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Travelogue B8

November 18, 2014

I was surprised to learn from my companion one morning, just before the lunch hour, of a Franciscan church in Krakow. Once inside its double doors, I lingered for a time in the obscurity, in a pew towards the rear, attempting to take in as much of the startling interior in notes and memory as I could before time or some other occasion necessitates that I leave that place.

As I read later, in a book whose title, though not subject matter, now escapes me, the Franciscan order first came to Krakow in the mid-13th century, establishing a monastery, where, some twenty years later, in 1260, the first stones were laid for a church. A few local legends were here included as interesting diversions, the most famous being that of a king forced to hide in the church to escape capture at the hands of a Bohemian army. Yet my attention waned until I came to the lines that spoke of the destruction of the interior in 1850 by fire, which consumed a not inconsiderable portion of the Old Town, resulting in the subsequent gutting of a number of buildings.

The Franciscan Church was one of this number and was damaged to such an extent that rebuilding had to begin from the ground up. Indeed, the sense of the word rebuilding seems illusory. I find myself now wondering whether it is possible to rebuild a structure lost to fire or to any other mischance for that matter. Inherent to the idea of rebuilding, or building again, is that of identity, the complete correspondence and overlap at every point of the old and new structures. No matter the exactitude with which the architects work, there will inevitably be some difference of material but, also, and more importantly, a divergence in historical continuity of the materials and structures. A historical rupture separates the new from the old, suggesting that rebuilding in its literal sense is mere wishful thinking. What history shatters, human hands cannot restore. Building is never rebuilding.

Regardless, work began on the new brick and stone exterior shortly thereafter. The architects reprised the Gothic stylings of the former church but were then confronted with the dilemma of the new interior. In a surprising turn, in 1897, they commissioned Stanisław Wyspianski, a twenty-eight year-old Polish artist and dramatist, to complete the task. His work with another Polish decorator on the interior of the Lwów Cathedral some years previous had been rejected, supposedly due to its modernist bent. Despite this, the Franciscans let him work as he saw fit with the interior, giving him leave to design the murals and stained glass. They intervened only to reject his designs for a set of angels that were modeled after contemporary street urchins.

Save for mass, the church keeps the interior dim, and so Wyspianski’s murals hover just beyond sight, imprecise in the shadows. Indeed, the lighting prevents me from discerning anything beyond the barest details, the entire nave then being lit only by six lamps, dispersed colonies of candles, and the scant daylight that filtered through the curtained windows. From what I could see, murals, green and gold, red and gold, lacking any overall cohesion, covered the walls in this rear section. The ceilings, by contrast, swam in a dark blue, golden stars scattered on their waters. To this early inspection, the elements of the ceiling prove more figurative than those on the walls to either side; a hand or a saint make an appearance with some frequency. The walls feature, by way of contrast, rather more ornamental stylings, geometric and otherwise. One pattern, quite similar to layered peacock feathers, particularly held my attention.

The pew in which I found myself at the time is one of twenty or so in this tightly clustered section. In order to take a seat I was forced to turn and shuffle in sideways. Certain among these pews are elevated some ten centimeters above the black and white tiles of the floor, the reason for which is not immediately apparent, although this did not prevent me from wondering.

Their dark wood is intricately carved. On the pew back before me I found a cross stationed in the middle of a framed square, in the upper corners of which suns position themselves, one in each corner, as a pair of hands reach out on either side of the cross, from which emanates a sort of aura. Flowers fill out the bottom of the scene.

Twisted around in the pew, I looked for a time about me. Shrines to saints occupy the various nooks and an additional side-chamber to my left. In the main chamber, Ionic columns often flank these, the shrines, that is. Others are framed instead by bulbous columns in black marble, wrung about themselves.

Above and behind me, vivid stained glass windows are set into the highest part of the nave. Two in particular make use of a series of orange bands, the brightness of which increases as my eye moved up the pane, giving the impression of a sunset. Blue trumpet-like flowers bloom on a number of green stems in one of the windows; remarkably, Wyspianski’s stems double back on themselves, coming to lie across one another, the four individuals becoming two latticed pairs.

Yet these panes only serve to complement those above the yellow mouth of the rear entrance, at the western end of the nave, directly behind the bench I then occupied. Here, the light of early afternoon blazed in the myriad colored panes of Wyspianski’s well-known Bóg Ojciec. The pastels seem to emerge from a vein similar to that of the coloring of the Fauvists or Art Nouveau.

In it, the Creator emerges from a tangle of blue and green and yellow and violet, seemingly standing above the waves of an endless ocean of striated aquamarine and black. Purple marks the eyes. Warm colors stand out near the left arm, right shoulder, the feet. The Creator’s beard boasts shades of lavender, below which the skin burns a steady yellow. Curiously, this yellow extends across shoulders and face and the raised left arm but is missing in the depiction of the right hand, bent at the elbow, hanging near the waist, poking through the strands of creation. This hand is the more remarkable for its almost transparent, pale green aspect. Two orange veins snake their way across its back. The black contortions about the knuckles, both then and now, give me the impression of some primitive artifice in use for the first and, perhaps, only time, although I am also led to wonder whether artifice is itself conceivable at this point in the Creation or, for that matter, in any significant relationship to the Creator.

Looking again at photographs of the window, I now find myself somewhat mesmerized by the hint of either sea life or stars in the bottom left corner of the Bóg Ojciec. Here, two tendrils of Chaos, one the color of a robin’s egg, the other midnight blue, detach themselves from those others enveloping the Creator and unfurl, their lengths issuing in a spiral. At its center sits a pearl or an eye or, simply, some glossy beyond; this equivocal spiral itself alternatively makes me think of a sea dragon or an aptly named spiral galaxy. Other pearls, white and green, bubble from this spiral, rising above a languorous blue tongue. Tempted though I am by the seeming sea of the background, it appears more probable to me in this moment that my sea dragon is, in fact, a galaxy.

At the eastern end of the interior stands the altar, itself having been carved in a Gothic style similar to that of the exterior. Smaller wooden pieces are found to either side and echo the forms of the centermost section. As such, a seeming forest of Gothic spires grows out in all directions around the Ecce Homo. The whole is trimmed in gilt, anchored at its center by a painting of Christ’s ascent to Heaven. To one side, I could pick out the path by which the priest might enter this small architectural wonder and pontificate. Positioned between two sets of white flowers, the half-figured priest of my imagination finds that his likewise imagined words die on the air of the dark interior.

A series of three stained glass windows break up the clean expanse of stone above the altar-piece. It took me some time to later locate a series of photographs online that clearly captured them, but, in so doing, I learned that farthest to the right depicts Blessed Salomea, the wife of the church’s founder. She is here shown as a Mother Superior, having lived out her final days in a convent that she herself founded.

The window itself is rather striking. Strange reds trouble the highest panes while Salomea looks up, eyes closed, through the boughs of a forest of flowers, some yellow, some white, buoyed up by green and brown swells. The sky above the blooms is cobbled or scaled, much as certain streets or fish I had seen. In blues and violets, this scaly background reappears in both of the other stained-glass windows to be found above the altar, taking on a deeper violet cast in the center window, a grey and brown palette in the leftmost. Similarly wild vegetation lives on in both.

These photographs also captured various elements of the interior during a service, such that the barely perceived colors of my visit stood out in blues and yellows and greens, about which roses and other flowers blossomed, brimming at every wall-joint. The flamboyance also betrays a certain harmony, one which the author of the summary compared to the experience of looking through a kaleidoscope.

Rising from my pew, I made my way from the rear of the nave towards the altar and passed through a wide arch into the forward section of the church. As opposed to those photographs, the dampened color of the walls lend the air of a forest and verdure. It seems that time stills in the dappled light from above, and an almost tangible green mist gathers in the meters of open air above my head. I felt as though I should open my mouth to see what, if anything, I might happen to taste in those dim particles.

Here, the walls shed the geometric abstractions of the rear section of the interior and take on a series of vines and blooms, which would not be out of place in a Mucha print. And so I found myself in some jungle of frenzied vegetation, a remark which made me think, oddly enough, of the work of Klee rather than that of Mucha, as though I might have passed into the companion piece to “Pfeil im Garten” or “Die Knospe”, one of his Decoration Pflanzenbild.

The last thing of note that I discovered in my later internet research was a short article on a number of mummies found in the monastery adjoining the church where, from 1667 until 1841, roughly three hundred friars and seven hundred and thirty laymen were laid to rest. It seems that, for the mummification process to set in, it was sufficient that the friars be stretched out on the bare floor, a block of wood placed beneath their heads, sand liberally applied to cover their legs. The article went on to note the surprise of some visitors at the excellent preservation of certain of the remains and goes on to speculate that such preservation is likely due to a peculiar microclimate within the crypts and notes other such sites in the city that display similar preservative powers.

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