Why a New Sculpture of Pope John Paul II Is So Controversial

Artist Jerzy Kalina says his “strongman” is a call to resist “multiplying forms of red revolution”

Statue of Pope John Paul II in Poland
Jerzy Kalina's Poisoned Well is on view at the National Museum in Warsaw. Photo by Piotr Lapinski / NurPhoto via Getty Images

A polarizing new statue inaugurated Thursday at Poland’s National Museum in Warsaw depicts Pope John Paul II symbolically confronting the Communist regime that controlled the country for much of the 20th century. Created by Polish artist Jerzy Kalina, the sculpture—titled Poisoned Well—shows the late pontiff lifting a boulder over his head, poised to throw it into a pool of red water.

Kalina describes the work as a response to La Nona Ora, a 1999 sculpture by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan that depicts the pope lying on the ground after being struck by a meteorite. That installation provoked controversy when it appeared in Warsaw in 2000, with some observers decrying it as an attack on the Catholic Church and others defending it as a symbol of resilience.

Speaking with Artsy’s Scott Indrisek in 2019, Melanie Holcomb, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said, “It’s an ambiguous work to be sure, harboring elements of humor, cruelty, and irreverence, but one can also read it as paying tribute to the power of forces and institutions larger than ourselves.”

As Monika Scislowska reports for the Associated Press, Kalina says he wishes he had responded to “Cattelan’s provocation” earlier.

“But now I have opposed Cattelan’s pope, crushed under a huge boulder, a helpless pope, with a figure of a strong pope, a strongman, who lifts the boulder over his head and is ready to hurl it into the waters of the poisoned well of a symbolic red hue,” the artist tells the AP.

Kalina adds that the statue serves as a “warning against multiplying forms of red revolution”—and as a call to return to the “clear well,” or in this case, Polish Catholicism.

Maurizio Cattelan's La Nona Ora
Kalina's sculpture responds to Maurizio Cattelan's La Nona Ora, a controversial 1999 work that depicts the pope lying on the ground after being struck by a meteorite. Alain Jocard / AFP via Getty Images

Some art critics and online commenters reacted with displeasure to Poisoned Well’s apparent political message, complaining that the artwork reflects the “ultra-Catholic” outlook of Poland’s current government, according to Agence France-Presse. The AP notes that other critics associated the statue with “blood and violence.”

On social media, users expressed similar sentiments: In one widely shared image, the Photoshopped statue appears to be trying to fit a suitcase into a plane’s overhead compartment. In another, a giant image of the work chases fleeing people.

The National Museum is presenting the sculpture in celebration of the centennial of John Paul’s birth. A native of Wadowice, Poland, he led the Roman Catholic Church from 1978 until his death in 2005.

Many observers credit the pope’s return to his native country in 1979 with helping to catalyze Polish resistance to communism. As historian Bogdan Szajkowski later reflected, John Paul’s speeches about human dignity and religious freedom during that visit represented “[a] psychological earthquake, an opportunity for mass political catharsis.”

A wave of political action brought the Communist regime down in 1989. And, in 2014, the Catholic Church canonized John Paul in what CNN described as the “quickest [beatification] in modern times.”

The appearance of the new statue comes at a time when some fear Poland is moving toward a new kind of authoritarianism. The country’s president, Andrzej Duda, was narrowly re-elected in July after running on a platform of protecting the church and “traditional families,” per the New York Times’ Monika Pronczuk and Marc Santora. His Law and Justice party has brought the nation’s courts and media under greater government control while appealing to anti-Semitic, xenophobic and anti-LGBTQ sentiments.

In a statement discussing Poisoned Well, the National Museum’s acting director, Łukasz Gaweł, urges viewers “not to entangle the Museum in ideological disputes that have nothing to do with the freedom of artistic expression.”

Instead, he suggests, engage in “a discussion on this project, on the role of art in society, freedom of artistic expression or the intertextuality of works of art.”

Gawel concludes by noting that the museum’s “key values [include] respect for all people, regardless of sex, age, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”

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