josaphat Church received the title of minor basilica from Pope Pius XI. The patron saint of the basilica is Josaphat Kuntsevych (c. 1580–1623), a Ruthenian archbishop of the Greek Catholic Church from Volhynia. He was murdered by an angry mob of Orthodox Christians in Vitebsk (present-day Belarus). Subsequently, he was declared a martyr and saint of the Catholic Church. His murder reflected a wider escalation of conflict in the Commonwealth between Orthodox Christians and Greek and Roman Catholics. This was provoked by the 1596 Union of Brest, which was signed between Rome and the dioceses of the Ruthenian Orthodox Church located in the Commonwealth. The Union established the Greek Catholic Church and de facto outlawed the Orthodox community. The basilica’s interiors illustrate the idea of strong Polish bonds with the Eastern lands of the Commonwealth, as well as their Catholic character. The painting Martyrdom of St. Josaphat, which is located directly behind and above the main altar, occupies a central place in the basilica. Immediately to the left of this work is a picture of St. Andrew Bobola, the Polish Jesuit who was killed in Polesia (today Belarus) by Cossacks in 1657. Next to this is a panel containing the figure of St. Hedwig, the Queen and Patroness of Poland, who was married to Władysław Jagiełło, Grand Duke of Lithuania in 1386. Their marriage secured the establishment of the Union between Poland and Lithuania. At the back of the church, there are two very large murals on both sides of the choir loft. The first shows Piotr Skarga, a Jesuit priest, well known for his instrumental role in uniting the Ruthenian Orthodox Church with Rome during the Union of Brest. The second mural shows Tadeusz Kościuszko, a general and statesman who is considered a national hero in Poland, Lithuania, the US and Belarus. The basilica hosts a number of paintings of the Virgin Mary, including three famous icons from the Eastern lands (Vilnius, Lviv, Pinsk).

Many works in the basilica were painted by Tadeusz Żukotyński (1855-1912), a renowned painter who was born in Kamianets-Podilskyi, Podolia (present-day Ukraine). After completing his studies, Żukotyński migrated to the US. He opened a studio in Milwaukee and created more than 100 murals and paintings for churches around the country.

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Holy Cross Church, Back of the Yards, Chicago, IL, United States, Source: Flickr, Author: Zol87

One of them was Holy Cross Church, a historic Catholic place of worship located in Chicago, Illinois. Built by Lithuanian immigrants, it bears a striking resemblance to the Polish cathedral style. This only further proves the common heritage shared by Poles and Lithuanians from the Commonwealth. The church finds itself in Back of the Yards, a community described in the novel Jungle by journalist Upton Sinclair. This book is dedicated to the harsh living conditions faced by the Lithuanian diaspora. Next to the church stands a former Lithuanian convent, which is decorated with a traditional Lithuanian sun-cross and mosaic. This is the work of Adolfas Valeška (1905-1994), a Lithuanian stained glass artist, painter, stage designer, and museum director. He is responsible for four oil paintings in the church that depict scenes from Lithuanian and American history. These include paintings of the Hill of Crosses, a famous site of pilgrimage about 12 kilometers north of the city of Šiauliai, Samogitia, and the Ostra Gate in Vilnius Old Town, which hosts a prominent painting of the Virgin Mary from the 17th century. The icon is mentioned at the beginning of the Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz (Master Thaddeus): “Holy Virgin, [..] who illuminates the Ostra Gate in Vilnius”. The poem was written by Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), a most renowned Polish poet who possessed a special love for the icon. The composition describes the life of the Polish nobility in the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania at the beginning of the 19th century.

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Hill of Crosses, Samogitia, Lithuania, Source: Shutterstock

The Hill of Crosses is covered by hundreds of thousands of crosses. It is believed that the first crosses were placed on a former hill fort after the November Uprising (1830-31).Over the generations, not only crosses and crucifixes, but carvings of Lithuanian patriots, statues of the Virgin Mary, and thousands of small effigies and rosaries have been placed here by Catholic pilgrims. Valeška also designed stained glass windows at O’Hare Airport, Chicago, which enjoyed the status of the world’s busiest airport from 1963 to 1998. He was also commissioned by the Jewish community living in Chicago. Many Jews came to the town from the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Valeška designed the magnificent windows located in the Lanski Chapel, which is dedicated to the memory of a prominent Jewish-Lithuanian family. In this work, he created a free-flowing collage of sacred Jewish symbols, objects from Jewish-Lithuanian folk tradition and elements of modern art in rich colors.