Heavenly Gardens: The Most Beautiful Polish Garths
full-width, Benedictine Abbey in Tyniec, photo: Piotr Tumidajski/Forum, tyniec_forum.jpg
Garths are tranquil green idylls, far away from the hectic outside world and tourists with flashing cameras. Their beauty is captured in Zbigniew Herbert’s essay about the Scottish isle of Holy Iona, but his native Poland also boasts plenty of these wonderful, idyllic gardens. Culture.pl presents a selection of the most remarkable Polish oases of peace and greenery.
Benedictine Abbey in Tyniec
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Benedictine Abbey in Tyniec, photo: Łukasz Gagulski / Forum
A linden-tree-lined path leads to the oldest monastery in Poland. Located on the stone bank of the River Wisła, the building is protected by the figure of Saint Benedict of Nursia that stands in front of its gates. This guardian is the author of the precepts for monks which stated that the brothers should live by their own work. Following the Rule of Saint Benedict, they opened hospitals, schools, bakeries, orchards and vineyards. The monks also produced the famous liqueur called Bénédictine. Its main ingredients, medicinal herbs, were cultivated in the monastery’s gardens.
In fact, the greenery in Tyniec is quite impressive: terraced gardens stretching across the hills and beyond are surrounded with a wall and fortified Renaissance towers. Inside hides a garden embraced by a Gothic cloister.
Detached from the outside world, the courtyard was a place for the monks’ relaxation and contemplation. Moreover, its rich symbolism reflected the godly order. The mediaeval gardens were built on a circular plan, following the impeccable design of the abbey in Sankt Gallen, or a square one, since this shape carried various meanings: beauty, according to Plato, and righteousness, according to Saint Augustine. Two intersecting paths divided the space into four parts that reflected the rivers of Paradise, evangelists or cardinal virtues: courage, abstemiousness, bravery and prudence.
The cloisters illustrated the physical border between the spiritual and earthly spheres. At the same time, the tree-shaped columns with decorative capitals brought the architecture of the building and nature together. Trees grew in the middle of the heavenly garden (just as in the Tyniec monastery), where the monks also built a well or a fountain – symbolising the source of life.
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Benedictine Abbey in Mogilno
The Benedictine or Black Monks have typically settled far away from inhabited areas. One of the exceptions to this rule is the history of the monastery at Mogileński Lake, which begins in the 9th century. The building was restored many times, but it still bears some traces of the old abbey, and it has changed owners – nowadays, it is the seat of The Order of Friars Minor Capuchin.
The church and three-wing monastery embrace an ‘open’ courtyard. In the past, it was surrounded with galleries, but the entrance to the cloister garden had to be cut in the portal of the southern aisle.
Archaeological investigations in this area brought great discoveries, including beautiful polychromes and brickworks. Also, the 14-metre-deep Roman well, which is considered to be the oldest in Poland, was restored. The monastery's cloister garden has since become a place of concerts, exhibitions, a plein-air painting space and a meeting spot for teenagers from all around the world.
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Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Kamień Pomorski
The garden in Kamień Pomorski has survived almost wholly intact to today. It is exceptional due to its location – in this part of Europe, square gardens were rarely created next to cathedrals or in the northern part of a transept, as here. In the 14th century, the aisle was extended by adding cloisters with ogival arcades, which witnessed many religious services and processions.
In the 19th century, the corridors were partly demolished to obtain materials for escarpments that could save the building. After the war, Gerard Ciołek, a renowned expert in garden art, put a great deal of effort into reconstructing this space. Thanks to his work, visitors can admire the original system of paths that marked the central square. In its central spot, there was a well, but this has been replaced with a stone baptismal basin. A legend tells that it was used by Saint Otto of Bamberg during his missionary work on the territory of 12th-century Pomerania.
Hidden in the lush growing greenery of the garden, there are nearly 200 tombstones of bishops, priests and Pomeranian dukes.
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Cistercian Abbey in Gościkowo-Paradyż
Gościkowo is a village within the Lubusz Land in western Poland. It used to be called Paradyż, after its original Latin name Paradisus Matris Dei – The Paradise of the Mother of God. This name was popularised by the Cistercians who inhabited the local monastery in the 13th century. Currently, it houses Higher School of Theology, which provides education for clergymen from the diocese that includes cities and villages in the neighbourhood of Zielona Góra and Gorzów Wielkopolski. It is both the biggest and the best-preserved monastery complex of the region.
The two-storey building has two cloister gardens. The older one, called ‘the small garth’, still has the original Gothic-style spans and elements of a wall polychrome. Just like the elevation, the new, bigger courtyard was built in the baroque style. Moreover, the monastery walls are embraced by the gardens that hide many figures of the saints.
Each year in August, the former Cistercian Abbey holds an annual early music festival – Muzyka w Raju (Music in Paradise).
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Dominican Monastery in Lublin
A different festival, East of Culture – Different Sounds, fills the space of two Dominican cloisters in Lublin with sounds and music. Both garths are rather modest. Rectangular in plan, the smaller one is covered with a lawn and surrounded with small box-trees, as well as the ivy which embraces the walls of the basilica. In turn, the bigger garden with a gallery is based on a cruciform plan. It is divided into quadrangles, which are decorated with barberries and maple trees trimmed in a circular shape. The figure of Mary is the guardian of this idyllic scenery. The order’s emblem is paved at the corner of stone paths.
Dominicans were the first order invited to Lublin in the 14th century. Their monastery was built on the Old Town hill, and the garden was designed following the Renaissance fashion. The building served not only the brothers, but also local citizens. For example, from the second half of 16th century, it housed a pharmacy, craftsman's workshop, orphanages, care homes for elderly and boarding-school dormitories for boys. Members of the local councils also used to gather within these walls, and the thanksgiving mass celebrating the creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was conducted in the nearby basilica.
The Dominicans' library was also very popular at one point. The book collection was transported to Russia immediately after the liquidation of the order, which followed the end of the January Uprising in 1864. The Dominicans came back to this monastery, however, in the Interwar period. Today, their seat remains an important point on the cultural map of Lublin.
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Ossoliński National Institute in Wrocław
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Ossoliński National Institute in Wrocław, photo: Dariusz Zarod / East News
The Ossolineum is a cultural hub of Poland. It holds a collection of 1,5 million books. Amongst them are such priceless volumes as first prints of works by Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki and Henryk Sienkiewicz. Since 1945, its premises have been located in the former seat of the Hospitaller Order, which had in turn replaced a medieval monastery.
After exploring the historical campus, tired readers can take rest in the Ossolineum’s shady garden. Here, they can witness greenery carefully trimmed in geometrical shapes, which coils around a 100-year-old chestnut tree. Right next to it, ivy climbs the walls of the historical baroque building. Together, these features create an unforgettable ambience and space for small and intimate festivals and concerts.
The courtyard of the Wrocław institute integrates traditional sacred symbols with modern elements in an original way. For example, in the heart of the garden, there is a historical well, whereas further in the back, there is a bust of the institute’s founder, Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński.
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Museum of Architecture in Wrocław
The Ossolineum Institute is not Wrocław’s only example of an old sacred building that has become a cultural institution. The late-gothic monastery of Friars Minor (also called the ‘Bernardines’ in Polish, the name deriving from Bernardino of Siena) was adapted for the needs of the Museum of Architecture in the 1960s. In the beginning, it gathered only architectonic details of buildings that had been destroyed in wartime. Over time, however, the museum has also added maps, photographs, models and archaeological exhibits to its collections. Nowadays, the museum presents the history of architecture from the Middle Ages up to modern times.
The gothic style of the restored building has been kept intact. The restorers have also devoted much attention to respecting the art of creating cloister gardens. The museum’s garth was divided into four quadrangles overgrown with shade-tolerant, decorative plants and surrounded by box tree hedges. Instead of a fountain, in the central spot of the garden, a 19th-century sculpture stands. Also, it is no accident that pergolas in the square are covered in roses. This is a reference to the heavenly gardens of Eden – they symbolise the Passion and resurrection of Jesus, as well as the innocence of Mary.
Zbigniew Herbert contemplates the beauty of these flowers in his poem-prayer entitled O Róży (The Rose). This attempt to look inside of its calyx can be understood as a striving for touching the secret, the truth or essence of art and life:
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the cloisters of prayer […]
the source of heaven on earth
constellations of petals.
National Museum in Gdańsk
Those who are looking for traces of lost paradise can find them in the courtyard of the former Franciscan monastery in Gdańsk, the seat of the National Museum. Before the Reformation, which led to expelling the monks, the cloister garden was a place of rest and prayer for inhabiting Greyfriars.
A 19th-century attempt to revive its old traditions failed. Even though there was plenty of space for paths leading towards the four cardinal points, and a fountain in the central spot, the garden was more reminiscent of Romantic scenery than of a traditional monastery cloister. Only recently, the museum decided to open this space for its visitors. The fountain was filled with a composition of flowers and herbs. Shrubs and decorative trees were planted around the glazed galleries, and the paths are lined with benches and sculptures. It seems that the authorities respected the Franciscans’ love of nature and ideal of plainness, which is visible in the indoor exhibitions presenting the works of garden design.
Zbigniew Herbert, ‘“Mistrz z Delft” i Inne Utwory Odnalezione’ (‘The Master of Delft’ and Other Found Works) (Warsaw, 2008); ‘Współczesne Przestrzenie Dziedzińców Klasztornych i Ich Innowacyjne Rozwiązania’ (Modern Monastery Courtyards and Their Innovative Solutions) by Krystyna Pudelska and Anna Mirosław in ‘Teka Komisji Architektury, Urbanistyki i Studiów Krajobrazowych’ (Teka Comission of Architecture, Urban Planning and Landscape Studies) (Lublin, 2012); ‘Symbolika Klasztornego Wirydarza’ (Symbolism of the Monastery’s Cloister) by Ludwik Frey in ‘Krajobraz Semantyczny Wsi i Miast’ (Semantic Landscape of Villages and Cities), ed. by Józef Marecki and Lucyna Rotter (Kraków, 2016)
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Originally written in Polish, Apr 2018; translated by AS, Jul 2018