Ten years ago, Polish artist Barbara Skorupa says she ‘experienced a calling’ to create a series of portraits of holy women. But not just any kind of portraits. She says that while the women featured are not from the ‘world of glamour’, she wanted to portray them ‘like Hollywood stars’.

Since then, Skorupa has created pop art–style portraits of more than 100 holy women from around the world that have been exhibited in galleries, churches and cloisters in and around Germany. Twenty-four of these portraits will soon be travelling to Melbourne for a special exhibition entitled ‘Great Women of Faith’, from 1 to 10 March at St Patrick’s Cathedral.

‘Pop art style has great iconic strength and timelessness and catches the eye,’ Barbara says. ‘You like to look at it; the colour contrasts attract. I wanted to draw attention to these women.’

The exhibit at one of the country’s most iconic locations will be the first time her portraits will be shown in Australia. ‘I am delighted that St Patrick’s Cathedral will be hosting these strikingly beautiful portraits of holy women,’ said Archbishop Peter A Comensoli, ‘each of whom lived lives of deep faithfulness and hope.’

While the subjects in Barbara’s collection are not all officially recognised saints, she says what unites them is their ‘exceptional character and faith’. The line-up includes some of Australia’s own holy women, such as St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, Dr Sr Mary Glowrey and Eileen O’Connor.

It also features the faces of women who may not be as well known to the public, including Anna Dengel, a medical missionary and founder of the Medical Mission Sisters, and Satoko Kitahara, a Japanese woman who was baptised Catholic as a young adult and cared for the poorest of the poor before dying of tuberculosis at 28. She was declared Venerable in 2015.

Pop art style has great iconic strength and timelessness ... I wanted to draw attention to these women.

Barbara says the women she’s painted so far ‘approached me on their own accord’, describing the deeply reflective process by which she creates her portraits. It begins with Barbara viewing a photo or a picture of her subject, and then reading about that woman to gain a fuller picture of her life and works.

‘The period of the 19th and 20th centuries, with its totalitarian threat, had produced many courageous and extraordinary women. My focus has been mainly on canonised saints and beatified and venerable women whom I have looked for around the globe and then who spoke to me while I was researching their lives.

In learning about their lives, she says, she develops an understanding and empathy for her subjects. Her objective is to capture the ‘invisible’—the woman’s ‘inner attitude’.

‘When people talk about icons today, especially of women, the focus is often on their external features and behaviours,’ she says. ‘I am concerned with representation of the inner attitude of the women painted, which radiates from them and becomes visible through their lives.’

MGM Great Women of Faith Exhibition 2024 web
© Barbara Skorupa

The Cologne-based artist has always had a passion for painting and studied at the Institute of Fine Arts, University of Silesia, in Katowice, Poland. She graduated with her master’s degree in 1982 and worked as an art teacher until 1985. Since then, she has been a freelance artist, undertaking numerous art and study trips throughout Europe, North America, South America, Australia and Polynesia. Many of her earlier works feature sweeping landscapes of objects in nature, particularly corals and shells.

I am concerned with representation of the inner attitude of the women painted, which radiates from them and becomes visible through their lives.

And while nature remains a source of inspiration, Barbara says she is driven by her search ‘for beauty, for spirituality … reflections on creation and the universe’.

It’s something that she hopes viewers of her most recent works will also experience.

The response overseas has so far been overwhelmingly positive, ‘particularly because the attendees had no idea that there are so many wonderful women in the Church.’

‘Generally, the history of the Church appears to be pretty much a story of men, which certainly does not correspond to the reality of Christianity, since amongst the saints there are so many female examples and the holy women occupy a wide spectrum across the globe, so there are still saints to paint!’

The Great Women of Faith portrait exhibition by Barbara Skorupa will be open from 1 to 10 March at St Patrick’s Cathedral.

This exhibition is proudly brought to you by the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, the Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga and the Mary Glowrey Museum. With special thanks to our sponsors: Australian Catholic University (ACU), Catholic Development Fund, Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools and VMCH.