“ Address: Polen „
I seem to spend most of my days photographing and writing about churches, some I get really excited about, others I quite like and then there is the 5% that just knock me dead. Basilica of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Holy Lipka (this is its full title) is a Marian shrine and a sacral complex situated in the small village of Swieta Lipka. This knocks me dead! It is one of the most beautiful Baroque churches I have ever seen not only in Poland but also in Europe. It lies 6 kilometres east of Reszel in Poland and used to be on the border of Warmia and Ducal Prussia. Before I tell you more about the church let me explain about the name, Swieta Lipka. The words are pronounced like this; shvee - enta Lip-ka and literally means Holy Lime Tree. Read on and you will find out why.
Usually a Marian shrine is constructed on a spot where a miracle took place. This story I am about to tell has been told many times. Here is my take on it....
Many years ago within the russet brick walls of Ketrzyn Castle a prisoner was waiting to die. Before his execution took place, the Virgin Mary appeared from nowhere and gave the man a solid tree trunk. With his strong and calloused hands she wanted him to carve out her image. He carried out the task and the result was one of the most beautiful figurines ever to be seen. The judges who had condemned this man to death saw the effigy and were in awe of it, they believed it was a sign from up above and let the man go. As a free man, the prisoner walked home; when he reached Swieta Lipka, he stopped in front of a lime tree and placed the carving of the Virgin Mary on the tree.
Within seconds, miracles started to take place, pilgrims arrived at the shrine and even the local sheep knelt down in front of the tree. This scenario was the beginning of the story of the pilgrims and the first chapel that was built in the 14th century.
The chapel was replaced by a larger church and as the word spread the religious following from nearby Reszel went about building an even larger complex. An architect from Vilnius started work in 1687 and finished in 1693. Basically, the building I saw on a wet day in May was the very same and hasn't been altered hardly at all since 1693, it is one of the purest forms of late Baroque in Poland. A large rectangular cloister was added with four matching towers housing chapels on each corner. The decoration inside was finished around 1740, most of the furnishings and elaborate motifs were added by popular artists from Warmia, Koningsberg and Vilnius.
The entrance to the complex and cloisters is down a long path that leads from the large car park. The car park has places for coaches, cars, motor bikes, every kind of vehicle possible. It is free! You can't miss the church because of its amazing salmon pink colour and golden domes, the gates are pretty spectacular too, jade in clolour, decorated with fine leaves threaded together. These are leaves from the Holy Lime Tree and have been beautifully interwoven through both of the gates. On top of the gates is a gold emblem featuring two angels and a crest, higher up, a golden sun bearing a cross and a figurine of a child.
Once through the gates you can turn to the left or turn to the right to walk through the cloisters or you can walk across the stone courtyard to the church. The church is open for sightseeing from Monday to Saturday from 8am until 6pm and on a Sunday from 10am until 11am, noon to 2pm and 3pm to 5pm. It was the 3pm to 5pm slot when I went inside the church. There is a sign on the door saying that cameras and video cameras aren't allowed. Like a good citizen I obeyed and gave my camera to my son. I needn't have bothered as lots of people were inside taking photos of the organ and altar.
~~~Inside the Basilica~~~~
The church was a lot smaller than I expected but it was surely overwhelming, very elaborate and extremely colourful with blue and gold being the two dominant colours. The frescoes were painted by the same artist who worked on the cloisters too. His name is Maciej Mayer and came from Lidzbark but like all the good artists at the time he had studied in Italy. His work was very mature and sophisticated displaying trompe l'oeil images, a French style of painting, in which the artist painted in fine detail giving an illusion of reality, as if the image had been made by a photograph. These images were portrayed on the vault and columns.
Oh boy, I have seen some church organs in my time but not one as flamboyant as this. The instrument has over 500 pipes and is so ostentatiously decorated in blue with golden angels and saints. As the organ is being played the saints and angels move to the side, twirl around and meet up in the centre. It is beautiful to look at, if very over the top and the sound is excellent. The designer and man who made the organ was from Konigsberg and called, Jozue Mosengel. Above the organ there is a corner vault painting depicting an artist wearing a blue waistcoat and holding artist's brushes in his hands, this is an image of Maciej Mayer. The pews were full while this organ demonstration took place, everybody seemed to be smiling and enjoying themselves. The demonstrations are held throughout the day from May to September. There is no admission fee but after the short recital priests come around with collection plates for a contribution to the upkeep of the complex and organ.
Another highlight I was interested in was at the back of the presbytery, the very tall altar standing at 19 metres, filling the complete space nearly, made from walnut yet painted to give the appearance of Italian marble. There are three paintings showing in the altar, my favourite was the one of the Virgin Mary with child.
Everything in the church seemed grand and it was very difficult to choose a favourite object but I loved all the ornamentation covering the pulpit in the form of paintings and statues. I knew there would be some representation of the lime tree in the church and I did find it eventually, a lime tree and a silver figurine of the Holy Virgin Mary opposite the pulpit, in the nave. According to my information booklet, this spot was where the original lime tree had stood.
Once the organ recital had ended people started pouring out of the church. Many priests were rushing around in their long, flowing habits and I spotted German and English accents. I did wonder why and then I realised that they probably act as tour guides and will take you around the cloisters if you wish.
We decided to walk through the cloisters on our own. I always get the urge to revert back to childhood and want to skip when I visit cloisters. There is something about the arches and high ceilings that make me want to skip in and out. The cloisters here in Swieta Lipka are ornamented with fantastic frescoes mostly painted by the artist mentioned above. I was really in my element here taking photos, lying on the floor so I could focus the camera right to the top of one of the domes to capture all the paintings as well as the light coming through from the ceiling. Of course, my grandchildren had to copy, so they lay on the floor too. Good job not too many people were following in our footsteps or we would have created a traffic jam. One of the reasons I fell in love with these frescoes was because they were flowery but not too flamboyant. Most of the colours used were pastel shades rather than bold colours, the images were well defined and looked like they had been painted by a professional. The overall colour of the inside walls is pale amber which had a cooling effect as did the large marble floor tiles. There are many arches which I love; I was able to look through the arches to other parts of the complex which had statues in the garden and able to see the sides and back of the peachy, pink church.
Mayer used the same technique in the cloisters as he did in the Basilica, trompe d'oeil style. His work can be seen in the corner chapels and part of the northern and western cloister. I noticed that not all the paintings were of the same high standard, at first I thought restoration work was being carried out as some pictures were very faint and not as clear as Mayer's work. It seems that the inferior pieces of work were carried out by other artists as Mayer died before he could complete the whole project. This is a shame as it is very noticeable.
Yes, there is one but one of the smallest I have seen. It seems the commercial bug hasn't hit this part of Poland yet. Apart from a postcard stand, there were a few guide books relating to the complex, some rather bad taste ornaments portraying the Virgin Mary, bookmarks and a handful of religious publications.
There is a tap, just after the kiosk where you can fill up your empty water bottles with Holy Water. I didn't because the last time I did this in Karlova Vary, Czech Republic, the water tasted disgusting and I vowed never again.
There are no toilet facilities within the church complex you have to take a short walk, past the car park, and turn left. Here, there is a privately owned block. These are spotlessly clean with fresh flowers, shining taps and mirrors and loos that flush. Plenty of toilet paper too.
~~~Places to stay~~~
I didn't notice anywhere in the village except the lodgings next to the church. As many pilgrims visit throughout the year the Dom Pielgrzyma (Pilgrim House) which is housed in the monastery next to the church offers food and board for around £5 per night per person. There are approximately 80 rooms.
Other places to consider are chalets along the lake shore south of Swieta Lipka, accommodation in Reszel including the hotel within the castle and Ketrzyn. Ketrzyn is the larger of the two towns so will have more accommodation opportunities.
Across from the car park and opposite the road from the church is a restaurant serving unpretentious meals like salads, kielbasa, pierogi and soup. Beer and soft drinks are available. Covered seating is available at the front of the restaurant.
If you carry on walking after the above mentioned toilet bock you will come to a lake belonging to the sacral complex. It is a very pretty view and a peaceful walk. We enjoyed taking the children to the lake side, my only worry is that the lake comes straight up to the shore and the day we were there it was very slippery. It had been raining, maybe on dry days it will be suitable to walk into the water without slipping.
I really enjoyed my visit to Swieta Lipka. I fell in love with the church as soon as I stepped out of the car. I love the way the church is simply set in a dip and not on high ground. This vision conjures up all sorts of images in my head like pilgrims kneeling in the courtyard waiting to be blessed and I can envisage the lime tree and the miracle taking place. This is the power of a beautiful building and a strong imagination. It is also a great example of late Baroque architecture and it doesn't matter how much I womble on, seeing is believing and I suggest you visit if ever in Mazuria, Poland.
Obviously you have to be in the Mazury Lakes to get this far, it is best to visit by car but it isn't impossible to travel by public transport. Buses from Ketrzyn which is 13 kilometres away and from Reszel (6km) run on the hour. If you are staying in the Olsztyn (73km) area there are several buses a day.