Friday, 28 May 2010

Wrocław, part two: Baroque Panoramic History

The people of Wrocław were worried about floods this weekend. There had been heavy rainfall for many days preceding my arrival and the banks of the Oder river were almost overflowing, with the river running far faster than its normal speed. There was serious flooding in the area in 1999 and seeing as little work has been done on flood defences since then, the population were worried that a repeat was going to come. They, and I with them, were lucky – there was little rainfall over the weekend (it was very sunny at some times) and so - apart from a few unfortunate incidents where the river flooded housing which had, in three little piggies style, been built on inappropriate low-level land - we were spared a thoroughgoing emergency. On one occasion, just after a visit to the University, my friend and I were in a cafe when the electricity supply was cut off, but this did not last for too long. It was lucky for us that this hadn't happened an hour earlier, as we soon discovered that the University we'd just enjoyed was now shut due to the power failure.

The University of Wrocław is one of the major attractions of the city. Its main hall, the Aula Leopoldina, is a Baroque monstrosity, one of the most consistent and gaudy examples of that period in the area. The platform is capped with a faux-marble statue of the Emperor Leopold I, the stony monarch flanked by his "friends" Prudence and Providence and spurning his enemies Discord and Stupidity at his feet; students nowadays might take a warning from the personification of these fiends, a wild young woman with tousled hair and a youth with donkey's ears. Above Leopold a painting continues the scene, showing The Mother of God with Child sending Wisdom, in the care of various Saints, down to the Emperor, who has supported this University so that this wisdom gets taught to men. An equally explicit allegorical painting decorates the choir balcony at the back of the room. Allegory is an inferior art, forcing metaphor into ideological shape and indoctrinating the mind to accept the identification of abstract ideals with temporal forms of state power. Despite my distaste for this galumphing form, the Aula Leopoldina is well worth the visit, for its ornate decoration is admittedly impressive and seeing the folly of allegory encourages the viewer to identify its ideological sins. 

Next to the University and attached to it is another Baroque masterpiece, the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus. Here the decorations positively clamour for your attention, each battling for your eye against the other and so making focus difficult. The (rather good) audio guide suggests that the church is so ornate in order to show off and attract believers in what was, at the time of its building (by the Jesuits) a Reformed City. Although there is an aesthetic appreciation I can have for Baroque decoration – it is lively and lavish if you're in the mood – I can never identify it with spiritual thought; if you think of the religious epics of Cecil B DeMille (perhaps cinema's greatest Baroque genius), the last thing that comes to mind on viewing them is serious thoughts of God. Perhaps it's just a matter of taste. I got to like the tall, Romanesque interiors of the many other churches in the city, which were fairly uncrowded and which direct the mind to contemplations of airy expansiveness. Unfortunately the worshippers in these tall churches were, as is the religious Christian wont, bent downwards in prayer rather than looking upwards for inspiration; I read somewhere that Jean Genet despised the supplicant physical attitude of Christians in prayer and I share his distaste. I couldn't love a God who wished for bowing and scraping; as Blake has it,  such a God "is only an Allegory of Kings & nothing Else." In St Barbara's Church there is a set of statues involving a preaching form (perhaps an Apostle) done up like a Grecian noble, flanked by other aristocrats; holding him aloft are two solid soldierly types; holding them up and groaning under the weight is a Polish peasant – if the worshippers were to think about the meaning of this display rather than pray to Nobodaddy, they'd be closer to the Truth than prayer can bring them.

A strange mystery in University Musiquarium and church involves the organs in each; both are decorated by an enormous Pyramid with Eye, suggesting that the University has at some point been an Illuminati or Masonic hive. No explanation is given for these is any of the books or audio guides I saw or heard, but never have I seen Masonic symbolism so audaciously displayed...

Two sites visited on my final day in Wrocław are worth mentioning. The Racławice Panorama is an enormous painting, housed in a specially built rotunda, which celebrates the battle in 1794 in which Polish "insurgents" (that word makes a positive here) beat the Russian forces. The painting is impressive and the perspective and extra-mural effects really do place you in the midst of things. The audio guide is intensely Nationalistic, and even when the narrator is forced to admit that the battle was won but the revolt against Russian rule was a failure, we are told that the victory and this painted scene inspire those who came and come after in the fight for Polish independence. Wide-eyed children were being shipped in groups to see the Panorama whilst I was there, another generation of Poles egged-on to Nationalistic pride; it certainly was the kind of scene you wouldn't see in England (thank Heavens).

The second site was the 19th century White Stork synagogue, which somehow managed to survive Kristallnacht and which has now been restored to its former glory. The interior is impressive and spacious; the upper floors are dedicated to an exhibition telling the history of the Jews of Wrocław and Lower Silesia. On occasions they thrived in the city, although persecutions were numerous; our old friend Bishop Nanker (see previous blog) presided over an expulsion, and of the 22,000 Jews in the city at the beginning of the Reich, only 30 survived the Holocaust. The communist era was not free of persecutions either, and most of the Silesian Jews who survived the war found themselves driven out of Poland into Israel. The lack of divergent ethnicities was perhaps the strangest thing for me, a Londoner through and through who is so used to many colours and creeds around him that the lack of them seems somehow wrong.

I very much enjoyed my time in Wrocław. I was blessed with an excellent host and guide who taught me much about the city. It is small enough to walk around without having to use public transport (although whenever a city is small like this, the city makes demands on the feet!). There's nothing like immersing oneself in a centuries-old city for broadening one's knowledge of the distant and near past. Even better was the chance to see Poles in their native clime, having previously only met them in mine. The contradictions, blessings and conflicts of European union now feel clearer to me than they were before the visit. If you get a chance to go to Wrocław, take it. An excellent book on the city is available in paperback from The Meeting Point, the tourist information centre in the town square, which itself preserves a medieval town hall and pillory.

1 comment:

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