Sunday, 23 May 2010

Wrocław, part one: Infested churches

I’ve been spending a few days in the Polish city of Wrocław, visiting a friend and cramming in some sightseeing and opera-going. I say Polish city, but in reality the city is a challenge to the idea of National identity. As a major city in Silesia, it was a German city (Breslau) until the late 1940s, when the Potsdam conference gave the region to the Poles. The Germans were ethnically cleansed from the area and a Polish population replaced them; the vast majority of the people who live in the city now only have roots in the region going back a generation or two. What this does to the idea of National identity, of being Polish because one comes from Poland for example, is quite surreal and shows that identity is certainly more about language and culture than place. 

The Polish presence in Wrocław is the latest in a changing line of occupancy of the city, which as well as German has also involved Bohemian, Austrian and Prussian rule. This has had great visual impact on the city, leaving it an intriguing mix of architectural styles, from the Gothic to the Baroque, the modernist to a low of sour Soviet-era tower blocks and apartments; there is even a German Nazi-era building, a long and imposing neo-classical edifice now used as the local Parliament.
The main thing is Churches – there are dozens of them, many of enormous and imposing size. The city’s centrepiece is the so-called Cathedral island, on which is a convocation of the twin-towered Cathedral of St John the Baptist and a number of other churches, from the small Romanesque St Giles’ to the blackened Gothic edifice Church of the Holy Cross. The Cathedral is also Gothic, with some unhappily stuck-on Baroque additions, which look like such poor grafting that they reminded me more of parasites clinging to a host than careful cosmetic alterations. One of them, the large St Elizabeth’s chapel, houses the tomb of a wealthy landowner and is one of the least happy (at least architecturally, from the outside) Cathedral tributes to a patron I have seen (the Chapel itself is not open to the public, being cordoned off with at least half of the rest of the building). There is some beautifully restored stained glass but as this covers all of the windows, the light is restricted and the Cathedral is a gloomy, oppressive interior. A stone carving on a column to the right as one enters the door shows a certain Bishop Nanker, who was responsible for building the Cathedral, anathemizing King John of Luxembourg; it is no surprise to see this assertion of church power in so prominent a place in Wrocław cathedral, as the city and its Churches affirmed to me that the church remains a politically active force in the life of the nation, not it has to be said a force for very much good. 
The Catholic church in Poland is a politically conservative and reactionary force; Poland remains (alongside Ireland) one of the two European nations that forbid abortion (except in extreme circumstances, and even then doctors demur) and, although homosexuality is ostensibly legal (due to European regulations), the gay population of Poland live lives as secret as their British counterparts from the 1950s. The Churches of the city are an incredible historical, artistic and architectural resource but the visitor has to avoid the masses still practised in every one, and one’s contemplation of the artistic achievements of the builders and decorators is distracted by worried-looking people coming in to use the churches to pray or give confession. This infestation of active religion does little for the glory of the buildings – it limits access and (like official Christianity has always done) overshadows the marvellous imaginative achievement of Christian stories and artists with the dogma and rule of priests who know nothing of light and life. Christianity should and once was a source of liberation for humankind, dragged down through centuries of its involvement with the state and the wealthy elites, it is now mostly an encumbrance to human social and spiritual evolution. Which is not to say that there is nothing good done in the name of religion – Jesus’ message of helping the poor and vulnerable means that decent people within the church do much to assist the socially excluded (who are many in a country like Poland which has been neo-liberalised to the point of crime) but this activity would be better practised without the attached Patriarchal, anti-feminist and homophobic bent, made all the more unpalatable in Poland by being attached to an unattractive Nationalism smearing itself in a martyrdom complex. 
The unfriendliness of the guardians of Wrocław’s Christian sites has struck me as peculiarly unchristian. The emblematic moment was, on entering a side-chapel of the Church of the Holy Name, being confronted with a collection of mechanical Children’s toys laid out where the alter previously was. A sour-faced female warden glared at me, made a show of how having to get up was exactly not what she wished to be doing and then switched the toys on. To a soundtrack of what sounded like Polish carols, the disparate and many toys danced, banged drums, nodded their heads and walked in circles; all this I watched, glad I wasn’t tripping, under the constant surveillance of the warden. As soon as I stepped in the direction of the exit, the warden leapt to turn the toys off with the concern of a poor pensioner watching their electricity bill, yet I suspect that dislike of the toys’ joy rather than home economics was the impetus behind the warden’s rush to switch them off.

The presence of the late Karol Wojtyła spreads everywhere in the city like a rash, including a renamed Square and frosted glass with a shrine dedicated to him in St Elizabeth’s Church, which he made a minor Basilica. My friend tells me that the so-called John Paul generation of Poles are in many ways more conservative and religious than their parents; when they come to the UK in search of work and encounter multiculturalism (Poland is almost entirely ethnically white) and open displays of female or gay sexuality, they are morally appalled. This doesn’t reflect well on the Polish pope and whilst I can see that there must be a lot of National pride in having an important world-figure hail from your homeland, his legacy is hardly something to be uncritically proud of. Poland gets a lot of money to invest in infrastructure and renovation from Europe, and the many roadworks (which apparently take an unnaturally long time to complete) and restored buildings (the painted fronts of the Baroque houses around the city are very attractive) tell that the money is much-required. It is a shame that more central European attitudes don’t bleed into the culture alongside the money. I fear that as long as Poles define themselves as John Paul II’s children and the martyrs of Katyn, the country cannot become a progressive society, by which I mean a society in which some people aren’t treated as second class citizens and the politics that govern things are not simply the politics of self-involvement, conspiracy and fear.

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