Saturday, June 21, 2008

Historic and Artistic Poland

This has the weakness of all generalizations about nationality, but a mood I sense among the Poles is not so much melancholy as something sharper: a disappointment, an anger, whose roots are no doubt historical. If you look at Polish history, you’re confronted with a panorama of ill-advised international alliances, devastating wars, and regime changes that come and go in dizzying succession. Throughout all this you see the Polish people constantly trying to secure an independent and functional state, an idealism defeated over and again. You also see large outside powers like Prussia, Russia, and Austria redrawing Poland's national boundaries to suit themselves, not the nation being partitioned. The Second World War begins on Polish soil and incurs fierce bombing raids from the Allies, so that Warsaw is reduced to rubble. But liberation from the Germans only delivers the country into the hands of Soviet Russia, a new Ice Age sent down from the North. The post-Communist years have seen the Poles stumble out into the light of day and try to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Full integration into the E.C. community has moved slowly, but it got another boost this last week when France agreed to allow Polish workers to take jobs in France. But will that mean a drain on the young and talented who can’t find work in Poland? Possibly. The road ahead won’t be easy. But at the least Poland is a sovereign nation, no longer a tributary to larger powers. Unless being in a position of economic dependence amounts to a loss of sovereignty.

Krakow is a Holy Land. Nowhere outside of Rome have I seen so many seminarians, clerics, and monastics thronging the streets. Furthermore, the laity pours into the city’s many churches throughout the week, at various hours in the day. But remember that loyalty to the Catholic Church, here as in Ireland, also implied loyalty to one’s nationality. Stalin quickly saw that it wasn’t going to be easy to pull the Poles away from their religion and to embrace a materialistic ideology. He failed, his successors failed, and in fact one of the forces that broke the Soviet stranglehold was the papacy of John Paul II. So no wonder that pontiff is adored in this city where he served for more than a decade as archbishop. His image is everywhere, in photographic reproduction, in stone, in bronze. An analogy might be the feeling that liberal Anglicans have for Bishop Tutu of South Africa.

Yesterday I visited Wawel Castle on a hill not far from Kazimierz. The guidebooks say people have lived on that hill since the Neolithic period 50,000 years ago. As the highest spot in the Vistula River valley hereabouts, it was the natural choice for a fortification. Walls upon walls, castles upon castles were built here over the centuries. Since Krakow predated Warsaw as the capital, kings were crowned in the Wawel Cathedral and lived in the Castle, these including Yadwiga, Sobieski, and Poniatowski, Poland’s last king. “State” rooms and private rooms in the Castle contain remnants of these various reigns, often in the form of portraits or else objects belonging to this or that vanished ruler. High walls, towers, oddly angled additions, dozens of rooms with coffered ceilings and tapestries from Brussels. I only wish you could see the paintings more clearly. Lighting is generally poor and you’re kept at a distance from many of them by a silk rope. When you really can’t see a painting, the substitute is to look out the window for a view of the rooftops and spires of Krakow. At that distance none of the tourist nonsense is perceptible. As for the Cathedral, it is of necessity grand, given the royal tombs it contains, with a lot of marble, gold, and silver. Possibly historic and dynastic sentiment outweigh the aspect of holiness here, but that's in the nature of things.

I mentioned the spires of Krakow. They are all topped with cupolas made of copper worked in a variety of shapes—some squareish like little pillows, others octagonal with rounded tops, some like cloves of garlic, and some combining more than one of these formats. Many of the spires sprout still smaller spires around their rim, these sometimes tipped with little gold balls. It’s as though the steeple were a tree-trunk with branches. Spanning centuries of construction, the church buildings come in many styles. A Gothic church built of brick was a new concept to me, but there are several here in that material, though the arches and groining in most cases will be stone. Perhaps the most beautiful brick Gothic is the Mariacki Church in Market Square, with two spires of differing shape, one of them ornamented with smaller spires and gold balls. The interior is a riot of color, beginning with the nave, painted in several colors to form a complex pattern, the colors extending up to a ceiling dyed dark blue and flecked with hundreds of gold stars; and on to the stained glass windows in the chancel, very tall, slender, and composed of hundreds of small panes intricate in red and blue and sea-green. Add to this an elaborate polychrome altarpiece, plus the marble and gold of side altars, and the carved wood of pulpits, and you get an overwhelming effect of visionary color, Ad Maiorem Gloriam Dei, I guess one could say. At the austere end of things, I took a liking to little St. Adalbert’s, also on the square, pre-Gothic, in fact, the oldest church in Krakow’s center. Try as I might I can’t recall who St. Adalbert was, and this is the first church of that name I ever recall seeing. Very plain, too, and clearly old was the handsome church of St. Andrew’s on Grodska Street, though I haven't been able to see the interior.

A question that has been turning around in my mind is this: Why has Polish poetry been so distinguished in the postwar period, even or especially under Communist rule? I don’t know the answer, but just listing names (of an older generation) is evidence enough: Milosz, Herbert, Szymborska, Rozewicz, and now Adam Zagajewski. I’m supposed to meet him for lunch a few minutes from now, so I will ask and see what he thinks.

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