Film Uncovers Mystery of Divine Mercy Painting
By Lori Hadacek Chaplin
While living in a convent house as a nun in Vilnius, Lithuania, St. Faustina Kowalska (1905–1938) had a vision of Jesus with rays of mercy emanating from his heart. Our Lord instructed St. Faustina to paint a picture of what she saw to represent his Divine Mercy, but she found she was unable to depict what she saw. When Blessed Father Michael Sopocko became her confessor around 1933, she confided her vision and her urgency to find an artist to render it. After determining that St. Faustina was of sound mind, Father Sopocko commissioned Eugeniusz Kazimirowski in 1934 to paint — under the direction of St. Faustina — a large image of Divine Mercy.
Due to Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, the painting was neglected and abandoned. On two different occasions, nuns and priests undertook covert missions to retrieve the relic.
Meanwhile, a Divine Mercy painting by Adolf Hyla — which currently hangs above the tomb of St. Faustina in the Divine Mercy Shrine in Kraków, Poland — became popular. Consequently, many people have mistakenly assumed that Hyla’s painting was the original image commissioned by Father Sopocko and St. Faustina.
A new documentary, The Original Image of Divine Mercy, by Daniel diSilva takes a fascinating look at why the original image was kept hidden for so long. Catholic Digest talked with diSilva about his film, which is being shown in theaters and parishes during the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
Q. What’s the backstory behind why you decided to make The Original Image of Divine Mercy?
When I heard about the difficulty getting the original image from the Church of the Holy Spirit, which is about two doors down from the Divine Mercy Shrine, I was intrigued. The shrine had been renovated, and they had prepared a place above the altar for the original image, but it took them two years to get the painting from the Church of the Holy Spirit. I thought, “Wow, what a controversy!” That’s what inspired me to make the movie.
I also wanted to discuss what art really is. I think in our culture we’ve lost the ability to admire and love beauty through art.
Q. You have a lot of high-profile Catholics in your film, including Bishop Robert Barron, Father Dwight Longenecker, George Weigel, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz of Kraków, and even musician Harry Connick Jr. and comedian Jim Gaffigan. Was it difficult to make this happen?
Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz — the priest who was always on stage with Pope John Paul II during his entire pontificate — was a difficult interview to get. We found him visiting a parish in the Archdiocese of Kraków, and we almost ambushed him.
With Harry Connick Jr. it was a matter of contacting his management and handlers. They were very careful and inquisitive about the project. It was such a pleasure to work with him; he was so easy-going. A lot of times we have to prep our interview partners with a little bit of a story, but he needed nothing. He knew about the image and the devotion. Some people have asked me, “What in the world does Harry Connick Jr. have to do with Divine Mercy?” He’s an artist, and we’re talking about art and how it renders the divine.
Q. Why do you think the original painting was hidden for so long?
For a while it was missing because it was painted in a Soviet-occupied territory where you couldn’t disclose your faith or have a religious painting. Luckily, it was of its quality; if it had been a better or finer painting, it would have been stolen or destroyed. The Soviets would have made a concerted effort to get it. They just left it, thinking that it was worthless.
While the original painting was in the Church of Nowa Ruda (in Belarus) until about 1989, another version of the painting by Hyla became famous. That painting found its home in Kraków above the altar of the Shrine of Divine Mercy, and it became very famous.
Q. I had always assumed that the widely known image of the Divine Mercy by Adolf Hyla was the original painting. Could you talk about how Hyla’s painting became more famous than the original?
The reason Hyla painted the Divine Mercy was that he met someone from Vilnius when he was exiled in Siberia. The person had a tiny photograph — as big as my thumbnail — sewn into his clothes, which is something people would do for protection. Hyla never saw the original; he based his painting on a glimpse of the tiny picture. Father Sopocko asked him to change his painting to follow the details of the canon of what St. Faustina described to Kazimirowski, but Hyla refused.
People who emigrated from Poland came to the United States with copies of the Hyla painting, and not the original. The people from Lithuania weren’t able to leave the country because it was Communist until 1991. To this day most of the Polish people are not aware that Hyla’s painting is not the original painting commissioned.
Q. The film talks about how Sister Faustina cried when she saw the Kazimirowski painting. Do you think Eugeniusz Kazimirowski failed?
Kazimirowski failed in no way. If I were to show you a painting of your child and this was the only rendition of the child you possessed, is there any painting that would do him justice? Can any artist capture the glory of God shown to Moses? What in the world would that look like? In fact, later in her diary, Sister Faustina explained that when she saw Jesus she was transported to another place. … In her diary she said she didn’t have the words to say what happened. If Kazimirowski failed at painting the Divine Mercy, then we have to say that Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and da Vinci failed. Every artist also fails to render Christ, but succeeds in pointing us in the direction of Christ.
Q. Father Sopocko said that it was important to return to the original image. Why was this important?
Father Sopocko desperately wanted the original image, but he couldn’t have it because he fled Vilnius to avoid arrest and so the painting stayed behind. He wanted to go back to the original because it has the important details that Christ said show mercy. [For example], in the original painting, Christ’s eyes are downcast because he is looking at us from the cross. Only the Kazimirowski and those images that imitated his painting have his eyes being downcast.
Q. You have seen both the Kazimirowski painting and Hyla’s. Do you think there is something special about the original?
Not only is the original a relic; it’s very special. We toured around with a print that is very close to the original. When we showed it to the woman who had done the restoration, we thought we were going to surprise her, but when she saw the painting she said, “Oh, it’s you! Never mind.” We said, “Why? What do you mean?” She said, “The colors aren’t right.” The painting we used for the film — and I am not new to art — is beautiful and it looks identical. But when she — who knew the painting so intimately — saw it, she knew it wasn’t the original. Only seeing it in person could ever do it justice.
Q. You had no idea that the release of your film would coincide with the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Could you talk about this unexpected development?
I don’t believe in coincidence. I have a strong belief that Christ himself, through the Church, wanted to have this image be known through this film. I am not saying the Year of Mercy is about the image, but if the Year of Mercy is happening and there’s going to be the propagation of the Divine Mercy, then let’s go back to the original image. In this image, Kazimirowski depicted mercy under the direction of St. Faustina, who alone had the vision of Christ as merciful.
Q. What would you like Catholic Digest readers to know about your film?
I would love everyone to see this film. I wish it could be a film that would reach beyond the devotees of Divine Mercy. I would also like people to identify with the suffering of the Lithuanian and Polish Catholics. God allowed this priceless image to go through all of this, as if to say to them, “You are not the only one. You are a priceless original — the only version of yourself that ever was and ever will be. You are so valuable despite what appears to be happening to you.”
St. Faustina’s Vision
“In the evening, when I was in my cell, I saw the Lord Jesus clothed in a white garment. One hand raised in the gesture of blessing, the other was touching the garment at the breast. From beneath the garment, slightly drawn aside at the breast, there were emanating two large rays, one red, the other pale. In silence I kept my gaze fixed on the Lord; my soul was struck with awe, but also with great joy. After a while, Jesus said to me, paint an image according to the pattern you see, with the signature: Jesus, I trust in You. I desire that this image be venerated, first in your chapel, and throughout the world. I promise that the soul that will venerate this image will not perish. … I am offering people a vessel with which they are to keep coming for graces to the fountain of mercy. That vessel is this image. … By means of this image I will grant many graces to souls” (Diary, 47–48, 327, and 742).
Want to watch the film?
To see where screenings of The Original Image of Divine Mercy are being held, visit HolyYearofMercy.com/events/map. To bring it to a theater or parish near you, see DivineMercyFilm.com/screening-request.