Święty Krzyż (the Holy Cross) – former Benedictine monastery complex and pre-Christian stone ramparts on Łysa Góra, Nowa Słupia
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Święty Krzyż (the Holy Cross) – former Benedictine monastery complex and pre-Christian stone ramparts on Łysa Góra

Nowa Słupia

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The Benedictine monastery on the Święty Krzyż (Holy Cross) peak is a historical monument of extraordinary importance for the Polish culture and heritage - primarily due to its historical and religious significance. Its well-documented metric and legendary beginnings situate the convent in the Świętokrzyskie Mountains among the oldest monasteries in Poland. For centuries, the monastery bore witness to many milestone events and retained links with major figures in Polish history, attaining the status of one of the most significant religious centres and becoming the heart of spiritual life in the era of the Jagiellonian dynasty. To this day, the relics of the True Cross are kept within its venerable walls, having attracted scores of pilgrims from the 14th century onwards. It is them that gave the entire surrounding geographical region its name - Góry Świętokrzyskie (the Holy Cross Mountains). The Święty Krzyż (Holy Cross) monastery constitutes a vivid portrayal of religious and cultural changes which have taken place in Poland at the end of the first and the beginning of the second millennium. The written history of the Benedictine sanctuary is further enriched by the presence of its pre-Christian legacy, known only from indirect references in both medieval and early modern documents as well as from the artefacts which bear witness to the extraordinary significance this place has held for time immemorial. The pagan settlement that existed here before the first Benedictine monks arrived on Łysa Góra - the Bald Mountain - was widely regarded as one of the most significant in all of Slavic lands. The tangible legacy of the Slavic sanctuary includes the incomplete stone ramparts dating back to the period between the 9th and the 11th century.

The renowned monastic library also held an extraordinary significance for the Polish culture and the legacy of the Polish language; unfortunately, this vast collection has become dispersed once the monastery was dissolved. It is believed that it is from this library that the fragmentary “Holy Cross Sermons” originate, surviving in the form of two sheets recreated on the basis of pieces of parchment cut into narrow strips with which another, later tome was later lined. This document, believed to date back to the 14th century, is considered to be the oldest piece of prose ever recorded in the Polish language. The work, unearthed towards the end of the 19th century by Alexander Brückner in Petersburg, is currently kept at the National Library, forming one of the most precious relics of Polish literature.

The abbey also remains an example of the 11th-century Romanesque architecture (surviving in relic form) as well as of Gothic, Late Baroque and Classicist architecture; furthermore, the area of the monastery and is surroundings remain a valuable archaeological site.

The presence of the True Cross relics at the monastery on Łysa Góra remains linked to the legacy of two nations: the Poles and the Hungarians. Both hagiographic works and source documents point towards the Hungarian provenance of the relics. It has also been determined that king Władysław I the Elbow-high visited Hungary during his lifetime. It is most likely at that point that he was able to acquire the relics which king Stephen I had once received from pope Sylvester II; the Vatican itself had obtained this precious relic from St Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great. There is also the ancient legend of the Hungarian duke Emeric - the son of King Stephen - who had once come to Poland and, having experienced a divine revelation, donated the relics to the abbey.

The Holy Cross monastery is distinguished by its exceptional landscape features. For centuries, the compact, stone structures atop the mountain have formed an inseparable whole with the surrounding fir woodlands. Another authentic, surviving feature is the so-called royal causeway - a medieval path that had once led the pilgrims from Nowa Słupia up the mountain until they reached the monastery itself.

History

The Benedictine monastery on Łysa Góra was established on the site of one of the greatest centres of pagan cult in Poland, linked to three deities that chronicler Jan Długosz referred to as Świst, Poświst and Pogoda, also known as Lada, Boda and Leli in other sources. The tangible legacy of the ancient Slavic sanctuary includes the incomplete stone ramparts dating back to the period between the 9th and the 11th century, the process of extension of which was quite evidently discontinued, perhaps due to the inexorable march of Christianity. According to legend, it was king Bolesław I the Brave who brought the first Benedictine monks to the site at the request of duchess Doubravka of Bohemia. However, based on the existing sourced documents, it is now widely accepted that the monastery was founded by Duke Bolesław the Wrymouth along with count palatine Wojsław of the house of Powała in the first half of the 12th century. It was at that point that a small Romanesque church and the first monastery buildings were erected. In the years 1259/60, the Ruthenian and Tatar forces have slaughtered all of the monks and destroyed the monastic archives, leading to the obliteration of the memory of the beginnings of the Benedictine presence on the Łysa Góra mountain. This fact gave rise to many foundational legends that continued to appear as the ages wore on. The monks were invited to the site once again by Duke Bolesław V the Chaste. Somewhere around 1306, king Władysław the Elbow-high is believed to have donated the relics of the True Cross to the abbey following his sojourn in Hungary; ever since the Lithuanian attack on the monastery in 1370, during which they have vainly attempted to seize the relics, the abbey gained the reputation of a place where miracles abound. Soon afterwards, the church was renamed from Church of the Holy Trinity to the Church of the Holy Cross. This church was particularly valued by kind Władysław Jagiełło, who made frequent pilgrimages to the sanctuary and donated generous amounts for its development. He brought in a group of artists to the monastery to adorn its walls with paintings in the Ruthenian-Byzantine style; it is now known that these paintings have survived until the year 1777. The custom of pilgrimages to the Holy Cross monastery was later carried on by the subsequent Polish monarchs, including, in particular, those of the Jagiellonian dynasty. During the 2nd half of the 15th century, the monastery was reconstructed after a fire, owing to the support of Casimir IV Jagiellon and Cardinal Zbigniew Oleśnicki. In the 1st half of the 17th century, the interior of the church was redesigned in the Baroque style, with the construction of additional wings of the monastery being completed in the 18th century. In its history, the monastery was ransacked on a number of occasions, including by Swedish, Hungarian and Saxon forces. Yet the greatest amount of damage was done in 1777, when a lightning strike sparked a massive fire that spread across the complex. All of the monastic buildings and the church itself were consumed by the blaze; all that the monks were able to save were the holy relics and the library. In the 1780s, the monastery was reconstructed in a style that combined both Baroque and Classicist influences. The reconstruction took place in a period of political turmoil and was conducted with significant budget constraints. The works are believed to have been overseen by Stefan Wercner (Wertzner), a monk and an architect. Following the Partitions of Poland, the monastery found itself in the Austrian partition in 1795, only to be incorporated into the Russian territories in 1815. In 1819, the dissolution of the monastery took place, with the precious collections accumulated over the centuries of religious and intellectual monastic life becoming dispersed among different locations. From 1852 onwards, the monastery served as the Institute for Delinquent Priests. However, pilgrims continued to flock to the monastic chapel which still held the holy relics, which led the site to become the scene of numerous patriotic manifestations. In 1863, the monastery served as the headquarters of General Marian Langiewicz, the military leader of the January Uprising. In 1882, the Russian authorities converted the Holy Cross monastery into a high-security prison, which was then taken over by the Polish administration during the interwar period. Apart from the existing monastery buildings, new infrastructure was added to serve the needs of the prison facility. During World War I, the Austrian forces have destroyed the church tower, stripped the roof of its copper sheeting and removed the church bells from the site. The monastery saw a rebirth of religious life in 1936, when the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate arrived on the site. During World War II, the Germans used the site as an extermination camp for Soviet prisoners (approximately 6000 prisoners who were either executed or died of starvation are known to rest in the cemetery located in the vicinity of the monastery itself). After the war, the structures originating from the 19th century were demolished; some of the buildings were taken over by the state, while the rest remained in the hands of the Missionary Oblates. The cleanup and reconstruction of the site has begun, along with a programme of architectural, archaeological and monument protection research. In 2014, the church tower was reconstructed.

Description

The abbey is situated atop a hill known as Łysa Góra (the Bald Mountain) in the southern part of the Świętokrzyskie Mountains, near Nowa Słupia. The complex consists of a number of stone structures (with brick being used for the sections that were reconstructed at a later date), including the church, the wings of the monastery complex, the bell tower, the eastern gate set into the surrounding wall, the guest house known as the hospiturat and a stone rampart.

The church is a brick structure oriented towards the east, designed in the Late Baroque style on an elongated rectangular floor plan with a distinct three-bay nave and two-bay chancel, the latter having the same width as the nave. The façades of the church feature a stone cladding. The two-storey screen façade follows a curved outline with a convex central section and is crowned with a semi-circular tympanum and a quadrangular stone tower with a spire on top, reconstructed in 2014. Stone sculptures of monks and a knight, originating from the 17th century, are positioned inside four niches in the lower section of the façade. The interior features a double barrel vault; the fixtures and fittings were designed in the Classicist style. The main decorative feature of the church is the series of paintings by Franciszek Smuglewicz, portraying the history of various relics, including the relics of St Emeric, St Benedict, St Scholastica and the Discovery of the True Cross. The southern part of the monastery complex features the Oleśnicki family chapel topped with a circular dome with a roof lantern, where the reliquary of the True Cross is kept.

Three wings of the monastery abut the northern wall of the church, the number of storeys of each wing varying between two, three, four and five due to sloping terrain. The monastery incorporates a garth surrounded by a Gothic cloister with groin vaults. The façade of the church overlooks a semi-open courtyard bounded from the west and the north by the wings of the monastery complex, designed on an L-shaped floor plan.

The early medieval stone rampart surrounding the double peak of the Łysa Góra mountain, believed to have once formed the boundary of the sacred area of the old pagan sanctuary into which the Christian monastery was later incorporated, consists of three sections with a total length of approx. 1500 metres, designed on an elongated oval plan. The rampart is made of quartzite stones as well as large boulders positioned inside the rampart, the entire structure reaching the height of as much as three metres on some sections.

compiled by National Heritage Board of Poland, 2017r.

General information

  • Type: ecclesiastical complex
  • Chronology: 1. poł. XII w
  • Form of protection: Historical Monument
  • Address: Nowa Słupia
  • Location: Voivodeship świętokrzyskie, district kielecki, commune Nowa Słupia
  • Source: National Heritage Board of Poland

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