Why are there so many images of the Divine Mercy?
by: Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD
Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD, is a director of the St. John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, MA, U.S.A.
Get a group of Divine Mercy devotees from around the world into a room, and it won't be long before they are discussing which version of the Image of The Divine Mercy they use most in their own land and which version they like best. Several questions about this matter have landed in my e-mail box in recent months. For example, one anonymous e-mailer sent me this:
I am confused about the number of different (at least three) images of The Divine Mercy. Which one is the original image that St. Faustina had recreated by an artist? How did the other images come into use, and are they officially approved?
First, our e-mailer asks about the "original" image. Actually, although St. Faustina was frequently consulted about the progress of the original painting of the image, it was her spiritual director and confessor, The Ven. Fr. Michael Sopocko, who was directly responsible for hiring an artist by the name of Eugene Kazimirowski to begin the work.
There is a detailed letter written by Fr. Sopocko in 1958 that gives a thorough description of what happened. His long letter is translated from the Polish and quoted almost in its entirety in Pillars of Fire in My Soul: the Spirituality of St. Faustina (Marian Press, 2003). Fr. Sopocko writes:
Upon my request Mr. Eugene Kazimirowski began the painting of the image on January 2, 1934. Sister Faustina of blessed memory with the permission of the Superior, Mother Irene, came once or twice a week to the painter's studio (in the company of another sister) and imparted instructions, how this image is to look. For several months the painter was unable to satisfy the author, who became sad on that account, and it was at this time that she wrote in her diary: "Once when I was at that painter's, who's painting this image, and saw that it is not as beautiful as Jesus is, I became very sad, but I hid that deep in my heart. When we left the painter, Mother Superior remained in the city to settle various matters, but I returned home by myself, immediately I made my way to the chapel and I had a good cry. I said to the Lord: 'Who will paint You as beautiful as You are?' Of a sudden I heard the words: 'not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush is the greatness of this image, but in my grace.'" ...
The image represents Christ in a walking posture against a dark background in a white garment, girdled by a band [belt, cincture]. With the right hand, raised to the height of the shoulder, He is blessing, and with the left one (with two fingers) He is opening the garment somewhat in the area of the Heart (not visible), from which are coming out rays (on the viewer's right a pale [colorless] one, and on the left a red one) in various directions, but principally toward the viewer. Sister Faustina called attention to this, that the right hand not be raised above the shoulder, not to bend forward, and only place the left foot forward to indicate movement, that the garment be long and somewhat fallen into folds at the bottom, that the Lord Jesus' gaze be directed a bit toward the bottom, as it happens when, standing, one looks at a point on the ground a few steps away, that the expression of the face of Jesus be gracious and merciful, that the fingers of the right hand be upright [erect] and freely lie close together, and on the left [hand] — [that] the thumb and index fingers hold open the garment; that the rays not be like ribbons [bands] hanging down toward the ground, but that with intermittent [broken] strips [streaks] they be directed toward the viewer and lightly to the sides, coloring to a certain degree the hands and surrounding objects: that these rays be transparent in such a way that through them the band [belt, cincture] and garment be visible; that the saturation of the rays with redness and whiteness be greatest at the source (in the area of the Heart) and then slowly diminish and vanish [dissolve, fade away].
The Kazimirowski painting of 1934-35 is therefore the "original" Image of The Divine Mercy, the painting of which was overseen by St. Faustina and Ven. Fr. Sopocko. It presently hangs in the Cathedral in Vilnius, Lithuania, having been faithfully restored to its original colors and contours. It also has one more remarkable feature about it: Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, with the help of an Italian photographer, has thoroughly investigated and corroborated the claim that this version of the Image is an almost exact match of the head, face and shoulders of the figure on the Holy Shroud of Turin!
Nevertheless, that does not mean that this version of the image is perfect, or even necessarily "the best" version in every respect. Remember what Fr. Sopocko writes (quoting Diary, 313): Sister Faustina wept after she saw this painting, because it so inadequately represented the radiant beauty of the risen and glorified Lord whom she had seen. After all, who could ever fully capture that heavenly beauty in an earthly image?
Moreover, a simple comparison between Fr. Sopocko's account (in his letter) of the required elements of the Image of The Divine Mercy, and Kazimirowski's actual painting, show that he did not succeed very well in several aspects of his work. For example, most viewers do not find that he succeeded very well in depicting a "gracious and merciful" expression on Jesus' face, nor in showing the rays directed toward the viewer, as Faustina had seen them. In the Kazimirowski version, the rays seem to flow almost straight down.
That is why some people devoted to The Divine Mercy prefer the version of the image painted by an artist named Hyla, who gave it to the Sisters of our Lady of Mercy in Poland in thanksgiving for the preservation of himself and his family during World War II. The sisters placed it over the tomb of St. Faustina at their convent in Lagiewniki, and it can still be seen in Lagiewniki today.
It seems to be the favorite version of European and Latin American devotees of The Divine Mercy. Nevertheless, some aspects of this version of the image are also not entirely in accord with what St. Faustina requested (as recorded in Fr. Sopocko's letter). For example, Christ's hand of blessing is raised too high, and the gaze of Christ is directly at the viewer, and not slightly downward as Faustina insisted. Furthermore, it is arguable that this version still does not do justice to the rays of mercy, which are supposed to be shining more toward the viewer.
A few decades later, therefore, an artist named Skemp tried to rectify this situation with an image that showed the rays from the breast of Christ radiating almost directly at the viewer. This famous, ultra-realistic rendition of the Image became the most popular version in the Philippines, and it can be found there over the altar at the Divine Mercy Shrine outside of Manila. But of course, this version is not perfect either — again, compare it with Fr. Sopocko's requirements in his letter.
All three of these famous versions of The Image of The Divine Mercy have ecclesiastical approval for display in churches and for dissemination to the faithful. Moreover, everyone has his or her own personal favorite.
Another favorite is a revision of Hyla's, with a dark blue background, by an American artist named Kathleen Weber. It appears on the cover of my book Jesus, Mercy Incarnate (Marian Press, 2000), and is also available in several forms from the Divine Mercy Gift shop on this website.
Of course, that version is not perfect either. None of them are — and none ever can be. One version often speaks to us more than another simply because of where we are on our journey with Christ. The Weber version especially emphasizes the compassionate gaze on the face of Jesus.
Whichever you prefer, just remember to be respectful of all the approved versions of the image, for they are all imperfect renditions of our infinitely perfect and radiant Savior!
The original article came out on 9 July 2011 on the website of www.thedivinemercy.org, the official website of the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, MA, U.S.A. headed by the Marian Fathers