Premonstratensian (Norbertine) Church
ul. Kościuszki 88
The Premonstratensian Sisters, locally known rather as Norbertines, and in popular speech as the Zwierzyniec Maidens (Panny Zwierzynieckie), lead their monastic life in one of the largest historical compounds of the city. One of Poland’s most ancient religious orders has lived in this convent picturesquely situated on the high bank of the Vistula for over 850 years.
According to tradition, their convent was founded together with the Church of St Augustine and St John the Baptist by a Małopolska magnate and crusader, Jaksa of the clan of Gryf (i.e. bearing a coat of arms with a griffon emblazoned). He is believed to have brought the sisters from Bohemia, while returning from the Holy Land in the mid-12th century. Daughters of eminent noble families became members of the order, and it was presided over by abbesses that often hailed from princely or ducal families. The maidens of Zwierzyniec long oversaw and managed extensive landed estates, and thanks to its strategic location, their convent was of major importance for the defence of Kraków.
The history of the Premonstratensian compound is strongly marked by invasions and sieges, beginning with Tatar raids of the 13th century. The vibrant legend of Lajkonik – the Hobby Horse of Kraków – is connected to those. It gave rise to the traditional cavorting procession that sets off from the courtyard of the convent to “invade” Kraków every year, precisely a week after Corpus Christi day. There are also more murky legends, telling of a dramatic flight of the sisters from the oppressors and a bid to find shelter in the Church of the Holiest Saviour, and among the boulders of the nearby woods. One of the sisters, venerated as the Blessed Bronisława, settled in a hermitage on a hill that was later named after her. Another legend accuses the Tatars of tearing the convent’s bell from its mount and drowning it in the Vistula. The bell still does its job, calling for a prayer for those who drowned in the nearby waters. They say that on the Night of St John (Midsummer’s Eve), it resurfaces and peals until midnight.
The oldest preserved fragments of the church, including the Romanesque portal in the door under the tower, date back to the 13th century, and a large proportion of the monastery’s walls and defensive towers – to the 15th century. Early in the 17th century, an entrepreneurial abbess, Dorota Kątska, ordered the complex to be rebuilt in baroque style. The works, which continued for many years, were conducted and supervised by famous Italian masons, notably the royal architect Giovanni Trevano. The current furnishing of the church, however, dates back to the 18th century only, as in the meantime, the convent faced another invasion, this time Swedish, and the havoc they wreaked ended with an equally disastrous fire.
Every Easter Monday, Kraków’s largest church fair and indulgence (odpust), known as Emmaus, takes place in the grounds surrounding the convent. The event is worth visiting for traditional figures of Jewish musicians (made especially for the purpose for years) and gingerbread hearts. Be warned though: the day is also that of Śmigus-Dyngus, the traditional day of pouring water on fellow human beings, preferably of the other sex.
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