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)
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.