Powązki Cemetery: Warsaw’s Open-Air Sculpture Gallery
default, powazki-warszawa-groby-forum.jpg, Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw, photo: Radek Jaworski/Forum
Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw, one of the Polish capital’s oldest cemeteries, is home to incredible sculptures in styles ranging from Art Nouveau to ancient Egyptian. Culture.pl takes a look at these works of art, the history of the cemetery and some notable figures who have been buried there.
A few Warsaw sculptors
Powązki Cemetery is Warsaw’s oldest functioning cemetery and one of the most important necropolises in Poland. Opened on 20th May 1792, it is the resting place of many notable Poles, including cultural figures such as singer Ada Sari, writer Bolesław Prus or film director Krzysztof Kieślowski. Their graves are extraordinary sepulchral artworks – Powązki is considered a ‘gallery of sculpture’ of sorts:
Powązki Cemetery (…) was of an elite character. This was achieved by its authorities which kept the various fees high (…). That wasn’t perhaps very righteous but because of it, our cemetery was filled with interesting gravestones which the families that buried their relatives could afford. Only a few Warsaw sculptors haven’t created at least one gravestone here.
From the 2014 book Cmentarz Powązkowski w Warszawie: Panteon Polski (Powązki Cemetery In Warsaw: A National Pantheon) by Tadeusz
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The era described in the quote lasted from, more or less, the second half of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th. In 1965, the cemetery was declared a protected monument and, as such, is kept in its original form: new burials are only permitted in existing graves for relatives of the families resting in them. Still, some new graves do appear but only in place of ones that have been abandoned.
Often simply called ‘Powązki’, the Catholic necropolis is also adorned by magnificent trees which give it a park-like ambience. Among the ancient specimens growing here one can find chestnut trees, oaks and lindens. Because of its special beauty and the many noted people buried on its grounds it holds the status of a ‘national pantheon’ and is often visited by sight-seers.
City of death & peace
Funeral of the Fallen Five at the Powązki Cemetery in the year 1861, Powązki Cemetery in Waraw, photo: The National Digital Library Polona
Powązki was founded when the earlier Warsaw cemeteries, run by the city’s Catholic parishes, became too small to accommodate the capital’s needs. For sanitary reasons, it was located well outside of the city (in the village of Powązki, hence its name) but eventually, as Warsaw grew, the area became part of town and now lies in one of its central parts. There is no certainty who designed the necropolis which, in its beginnings, was about 2.5 hectares large and so simple that there weren’t even alleys in it. Some point to the royal architect Dominik Merlini since he is the one who designed the cemetery church (also founded in 1792), but there’s nothing to back up that assumption.
A description of the necropolis in its early years, namely the 1830s, was given by writer and historian of Warsaw Kazimierz Władysław Wóycicki:
As I remember, the small Powązki Cemetery surrounded by a wall was enough for the inhabitants of Warsaw to move from the city of life and bustle to the city of death and peace. Far from all the buildings, on a sandy dune, it looked more like a country cemetery. It didn’t have the beautiful trees that now provide shade, the green grass nor the many shrubs and flowers.
From an 1854 article published in the periodical Biblioteka Warszawska (Warsaw Library)
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In 1837, the necropolis ceased to be run by the Church and came under the management of City Hall. Its area – as well as the various burial fees – started growing. Powązki was expanded eighteen times since its creation and now covers 43 hectares between Okopowa, Powązkowska, Tatarska and Jana Ostroroga streets.
The high prices led to the appearance of numerous expensive headstones and monuments on its premises but also to a curious custom of raising funds for gravestones. When a noted, but not affluent, person would pass away it wasn’t uncommon to organise a money collection for a gravestone worthy of that person’s merits, a gravestone that would withstand comparisons with others around it. The citizens of Warsaw funded, for example, the gravestones of journalist Dionizy Henkiel or geographer Wacław Nałkowski.
The new management also reorganised the cemetery’s space, exploited more or less randomly until then. The new plan was very simple, based on horizontal and vertical lines, it divided the burial ground into separate plots each containing several individual graves. However, the simple plan didn’t come with an equally simple system of notation, giving rise to yet another Powązki curiosity. The plots were initially given numbers starting from the cemetery’s Eastern edge. But the necropolis’ various expansions didn’t follow any specific direction, the additions appeared on many sides. This gradually led to a complication of what at first seemed to be a pretty basic idea:
Let plot 71 serve as an example. From the North it borders plot 48, from the East plot F/G, from the South plot M and only from the West plot 72. Not to further complicate the situation, in various periods various notations for newly added plots were used. That resulted in further complications. Today the notation system uses, apart from Arabic numerals, also Roman numerals, capital letters, miniscule letters, additional notations…
From the 2014 book Cmentarz Powązkowski w Warszawie: panteon polski (Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw: National Pantheon) by Tadeusz M
Although highly unpractical, the system is still in use today as a kind of monument testifying to the history of the cemetery. Apparently, Powązki is the only necropolis with a ‘monument’ of this kind.
Another thing characteristic of Powązki is the Alley of the Meritorious. Created in 1925, it has 120 graves where persons of exceptional importance to Polish culture have been buried. The first one to be put to rest there was the Nobel Prize in Literature-winner Władysław Reymont. Others buried in the alley include writer Maria Dąbrowska and singer-actor Hanka Ordonówna.
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A simple sandstone tomb plate
Fortunately, the necropolis survived the many wars and conflicts that befell Warsaw during its existence mostly intact. So the historical art and other pieces of heritage one may encounter there are, with a few exceptions, authentic.
The oldest grave at Powązki is the resting place of a man by the name of Karol Beer who passed away in 1793. It’s marked by a simple sandstone tomb plate with an inscription and small decorations on the edges. The total amount of graves is hard to pinpoint as the cemetery archive went up in flames during World War II. It’s estimated that there are about 75,000 graves at Powązki. These can vary greatly – apart from ones with gravestones one can find mausoleums, private chapels and catacombs.
It’s impossible to mention all that’s worth mentioning in a single article due to the scope of Powązki’s cultural richness. So rather than attempting to make a comprehensive list of monuments we’ll take a look at a spectrum of what can be found at the necropolis. We’ll do this by discussing examples in particular styles and periods, starting from the second half of the 19th century. That is when the ‘gallery of sculpture’ began to take shape.
Let’s start with the neo-classicist gravestone of Michał Matuszewski, who passed away in 1855, made of stone and designed by an unknown artist. Its cuboid form references antique canons and so is devoid of the later symbol of the Christian cross, something that may seem a bit unexpected at a Catholic cemetery. Instead it’s adorned by an eye-catching sculpture of an owl, an animal associated with wisdom.
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Of course, not all tombstones at Powązki are made of stone. An interesting example of a cast-iron one is the neo-gothic grave of Stanisław Lilpop (a metallurgy tycoon, hence the choice of material) who passed away in 1866. Evocative of a church tower, the monument skilfully designed by sculptor Leonard Marconi is almost twelve metres high and houses a bronze bust of the deceased created by Leon Molatyński.
A valued sculptor who specialised in sepulchral art was Bolesław Syrewicz. Among the dozens of pieces he created at Powązki, one can find the 1880 marble grave of Józefa Hermanowa which is typically listed among the cemetery’s most impressive monuments. Often seen as an allegory of sadness, its centrepiece is a statue of a veiled woman – the masterful execution of the veil and the facial features behind it are especially impressive. The press and ordinary Varsovians loved Syrewicz’s work:
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The statue is noble and gracious, it has the moving grace of quiet sadness which gives the remaining details the right expression. (…) One has to mention the delicateness of the artist’s chisel which is visible, in particular, through the meticulous finish of the flower garlands winding around the pedestal and of the veil which has the slenderness of ephemeral gauze. Mr Syrewicz has put up a true work of art at our cemetery.
From an 1880 article in the Kurier Warszawski newspaper
Grave of Zygmunt Gloger, Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw, photo: Wiesław M. Zieliński/East News
Another sculptor to embellish Powązki with dozens of pieces of art was Bartłomiej Mazurek, whom Syrewicz had employed at his workshop at a point. Mazurek’s original pieces can be found on the grave of the noted ethnographer Zygmunt Gloger who passed away in 1910. This monument has two statues by the sculptor: of a young country woman and of a country boy. The first seems to be telling a folk tale to the latter, like those Gloger told his readers in his writings. Valued for his representations of clothing, Mazurek gave the storyteller’s folk costume plenty of detail. On the grave itself there is also a medallion showing a portrait of the deceased sculpted by Czesław Makowski.
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Trying not to break into tears
A very interesting Art Nouveau gravestone was designed by the noted sculptor Wacław Szymanowski, author of the famous Chopin monument in Warsaw’s Łazienki park. Raised for his father circa 1905, the bronze piece has a unique, wave-like form:
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Two woman figures rise from the burial ground, like two apparitions from the underworld. Their gestures express sorrow and pain: one is holding her face in her hands, the other is trying not to break into tears. Rising with them is also the deceased whose face is delicately outlined in the middle of the statue.
From the website starepowazki.sowa.website.pl devoted to the Powązki Cemetery
Relief by Zofia Trzcińska-Kamińska for the monument of Stanisław and Janina Pruszkowski, photo: Wiesław M. Zieliński/East News
In 1920, Zofia Trzcińska-Kamińska created a beautiful sandstone relief for the monument of Stanisław and Janina Pruszkowski. Her artwork is a tribute to the pair’s tragic story. Stanisław died fighting against the Soviets in the 1920 Battle of Warsaw and his wife Janina took her life two days later, not willing to live without him. It’s one of the monuments at the cemetery most often visited by sight-seers.
At Powązki one may also encounter gravestones referencing folk art, the 1943 monument of Piotr Piotrowicz is one such example. Designed by the sculptor Antoni Kenar, it’s exceptional not only due to its intriguing form reminiscent of a nativity scene, but also because it’s the sole wooden gravestone at Powązki. Wooden monuments such as crosses used to be prevalent at Polish cemeteries but eventually were substituted by ones made of more durable materials.
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All there is to say
Grave of Ada Sari by Teresa Brzoskiewicz, photo: Andrzej Cereniewicz/Forum & portrait of Ada Sari, 1919, from the collection of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow/Forum
Although the best time for sepulchral art at Powązki ended with World War II, many beautiful pieces appeared after 1945, maintaining the cemetery’s sculptural tradition. After the eminent poet Leopold Staff passed away in 1957, Jan Szczepkowski designed a tasteful gravestone for him in a geometric style whose beginnings reach the 1930s. The style focusses on the aesthetics of the materials used and the lettering rather than on elaborate embellishments.
An abstract piece was created to adorn the grave of the great operatic singer Ada Sari who passed away in 1968. Its designer, Teresa Brzóskiewicz, is a graduate of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts whose sculptures can also be found all around Warsaw, such as her Wiosna (Spring) sculpture on Międzynarodowa Street.
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The 1980s saw a revival of geometric trends at Powązki. Barbara Zbrożyna’s gravestone for writer Miron Białoszewski includes a large limestone sign with the deceased’s name on it and simply-shaped blocks of stone that create the sign of q cross from the empty space between them.
One of Powązki’s most distinctive contemporary gravestones was created the following decade. Commemorating the renowned film director Krzysztof Kieślowski, it is the work of Krzysztof M. Bednarski, an artist valued for his numerous sepulchral pieces. Here’s how the author himself commented on his 1997 sculpture:
It’s a portrait of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s hands. He was the last director who’d make the framing gesture on set. I used the hands instead of a Cross. They say all there is to say.
Among the works created in the current millennium there is, among others, the gravestone of conductor Witold Rowicki. The heart-warming design (its authorship has not been disclosed) employs metal slats to show a silhouette of the deceased who seems to be directing a concert.
May the eternal light shine upon them
Portrait of Gustaw Kamieński, 1909, photo: The National Digital Library Polona. Mausoleum of Gustaw Kamieński, Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw, photo: Krzysztof Chojnacki/East New
Apart from the graves in Powązki one will also find other burial places like catacombs, chapels and mausoleums. The catacombs (whose designer is unknown) date back to the founding of the cemetery but unfortunately were badly affected by Wold War II. As a result, close to half of the inscription tablets are missing. Nevertheless, the catacombs have been renovated and are said to be one of the biggest – almost 200 metres-long – monuments of their kind in Europe.
Out of all the mausoleums at Powązki it is worth mentioning the one Bolesław Łęgiewicz designed for Gustaw Kamieński, an engineer and writer (his novellas and dramas were highly popular in the interwar period). Kamieński had the mausoleum built in 1902, long before his death in 1930, in a style evocative of ancient Egyptian art. Among its most characteristic elements are the trapezoid entrance and the solar symbol above it.
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The chapels at Powązki include a neo-Romanesque design by architect Witold Lanci. Raised at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, it is the resting place of banker and entrepreneur Jan Bloch and his family. Above the entrance to this elegant structure you find the following inscription: ‘May the eternal light shine upon them’.
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Being the gallery of sepulchral art that it is, Powązki is also – or maybe one ought to say ‘firstly’ – a functioning cemetery. Many families bury their relatives here and come to visit them. So the place is by no means a heritage park, it still very much serves its initial purpose. One can see it very clearly on All Saint’s Day when Poles traditionally visit the graves of their loved ones to light a candle for them. After dusk the necropolis becomes illuminated by countless candle lights flickering on the tombstones, making Powązki appear absolutely otherworldly.
Bolesław Prus (Aleksander Głowacki)
Krzysztof Kieślowski 75/20
krzysztof m. bednarski
Author: Marek Kępa, October 2018. Source: Cmentarz Powązkowski w Warszawie: Panteon Polski (Powązki Cemetery In Warsaw: A National Pantheon) by Tadeusz Maria Rudkowski, 2014