We Began in Krakow
We began our journey in Krakow and right from the start I want to give major kudos to my friend MAG. She was ready for anything and more than willing to follow me off to ossuaries, bone churches, and the like without ever a single complaint. It made what was, at times a physically grueling trip for me (chronic pain is a bitch), a delight. It’s a blessing to be able to travel with a friend.
Anyway, we landed in Krakow on July 5 and got to the hotel with plenty of time left to sight-see a bit. We ended up spending three days in Krakow. One of the things that I realized after the two week residency, which was held in a small suburb, is that I really, really prefer cities. I don’t like being in the country, or in sleepy little suburbs no matter now pleasant they may be. I like the energy and aesthetic of cities. It’s something I’ll remember when next I travel.
Anyway, we were staying at a lovely hotel right on the main square in the Old Town so that first night, we mostly just walked around and did a bit of shopping in the cloth market. (Amber is relatively inexpensive there and unfortunately for my purse we were right across from the Amber Museum – and shop. I’m half Lithuanian. I may not particularly like amber, but I can’t pass it up. It’s in the blood lol.). I was tired and made a major mistake in protocol: I didn’t immediately make offerings to the city spirit. This left me with a sense of deep agitation and discomfort, almost claustrophobia until I remedied it properly the next day.
The city spirit of Krakow is a dragon, which on every possible level I find really, really awesome. There’s a statue of the Wawel dragon by the castle (that spits fire every five minutes) so that is where I eventually made my offerings. Then, I was able to enjoy the city properly.
We saw quite a bit of Krakow and more churches than I can count, the Jewish quarter, (I did divination which told me that I should not visit Auschwitz, so I did not do that….good thing too. When we were, a week later, driving to Czerna, we passed within twenty miles of it and I was physically ill—didn’t know why I’d gotten suddenly ill until I saw the road sign pointing the way), the castle, etc. etc. None of those things, however, are what stood out for me in Krakow.
What stood out for me the entire time I was in Poland was the piety of the people, a deep, instinctive, organic, fervent devotion. It permeated everything. It really kind of blew me away at first. I hadn’t been expecting it at all. It was the thing that I found the most nourishing about this pilgrimage. I sought it out and drank it in like someone dying of thirst.
The churches were always filled. There were worshippers of all ages, all walks of life. Even in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Krakow square, part of the church was blocked off to tourists, with a separate entrance for those who wanted to pray. Several of the places I went, I went to pray rather than as a tourist because tourists were simply not permitted (the Black Madonna at Wawel castle for instance). I did pray too fervently.
I saw more than one person kneeling on cobblestones outside of churches, when the church was locked but the person wanted to pray before that altar, or that icon. I saw people lined up on their knees outside of a chapel to Mary because the chapel was full of people praying and they wanted to pray too. I had drivers cross themselves when driving past churches. Icons are everywhere, and images of Mary and the saints, worked into nooks in building walls. There are roadside shrines that are very well tended, predominantly to Mary (at least in the areas I was visiting). People adore certain saints and you can’t go anywhere without seeing images of them (particularly John Paul II) or having guides tell you about their special places. Mid-day churches were full of worshippers. I gave an image of Mary to a woman at the artists’ residency I attended – MAG and I had visited a cathedral and picked up some cards and were looking at them. I had four of one image and the woman in question came over—she immediately said the prayer on the back, began crying and hugged and kissed me fervently. And then prayed again. The cemeteries, consistently, were some of the best kept and well tended that I have ever seen. There was piety, devotion, and respect. My friend MAG pointed out that in Poland, the Catholic church was the ‘good guy.’ They helped with the fight for freedom, helped preserve the language, helped maintain national integrity during communist occupation. It shows. It was a powerful experience for me, one that really jump-started my entire pilgrimage.
All of this powerfully impacted my painting. I had intended to paint nudes during the residency but instead, found myself painting icons. The land, rich with piety, with devotion seeped into its very pores impacted my art in completely unexpected ways. This happened when I was in Taos too: all of a sudden I started painting Native dancers, when I’d never done so before, and probably will not do so again. My art is a dialogue between myself and the spirits of the land on which I work. I’d not realized how powerfully that was true until Poland.
That is all for now. After three days in Krakow we went to Myslenice for the two week residency. During that time I made my first visit to a bone chapel. Krakow was the beginning of my accidental Marian pilgrimage though, something I”ll also be writing about more over the next few days.
(all images, except my two icons at the end, in this post are courtesy of Mary Ann Glass.)