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Let’s celebrate spring by taking an internet trip to…south Poland?  Zalipie is an ancient village in the province of Lesser Poland Voivodeship (which has been a center of Polish culture since the early middle ages).  The village is a famous tourist attraction for an amazing reason.  People in Zalipie paint exquisite colorful flowers on everything!

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The tradition started more than a century ago, when women started painting bouquets to beautify their homes (or to distract attention from problem areas).  The original artists used handmade bristle brushes, easily obtained pigments, and fat from dumpling drippings as their medium, however as the years passed and the tradition was passed down over generations the paintings have become larger,  finer, and more colorful.

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The village has earned the epithet “the most beautiful village in Poland,” and judging by these pictures which I have purloined from around the internet that description is apt.  The omnipresent flower paintings in all different styles and colors shows that the artists of Zalipie are as innovative and inspired as they are tireless. Yet the photographs also indicate that the omnipresent floral folkart is not the only charm the village offers.  It looks like it would be a pastoral paradise even without the exquisite flower art.

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I can’t wait for spring to make Brooklyn into a natural gallery of flowers, but until then, I am glad I can go on the internet and check out the never-fading flower garden which the residents of Zalipie have made for themselves and the world.

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Here is a mid 14th century crown which was “found in Hungary” (if there are exquisite gold and ruby medieval crowns just lying around there, perhaps I am in the wrong place).   The crown was probably made by French jewelers who, then as now, were among the best in the world. The crown consists of eight ornamental lily segments held together by hinges (pinned with twining vine-leaf ornaments).

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The internet feels that this is the crown of Elizabeth Kotromanic of Bosnia.  Elizabeth was a classic “Game of Thrones” style noblewoman who wedded King Louis I of Hungary and then also became Queen of Poland when Louis’ uncle died. Initially a powerless consort, she surrounded herself with ambitious nobles and worked her way into such a position that, upon her husband’s death, she became the queen regent of Poland, Hungary, and Croatia (and de-facto ruler of southern Italy, Bosnia, Serbia, Wallachia, and Moldavia!). Alas, Elizabeth was good at pitting nobles against each other, but she failed to rule well or carefully and she was captured and strangled by her many enemies.

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This crown was seemingly donated in her name to the shrine of St. Simeon shrine in Zadar (so it wasn’t exactly lying in a truck stop bathroom or a forest glade, like I made it sound in the first sentence). Whether this crown was hers or not, it is certainly a winsome and beautiful piece, but, like all crowns, it looks a little cursed to me. Maybe it is better if Saint Simeon hangs on to it.

The facade of St. Anne's Church in Vilnius, Lithuania

The facade of St. Anne’s Church in Vilnius, Lithuania

Hey! Does your heart yearn for the unrestrained majesty of Gothic architecture, yet you don’t have the time or money to travel to the heart of some expensive ancient European nation where you will be overtaxed and abundantly cared for?  Never fear! It seems like it has been a ridiculously long time since we enjoyed Gothic aesthetics, so today I am featuring Gothic brickwork buildings from around the world.

The Old Town Hall of Hannover, Germany

The Old Town Hall of Hannover, Germany

Markt Kirche in Wiesbaden,  Germany

Markt Kirche in Wiesbaden, Germany

Historic City Hall built in a typical 14th century Brick Gothic (Wrocław, Poland)

Historic City Hall built in a typical 14th century Brick Gothic (Wrocław, Poland)

Holsten Gate, Lübeck, Germany

Holsten Gate, Lübeck, Germany (germanyja.com)

Hey! This is a model (source: warfactory.co.uk)

Hey! This is actually a model (source: warfactory.co.uk)

Now in my head Gothic buildings are made of ponderous gray stone (or possibly wood or gingerbread), but the great medieval brickwrights of Northern Europe found ways to build lavish and spectacular cathedrals, castles, and town halls out of plain red bricks.  Some of these brick edifices are equal in splendor to the most beautiful stonework.

This style seems to have been particularly prominent in Northern Germany/Southern Poland.  Ever since Gunter Grass died, my mind has been unexpectedly flitting off to his Gdansk of glowering facades and dank magic.  Imagine my delight to find that so many of the ancient buildings there (and throughout Poland) are Gothic brick.

Gdańsk University of Technology

Gdańsk University of Technology

Keble College Chapel, Oxford, England (photo by David Iliff)

Keble College Chapel, Oxford, England (photo by David Iliff)

Cathedral Hill, Frombork, Poland

Cathedral Hill, Frombork, Poland

Oak Hill Cottage and Museum in Mansfield, Ohio?

Oak Hill Cottage and Museum in Mansfield, Ohio?

Brickwork Gothic also crossed the Atlantic during the Victorian era when Gothic Revival buildings were in fashion, and the style remained current as many American Universities were being built.  That is how a building which would not look out of place in a Medieval Baltic port city ended up in the middle of Oklahoma!

 Evans Halls, University of Oklahoma (1912), an example of Collegiate Gothic

Evans Halls, University of Oklahoma (1912), an example of Collegiate Gothic

Białowieża Forest

Long ago Eastern Europe was covered by vast virgin forests.  Almost all of these woodlands have long ago been cut down to make way for agriculture, roads, or towns, but in the northeast corner of Poland one of these ancient forests still survives.

Until late in the 14th century, Białowieża forest located at the junction of the Baltic Sea watershed and the Black Sea watershed was a primeval forest so thick that travelers could pass through the region only by river. Even in the fifteenth century roads and bridges were rare in the ancient woodlands of eastern Poland and the human population remained sparse to non-existent.  Because the lands were so empty of people but full of animals, the kings of Poland adopted Białowieża forest as a royal game preserve.  The Polish monarchy also used the forest as a wilderness retreat: it was in the dark fastness of his forest hunting lodge that King Władysław holed up to escape the Black Death.

Hunters returing to Białowieża Hill (1820, print)

The region remained a pristine royal forest until the partition of Poland delivered the forest to Russian hands.  Even the Russian tsars were beguiled by Białowieża forest, for it was one of the last wild preserves for the largest land animal in Europe, the mighty wisent.  In 1801 Tsar Alexander I was moved by the plight of wisent herds (which had swiftly dwindled due to poaching). The tsar reintroduced a hunting ban and hired a small number of peasants as game rangers.  Alexander II reinstated the ban in 1860 and in 1888 the tsars assumed direct ownership of the entire forest.

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During World War I the forest fell under German control and, from 1915 to 1918, the occupying army rushed to cut down Białowieża’s timber and hunt down all remaining wildlife. But even the Germans had their hands full during those tumultuous years and they lost World War I before they could despoil the entire forest.  Białowieża came under Soviet control and during Stalin’s era, all Polish inhabitants were “deported to remote parts of the Soviet Union” and replaced by Soviet forest workers.  When German troops again retook Białowieża in World War II, the Soviet forest workers in turn disappeared. Hermann Göring harbored ambitious plans to create the world’s biggest hunting reserve at Białowieża, but, in the end, the Nazis predictably used the remote location as a grave for resistance fighters.  When the Germans retreated they destroyed the ancient hunting lodges of the Polish throne, but they did not destroy the forest itself. After the war the forest was divided between Poland and the Belarusian State of the Soviet Union. Both regions became protected wilderness areas.

The brickwork Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas on the outskirts of Białowieża

Because of this history, Białowieża Primeval Forest is now the last remaining primary deciduous and mixed forest of the European lowlands.  The land is a refuge for pine, beech, alder, spruce, and towering oaks which have never known the axe. Just as the forest lies in the place where two watersheds meet, it also straddles the boreal and temperate zone: plants and animals from south and north live wild in the park.

The World Heritage Convention website enumerates the many wildlife species which currently live in the forest writing, “these wilderness areas are inhabited by European bison, a species reintroduced into the park in 1929, elk, stag, roe deer, wild boar, lynx, wolf, fox, marten, badger, otter, ermine, beaver and numerous bats. It is also a showplace reserve for tarpan (Polish wild forest horse). The avifauna includes corncrake, white-tailed eagle, white stork, peregrine falcon and eagle owl.”

A Wisent Flees into Bialowieza Forest

Wisent (Bison bonasus)

The magnificent American Bison (Bison bison) was very nearly exterminated by hunters, soldiers, and politicians, but the bison did not come nearly as close to extinction as its closest relative, the wisent (Bison bonasus).  Wisents are the largest native land animal in Europe today; an average wisent measures 1.8 to 2.2 m (6 to 7 ft) tall, and weighs up to 1000 kg (more than a ton). Although similar to American bison, the wisent is slightly smaller with larger horns and a hairier tail.  Whereas bison graze grass, wisents browse the forest–and the two animals therefore have different postures and necks. Wisents once roamed Eurasia from England to far eastwards of the Volga River where they were hunted by Caspian Tigers and Asiatic Lions.  The wisent herds also ranged north as far as northern Sweden and south to Italy.

Cave painting of a Wisent (from Altamira, Spain, from the Palaeolithic Age ca. 21,000 BC to 13,000 BC)

In prehistoric times, wisents were a mainstay of European megafauna and beautiful cave paintings (among the first known artistic achievements of humankind) often portray the mighty creatures, but, as humanity burgeoned in Europe, the wisent declined.  Starting in Gaul in the 8th century, whole populations of the shaggy giants gradually disappeared.  The creature vanished from northern Sweden in the 11th century, and then from England in the 12th. Tiny herds survived in the Ardennes forest and the Vosges Mountains until Frenchmen finished off these remnants in the 15th century.

A Wisent Hunt Depicted on a Hungarian Stamp

The wisents’ best friends turned out to be the kings of Poland, devoted big game hunters who proclaimed a death sentence on anyone poaching the mighty ruminants within the kingdom. Sadly though, the Polish Crown suffered…setbacks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Although the Russian tsars (who seized the Eastern forests of Poland) tried to keep the last herds of wisent alive, by the twentieth century, the animals survived only in zoos, the remote Caucasus, and in the primeval depths of Poland’s Białowieża Forest.  The ancient trees of Białowieża (and the animals living under them) remained largely untouched until World War I, when the region was captured by Germans, who built a railroad and timber mills there.  Within four years the remaining herd of 600 wisents was slaughtered.  When the Germans left only 9 of the beasts remained and the last of this tiny herd was killed in 1919 (probably by Soviet poachers).  The last wild wisent was slaughtered less than a decade later in the Western Caucasus, where a few hardy individuals had somehow managed to survive.

In the late twenties only about 50 wisents remained alive, all of which lived in various zoos. Fortunately an early pioneer of wildlife conservation stepped in to save the dying species.  Heinz Heck, the director of the Munich Zoo, established the first studbook for non-domestic animals and organized a groundbreaking breeding program to bring the wisent back from the brink (Heck was a determined and far-sighted man who also tried to personally resurrect several species of extinct megafauna—but we’ll deal with that quixotic quest another time).  Thanks to Heck’s ongoing efforts, captured populations of wisents started to grow and the animals were reintroduced into Białowieża in 1951.  The reintroduced wisents burgeoned and the forest is now home to more than 800 European bison. Wisents have also been reintroduced to protected parks in Russia (including the western Caucasus) and herds can now be found in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Spain.  Germany and the Netherlands hope to reintroduce the animal in the near future—perhaps someday the wisent will find its way back to Scandinavia, France, and even Great Britain.

Wisent herd in Caucasian mountains (Photo by Sergej Trepet)

An anachronistic portrait of Bolesław the Brave wearing the Crown of Poland

According to legend, the first Polish monarch, Bolesław the Brave, received his crown from the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto III, in 1000 AD when the two commanders met during the Congress of Gniezno.  Bolesław was one of the greatest kings of Eastern Europe.  His sword was allegedly presented to him by an angel and he famously notched it by striking the Golden Gate of Kiev as that great fortified city fell to his army.

An anachronistic picture of Bolesław notching his sword on the gate of Kiev (Jan Matejko)

Unfortunately the crown of Bolesław was lost only a generation later.  History has speculated that it was carried off to Germany by the Queen of Poland, Richeza of Lotharingia, in 1036.  Whatever happened, the Polish monarchy remained crownless until 1320 when a new crown was crafted for the coronation of King Ladislaus the Short.  Because of this latter monarch’s unfortunate epithet, the new crown was also known as the crown of Bolesław the Brave.  This second crown was carried off by Louis I of Hungary in 1370 but found its way back to Wawel (the seat of Polish royal power) in 1410.  During the Swedish Deluge of the mid seventeenth century, when Poland was invaded and occupied by their cold northern neighbors, the crown was hidden away in Spiš.

The Partitions of Poland

Unfortunately Poland has never lacked for bad neighbors: in 1793 Russia and Prussia arranged the Second Partition of the Commonwealth of Poland which divided Polish territory between the two nations. Poland, which had already been stripped of substantial territory by Austria, Prussia, and Russia back during the partition of 1772, effectively ceased to exist. This situation was unbearable to Tadeusz Kościuszko, the American Revolutionary hero (famous today for the delicious mustard which bears his name).  In 1794, Kościuszko lead a great peasant uprising against the armies of Prussia and Russia.  Kościuszko’s rebellion failed gloriously.  Poland was completely divided by Austria, Russia, and Prussia.  The Polish crown was stolen by the Prussian army (as were the rest of the Polish crown jewels).  These treasures were held by the Prussian king until 1809 when he had them melted down and made into coins.  The jewels were given away to the Directorate of Maritime Trade in Berlin.

The Modern Reproduction of the Crown of Poland

A restoration of the crown of Bolesław the Brave was constructed in 2001 out of Prussian gold, imperfect emeralds, synthetic rubies, and cultured pearls.  This new (third?) crown of Bolesław is kept with the one original item from the crown jewels, the notched sword, Szczerbiec, which has somehow survived the tumultuous history of Poland. The sword was owned by a series of Western European collectors during the nineteenth century, returned to Poland by the Soviet Union in 1928, and kept in Canada from World War II until 1959.  Interestingly Szczerbiec is not the original item either. Bolesław’s original sword was lost in the middle ages (carried off by a disgruntled queen as well?) and the ornamental coronation sword which exists today was commissioned by Ladislaus the Short in the 14th century.  The sword still remains controversial: Ukrainians revile the object as a symbol of hatred used by Polish nationalists to whip up anti-Ukrainian sentiments.

Szczerbiec, the notched sword

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