OLD POLISH ON-LINE
E Y E
T H E
Michael J. Miko¶
The history of culture in medieval Poland is closely intertwined with the activities of the Church. The acceptance of Christianity led to a gradual replacement of the common pagan religion and culture with new spiritual ideals. The Church brought, initially for its own use, Western education, literature, painting, architecture, sculpture, and music to Poland. By the twelfth century, the ecclesiastical network covered eight dioceses and about one thousand parishes, spanning the diverse provinces of the country.
The educational system centered on cathedrals and churches which had schools where Latin
(grammar, rhetoric, dialectic) and
(mathematics, geometry, astrology, and music) were taught to aspiring priests. It spread to the countryside where vigorous religious orders (e.g., Benedictine, Cistercian, Dominican, Franciscan) established their monasteries and houses and propagated religion and schooling. The first Benedictine monasteries, for example, built in the eleventh century in Tyniec (near Cracow) and Lubin (Great Poland), served not only as centers of religious education but also as outposts of instruction in new techniques of industry and agriculture of Western provenance.
In close connection with their mother monasteries and houses in France, Belgium and Germany, the monks and friars disseminated new ideas and art styles in Poland. By the end of the thirteenth century, this influential monastic movement was emanating from about 300 sites. The mendicant orders, Dominican and Franciscan, were particularly active in proselytizing among the rural and urban population.
The priests, monks, and friars brought to Poland the ability to make parchment, established manuscript libraries, and copied books. In the scriptoria of cathedrals, churches, and monasteries, scribes recorded historical events and described lives of the saints. Thus, the illuminated manuscripts with miniatures containing the Gospels from Gniezno and Płock,
Codex aureus Pultoviensis
, written in gold letters on purple, date from as early as the second half of the eleventh century. Religious monodic music was sung in churches and monasteries. The Gregorian chorales were brought to Poland at the end of the eleventh century and musical instruments, usually homemade (e.g., fiddles, lutes, zithers, lyres, and horns) were played.
The new, monumental style of Romanesque architecture, with well over one hundred buildings preserved to this day, displayed the influence of Cologne in its earliest structures. Today, the crypt of Saint Leonard is the only representative of a host of buildings on the Wawel Hill in Cracow that at one time included the churches of Saint Gereon, Saint Michael, Saint George, and the cathedral, all originally erected on the ruins of pre-Romanesque structures. The Cathedral of Płock, built in 1144, is one of the best known examples of Polish Romanesque architecture, and other churches, usually round or square with semicircular apses, can be found in Ostrów Lednicki, Giecz, and Cracow.
The stone columns adorned with carved figures in the Church of Holy Trinity in Strzelno, the cloister garth in Tyniec, and the tile floor in the collegiate church in Wi¶lica remain among the masterpieces of Romanesque art. The bronze doors of the Cathedral in Gniezno (ca. 1175), the first major work of art presenting a national theme, depict in relief eighteen scenes of the life and death of Saint Adalbert. The art of stone sculpture is exemplified on the great portal of the Magdalene Church in Wrocław and in the statue of Madonna and Child in Tum. Two chalices from the abbey in Trzemeszno, the silver bowl found in Włocławek, and the diadem cross from the Wawel Cathedral represent the most sumptuous relics of Romanesque goldsmithery.
In the thirteenth century, the schools which had up till then served mainly the Church, began to prepare candidates for careers in law, diplomacy, and administration. Gradually, nonecclesiastical institutions came to play an important role in popularizing culture. The royal and ducal courts, through diplomatic visits and matrimonial connections, absorbed cultural influences from other countries. Legal texts were recorded in chancelleries, and court customs were preserved in the splendor of costumes, household accesories, and in the pageantry of tournaments and chivalric conventions.
The process of German colonization accelerated the acceptance of Western ways, as it firmly linked urban culture with the culture of West European towns, and improved material civilization (e.g., housing, dress, and diet). Parish schools, as in Poznań, Wrocław and Cracow, which were closely connected with the activity of the guilds, responded to the commercial and municipal needs of the burgher population, who were interested in reading, accounting, and travelling. Higher education was acquired abroad, primarily at the universities of Paris and Padua. Some works of Polish scholars (e.g., a chronicle of popes and emperors by Martinus Polonus and the treatise on optics by Witelo) became known abroad.
In the middle of the thirteenth century, thanks to French influence propagated by the Cistercians, Franciscans, and Dominicans, Gothic architecture began to gain popularity in Poland. It coincided with the growing wealth of the Church and of the towns which were able to finance numerous religious buildings, and, in time, city halls and defensive constructions. The development of the Gothic style gained impetus from the introduction of brick. It was used, for example, for building the Cistercian monasteries in Henryków and Sulejów, the Dominican churches in Cracow and Wrocław, and the Franciscan churches in Kalisz and Cracow. Early Gothic buildings were also erected in Gdańsk, Oliwa, and Kamień in Pomerania.
The intense economic development which occurred during the reign of Kazimierz the Great is best manifested in the hundreds of Gothic buildings which have survived from that prosperous era. The slim silhouettes of churches reaching toward heaven with their spires stand as monuments to the flourishing Gothic style and the age of creative passion which possessed the European people. Polish masons rebuilt the great cathedrals of Cracow, Wrocław, Gniezno, and Poznań in Gothic style, and built hundreds of basilicas and churches, for example Saint Mary's Church in Cracow and the Collegiate Church in Sandomierz. They did not neglect secular architecture. They built new towns (for example Kazimierz and Wi¶lica) and constructed over 40 castles, strategically situated along the lines of communication, as well as walled cities, fortified manors, and gates. They built city halls in Tarnów and Sandomierz, and the Collegium Maius, the seat of the University of Cracow.
The age of communal creativity was not limited to architecture. The patronage of kings, dukes, magnates, clergymen, and patricians brought affluent support to other artists. The Gothic buildings were richly embellished with stone and wood sculptures, paintings, stained glass windows, gold articles, and textiles. Among outstanding works preserved to this day are the sarcophagus of Kazimierz the Great in the Wawel Cathedral, the delicate wood sculpture of the Madonna from Krużlowa, and the altar of Saint Catherine's Church in Cracow by Mikołaj Haberschrack. Other artifacts which attest to the flourishing of the decorative arts are the stained windows of Saint Nicholas's Church in Toruń, the reliquary for the head of Saint Stanisław, and the chasuble from the benefaction of Piotr Kmita. The influence of Byzantine painting can be seen in the frescoes of the Trinity Chapel in Lublin, and of Italian art in the Franciscan monastery in Cracow.
Gothic art in Poland found its culmination in the work of Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz), who came to Cracow in 1477 and lived there for twenty years. His altar in Saint Mary's Church, carved in wood, is one of the crowning achievements of medieval sculpture. The main scene represents the Madonna falling asleep. She is surrounded by monumental figures of the apostles and over 200 other figures. The tomb of Kazimierz Jagiellonian is another masterpiece of Veit Stoss.
A decisive new development in education took place in the fourteenth century. Kazimierz the Great realized that the nation needed a class of educated people, especially lawyers, who could codify the laws and administer the courts and offices in the reunified state. He was also aware that the parish network was growing and its 3,000 schools were short of teachers. His ardent efforts to found an institution of higher learning in Poland were rewarded in 1364, when Pope Urban V granted him permission to open the Cracow Academy. It was the second (after Prague) university in central Europe. In 1400, thanks to the generous bequest of Queen Jadwiga, the university underwent an administrative reform and enrolled 203 students. By the end of the century, about 18,000 students, many of them foreign, 50% of burgher origin, had passed through its gates. The faculties of astronomy, law and theology attracted eminent scholars: for example, Stanisław of Skalbmierz, Paweł Włodkowic, Jan of Głogów, and Wojciech of Brudzew, who from 1491 to 1495 was one of Nicholas Copernicus's teachers.
The royal court at Wawel maintained lively contacts with Hungary, Bohemia, Italy, France, and Germany and attracted artists. The outstanding composer Mikołaj of Radom, connected with the court of Władysław Jagiełło, wrote polyphonic music renowned for its expression of religious contemplation. At a manor house in Dunajów, Grzegorz of Sanok, Archbishop of Lwów, a poet and patron of literature, gathered scholars and writers who advanced the humanist philosophy of life. The most outstanding among them was Filippo Buonaccorsi from Tuscany (known as Kallimach), who became a tutor to King Kazimierz's sons, a founder of the literary and scientific circle, and a professor at the University.
When Christopher Columbus was sailing to America, Nicholas Copernicus, a student at the University of Cracow, was beginning to develop his astronomical theories, which were to bring about a radical change in man's thinking and in his view of the universe.
Polish Literature from the Middle Ages to the End of the Eighteenth Century. A Bilingual Anthology
, by Michael J. Miko¶, Warsaw: Constans, 1999.