1 Luglio 2018

Politics, Architecture, and the Historiography of Denial in Poland


Iconocrazia 13/2018 - "Iconocrazia: Art, Astronomy, Politics and Religion"

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In recent years, the Western world has experienced a resurgence of attitudes fueled by xenophobia, homophobia, and religious intolerance. Poland provides a chilling and telling example of this triumph of populist conservatism. This essay argues that aspects of that trend can be traced to the Counter-Reformation and its consequences and that the dominant history of Polish architecture has tacitly helped to disguise that currently inconvenient truth.
In October 2015, the Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PIS) won the parliamentary election in Poland. With 37.6% of the votes, it defeated the governing Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO), which achieved 24.1%. The PIS’s national-conservative program, a radical version of Christian democratic models, appealed to masses of people but also polarized the nation. Immediately after the election, the new government attempted to redefine, or rather roll back, the liberal character of such democratic principles as an independent judicial system, freedom of the press, and women’s rights. In response, concerned citizens quickly created the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (Komitet Obrony Demokracji, KOD) to protect the rule of law and human rights, and the struggle between these two forces has since been playing out on the streets of Poland. The European Union, to which Poland belongs, has also declared many political decisions of the conservative government inconsistent with the Union’s values.

Figure 1

The November 11, 2017 celebrations of Polish Independence Day (Fig. 1) magnified these conservative attitudes. Ninety-nine years earlier, on November 11, 1918, Poland’s sovereignty was restored after 146 years of being partitioned among its neighbors. In 2017, preparations for the 2018 centennial anniversary of that truly important date in the Polish history triggered a feeling of genuine patriotism but also mobilized the most anachronistic chauvinism. The resulting events surrounding that year’s Independence Day celebrations became sensational news all over the world. Members of the National Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny, ONR) and other conservative groups representing the extreme far-right movement in Poland led huge rallies that intimidated the populace of entire cities. The ideas promoted by these groups, which were plainly on display during those celebrations, equate Polish identity with a fusion of Catholic religion and Polish ethnicity, as reflected by banners reading, “We want God” (Chcemy Boga), “To be Polish, to be Catholic is privilege and honor” (Być polakiem, być katolikiem, to zaszczyt i honor), “Europe will be white or uninhabited” (Europa będzie biała albo bezludna), or “Pure blood, sober mind” (Czysta krew, trzeźwy umysł). For years, this religiously charged and xenophobic political agenda has been associated with anti-immigrant attitudes, primarily reflecting anti-Islamic fears, but it also has united people who cherish expansionist tendencies in Polish history—believe that Ukraine and Lithuania, which had once joined Poland in a political Commonwealth, should be considered part of the same identity.

Figure 2

The degree to which religious sentiments motivate this worldview became especially apparent in a nationwide event on October 7, 2017, called the Rosary at the Borders (Różaniec do granic), organized by the Catholic Church to unite all believers in national prayer for the safety and unity of the nation. Figure 2 shows a widely distributed poster that depicted the Catholic rosary as symbolically defining the Polish territory, as if a religious shield fending off not only Islamic infiltration but the demoralizing influence of Western Europe. The title at the top says, “Save Poland and the world with the rosary” (Ratuj różańcem Polskę i świat). In preparation for the anniversary of Polish independence, more than a million of Poles did travel to the borders with rosaries in their hands and prayed for that glowing vision of the divine protection of national and religious uniformity.
As many reports published later revealed, the brazen nature of the November 2017 demonstrations not only garnered global attention but also shocked many Poles. Polish parochial conservatism did not quite account for the ugly magnitude of hatred and fears. On the evening of November 11, it was dangerous to be anywhere near the crowds of masked ONR protesters and be perceived as “the other,” whether an immigrant or a person of a different cultural background, religion, race, or unpopular sexual orientation. Some of the people who had earlier prayed on the borders for the divine protection of the religious purity of Poland, and even the Polish President, found it necessary to distance themselves from these unquestionable symptoms of cultural intolerance, xenophobia, and ultra-nationalism. This cultural state of denial deserves closer scrutiny, especially if one considers that conservatives are frequently oblivious to the fact that they live next to, or even admire, historical buildings representing an inclusive but largely supressed aspect of Polish identity.

Figure 3

Figure 3, which shows the distribution of the 2015 Parliamentary election votes, maps the percentage of people supporting the winning conservative Law and Justice (PIS) party. The lightest (yellow) color indicates areas in which less than 20% of the population voted for PIS, whereas in the regions marked by the darkest blue tones, more than 60% voted for them. Unsurprisingly, the bluish areas on the map also correspond to locations of increased frequency of hate incidents, including anti-Semitism.

Figure 4

In the second half of the sixteenth century, however, these same regions were among the most culturally and religiously diverse parts of Europe. Figure 4 shows the distribution of major religious confessions at that time, based on illustrations published in 1966 and 2000 by Jerzy Kłoczowski, the foremost authority on the history of the Catholic Church in Poland. During the Reformation, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became one of the most powerful states of Europe, so prosperous and independent of Roman influence that papal officials referred to it as an “asylum hereticorum” (heretics’ safe haven). And it maintained those attitudes longer than other countries. After the 1560s, when religious and political repression in the Low Countries following the Dutch Revolt of 1566 coincided with similar actions of the Roman Inquisition in Northern Italy, the Commonwealth absorbed large numbers of religious dissenters within Catholicism and sympathizers of the Protestant Reformation. Even when most of Europe was already divided according to the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (the religion of the ruler is the religion of the land), religious diversity still existed in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1573, the Commonwealth produced the Compact of Warsaw, a crowning example of those tolerant policies. The political union of the culturally different Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, governed by an elected monarch, created a natural environment for embracing diverse worldviews and various ethnicities. Regions such as the permeable lowland border between the eastern regions of Poland and the western territories of the Duchy, while vulnerable to military invasion, were also conducive to cultural coexistence and mercantile exchanges. In the sixteenth century, these regions were inhabited by Poles, Ruthenians, Belarusians, Russians, Jews, Italians, Germans, Armenians, Islamic Tartars, Hungarians, Greeks, and Scots, as well as people from the Low Countries, Moldavia, Bohemia, and many others. As Figure 4 shows, the spectrum and mixing of religious communities in these areas was equally impressive, including Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Monophysitic Armenians, Calvinists, Lutherans, Polish Brethren, Muslims, and other lesser-known groups of religious dissenters. The Polish Brethren (Bracia Polscy), also known as Arianie or Socynianie, whose centers are marked with black circular dots on the map (Fig. 4), deserve special attention. Members of that radical splinter group of Calvinists were known for their progressive political and social worldview, and their internationally connected leaders participated in some of the most important religious, philosophical, and political discourses of the early modern period, which, by explicitly linking religious theology with politics and social justice, placed them on a collision course with both Catholic and Protestant authorities.

Figure 5

Nevetheless, all that accumulated diversity could not withstand the political power of the Counter-Reformation. As Kłoczowski puts it, “If one compares the maps of the location of various denominations in Poland [and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania] in the second half of the sixteenth century (Fig. 4.) and two hundred years later (Fig. 5), one is immediately struck by the unquestionable triumph of Catholicism.” It is key to the argument of this essay, however, to note that the regions where religious diversity was most suppressed (as determined by comparing Figs. 4 and 5) approximately correspond to the high percentage of votes cast for the conservative party in 2015 (bluish areas in Fig. 3).
Ironically, the end of the eighteenth century, the moment in history represented in Figure 5, also marks the beginning of Poland’s losing its independence. Between the end of the sixteenth and the end of the eighteenth centuries, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth gained in religious uniformity but lost in political, military, and economic power. As a weak member of Europe, it would gradually disappear from the map. In a series of treaties in 1772, 1793, and 1795, Russia, Prussia, and Austria divided the land of the Commonwealth among themselves. It would be nearly a century and a half following that first partitioning, including multiple and bloody uprisings for independence and World War I, before Poland was restored as a sovereign state and that date will be celebrated as the centennial anniversary on November 11, 2018.
Initially, many historians responded to Polish independence with a renewed interest in the cultural phenomena of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in the “forgotten and anathematized” (“zapomniana i wyklęta”) knowledge of the Polish-Lithuanian Reformation. Yet, even during that productive period in which historians began to study the history of religious dissent, none specifically explored the possible connections among cultural diversity, religious dissent, and built environments in the Commonwealth.

Figure 6

The black boxes on Figure 6, another map of the Commonwealth of the sixteenth century, mark the location of unique architecture built during the Polish-Lithuanian Reformation. These buildings, though similar in terms of certain features, escape well-established stylistic categories, such as Renaissance or Baroque. Some design characteristics of those structures were consistent enough to draw the attention of Władysław Tatarkiewicz, who as early as 1925 attempted to establish a new stylistic category to describe them. Referring to the two centers of religious dissent near which many of these structures were located, he called these styles the Lublin type and the Kalisz type (typ lubelski i typ kaliski) without clearly discussing the relationship between them and the Polish-Lithuanian Reformation. Tatarkiewicz’s work resulted in a more general term used to refer to these buildings, the Kalisz-Lublin Renaissance style (Renesans Kalisko-Lubelski). But while historians cannot but acknowledge that certain buildings of the Polish-Lithuanian Reformation represent difficult-to-explain features, many have assumed that architecture must subscribe to the mold of a style that was dominant at the time—that the understanding of Italian influences, for example, should suffice to decipher what motivated local designers or even prompted departures from the politically sanctioned canon. The missing piece that could help explain those departures from canonical styles is that their sites are always in close proximity to places where Calvinist or radical Calvinist communities were known to have been located, even though the Kalisz-Lublin Renaissance buildings and other less known but similarly decorated structures were not exclusively built for Protestant patrons and frequently were commissioned by Catholics or even directly by the Catholic Church. To fully understand the motivations behind them, therefore, it is crucial to analyze them as a representation of the dynamic and complex cultural processes and issues of the Polish-Lithuanian Reformation.
Consider two examples of such design. The black markers in Figure 6 are concentrated west of Lublin, a region that experienced an unprecedented period of prosperity during the Reformation period. Its center, the river port of Kazimierz Dolny nad Wisłą, was a commercial hub connecting Gdańsk and the Hanseatic League with the grain-producing territories of eastern Poland. Its most important history is associated with the Firlej (Firley) family, one of the most powerful families in the commonwealth and leaders of the Calvinist movement in Poland. The town housed a diverse and strong community of merchants with contacts reaching far beyond the boundaries of the Commonwealth.

Figure 7

Figure 7 shows a detail of the Przybyłowie Residence (Kamienice Przybyłów), which was built in 1615 for two brothers, Mikołaj and Krzysztof Przybyło. Even this small fragment reveals this architecture’s unique character and how it challenges stylistic taxonomies. The façade is densely populated by figures that simultaneously resemble better-known Italian or Netherlandish design patterns but also violate their rules and add idiosyncratic forms. The element at the top and the Corinthian pilasters at the bottom of Figure 7 recall the Greco-Roman architectural canon, but their position and relationship to other elements contradict those classical rules. The inverted pilasters (tapering downwards) of the herms framing the windows resemble similar so-called Mannerist elements in the Palazzo dei Giureconsulti in Milan or decorations in such Northern European port cities as Antwerp or Kampen. Yet these details celebrate organic fluidity and the mutability of forms much more than their better-known Mannerist counterparts. The figures and images in the Przybyłowie Residence, even those of iconic Catholic symbols, endlessly play with the notion of organic affinities. These compositional elements are not aligned according to the rules of Renaissance façade design, but rather create the impression that certain aspects of this order resulted from a process of growth or natural accumulation. Many elements reference pre- or early-Christian symbolic concepts, such as that of the Tree of Life. Moreover, the individual elements of the elevation fail to conform to any overarching or dominant order but share secondary characteristics, such as being framed by or merging with omnipresent organically geometric forms. The building, in other words, appears to be an architectural expression of different modes of thinking combined in a quest for an inclusive symbolic world order. Its composition is religiously charged and culturally diverse, apparently accepting ancient and frequently heretical beliefs.

Figure 8

Another building, the Celej Residence (Kamienica Celejowska), shown in Figure 8 and built sometime between 1620 and 1635 in Kazimierz Dolny nad Wisłą, discloses an even more explicit rhetorical quest for the symbolic order in response to issues raised by the Protestant Reformation. The composition of the façade consists of two zones, the lower one plain and highly structured, the upper one more sculpturally evocative. These two zones are separated by a regimented horizontal band of empty niches at the lower level of the roof parapet. In a period when John Calvin criticized Catholics as those who “leave no niches free of idolatrous statues,” the emphasis placed on this element would appear to draw attention to contested religious issues. By analogy to the Przybyłowie Residence, it is likely that the composition explores and articulates another representation of a more inclusive symbolic world order. The lower part, which includes windows and the arched gate, seems more disciplined in its artistic expression than the previous example and at least ostensibly appears to refer to the symbolic system promoted by the Catholic Church. A well-established Catholic sign—IHS inscribed in a circle, an abbreviation of the Greek word for Jesus—appears in two places, above the ground floor windows and the gate. Yet in both details, this abstracted representation of Christ is framed in a way that appears to express a tacit criticism of restrictive Catholic attitudes. Above the windows, this sign seems held in place by the implied strapwork around it, as if caged by riveted metal constraints. Above the gate, the symbol, while reflecting a persistent semi-pagan affinity with the Sun God, seems similarly shackled by a garland hiding a chain.
This seeming critique is further supported by the crown of the elevation. As Figure 8 shows, this ornate portion of the façade is highly evocative and symbolically inclusive—designed to stimulate imagination and engage a wide spectrum of symbolic references. In contrast to the almost two-dimensional and tightly scripted layout below, the composition of three-dimensional forms and imaginary beings at the top emphasizes their tactility but also invites visceral responses and emotionally charged reflection on their symbolism. The exposed edges of the building become feathered dragons or hybrid snakes with canine heads, while flat surfaces resemble water containing strange aquatic creatures. In the Celej residence, therefore, the empty niches separate the tightly controlled realm of Catholic Christianity from that of the more inclusive and evocative Eastern or pre-Christian imports. And only in the implicitly pagan, if not openly heretical, symbolic environment of Mannerist experimentation at the crown of the building do we find depictions of St. Bartolome, the patron saint of Bartłomiej Celej (originally Bartolomeo Celli), who commissioned the building.
Both elevations, then, may be seen as representing a nuanced exploration of a tension between culture-specific traditions and those implicit rules that Rome and other centers of power projected onto their domains at the time. They visually exercise the freedom to test the framework of symbolic references beyond dogmatic thinking and cultural uniformity. This politically and religiously charged attitude constitutes a challenge to the conventional knowledge of architectural history, especially its taxonomies based on cultural influence. The possibility that, on the periphery of Western domination, a community representing diverse beliefs and backgrounds could have constructed unique and valuable buildings representing intellectually engaged and tolerant attitudes does not conform to the pervasive teleological model of history. In this model of history, in which presumably superior civilizations have resulted from a perfect alignment between political powers and high culture, non-dominant cultural diversity offers little of interest or value. Consequently, most of the texts written about this kind of architecture have largely dismissed it as an artistic achievement. These practices of historiographic denial can be traced back even to Tatarkiewicz, who declared the façades in Kazimierz Dolny nad Wisłą interesting but provincial, instead analyzing only the formal aspects of decorations and focusing his attention on vaults and attics, especially in churches. Yet it was Tatarkiewicz’s general notion that such architecture was specific to the regions where it was built that has the most lasting influence on the scholarly consensus regarding it. For example, when, in 1963, Karol Majewski analyzed the Przybyłowie Residence façade, he concluded that it is art transitioning from Renaissance to Baroque styles, charming but provincially imperfect and unsophisticated because it admits conflicted and unrefined ideas. He ultimately concludes that the façade serves as an example of the ways in which artisans in Kazimierz Dolny lacked respect for the proper rules, thereby implying that these builders naively disregarded the Italian Renaissance when they deformed classical details, violated rules of proportions, lacked a sense of human scale, exaggerated the intensity of decorations, and thereby achieved a willful and symbolically disturbing effect.
That condescending assessment reflects a general trend among the luminaries of Polish art history. In 1972, Adam Miłobędzki, for instance, elaborated on this dismissive attitude, declaring that the Mannerist buildings in Kazimierz Dolny, though fascinating as provincial production, cannot be counted in the category of “great” art. According to this view, these buildings lack not only a mastery of craft but a cohesive symbolic content. Because they definitely do not fit the canon of either High Renaissance or Baroque, scholars have compared them to Italian or German Mannerism strictly on formalist grounds. If these buildings had been considered artistic manifestations of Reformation and Counter-Reformation intellectual, theological, and artistic struggles, however, such a comparison might have also provided insights into the relationships among art, politics, and religion that motivated them. Yet, the label of Mannerism, which is itself a dubious stylistic category, has only helped to obscure idiosyncratic features of the architecture of the Polish-Lithuanian Reformation period. Another authority on Polish art history, Jan Białostocki, for example, praises Mannerism in the cultural centers of the West as a somehow capricious but sophisticated artistic phenomenon, an outcome of the most refined and creative talents of the time, and yet denigrates Kazimierz Dolny’s architecture as vernacular (and thus presumably inferior) Mannerism. Because Polish builders from the Lublin region had never traveled to Italy and learned from the sanctioned masters, Białostocki reasons, their architecture was necessarily “naive and direct in contrast to the refinement and sophistication of Mannerism.” Such a vision of the art produced in the Commonwealth leaves no place for the appreciation of, let alone any interest in, the ways in which it reflects religious dissent or cultural tolerance, which he dismissively attributes to “some oriental influences.”
In terms of these historiographic practices of denial, not much has improved in Poland after the political changes of 1989 wrought by the collapse of the communist government. In the new capitalist reality, buildings associated with the “Lublin Renaissance” were turned into a tourist attraction and have recently been promoted in a well-illustrated album targeting a wide spectrum of customers. Its introduction by Tadeusz Adamek includes a description of the Przybyłowie Residence that reinforces old stereotypes about these buildings, discussing its composition as “Biblia pauperum,” or “naïve and ‘plebeian’ art” demonstrating the Catholic devotion of its owners, who supposedly commissioned it to visually communicate biblical contents to illiterate Catholics in Kazimierz Dolny. Yet even the few scholarly publications that have attempted to problematize the relationship between the Lublin Renaissance and national identity have fallen short of engaging the political and religious issues of the Polish-Lithuanian Reformation. Kinga Blaschke, for instance, has recently argued that Lublin Renaissance architecture is not only stylistically confused but without artistic merit. She dismisses the supposedly unique artistic qualities of the Lublin Renaissance as nothing more than a myth constructed by historians and politicians and replicated (as in Social Realism) for reasons of political expediency, to artificially create the impression of a distinctive Polish national style. This reading suggests that the complex processes of cultural exchange and negotiation represented by buildings such as the Przybyłowie or Celej Residences have been appropriated to such a degree that if one tries to avoid stereotypical and dismissive interpretations of that architecture, there is nothing left to analyze there.
Because knowledge shapes worldviews, it is, as Michael Foucault has shown on various occasions, inseparable from politics. Inaccurate information about historical events is as consequential as that kind of knowledge that prevents certain understandings or preempts a way of thinking. Defining national identity exclusively in terms of polar opposites— as an irreconcilable “us” and “them”—makes it difficult to perceive that the Catholic merchants of Kazimierz Dolny might have lived a life of inclusive attitudes and healthy skepticism. That the buildings they commissioned were not conventionally Catholic does not mean that the Przybyłowie or Celej families were crypto-Protestants, or that they were playing subversive symbolic games secretly communicating their opposition to the Catholic Church or expressing their dislike for the Italian Renaissance. Protestants, for example, would never have placed a figure of a patron saint on a house front, as they did. The challenge that this kind of composition has posed for Polish architecture historians tells us more about those scholars’ epistemic assumptions than about the architecture itself. Since the Counter-Reformation, the politically charged need to unequivocally differentiate “them” from “us” has encouraged scholars and laypersons alike to view symbolic expression in terms of such simple dichotomies. This blind spot in the Polish history of architecture obscures the fact that many buildings built during the Polish-Lithuanian Reformation represent complex and open-ended processes of cultural negotiation. It concealed cases in which cities like Kazimierz Dolny benefited from tolerance and thrived on cultural differences. The Przybyłowie and Celej Residences represent a moment in cultural history when intelligent, internationally connected people freely and critically considered the function of religion and its relationship to politics. Far from being provincial, the residents of these communities were engaged in many of the complex political, social, and religious issues of the early modern era. That is why, at that time and in that part of Europe, the distinction between a Catholic and a Protestant was much less pronounced than it would be a century later. Reviving religiously syncretic attitudes from early Christianity provided many among this populace a way to engage religiously or culturally “others” in negotiations concerning a more inclusive or better world order. This was more than a mode of tolerant coexistence; it was a way of identifying shared traditions and defining more productive relationships for the future.
As the information mapped in Figures 3, 4, and 5 reveals, people who live in places that were once emblematic of cultural and religious diversity in Poland nowadays vote for the most intolerant political programs. The traditional history of Polish architecture has been indirectly involved in these processes by itself engaging in the too-common inability to think about national identity in terms other than ethnic or religious uniformity. As the events surrounding the centenary of Polish Independence illustrate, efforts to eliminate religious dissent and cultural difference have created such a vacuum of understanding of complex political processes that entire regions remain subconsciously vulnerable to populist and xenophobic demagogy.

Andrzej Piotrowski

Professor of Architecture - University of Minnesota, USA

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