The Icon of Blessed Teofilius Matulionis

Rev. Algirdas Jurevičius

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The portrait of Blessed Teofilius Matulionis was painted by Polish artist Zbigniew Gierczak.

Draugas News continues its report on the Beatification of Blessed Teofilius Matulionis on June 25, 2017, at the Vilnius Cathedral Square. One of the most moving moments during the Beatification was the presentation of the Archbishop’s relics and the unveiling of his official portrait. At this time, church bells pealed, trumpets sounded, and the faithful joined in with cheers and ovations.

The portraiture is a canonical image painted in keeping with the established norms of traditional Christian, sacred art. Its purpose is not necessarily to attain artistic perfection but rather to deliver a sense of the transcendent. It should promote prayer and convey its unique Christian content.

Liturgical art which graces churches differs from religious art. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) addressed this dichotomy in his book Spirit of the Liturgy  (Ignatius Press, 2000). “The image of Christ and the images of the saints are not photographs. Their whole point is to lead us beyond what can be apprehended at the merely material level, to awaken new senses in us, and to teach us a new kind of seeing, which perceives the Invisible in the visible. The sacredness of the image consists precisely in the fact that it comes from an interior vision and thus leads us to such an interior vision.”

When the Beatification of Teofilius Matulionis was announced, four portraits were commissioned (three in Lithuania and one abroad). There were many private initiatives as well. The portrait that was unveiled during the Beatification  ceremony was painted by the Krakow-based Polish artist Zbigniew Gierczak. The iconography was authored by professor and artist Czesław Dźwigaj in concert with representatives of the Diocese of Kaišiadorys.

What does the official portrait portray?

Those familiar with the life of Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis will recognize that the central image of the sacred painting is based upon a well-known 1933 photograph of the Archbishop taken upon his release from the brutal Solovki Island prison camps. (In1930 he was arrested for socalled antiSoviet activity and sentenced to 10 years in a strict regime prison camp on Solovki Island. He was released in a prisoner exchange between the Republic of Lithuania and the Soviet Union.) The photograph created a sensation at the time and was featured on the front pagesof Lithuanian as well as foreign newspapers.

His fellow inmates did not know that Matulionis secretly had been consecrated a Bishop. This fact inspired the artist to portray Matulionis in Bishop’s vestments, partially covered by the standard issue Soviet prison garb, a quilted cotton jacket. The concealed Bishop’s vestments reinforce the idea that his episcopal duties were internalized. For Matulionis, the vestments were incidental and not as essential as one’s internal disposition for the sacred. For this reason, Blessed Teofilius did not view himself as a prisoner, but as a shepherd guiding his flock in prison. This resolve was evident when the prison administration banned priests from hearing the confessions of fellow prisoners. Matulionis ignored the prohibition and was repeatedly punished for this and relegated to the strict regime part of the prison. His dedication to his flock came to the fore when news was received about a possible prisoner exchange. Some prisoners could not understand why Teofilius did not rush to agree to the swap.

In the painting, Matulionis is shown supporting himself on his cane. It buttresses his weary body, but it also foreshadows the Bishop’s pastoral staff or crozier. It is carved with details from the heraldry of the Diocese of Kaišiadorys – the eye of Providence and the Lamb of God. This reflects an integral part of a prisoner’s daily routine – carving words on prison walls. The staff represents Matulionis’ reliance on God’s Providence and faith in the ultimate victory of the Lamb over evil.

The harshness of the everyday life of prisoners is revealed by his shoelaces and the leg coverings visible under his cassock. The artist consciously painted Teofilius with clean shoes as they reflect an inner cleanliness. His shoes are not soiled even though he stands on muddy ground. Bright colors pervade the entire painting. Stars play a significant role. The bishop’s motto, Per crucem ad astra (To the stars through the cross), is inscribed with a penknife on one of the wooden bedplanks. A starry sky like this was clearly visible on Solovki Island in the White Sea. The North Star shines the brightest. It guides sailors and fishermen on their journeys. The Virgin Mary also holds the title Star of  the Sea (Stella Maris). She lights the path to Christ in the stormy seas of life. That is why the contrast of the muddy earth and the starry sky is especially evocative.

Blessed Teofilius stands between the prison’s wooden bunk beds, which take on the form of crosses. The Bishop’s motto inscribed there invites us to not dwell on our suffering but rather to raise our eyes to the sky heavenward.

In 1955 Blessed Teofilius forwarded a photograph of himself to a friend, a priest from Potma. He inscribed this notation on the picture, “A free prisoner.” These words accurately reflect the spirit of Matulionis. Only the body is imprisoned, one’s spirit and mindset can still embody freedom. The barbed-wire motif reminds us that, although physically imprisoned, he remained free in spirit. The Blessed Bishop holds a rosary in his hands, thereby giving witness to the consolation, which flows from prayer.

In the shadows of the planks, we see many traditional Lithuanian crosses, which allude to the paintings of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis. These crosses represent the other prisoners, as each had his own cross to bear. Matulionis shepherded them with great devotion and sacrifice.

Originally published in Artuma (July-august, 2017) and translated into english by Draugas News.

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