The conference excursion took a busload of participants through Lower Silesia to some places the average tourist won‘t visit. The focus was on „churching“ and there was no time planned for anything else, neither for the necessary small breaks nor for taking photos. However, a bunch of grown-up scientists is not as obedient as a group of university students…
We started from our hotel in Wrocław right after an early breakfast and set out in southwestern direction. Our first destination was Dzierzoniów, a small town at the foot of the mountains.
Dzierzoniów is a typical Silesian small town. Due to its location as gateway to the mountains along the Czech border, which are a popular weekend and holiday regions for the Wroclawians as well as popular with Germans with Silesian background, it has a bit of tourism.
The German name of Dzierzoniów used to be Reichenbach, or more precisely Reichenbach im Eulengebirge (in the Owl Mountains). The German population either fled or was expelled after the end of the war, and replaced with Poles from the lost eastern parts of the country. After the war the town was first named Rychbach, the Polish version of the original name, but then renamed after a regional celebrity, the priest and apiarist Jan Dzierzon.
A useful house
The schedule of your excursion was tight and we focused on just the two churches Dzierzoniów no time to look left or right. The bus could not enter the town centre, so we had to get off and walk, or rather run after the professor. Luckily our way led us across Rynek, so we got an impression of the town centre. I caught some quick photos on the run. Looks like most streets in the centre have recently been neatly paved. Many houses, though, could do with some care and fresh paint. All in all we spent hardly more than one hour in town.
First we passed, but did not enter, the former Augustine church. Its origins date back to the 14th century. After the reformation the Augustine convent had been closed down and the church was then used for various profane purposes. Since 1713 the catholic cult has been reinstalled. The small church and the adjacent convent building were built from rough stones. Probably the facades were formerly covered in plaster, because these walls do not look too pretty like this. The general appearance tells of various repairs and changes. The gothic structure is still recognizable. The tall pointed arches of the windows have been closed with bricks(?) and smaller windows installed. The little spire looks like a modern addition, and one where the designer has sadly failed.
The main square, the heart of the town, is named Rynek or Ring. Just like in Wrocław, the town hall occupies the middle of the square. This seems to be typical for Silesian towns. It is surrounded by townhouses with mostly 19th century facades. One half of the square is pedestrianized, the rest is a parking lot. In the side wing of the town hall, that might be useful to know for visitors, you find the tourist information office.
The town hall has medieval origins, but little of them is still visible, actually no more than the gable of the brick-gothic former cloth hall which now hosts the public library. The core of the tower originally dates from the late middle ages. But the old town hall was demolished due to decay in 1872 and replaced by a new building in the following three years. The facades show a simple style that can be described as neo-renaissance, resembling the Rundbogenstil which had been popular around 1850.
One house in ul. Świdnicka, opposite the (now) Church of Mary Mother of the Church, is particularly useful for visitors: The facade has been painted with a huge map of the town. Practical when you are there! Unfortunately it is too big to carry it along... but the solution is easy: Take a photo of it, so you have the map with you in your digital camera.
The structure of the town centre is easy to grasp. Within the ring roads that formerly were the fortification, there is a grid of four or five streets in each direction, with the rectangular Rynek (main square) in the middle.
Entertaining detail: In the small square in front of the house they have put up a statue of Pope John Paul. The Pope is depicted walking fast against the wind, and it looks as if he, too, is using the big map to find his way...
The parish church of St George (kościół parafialny św. Jerzego) is the oldest church in town. This was our first destination. Due to its tall gothic structure and the high spire it is also the most impressive church in town. Its origins date back to the 13th, legends even to the foundation of the town in the 12th century. The building is a basilica with four naves, built from bricks. The reformation turned it into a Lutheran parish church in 1555. Several elements inside, like the galleries, the pulpit (1609) and the main altar (1615) and some epitaphs still give testimony of the protestant era. During the 30 Year War the counter-reformation reinstalled the catholic cult in 1629. Since then the church has been once more Roman-Catholic. Statues of saints and side altars were put up. The main altar was changed and extended in the first half of the 18th century to adapt it to catholic theology. Professor gave lengthy explanations and discussions but since the choice was either listening or walking around and taking photos, many of us chose the latter. Having photos is more important to an art historian…
The finest religious architecture in town is now known as the Roman-Catholic Parish Church of the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church (Parafia Maryi Panni Matki Kościoła). It was designed and built as a protestant church, though. The church dates from the Prussian era in the late 18th century when the Protestants of Silesia finally gained full freedom of religion. It is part of a whole „family“ of similar churches that were built all over Silesia in the 1780s and 1790s. This is one of the later examples, built in 1795 – 1798. The architect in charge of these projects was Silesian-born Carl Gotthard Langhans, the very same who later designed Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Before his move to Berlin Langhans lived and worked in Wrocław.
The outward appearance is still late baroque but inside Langhans used the then modern neoclassical style. The basic design of the church‘s interior is a longitudinal oval formed by the galleries – compare to, for example, the Court Church in Wrocław or the protestant church in Wałbrzych. Three galleries give room to seat a large community. They are carried by columns in the classical, antique sequel of orders.
The early 20th century installed stained glass windows on the ground floor like the one in the photo: the Last Supper of Christ and the disciples, dated 1911 with the name of the German donator.
Until the 1970s the church was still used by Dzierzoniów‘s protestant parish community. The community became too small to maintain it, though, so it was finally given to a catholic community, refurbished and reconsecrated. The new statue of the Virgin Mary is a sign for the change of denomination.
This architecture, however, is absolutely unsuitable for catholic mass. The attempts to turn it into a catholic church are a disaster in all respects of design. The new altar in a pseudo-baroque style (in the catholic church the baroque era has never ended to this very day), the oversized inscription on the gallery that invokes the Virgin Mary, do not fit into this neoclassical architecture. The yellowish colour also does not suit it – this architecture calls for white paint.
Back on the bus and off we went further into the mountains. It was a foggy autumn day. The leaves were turning colour. The landscape was beautiful. With a little more sunshine it would have been spectacular.
Our next stop was a village in the mountains, a village so small and remote that even the bus driver had trouble finding the one and only road which leads there. The village has a German history just like the whole region, which was part of Deutsches Reich until 1945. Its German name was Bärsdorf. In Polish it is called Niedźwiedzica – niedźwiedź is the bear.
But there is the little village church, and this church is valued high enough to receive a thorough restoration. Through these works, late medieval frescoes have been discovered on the walls. The interior dates from the 16th and 17th century. Even the benches are original. Galleries and ceiling are painted with beautiful renaissance ornaments. The pulpit has inscriptions in German, which indicate that it dates from the post-reformation era.
The church is not lutheran any more, though. After the expulsion of the German population in 1945, Poles settled in the village and they needed a catholic church. A tabernacle was added to the medieval altarpiece, a modern celebration altar set up in front of it, the bell was attached to the sacresty door and so on. The existing old furnishing remained untouched, though. Poverty is a good monument conservator…
The little church is surrounded by a walled churchyard. Some historical tombstones are still there.
The current cemetery is located further down the hillside. Outside, the cemetery, there is a medieval stone cross by the road. It was then set up as redemption for a murder that was commited here.
Niedźwiedzica is, judging from its appearance and the general atmosphere, a village at the end of the world. Everything was quiet. I wonder how many people are still living there. We did not see anyone in the streets. In photos this looks all very romantic, but life in such a place is probably not so easy. Without a car one would be totally lost.
Our next destination was more urban: Wałbrzych, in German Waldenburg, an industrial town in the Sudete mountains not far from the Czech border. The town’s economy is based on mining, and since the mining industry has hit rock-bottom, so to speak, Wałbrzych is suffering from severe problems. The city looks rather run-down, many houses are blackened and crumbling. Only the most central squares have been refurbished with new pavement. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder...
In Wałbrzych we visited another Langhans church, the same type as the one in Dzierzoniów with galleries that form an oval shape. This church is a bit older, the dates are 1785 – 1788. Unlike most churches in Silesia it is still in the hands of a protestant parish community. Hence the furnishing and liturgical pieces are preserved in their original shape. The pulpit remained in its central location above the altar, a very protestant constellation (the sermon is the central part of the service) which a catholic community would have changed in an instant, as we had just seen in Dzierzoniów.
They call themselves „evangelicko-augsburski“, i.e. evangelical according to the Augsburg Confession, which translates to Lutheran. The community is small, though, they have about 150 members. Maintaining the large church building is a gigantic task to them, as the parson told us.
After several hours of work a break was necessary. The parson kindly opened the parish centre for us so that we were able to use the facilities. A long line formed. Then some discovered the bakery opposite the church – coffe and tasty cakes! The news spread quickly. Another long line formed. I think the little shop made the business of a month on that day! There was but one young lady behind the counter to make coffee and sell cakes, though, so serving everyone took its time. After a while the professor sent one of his students in to tell us to hurry up. However, we said, no we won‘t, this takes as long as it takes. Period.
When I left the bakery I looked into the professor’s face. He did not say anything, but clearly he wasn‘t used to such an amount of ‚civil obedience‘ – his students would never dare. I kept a straight face but inside I laughed so hard…
The cake was, by the way, superb! I forgot its name but I remember something that involved chocolate and cherries. Yum!
But then we had to hurry and get back on the bus because we had one more place on our list, and that was the most spectacular of them all: th Peace Church in Świdnica.
Swidnica's main attraction is the so-called Church of Peace, one of three wooden churches that the Protestants of Silesia were allowed to build after the Peace Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Two are preserved, this one and another in Jawor, the third one in Glogow is gone. Both Jawor and Swidnica are listed as UNESCO World Heritage.
The lore of Martin Luther and the Evangelical confession entered Silesia already in the 1520s. In the 16th century a large part of the population was protestant and a protestant preacher was installed in the town parish church. Being under the rule of catholic Habsburg caused problems, though. The 30 Year War brought an enforced recatholization, then several changes of religious denomination depending who currently occupied the town and the area. The war hit the area incredibly hard. With the Westphalia Peace Treaty of 1648 Silesia was confirmed as part of Bohemia and hence under Habsburg rule. The peace treaty also contained the stipulation that religious denominations had to be returned to the state they had been on January 1, 1622 - in other words, freedom of faith for the Protestants. Habsburg's approach to this was restrictive, though. Nevertheless a special article was added to the peace treaty which allowed the Protestants in Glogau, Jauer and Schweidnitz to build one church each, but outside the boundaries of the town.
In 1652 the protestant community of Schweidnitz received permission to build a wooden church outside the town walls, under the condition that the construction works would not take any longer than one year and that the materials were nothing but wood, sand, straw and loam. Master builder Albrecht von Saebisch from Breslau designed a cross-shaped church. Works started in August 1656, and already in June 1657 the new church was inaugurated.
The result is the biggest half-timbered church in the whole of Europe, 44 metres long and 20 metres wide. The ceiling has a height of 15 metres. It accommodates 7,500 people and has 3,000 seats. From the outside it looks plain. The pattern of the timberframe is the only ornament of the facades. There is no steeple, only a tiny turret on top of the roof.
The interior, however, is ornated with overwhelming splendour. Every bit of surface is covered in paintings or ornaments. Altar and pulpit were renewed in the 18th century from private donations in even more splendour. Just like we were a bit tired at the end of this long excursion day and our attention was not as good any more as it had been in the morning, I am now a bit tired of typing long descriptions. So let the photos speak for themselves…