Polish Calvaries: Architecture as a Stage for the Passion of Christ
default, Polish Calvaries: Architecture as a Stage for the Passion of Christ, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, the Mystery of the Passion of Christ, photo: Adam Golec / AG, _kalwaria_zebrzydowaska_ag.jpg
A calvary is a complex of churches or chapels, usually built on a hill, which symbolises the stations of the Passion of Christ. Typically, they serve to commemorate this key event for Christianity, including the performance of Passion Plays. Culture.pl introduces you to these unique examples of architectural and landscape design in Poland.
The history of calvary-building dates back to the 15th century, when a model of the place where Jesus Christ walked the Way of the Cross and eventually died was created – modelled after the urban design of Jerusalem.
Christians have sought ways to recreate the places associated with the death of Christ for many years. Even as far back as in Middle Ages, chapels resembling the Holy Sepulchre were built, and the summits of hills and mountains were often adorned with three symbolic crosses. At the end of the 15th century in Spain, and later in other European countries, the custom of creating complexes of buildings which made it easier to re-enact the entire Way of the Cross began.
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In Poland, calvaries have been constructed since the beginning of the 17th century. More than a dozen of these sites exist around the country. Some are worth discussing not only for their religious and spiritual value, but also for their architectural design.
The oldest Polish calvary consists of 42 buildings, located on a 400-metre hill in the region of Kraków. Stretching for six square kilometres, its route is five kilometres long. The town itself – Kawalaria Zebrzydowska – is named for the calvary.
This calvary was built following the initiative of the Kraków Voivode Mikołaj Zebrzydowski. In 1600, he financed the construction of a small church of the Crucifixion at the top of the Żar hill located within his region. Originally designed for his personal use, the owner soon realised that the hill was similar in proportion to the one in Jerusalem. Thus, he decided to build an entire calvary, with all the chapels of the Way of the Cross.
In the years 1604-1609, a late-Baroque basilica and a Bernardine monastery were constructed at the base of the complex. (The monks have been caring for the calvary ever since.) The design of these buildings was created by an Italian architect, Giovanni Maria Bernardoni, who worked closely with a Flemish goldsmith, Paulus Baudert.
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In the following years, Baudert designed a complex of chapels located in the forest at the side of the hill. The tiny buildings are great examples of the Baroque and Mannerist style. Their shapes were inspired by the descriptions of the architecture of the Holy Land provided by Christian Kruik van Adrichem, a Dutch theologian from the second half of the 16th century. Each chapel of the calvary is unique.
Zebrzydowski wanted the Polish calvary to resemble the Jerusalem original as closely as possible, but he also introduced the worship of Mary in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. He added a painting of the Mother of God with the Child – which became site of pilgrimage, thanks to its presumed miraculous nature.
Each Holy Week, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska houses a Passion Play – a staging of the events connected to the Passion of Christ. The play in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska is known all over the world, and as many as 100,000 pilgrims attend it per year. In 1999, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska became a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its landscape, cultural, artistic and religious significance.
The Calvary of Wambierzyce was founded by Daniel Paschazjusz von Osterberg – the owner of, among others, the village of Wambierzyce in the second half of the 17th century. A site of pilgrimages as far back as the 13th century, the village was considered a sanctuary thanks to a statue of the Mother of God erected by a peasant reported to be cured from blindness by Mary.
Von Osterberg moved to increase the religious significance of the site, as its landscape was perfect for housing a replica of Jerusalem. Thus, the neighbouring hills were named Tabor and Zion, the local valley became the Valley of Josaphat and the stream flowing through the village was called the Kidron River. This natural area became the background for a couple dozen of buildings – chapels that told story not only of the Passion of Christ, but of Jesus’s earlier life as well.
Initially made of wood, the original calvary chapels have not survived to today. They were rebuilt in brick between the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 20th century. Some of these are located on the surrounding hills and others in the village. Most of them exhibit a classical design.
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The Calvary of Wambierzyce is one of the largest in Europe. It is located in an especially picturesque area: from the top of the Calvary Hill, one can see the panorama of the Pieniny Mountains. The stairs leading up to the peak present a great view of the monumental basilica built in Wambierzyce between the years of 1715 and 1720.
One of the chapels houses a statue of St. Wilgefortis – a rare sight in Poland. She was crucified just like Jesus and is often portrayed as a bearded woman on a cross. Sometimes, she even has Christ’s face – although the statue in Wambierzyce represents a woman more feminine in appearance.
Palm Sunday. A Passion Play on the paths of crucifixion performed by the inhabitants of neighbouring villages and novice monks, photo: Waldek Sosnowski / Forum
Kalwaria Pacławska, located 24 kilometres from Przemyśl, was founded by Andrzej Maksymilian Fredro, a politician and philosopher living in the second half of the 17th century. (The famous comic writer Aleksander Fredro considered himself his descendant.) In 1665, Fredro initiated the construction of a wooden church and a monastery – to which, several years later, he invited the Franciscans.
In the 1780s, the wooden church was replaced by a baroque one made of bricks; in 1863, the characteristic arcades were added to the facade of the church. On the neighbouring hills, 35 stone and 7 wooden calvary chapels were built. As is typical with calvaries, the chapels are devoted to religious themes. At Kalwaria Pacławska, the chapels are grouped into two routes: the Paths of Jesus Christ, consisting of 28 stations (including the 14 stations of the Way of the Cross and the 16 stations of the Way of the Mother of God) and the Paths of the Funeral and the Assumption of Mary (14 stations). Some of the calvary’s chapel belong to more than one path.
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Since 1995, Kalwaria Pacławska holds a Passion Play every Palm Sunday and Good Friday. During these events, the local parishioners re-enact the events associated with the death of Jesus Christ.
Located in central Kashubia, the Calvary of Wejherowo (Wejrowskô Kalwarëjô in the Kashubian language) is the oldest calvary in Poland after Kalwaria Zebrzydowska and Kalwaria Pacławska. It was built in the years 1649-1655 following the initiative of the Malbork Voivode and founder of Wejherowo, Jakub Wejher. Its 26 chapels are located on the hills in the southern part of the city which are named after the corresponding places in Jerusalem – hence, there are Golgotha and the Mount of Olives.
The chapels are valuable landmarks of architecture in Pomorze. Representing various styles, mostly baroque, several were constructed using wattle and daub composite, which has historically been very popular in Pomorze.
Passion Plays, during which actors and parishioners re-enact the events of the Way of the Cross, have been organised in the Calvary of Wejherowo since the year 2002.
The book Theatrum Terrae Sanctae et Biblicarum Historiarium by Christian Kruik van Adrichem was the basis for the design of Kalwaria Zebrzydowksa. It also inspired Albert Kęsicki, the parson of the Pakość parish – who traced a 4-kilometre Way of the Cross, modelled after the one in Jerusalem, in the north-western Polish town of Pakość.
The idea to build a calvary was picked up by Michał Działyński, the owner of Pakość, who donated the required land to the parish. In 1631, the Działyński family invited the Order of Friars Minor to the village. The construction of their monastery also fostered the development of the calvary – the monks began cooperation with priest Albert and became the caretakers of the calvary. In 1671 the pieces of the Holy Cross eventually found their way there and helped foster the growth of religious worship in the area.
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The Calvary of Pakość, sometimes called the Jerusalem of Kujawy, is the second biggest calvary in Poland – smaller only than Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. The calvary chapels in Pakość were constructed in the second half of the 17th century. Two of a total of 26 are consecrated and serve as churches. They are all Baroque architectural style.
The Calvary of Katowice Panewniki, Way of the Cross. Sculpture by Angelina Jura-Petrucco, Station no. 10, ‘Jesus is stripped of his clothes’, 1951, photo: wikimedia.org
The Calvary of Katowice Panewniki, also known as Kalwaria Śląska, is located in the south-eastern outskirts of Katowice. Although it was built in a very urbanised area, it is covered in greenery and isolated from the noise of the streets. The calvary stretches for eight hectares and, as it is usual in Poland, a Franciscan monastery and a church stands before the hill housing the chapels.
The church was constructed in the Neo-Romanesque style in 1908, and the work on the chapels of the Way of the Cross began a year later. The construction experienced delays, however, and was later interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. The competition for the design of the calvary chapels did not see its resolution until 1936, when the design of Jan Krug and Tadeusz Brzoza was selected. Their proposal included Neo-Romanesque buildings with modernist details. This makes the Calvary of Katowice Panewniki unique: although it refers to a Baroque tradition, it consists of modern chapels in a shape closely related to the interwar architecture of Katowice.
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Most of the chapels were incomplete at the outbreak of World War II and were thus only completed in the 1950s. The same decade saw the construction of 15 rosary chapels in the calvary; in Panewniki, similarly to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska and Kalwaria Pacławska, Mary is worshipped alongside Christ. Inspired by Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, the Panewniki calvary was constructed primarily as a setting for Passion Plays, which are performed there annually during Holy Week.
St. Anne Mountain
St. Anne Mountain, near Opole, is a place rich in history and symbolic value. Its calvary is only one part of this. The complex of 33 chapels, following the Way of the Passion of Christ (an expanded Way of the Cross) and the Paths of the Mother of God, was built between the years 1700 and 1709.
The design of the baroque pavilions was created by Domenico Signo, an Italian architect. Signo was commissioned by the founder of the calvary, Jerzy Adam von Gaschin, who wanted to build something similar to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska on his own land. The Franciscans have tended the calvary of St. Anne Mountain since the 1760s, and a few chapels were added to the complex in the 19th century. Today, there are exactly 40.
The turbulent history of the surrounding region also influenced the functioning of the calvary, as the Franciscans had to leave the monastery located near the site three times. These events took place under the rule of Otto von Bismarck between 1875 and 1889, as well as during World War II, when the calvary was taken over by the Nazis.
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The baroque basilica, the sanctuary, the monastery and the calvary are not the only places of symbolic meaning at St. Anne Mountain. In the 1930s, to commemorate their compatriots who died during the Silesian uprising, the Germans turned an abandoned quarry (owned by the NSDAP at the time) into a massive amphitheatre for 30,000 people. In 1938, at the top of the amphitheatre, they also built a mausoleum in the shape of a primitive stone rotunda.
In early 1945, the Nazi constructions were blown up, and not long afterwards, the Polish authorities decided to erect a memorial to the Polish participants of the uprisings. A 1946 design competition selected a proposal by Xawery Dunikowski, and construction finished in 1955. The pylons of the stone building adorned with reliefs house an exhibition dedicated to the ‘insurgent action’.
In 2010, St. Anne Mountain became a National Geopark, where visitors can view geological excavations.
Golgotha at the Sanctuary of Mary in Licheń Stary, photo: Dejan Gospodarek / Reporter
From the beginning of the 21st century, Licheń, located in the Wielkopolskie Voivodeship, has been known all over Poland for housing the largest chapel in the country. The Basilica of Licheń – enormous, monumental and kitsch, with a 100-metre dome and a 141-metre tower – eclipses the entire area. At the same time, in its vicinity, near an old wooden church, stands the Golgotha: a 25-metre hill made of rocks. Anyone climbing it will pass cave-chapels and terraces which serve as the stations of the Way of the Cross.
The artificial hill was created at the beginning of 1970s at the idea of a local priest, Eugeniusz Makulski. The sculptures at the Golgotha were made by Olga Bajkowska. Interestingly, the hill was built illegally. The authorities did not allow the construction of religious buildings, so Makulski fulfilled his project without permission – and was punished for it a couple times.
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The Golgotha of Licheń is often an object of ridicule. The sculptures adorning it are considered ugly, misshapen and kitsch, and the scenes from the Bible as shown in a naive way. The man behind the idea for Golgotha claims that he built it for the common people, and thus presented it in a language that they would be able to understand.
The town of Góra Kalwaria, located 40 kilometres south of Warsaw, no longer resembles its former moniker of ‘New Jerusalem’. The village of Góra, destroyed during the mid-17th century Deluge, was bought in 1666 by Stefan Wierzbowski, the bishop of Poznań. There, Wierzbowski sought to create a New Jerusalem, an important religious site, so he invited there many monastic orders – the Dominicans (men’s and women’s orders), the Franciscans, the Bernardines, the Piarists and the Marian Fathers.
The town was designed on the plane of the Latin cross, and churches and monasteries were located alongside the main crossroad so that the visitors would always pass a chapel on their way to the centre. In addition to that, the religious buildings were also planned as the stations of the Way of the Cross, as the entire town was designed as a pilgrimage site and stage for Passion Plays. During the life of the founder of Góra Kalwaria there were constructed 35 chapels, six churches and five monasteries.
Unfortunately, most of these religious buildings were reduced to ruins in the turbulent history of this region – such as the battles fought there at the turn of the 19th century and the repressions that followed the November Uprising. Due to numerous reconstructions and the development of the city, its unusual urban design was also lost.
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Today, only a couple of traces of Bishop Wierzbowski’s unique idea remain. These include the old calvary chapel called the ‘House of Pilate’, which used to stand at the crossroads of the two main streets – the arms of the cross (today, it is the Church of the Feast of the Cross). There is also the ‘Cenacle’ of the Marian Fathers, built in 1674, and the baroque church of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The latter was the work of Jakub Fontana, and created as a result of the 1765-1770 reconstruction of a 17th-century temple Bishop Wierzbowski donated to the Bernardines.
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Originally written in Polish by Anna Cymer, Mar 2018; translated by MW, Apr 2019