Pentecost is the Christian festival celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus. It occurs in May or early June since it is, like Easter, a mobile holy day on the church calendar. The official church name in Polish is Zesłania Ducha Swiętego, the Descent of the Holy Ghost.
There were many aspects to the celebration of Pentecost in Poland's agricultural past that date to ancient pre-Christian times and the pagan cult of trees, water and fire.
The illustration above from 1901 is called a maidło (most likely from the Polish word majenia, that is, to decorate with greenery) that was made by weaving together small, newly budding birch branches around the horns of the cows and tying it together at the top. The newly budded branches, symbolized the revival of life, fertility and the promise of a harvest. It was believed that the green branches also protected from spells, plagues and all evil and accounts for their widespread use in the festivities that centered around the home, barnyard, and fences. The branches of the birch tree also had the power to protect against witchcraft and the evil eye. Shepherds, wanting to include animals in the holiday (and thereby protecting them as well) decorated their cows as part of the celebration.
Depicting this particular custom of making a wreath for the heads of her flock is the painting by Polish artist Józef Chełmonski (1849-1914) and titled Pasterka (Shepherdess).
You’re most likely to see a statue of him near rivers and bridges. He is known as the patron saint of water, bridges, and of farmers who have fields they want to protect against floods. He is often found near wells and springs, watching that they not dry out. He is also considered the patron saint of the drowning with his statue erected at sites of a drowning. Today, May 16, is the feast day of St. Jan Nepomucen. (Święty Jan Nepomucen).
Born in Nepomuc, Bohemia near Prague, St. John was and ardent minister who was murdered by King Wenceslaus IV when he refused to reveal what he had been told in confession. The king ordered that his hands and feet be bound and weighed down with rocks and thrown into from a bridge into the Vlatva River in Prague in the middle of the night. The year of his death was 1393. The cult of St. John Nepomucen began to spread in Prague soon after his tragic death.
In 1638, even before his beatification, a statue of St. John Nepomucen was erected on the Charles Bridge in Prague. The figure depicts the saint standing in priest’s clothes consisting of a cassock, surplice and stole, his head covered with a traditional priest’s biret and a nimbus of five stars surrounding the head. In one arm he cradles a crucifix and in the other holds a palm, the traditional symbol of martyrdom. It is this image that is the most widely reproduced of St. John Nepomucen throughout all of Poland .
The Jesuits promoted St. John Nepomucen throughout the known continents as the patron saint of a good confession. He is patron saint of confessors and those who wish to control their tongue from excessive talking so he is sometimes depicted with a finger against his lips in the traditional symbol of silence or sometimes holding a padlock. Sometimes he holds an open prayer book in both hands.
Considering the great number of shrines dedicated to this saint, it is clear he is much loved and venerated in Poland.
Top photo: Wikipedia. Lower photo: by author in Baranow Sandomierski, Poland
Although there are many various shapes symbolizing the cross, the most familiar to many of us is the Latin cross, the form on which Christ was crucified. When we look at the numerous roadside shrines and crosses across Poland’s landscape, we can sometimes see a cross with two horizontal cross pieces. Typically, the upper cross beam is shorter than the lower one but in Poland sometimes the two beams are the same length. This is called a Caravaca cross, called karawaka, in Polish.
These crosses, chiefly made of wood, but in later years, of metal, were usually erected at the beginning and end of the village or town with the faith that they would prevent the entrance of the “bad air” into the town and thus protect the inhabitants from contracting communicable diseases. The two-armed (sometimes, three armed) were also called krzyż choleryczny, or cholera crosses, referring to the cholera epidemics that raged through Poland, often decimating entire populations.
From the time of the Middle Ages, here were all kinds of epidemics such as typhoid, typhus, and the bubonic plague that swept through various regions of Europe, including Poland. There was very little knowledge of what carried diseases at the time. Much of it was attributed to "bad air" and everyone turned to God with prayers to contain or reverse the epidemics and also by erecting crosses, the strongest symbol of the Christian faith, to protect them. Written on the crosses were written the words " Od powietrza, głodu, ognia i wojna zachowaj nas Panie." (From air, hunger, fire and war, save us Lord.) Help was also sought through prayer to other saints such as St. Roch or St. Rozalia who, according to folk tradition, were given special powers to negate pestilential air.
The first crosses with two horizontal cross arms as a means to protect against epidemics began in a Spain town by the name Caravaca de la Cruz and it is from this Spanish town that the Polish word karawaka is derived. The city contained a relic, splinters of the Holy Cross in the shape of a cross with two horizontal cross beams. The relic was credited with miraculous powers protecting the town from pestilence. News of this spread quickly throughout all of Spain and Europe. It reached Poland by the second half of the 17th century through the efforts of the Jesuits. Karawaki began to be erected all over the country. For that reason, it is also often called krzyż hispanski, the Spanish cross.
Besides being found at various crossroads, entrances and exits to towns and villages, the karawaki were also placed near cemeteries or often located far from the rest of the town at the site where epidemic victims had to be buried in mass graves. Such a cross at a burial site was both a protective measure to keep the disease away, but also acted as a reminder of the loss of souls and the need to remember them in prayer.
Photo from Wikipedia. Cross from Łomza(Kurpie region)
In this time of the corona virus, for the good of humanity, Pope Francis, the bishops and every local dioceses of America have been forced to close their doors to their congregations. In this crisis, both physically and spiritually, many faithful acutely feel the loss of Mass and the comfort of Holy Communion. This closing of doors is a first for me, as it is for the people of this country, but in the history of Poland we see that it is not.
From the times of the Middle Ages, epidemics such the plague, cholera and, dysentery raged throughout Poland wiping out entire villages, killing young and old. People stayed in their homes, afraid of venturing out further than the confines of their village. During the German occupation of Poland, churches were closed, often converted into warehouses or stables. Sacred liturgical vestments, chalices, etc., were pillaged. Priests sent to their deaths and nuns sent to concentration camps and forced labor. Many centuries-old roadside shrines and crucifix’s, such a predominant fixture of the Polish countryside, were destroyed. But the German’s didn’t manage to destroy them all and it was here, at the foot of a roadside shrine, that the people said their prayers and found comfort.
In addition, churches in Poland in centuries were not as numerous as they are today. Small villages often lacked their own church and the faithful had to travel many miles to hear Mass, either by foot or horse and wagon. If that was the case, the faithful visited the nearest shrine to pray alone or together.
It is no accident that when we look at all the little chapels, statues and crosses that dot Poland’s cities and countryside, we often see it surrounded by a fence. Very often there is a bench. The fence is to remind us, if the statue itself does not, that this is a sacred place. The bench is an invitation to sit down and pray. Every cross, every shrine of a saint, every small chapel was blessed by the church, and provides a sacred space in which to pray.
I t is no different in today’s world. Any cross, anywhere, can serve as a place to say the stations of the cross during Lent. Any figure on church grounds or at a cemetery is a place to say the rosary, to chant a litany to our favorite saint, to seek intercession in this time of crisis. We know that Poland has been doing it for centuries. And it has endured.
Photo by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
Next posting: Karawaki: The Roadside Cross against Epidemics
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.