Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Perished Mary Magdalene's old collegiate church

Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene are two women who are the most represented  in the history of Catholic church. Mary Magdalene is the second most shown woman, so we can safely say that as a saint she is the most represented after Virgin Mary. Both Marys are also shown in the type of images called assumption into heaven. Both were honored, and Mary Magdalene wasn't  marginalized as a saint, wasn't pushed into fringes of Catholic faith because the tradition was that she was a reformed prostitute. The marginalization theory is often repeated, and I think I understand where it comes from. Catholic church is most often pointed out as the main villain here, because she was labeled as former prostitute, but the fact gets overlooked that she was exceptionally honored also by the Catholics. I will give you an example of many, the collegiate church built in her honor.

This  was a collegiate church in Poznan, huge as a cathedral, which had a Mary Magdalene school adjacent to it. It was a high school, founded in 1303, the oldest secular school in Poland. The school must have been quite liberal for its days, as sometimes there were fights among the Catholics and the "heretics," when the students started to use fists in order to win arguments. Short tempers aside, but the fact that under the same roof were studying people who often represented very opposing views is nothing so common in old days. The picture above, by Alberti ( thank you Radomil) shows how big the building was even as  a ruin, in late XVIII c. It was built in the Middle Ages, once was one of the biggest Gothic churches in Poland, and the symbol of the city of Poznan. It was as big as St. Mary Basilica in Cracow, than the capital of Poland, but St. Mary Magdalene Collegiate church had even taller tower: 20 m (c.67') higher. The church was destroyed, the school survived until  today. Some trivia: among famous guests Chopin visited and gave concerts there, also the  school was awarded prestigious Order of Polonia Restituta Knights' Cross.

From Civitates ORbis Terrarum ( XVII c.) printed in Cologne
Why I am writing about a church which doesn't exist anymore? Specially because so many St. Mary Magdalene churches exists, or existed all over Europe. Fair point. But this one  has intersting history, which is very representative regarding two Marys, also how medieval art or architecture was treated during XIX c.

According to medieval chronicles, the  collegiate church was founded  in the middle of XIII  century. It had to do with urban planing: the city of Poznan was supposed to be moved to the other side of the Warta river, and people had idea to built a huge collegiate church.  One side had already St. Mary's Cathedral, so, it was decided that the new patroness should be St.Mary Magdalene. Very typical: Virgin Mary as the main super star, Mary Magdalen close to her in fame. Here Mary Magdalene with her church became something of a founding mother of the new city. Nice hommage. Also the church  was under patronage of the dukes of Greater Poland. Another trivia: those were the dukes who took Arthurian legends seriously, even styled themselves according the legends, also had crest of Lancelot. Maybe the dukes were the founders themselves, it is not clear. Other patronage later, when the ducal  lineage died out was taken by the king of Poland, from rather remote capital of Cracow.

The collegiate church of St. Mary Magdalene was different from a cathedral only in some aspects: it didn't have bishop's throne in it, ( the cathedrals have it), was not the sit of a bishop in the administrative sense, but it had body of clergy, canons,  member of a chapter in a similar manner to cathedral.Those members of clergy  who also have special honorary privileges were allowed to elect bishops. So, it was quite a prominent church. This church is one of the artistic examples of Mary Magdalene's prominence in the Catholic fait.

It took long to finish the construction work, very typical for those days too. Today what is left on this location  is only a plazza, one sculpture in a museum, the heart of a bell,  and an archeological dig.

 Once this church had 52 altars, 27 chapels, the tower was 114.8 m tall (376' ) high enough to be listed among tallest church towers. The tower was slightly shorter than the tower of Chartres Cathedral (115 m). The width of St. Mary Magdalene church was 42 m, had three naves  (Chartres has 32 m to 46 m width). St. Mary Magdalene's church was was 70 m long "only" as compared to Chartres, imposing 130 m length. In feet 233, and 433. This is addressed  to those who are familiar with Chartres. However, 70 m length of a church isn't little either, actually it is a lot. In comparison to the cathedral in Poznan (St. Mary's Cathedral) this church was only 2 m shorter in length, but wider 6 m (20') than 36 m wide St. Mary's Cathedral. If devotion can be measure in meters and feet, not bad at all for a saint who was considered a former prostitute. Mary Magdalene got a church which was actually bigger in square meters or square feet measurements, with a  taller tower than the local cathedral. Mary Magdalene wasn't much on the margins.

This model of the church is nice (thank you Poznaniak). I don't know how accurate it is, if during medieval times the roof tiles were so big in proportion to the rest of the church? But I am not an architecture historian. Today the size of the roof tiles would indicate average building in Europe, which this church was of course not. So, squint you eyes to get maybe better feel for the real proportions. This is artist talking in me.

The church suffered the last of devastating fires at the end of XVIII c. People tried to rebuild it, but lightning caused  the wall to fall , and in 1802 the consensus was that the church will not be rebuilt. Those were the times when medieval heritage wasn't as much appreciated as it is today. For example Prussian administration  (Poznan was occupied by Prussia at this time) ordered to destroy the medieval city walls. I didn't know if the people gave up, or the Prussians administration didn't give permission, as often happened, the church is lost forever. But not blaming the Prussian here: destroying parts of Medieval heritage wasn't so uncommon. Krakow, then under Austrian occupation, lost its medieval walls too. For example Paris doesn't have the Old Town anymore because it was destroyed in order to make way for modernisation of the city. Cloisters Museum in New York exist because the old monasteries were considered worthless in France, were in a state of ruin. An appreciative American bought it and shipped to US, cloisters were lovingly re-assembled. Good for us and future generations.

Some churches were demolished by purpose, explosives were used. Chartres again: it was planed to destroy the cathedral, as some were destroyed already, explosives were set, just someone, lucky for us today and the future generations, decided that the explosion will create too much of  unnecessary dust clouds. French Revolution: some churches, if survived the destructive zeal directed  at Medieval and religious art,  were supposed to be converted to the so called "temples of Reason." Sigh...

Today the archaeologists excavate what is left from the St. Mary Magdalene church. They found interesting objects, also conduct genetic research of the human remains found the collegiate church, as it was also the resting place of many prominent figures in local history. Archeology is very interdisciplinary today: DNA testing allows to know quite a lot about public health in earlier days, genetic illnesses shared by members of similar population, or families, etc. In  earlier days  big help for archaeologists was carbon dating, today they have also DNA testing to their disposal, scanning of the grounds or objects, aerial photography, impressive inventions. What comes next, I am curious.

Alberti ,Ruins of the church of St. Mary Magdalen in Poznan, via Radomil

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Holy Grail in Bezlawki, part 1, Escape after Hastings

Bayeux tapestry, battle of Hastings. Via wiki commons, by Maxim

This blog has been neglected for long time. I planed and promised to write about the legend of the Holy Grail in Bezlawki, today's Poland. I mentioned before that it seems that Arthurian legends were very well received in Poland. But the legend of holy Grail in Bezalwki has some not very semi-historical events in it, and had people who are historical too. However, I am not saying here we need to believe the legend because of its historicity: it is just a legend based on real facts.

This is a story about a battle, escape, two chalices, two fighting brothers, the crusaders and a tower.
The battle in question was the battle of Hastings, when the last Anglo-Saxon king, the Harold II of England Harold II of England was killed. His children escaped to Denmark, as they were not safe anymore when  William the Conqueror became a new ruler. Short reminder: the mystical object of Medieval times, Holy Grail, was believed to be several things, one version was that it was the cup, or a chalice, into which Joseph of Arimathea collected blood of Jesus during the crucifixion. It became the ultimate  blood relic, which was brought by Joseph of Arimathea to the British Island. One version say that is connected to the Glastonbury Abbey.

 The tradition  also say that it was taken by escaping members of fallen dynasty more East, in order to save their lives, three people. They found refuge at the court of Danish king, their relative. They didn't escape empty handed, as you guess the story goes, they took  what they wanted, or rather what they thought was so precious they couldn't bear to leave behind. Among precious objects they considered worthy not to fall into the hands of William the Conqueror were two chalices, (from Britain and Greece). Finally  the grail was installed in this church, in Bezlawki, on the picture bellow. It stayed there for several centuries, still during the twenties of XX c. one travel book writer, Orlowicz, claimed he still saw one of the chalices in the church.

Church in Bezlawki today, empty, wiki commons, courtesy of Severus

Who were those three expatriate children of Harold II of England as real historical people? One of them was Gytha of Wessex Gytha of Wessex, who later became the wife of  Vladimir II Monomakh, the  ruler of  Byzantium influenced Kievan Rus. He is also known under name of Waldemar. Gytha's and Vladimir's son is mentioned in Norse sagas, there he is called Harald  his Slavic name was Mstislav. One of the brothers, Godwin, became the ruler of one of Lithuanian principalities, a duke. How it was possible? This was XI c. but Lithuania still was very similar to VI c. Britain: like at the court of king Arthur the knights took decisions during an assembly. Upward mobility was possible, still, during those days for a warrior who was considered worth of rule.

 Back to  Bezlawki: it was far away, actually when the chalices, (or chalice? ) first were installed there, the building which is the church today was not a church at all, but the fortified  tower of the crusaders. Not the Knights Templars, often they are associated in modern versions of the story with holy grail, but in this story we have Teutonic Knights, the worshipers of the Virgin Mary, with black crosses instead of red ones. They were  Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem. Knights form Europe joined them, not only from Germany. They were invited by pious Polish princes, Prussian Crusade was part of their military enterprise.

Church in Bezlawki, another view, wiki commons, courtesy of Jerzy Strzelecki

The Teutonic Knights came into the posession of the chalices later,but  it wasn't a war loot . It was a gift. From a rather pious ally.

Teutonic Knights, as a military order on a mission they  pressed East, however,  not South but  North, and who like those knights who went to the Holy Land got the blessing of  pope, they fought the  non-Christians, in this case the pagans, of today's Poland and Baltic states. They build a fortress which at the timescut the most east into the territories of the pagan Prussians, the Baltic people.  One  thing :  the English  version of article about Bezlawki mentions that the the fortress was a hunting lodge build by the Teutonic Knights. Not true, it was a fortified tower, a Wildhaus, as the knight called it, a house, a post in the wilderness. The forest was dense there, and I am sure there were hunters too, who hunted the wild  (it means game in German, also wilderness). However Jagd is hunting, hunting lodge is Jagdhaus. This was a fortress in which knights were stationed, not the hunters.

Two brothers, Lithuanian  dukes were in a bitter conflict. Jogaila, the older one,  who later became the king of Poland, was against the Teutonic Knights. His ascend to Polish throne happened after the Teutonic Knights were subdued and after Jogaila got baptized, it was the Christianisation of Lithuania. His younger brother,  Svitrigaila, sided with the Teutonic Knights, he also brought for them two mentioned chalices which were installed in the tower. Not too unusual, as the relics in the Medieval times were believed to help in difficult situations, and an outpost so far East probably was considered worth of help. Svitrigaila was invited to live in the tower together with his garrison. So, he didn't really give it away,  he moved with it. Svitrigaila still during XX c. was considered direct descendant of Harold II of England by Polish historians. Teutonic Knights promised him the crown of Lithuania.

More information follows soon.One Polish Medieval chronicle is somehow unusual,  it shows that Arthurian legend was taken seriously.Also two Lithuanian Grand Dukes were married to women who became divine: one was considered a goddess (she was a pagan), the other became a saint. Both were worshiped. Also the Nazis had it base very close: 30 buildings, 50 bunkers. It is today a tourist attraction, called Wolf's Lair.

As for the story, yes, it is kind of difficult to believe, it is a legend after all, we don't need to believe it. (I don't). Is it difficult to believe that such legend exists in Poland? Why? legends of escapes are not uncommon in Poland, it was a country to which refugees often went. And you can find this legend retold in polish on the net. Here are links to a website of a licenced tour guide (site in English) where the lady talks about  the legend, another is website of the town near Bezlawki. Not the only articles on net about this legend. This i part of tradition, really.

Blog entry by the tourist guide, she describes it well

Article in Polish, sorry, gmina Ketrzyn site, lots of hsitorical inforamtion