St. Albert Chmielowski’s Humanity and Sanctity Revealed Through Art

SAINTS & ART: Pope St. John Paul II wrote a play (“Our God’s Brother”) about this great hero of Poland.

Leon Wyczółkowski, “Portrait of St. Albert Chmielowski,” 1934
Leon Wyczółkowski, “Portrait of St. Albert Chmielowski,” 1934 (photo: Public Domain)

The Church’s liturgical calendar is complex when it comes to saints. The calendar has only 365 spaces, about 52 are preempted annually by Sundays and there are other solemnities (e.g., Christmas). There are some saints whose feasts are observed universally throughout the Church because of their broad-ranging significance, e.g., Sts. Peter and Paul or St. Boniface. There are saints whose observances are memorials and others who have optional memorials. There are also some saints whose commemoration is limited to the liturgical calendar in a given country. It’s not that they are insignificant; it’s that, in a Church that has had more than 2,000 years of producing saints and limited calendar space, they might be more significant in certain places. This occasional series will introduce saints on local calendars who might not otherwise be known to Catholics in the United States. Why not tell us what you think of it in the comments section?

Many saints started life in the military: St. Martin, St. Ignatius, St. Camillus de Lellis. Add to that list St. Albert Chmielowski, sometimes called Brother Albert. Don’t confuse him with St. Adalbert, the 10th-century martyr who is patron of the Czechs and Poles. 

Brother Albert was born in 1845. In the 19th century, there was no Poland: the country had been divided by the Austrians, Prussians and Russians so that, from 1795-1918, it was erased from European maps. Brother Albert was born in that part of Poland seized by the Russians.

His father, who worked as a customs inspector on the border, died just short of Albert’s 8th birthday; his mother, just short of his 14th. His maternal aunt raised him. At age 10, he went off as a cadet to school in St. Petersburg. Later, he would pursue his education in a polytechnic school near Lublin. 

In 1863, Poles rebelled against their Russian overlords. Chmielowski took part in the January Uprising and, when detained by the Austrians after a successful battle, escaped back to the front. In September, he was wounded in the left leg during a failed battle against the Russians, resulting in its amputation without any anesthesia. 

After putting down the 1863 Uprising, the Russians imposed severe repression against Poles who took part in it. Chmielowski left Poland for Paris, where a Polish-French committee outfitted him with a prosthesis. After Russia declared an amnesty in 1865, Chmielowski returned to Poland.

Before the Uprising, Chmielowski had made contact with Polish artists. He started art studies in Warsaw. He resumed polytechnic studies for a while on the insistence of his aunt, on whom he was dependent but, in the early 1870s, enrolled in the Munich Fine Arts Academy, one of the premier institutions of its kind in 19th-century Europe. Chmielowski’s talents were acknowledged and he became a prolific painter, producing almost one hundred works. One of the most famous works, Ecce homo (“Behold, the man!” based on Pilate’s description of Jesus in John 19:5), appears below.

His artistic successes notwithstanding, Chmielowski felt a calling to a vocation and eventually completely gave up painting. At first, he entered a Jesuit novitiate but realized this was not where he belonged. By 1887, he found his path into the Third Order of St. Francis. Discerning a call to work with the poor, he lived in a Kraków homeless shelter. In 1888, he founded the Albertine Brothers (the Servants of the Poor), a congregation within the Third Order of St. Francis, to serve the poor; Maria Jabłońska founded the female branch, the Albertine Sisters. He continued to found shelters and orphanages until his death.

In Kraków, he also came into contact with the Carmelite Fathers, who introduced him to the writings of St. John of the Cross, who became his favorite spiritual writer, though he remained convinced of his Franciscan charism.

The renewal of religious life in occupied Poland during the 19th century largely took place in conjunction with service to the poor, of which there were many. Foreign occupation and partition had impoverished the country. The occupiers’ neglect of their conquest led to economic backwardness and disease. When the Poles rebelled against their foreign rulers, repression followed, often leaving behind widows and orphans.

Blessed Edward Bojanowski, like Chmielowski would later, also founded orphanages and libraries for the poor. The Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception were founded by him. Blessed Mary Angela Truszkowska was inspired to follow the Franciscan charism in the founding of the Felician Sisters, which worked among the poor in Poland and later became one of the major orders working in the Polish immigrant diaspora in the United States. 

Chmielowski died on Christmas 1916 in one of his shelters of stomach cancer. He was already regarded in his day as a model of sanctity. The first exhumation took place before the War — in 1932 — and the formal diocesan process for his eventual canonization was launched in 1946. 

St. John Paul II, who as a student wrote a play about Chmielowski (“Our God’s Brother”), beatified him in 1983 and canonized him in 1989.

Pope Francis has attached great importance to outreach to the poor and those marginalized “on the peripheries.” St. Albert Chmielowski embodied that work in his life. He also demonstrated a love of freedom and a recognition of the value of art and culture (“Art is man’s friend,” he wrote).

I chose Leon Wyczółkowski’s 1934 “Portrait of Brother Albert” to depict the saint. Wyczółkowski (1852-1936), part of the “Young Poland” artistic movement, which tried to combine romanticism with Polish regional style (including the folklore of the Tatra mountains around Zakopane). We already met this school with Jacek Malczewski’s depiction of the Samaritan Woman at the well. 

Wyczółkowski depicts Brother Albert in the brown habit of a Franciscan. He hugs a child who has been abandoned or orphaned. The child’s poverty is apparent from his clothes and more apparent from the tearful, pained expression on his face. Brother Albert consoles the child, embracing him in a way that the child would now lack from his parents. The value of the persons is accentuated; there is nothing else in the painting. At the same time, the poverty is underscored: the Spartan conditions share the same colors as Albert’s habit and the child’s clothes. The child’s lighter browns also lead to the lighter upper half of the painting, through which some light breaks through, arguably in one sense light mediated by a child and by love for “the least of my brothers.” Wyczółkowski captures the essence of Brother Albert, not painting him alone but in relationship to those for whom he cared. The tenderness on Chmielowski’s face before this child’s suffering reveals the humanity — and sanctity — of the saint.

St. Albert Chmielowski between 1900 and 1916, along with one of his paintings, “Ecce Homo,” 1881
St. Albert Chmielowski between 1900 and 1916, along with one of his paintings, “Ecce Homo,” 1881