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History of Święty Krzyż (Holy Cross) monastery

Lysiec or Bald Mountain is the second highest peak of Holy Cross Mountains with a distinctive geological formation called stone run. Huge part of the woodless land covered only by large-size Stones has always stimulated people’s imagination. The stone run was considered as remains of a castle built on the hill by cyclops or giants. A proud woman who defeated Alexander the Great was supposed to be the owner of the castle. She ordered to worhip her like a goddess. Gods punished her for the pride and destroyed the castle.

The name Holy Cross exists since 14th century and is related to the relics of the Holy Cross wood. Previously the hill was called Bald Mountain. Sources confirm existence of a defensive castle. Stone shaft is its visible remnant. It may have surrounded a pagan sanctuary – this interpretation refers to the modern story about three pagan deities worshipped here or a sacred grove of German tribe of Nahanarwal. The question of stone shafts is still open. Within their limits Christian buildings were located. According to the tradition first church was founded by Dabrowka in the second half of 10th century. Czech monks served in the first monastery. Another version says that the Hungarian prince Emeric was led to the hill by a deer. Then he persuaded Boleslaw the Brave to found the Benedictine monastery there. After that Emeric, at the suggestion of an angel, left the relic of the Holy Cross wood in the monastery. Monks were supposed to come from Monte Cassino, one of the oldest Benedictine abbeys. Neither from traditions are confirmed in historical and archeological sources. Benedictine abbey including the church of the Holy Trinity was founded by Boleslaw the Wry-mouthed in 30. of the 12th century. Monks from Tyniec were the oldest part of the community. Only a stone northern wall has preserved from the first Romanesque church so it is difficult to reconstruct the plan. The oldest monastery may have been built of wood. Due to the landform it was connected to the church from the northern side, and not, traditionally, from the south. In winter, at the turn of 1259 and 1260 the monastery was captured and destroyed by the Tatar army.

Receiving of the Holy Cross relics from Ladislaus the Short in 1305 or 1306 was and important factor which contributed to the renewal of the abbey. Then the name of the church was changed and a significant pilgrimage center was established. Since then, rulers surrounded the monastery with great care. Casimir the Great supported the reconstruction of the wooden  monastery to the stone. Wladyslaw Jagiello came to the abbey before his coronation. Mikolaj Drozdek, Holy Cross abbot, prepared the future king for the baptism and later became his chaplain, confessor and advisor in religious matters. It was Wladyslaw Jagiello who, during frequent visits, introduced a custom of pilgrimages from Nowa Slupia. During his reign Romanesque church was renovated.

Close relations with rulers resulted in economic development reinforced by privileges. At the same time many pilgrims coming to the abbey were disturbing the lifestyle of monks. Moreover, increase of properties and difficulties with their management resulted in a tense situation in the community. Therefore some monks chose the eremite way of life. One of hermitages was founded in Swieta Katarzyna, at the foot of the neighboring hill. 

In half of the 15th century the church was enlarged. Previous, Romanesque temple was the main part of the monastery. A new chancel was connected to it. At the same time first representatives of the family Olesnicki were buried in the church (among other cardinal Zbigniew Olesnicki, bishop of Cracow). He was supporting the abbey and contributed to its restoration after the fire in 1459. Thanks to the foundation of the king Casimir Jagiellon the church was enlarged twice. From its western side one built a residence of the abbot and a guest house. In the north-eastern corner an infirmary was established. Gothic cloister, still existing, was founded by the king and Cardinal Olesnicki.

Crisis in the abbey began at the end of the 15th century because of economic difficulties. Rulers were interfering in the affairs of the monastery. Due to the reformation the number of monks went down, weakening the abbey. Monks from the Tyniec abbey were being appointed abbots because of the difficult situation in the Holy Cross community. Rulers from the new dynasty Vasa were less willing to support the monastery. One of traditions says that in 1584 a Cistercian monk was nominated abbot and he wanted to incorporate the monastery to his order. These events provoked an intervention of the bishop of Cracow. Since that time abbots were imposed by kings. In case of the Holy Cross abbey they were good choices. Michal Maliszewski, secretary of Sigismund III Vasa was the first imposed abbot. He initiated internal reform and renovation of monastery buildings. Under his rule Way of the Cross chapels were built for the first time in Poland. Today they don’t exist. In the years 1604-1620 gothic chapter house was rebuilt into the grave chapel of the Olesnicki family. It was initiated by Mikolaj Olesnicki, Castellan of Radom, voivode of Lublin. At the beginning of 17th century the tradition about relations between Holy Cross abbey and Monte Cassino was revived. The monastery joined Monte Cassino congregation in 1652. Next abbot, Boguslaw Radoszewski began baroque reconstruction of the church. One built then new altars, floor and crypts. Works were continued by his successor Stanislaw Sierakowski. Under his rule monastery building were renovated and one added new north-western wing. Fragmentarily preserved equipment indicates artistic inspirations from the episcopal circles in Kielce.  From the south of the church new chapel was established where the painting of Our Lady of Sorrows brought by Sierakowski from Italy was placed. Western elevation of the church was rebuilt too. It may have been inspired by such a reconstruction in Tyniec. Sculptures that are in the lower part of the façade of the present church originate from that elevation. The Swedish Deluge influenced the monastery. It was pillaged and destroyed by Swedes and then by the army of Prince Rakoczy. Monastic buildings were renewed by one of the greatest abbots of the Holy Cross abbey Krystian Mirecki. He was elected by monks and led to the approval of this election by the pope. In 1707 on his initiative Holy Cross Benedictine Congregation was established. The abbey played a main role in the structure. In 1723 relics of the Holy Cross were transferred from the renewed sacristy to the Olesnicki chapel.

At the end of the 18th century monastery and church were destroyed by fires (1777 and 1779). Abbot John Nepomuk Niegolewski initiated construction of the new church which still exists. The name of the architect is not known. Its décor corresponds to the baroque and neoclassical style. Originally there was a tower with a gallery over the western façade. Franciszek Smuglewicz, graduate of the Roman Academy of St. Luc was an author of paintings in the church. The new church was consecrated in 1806. There was a plan to demolish old monastery buildings and to rebuilt them. Architect who took such a decision was fired and replaced by Dominik Puck who worked earlier by the construction of the church.

The monastery was closed in 1819. Then its goods were dispersed. Small number of monks stayed in the abbey up to 1853. After the death of last monk monastic buildings were converted into the house for pensioner priests and repentant. Battle in Nowa Slupia between the Russian army and troops of Marian Langiewicz contributed to the end of the Institute for Priests in 1863. In 1883 empty monastery buildings were intended to jail by the Russian authorities. Prisoners were placed in the south-western wing of the former monastery. The building itself was surrounded by the high wall to separate it from the church. Prisoners were working in craft workshops. Blast of the First World War was an end of the prison existence. Then it was transferred to Russia. Monastery building were destroyed. Austrian army blew up the church tower. After the war in 1918 Polish authorities decided to open the prison in the monastery. In the meantime, in 1920, Benedictines came back to the abbey for three years. In 1936 Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate took over the monastery. They are hosts of the Holy Cross until today. To 1939 they shared the monastery ground with prison which was evacuated after the outbreak of the war. The abbey was bombed in military actions. A part of its buildings were used by Germans to organize the camp for Soviet prisoners of war (1941-1942). After the war Oblates were gradually rebuilding the monastery, renovating the church and restoring its interior. They removed former prison wall and watchtowers. The former prison wing became a controversial area because the Directorate of Polish Forests was interested in it. As a result on established there Museum of Nature as a part of the Holy Cross National Park. In the years 1958-1962 one conducted for the first time archeological and architectural research of the monastery. In 1959 a small radio and television transmitter was established on the mount. The monastery was connected to the electric line thanks to the installation. In 1966 transmission tower was built. Renovation and reconstruction works are carried up to now. Tower of the church is being rebuilt now. In 2013 the church obtained the status of minor basilica.

Description of the existing state

The oldest way, so-called Royal way, leads to the Holy Cross abbey from the east, from Nowa Slupia. Climbing on the peak one can see walls and 18th century monumental gate crowned on both sides by involute tops. Entering the abbey we can see a free-standing bell tower. It was built at the end of 18th century in neoclassical style. In front of the gate there is a church. The monastery is situated on the northern side of the church. The façade of the monastery is distinguished by the Olesnicki chapel.

The one-nave church has a rectangular plan, without transept. The eastern elevation is divided into three parts and the central part has a form of risalit. On the side axes there are cartouches with coats of arms of abbots and coat of arms of the abbey (double cross, so-called patriarchal cross). The western façade has three parts too. On its axis there are cavities. The lower part includes a marble portal leading to the interior. Sculptures of priests and a knight originating from the older church were placed on both sides of the portal.

The main portal leads to the vestibule where there are iron spiral staircase to the choir and poorly legible tombstone plaque of abbot Maliszewski. The next portal leads to the interior of the church. It is kept in bright colors. Double span chancel is separated from the nave. In the classicist main altar there is a painting by Franciszek Smuglewicz representing the Holy Trinity. Tabernacle hold by angels has a form of a sphere decorated with wheatears and grapes. By the walls of the presbytery 18th century wooden stalls were placed. In the southern part of the nave there is a pulpit with representation of Moses and John the Baptist.

The spans of the nave are limited by Tuscan pillars. Between the pilasters, in the niches, altars with paintings of Smuglewicz were placed. On the right there are following scenes: Mary crushing serpent’s head, finding of the Holy Cross by St. Helen, St. Benedict before the death. On the left: St. Joseph, St. Emeric talking to an angel, meeting of St. Scholastic with Benedict. Above the pictures there is an entablature with a frieze designating cross vaults.

Confessionals inside the church were made in the 20th century and are the reconstruction of the original ones from the 18th century. Organ in the music choir was made in the 20th century too but it refers to the neoclassicism. There is a passage from the church to the southern wing of the cloister. They have rectangular shape and were made of broken stone and sandstone blocks. Actually they correspond to the gothic style. They are illuminated by the ogival windows. Cross-ribbed vault covers them. Keystones are decorated with the coats of arms of benefactors of the monastery. In the southern wing there is no painting decoration. Stone wall comes from the gothic period when cloister got its present shape. Under it there is a  Romanesque wall belonging to the oldest church. One can see remains of the polychrome on it. In the southern wing there is a plaque with the date of the dedication of the church (1806) and the history of the monastery by Jan Dlugosz. In the eastern direction, in front of the entrance to the church there is a black marble plaque commemorating dead monks. Since the foundation of the monastery they were buried in the cloister. In 1766 they were moved to the common grave under the floor of the cloister. In the eastern wing, next to the church there is a sacristy. A great portal and iron door from the 17th century lead there. Above the entrance one can see a fresco from the same period representing abbot Sierakowski in prayer and the capture of monks during the Swedish Deluge. The keystone with coat of arms reminds of the founder of the cloister, king Casimir Jagiellon. The sacristy is a gothic room from 15th century. Originally it was used as Holy Cross chapel. The relics were kept there. In the 18th century relics were moved to Olesnicki chapel and the sacristy was renewed. Its existing equipment dates back to this period. The vault is covered by painting decoration representing scenes from the life of St. Benedict and his disciples. On the right there is a marble lavatory moved from the Olesnicki chapel. Two wooden sculptures of Sts. Peter and Paul, being a part of a large destroyed altar, were placed above the entrance to the sacristy. On the upper level, above the sacristy, there was once a rich monastery library.

In the south direction from the sacristy there is Olesnicki chapel used as a sanctuary. Originally the room served as a monastic chapter house. At the beginning of 17th century it was rebuilt into chapel. Ogival windows in the eastern wall belong to the original gothic décor. The chapel has the shape of a square. It is crowned by a dome. In the main altar there is a figure of crucified Christ. Above it there are medallions with images of saints and figure of Mary with the Child. Altars in the corners were devoted to St. Barbara and to St. John Nepomuk. Located on the right next to the entrance to the sacristy Olesnicki tombstone originate from the 17th century. The founder of the chapel Mikolaj and his wife Zofia were buried there. At the top of the tombstone there is coat of arms of Olesnicki family. After the relics of the Holy Cross had been moved to the chapel the interior’s décor was changed. In the western part an arcaded choir was built and reliquaries were placed on both sides of the main altar. The interior of the chapel is decorated with the 18th century polychrome. In the dome there are representations of Christ surrounded by Mary, John the Baptist and Apostles. Moreover, there are images of prophets Ezekiel and Isaias and St. John the Evangelist. On the walls there is a story of the Holy Cross and in the arcades above the entrance images of Christ in Gethsemane and Entombment. Covered by the polychrome representing power of the Holy Cross in the salvation of souls door originates from 18th century. Under the chapel there is a crypt with graves of descendants of Olesnicki family and monks.

Olesnicki chapel refers in its style do the Sigismund Chapel in Wawel castle. The architect is not known. Holy Cross relics preserved in five particles are kept in an armored tabernacle. They are placed in a gold reliquary which has shape of two-armed cross. The reliquary was opened a few times. Last time in 2002 when relics were examined by art restorers. The room behind the chapel is called abbatial room. It served as a place of monks’ everyday meetings. The last fresco in the eastern wing represents abbot Sierakowski complaing to the Swedish king about the presence of soldiers in the monastery. In the northern wing, on the right side, there was a pharmacy and a hospital. A stone portal leads to the pharmacy. It is crowned by a decorative fresco. Inside the pharmacy there was an image of St. Apollonia, patroness of dentists and doctors. During conservation works polychrome was transferred to the cloister. On the left side there are 17th and 18th century frescoes representing scenes of martyrdom of Benedictine saints. There is also an altar from the turn of 18th and 19th century painted on the wall. The northern wing includes the museum where one can see exhibits related to the period when the monastery served as prison. There is also an exhibition about missionary activity of oblates.

In the western wing the scene of martyrdom of St. Bruno has been partially preserved. Cloister surrounds garth in center of which there is a well dating back to 17th century. It is a part of the larger system collecting rainwater and groundwater. From the western wing there is a passage leading to the 18th century wing of the monastery where now Natural Museum of Holy Cross National Park has its seat. On the southern side of the church there is an entrance to the underground. Mummified remains of monks and a man considered for many years as dead in 1651 Jeremi Wisniowiecki (new research denies this interpretation) are exhibited.

4) Significance, main attractions, historical, cultural value

Holy Cross Abbey was a first sanctuary in Poland. Until today it remains an important place of worship and exceptional historic complex. For centuries it was a witness to important events in the history of the country that influenced an architecture. In the proximity of the monastery there are objects of historic value. One found many remains of furnaces used to iron smelting. Therefore Museum of Holy Cross Ancient Metallurgy was opened in Nowa Slupia. Culture and Archeological Center was established too because of rich prehistoric settlement in the area. The lands were a place of national liberation struggles in the 19th century. Death of prince Adam Czartoryski in 1861 was honored by the celebration of a solemn Mass and installation of the stone mound the remains of which can be seen in the eastern part of the clearing. The stone figure of a pilgrim at the foot of Bald Mountain is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the region. It is often related to St. Emeric.

The monastery is situated in the Holy Cross National Park in a strict nature reserve.   There are here unique geological forms (boulder fields) and fauna (larches, firs). Exhibition in the Natural History Museum shows the richness of the local nature. One can see there history of Holy Cross Mountains, forest ecosystems and peculiarities of their nature. The coat of arms of the Holy Cross Abbey (double cross) was placed as a part of the coat of arms of the Holy Cross province to stress the significance of the monastery in the history of the region.