Exploring the Sacred
Beholding the Sacred
Jan Henryk de Rosen
Jan Henryk de Rosen (February 25, 1891 – August 22, 1982) is considered by many as one of the most significant figures in sacred art of the 20th century. His curriculum, however, extends beyond the world of ecclesial art. His list of attributes includes work as a papal court painter, renowned muralist, a decorated soldier in three armies during World War I, military advisor, and diplomat in the service of his native Poland, a post he would keep his entire life.
Jan Henryk de Rosen was born in Russia occupied Warsaw, Poland, to a wealthy Jewish family that had converted to Calvinism in the 19th century. Later in life, Jan Henryk converted to Catholicism. He grew up in France and attended the universities of Paris and Lausanne, Switzerland. From an early age, he was exposed to Byzantine iconography. His father, Jan de Rosen, was a court painter for the last Czars of Russia, Alexander III, and Czar Nicholas II.
When World War I broke out, Jan Henryk enlisted in the French army. He later served in the British military and finally in the then-newly constituted Polish army where he would achieve the rank of captain. He received the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d'Honneur from France; from Britain, the Military Medal; and from Poland, the Cross of Valor, the Cross Virtuti Militari and the Gold Laurel.
When the war ended, de Rosen served as a military advisor and diplomat for Poland, then in the glow of its first full independence since the 18th century. He was a translator during the peace negotiations at Versailles and elsewhere.
In the early 1920s, he returned to Poland and enrolled in the Warsaw School of Fine Arts. In December of 1923, he joined several other artists in an exhibition in Warsaw; his works were sold out overnight. His talent was undeniable.
"I did not want to be a painter, but I could not help myself," he once said.
His first significant work, the murals in the Armenian/Byzantine style Cathedral in Lwów, Poland, was completed in 1929. The murals in the Armenian Cathedral are considered by many to be Rosen’s greatest achievement. They brought him recognition and fame. The critics writing about them traced their inspirations to the Renaissance Dutch masters and to the Pre-Raphaelites. His success led to a commission from Pope Pius XI to paint two large murals on Polish themes: The Defense of Czestochowa and The Miracle of the Vistula, which until today decorate the wall of the pope’s summer residence in Castel Gandolfo.
In 1937, Jan Henryk visited Washington D.C. to visit friends and was commissioned by the Polish Ambassador to paint murals in the Polish Embassy in Washington D.C. In 1939 he was asked to paint for the Polish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Two years later he was commissioned to paint the "Entombment of Christ" in St. Joseph's Chapel at the National Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, Washington D.C.
When World War II began with the invasion of Poland by the Nazis, he remained in America. During World War II, he served as a military and intelligence aide in the Polish Embassy, a post he would keep for the rest of his life.
From 1939 to 1949, he took a position at the Catholic University of America as a research professor of liturgical art.
In the early 1950s, Jan Henryk painted for churches in the Washington D.C. area. His excellence and skills created a demand that would take him across the country, from the most prominent churches of America like the National Shrine to smaller houses of worship like the Chapel of St. Thomas in St. Catherine’s Military Academy in Anaheim, CA.
Christ in Majesty
In 1959, Jan Henryk completed what was then the largest figure of Christ in mosaic. This centerpiece in the apse of the Great Upper Church of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. is 3,600 square feet and is comprised of over 3 million pieces of colored glass.
De Rosen designed the image of Christ in the Eastern Christian tradition in line with the Byzantine architectural style of the Basilica, with distinctly post-Renaissance characteristics familiar to the Western Church. Jesus’ youthful features and his expression are consistent with the earliest images of Jesus found in the Roman catacombs.
In 1965, de Rosen created what is believed to be the largest mosaic in the world at 14,000 square feet, which covers the central dome of the St. Louis Cathedral in St. Louis.
Other notable works by Jan Henryk de Rosen can be found in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, CA, Our Lady of the Rosary, Toledo, OH, the headquarters of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C., and St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy, Buffalo, NY.
His work is also found in Austria, Italy, and Russia.
In 1978, he was inducted into the Papal Order of St. Gregory the Great and awarded the Commander's Cross.
Jan Henryk de Rosen was known for his profound humility, unwavering dedication to his craft, and deep intellect.
"Religious art requires a lot of knowledge," de Rosen would say. "The trouble today is that people do not have the slightest understanding of the tradition and meaning behind what they are painting . . . Painting is about the same process as writing. It requires great concentration and discipline."
Jan Henryk de Rosen was without doubt a great, religious, and metaphysical artist of a unique style. All of his work, great or small, is an extraordinary embodiment of his artistic ideals and religious convictions.
He employed metaphorical use of figure, space, color, and accessory to achieve depth beyond the readily apparent subject matter. He often used gold and silver paint mixed with wax dissolved with alcohol, to achieve high drama and beauty and accentuate the dynamos of his figures. It’s impossible to cease looking at his work, forget their appearance, and not to succumb to their almost menacing, austere and profoundly mystical sincerity.
Jan Henryk de Rosen died without ever achieving great wealth. He died nearly penniless. His life is a testament of great generosity and disposal to give his everything to his fellow man, country, and God.