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//Hortus Conclusus, or… Do You Know What’s Behind the Wall?// - Katarzyna Wąs

Hortus Conclusus, or… Do You Know What’s Behind the Wall? - Katarzyna Wąs

Inside Krakow,’s within the 2nd Circularouter ring road, that is to say, in the city centre, there are 15 hectaresa of land excluded from public use. These are monastery gardens, which are being used by not more than some 300 people. The initiators of the project Remember the Gardens would like the this green space in the city centre to be available for public use.

When we stroll along Krakow streets or sit down on one of the numerous benches along the Planty, we do not realise that, just behind a wall – inaccessible to us – there is a paradise, full of ancient trees, lush shrubs and colourful flowers. We live in our serene ignorance, delighting in every scrap of greenery and every café garden, an ersatz of nature in the middle of the city. But if you are familiar with the topography of Krakow or look at its image taken from a satellite, the matters become less rosy. For a few days, during the ArtBoom Festival of Visual Art, our gaze was being re-directed by the organisers of the project Remember the Gardens, or the Enterprise for Reclaiming the City (ZOM), and as well as the No Local Foundation (Małgorzata Mleczko and Patrycja Musiał) with practical support by Janek Sowa.

The main purpose of the project was to bring to the attention of the Cracovians  thea problem which they had not even been aware of. Only a very few know how much green space is inaccessible to the inhabitants of the city. Because these green spaces are invisible to the public, no-one tries to reclaim them.

An invisible problem – it is as if it did not exist. The situation is somewhat hopeless, because private land is outside of the municipalthe City Council’s jurisdiction, so it is impossible to make anybody open it up for public use. All that we can count on is a charitable gesture towards fellow human beings. Further, as Church property, the land is outside beyond Polish of Polishnational legislation, and hence not subject to payingliable for tax. ‘These areas belong to the Vatican’, one of the organisers was told in one of the few answers provided by the ‘temporal owners’.

Nine Cloisters, with Houses Few and Far Between [1]

The present distribution of city space has been conditioned by the historic configuration of the city, which, apart from the knocking down of some fortified city walls at the beginning of the 19th century, and their replacement by the 21 hectares of the Planty green space, has not undergone many changes. Above all, there has remained unchanged the separation of church and monastery buildings, which have always been plentiful in Krakow, as is evident from the accounts of travellers of old, which the organisers of the project have unearthed. In the 18th century, Johann Friedrich Zöllner wrote, ‘There are not more that 1 000-1 100 houses in the entire town, and anyway, taking into account the size of it, there is no room for any more. This is all the more striking when you read that there are 72 churches and 30 monasteries there’. After a few small demolitions and reductions of church areas which followed the great fire of Krakow in 1850, Holy Trinity was one of the churches which disappeared from the map of the Old Town. Earlier, St Stephen’s and St Mary Magdalene’s had been demolished. Thanks to that architectural reorganisation, in their place, we now have squares, which are, unfortunately, often spoilt by their modern design. What has never happened in Krakow was the spatial reform typical for of wWestern Europe or the USA (eg the Central Park in New York), which is to say, setting upthe laying-out of large municipal parks open tofor the public, in order to meet the needs of a modern democratic society, in which there is no room for preferential treatment. The problem remains to this day, or it has even become worse. Ecclesiastical buildings have often deteriorated or burned down, causing the diminishing of the sacral space in favour of public space. Today, monastery walls have been classified as cultural relics, which blocks any possibility of tampering with them. The gardens locked away behind the high walls and heavy gates have long lost their proper function; they do, indeed, remain horti conclusi (enclosed gardens).

A Walled-in Garden, a Fountain Sealed [2]

The project organisers had conducted wide historic research, trying to find out as much as possible about the history of the gardens and closed parks. They approached the monastery authorities for help in organising walks in the gardens behind the walls. Unfortunately, the mental wall proved to be even more impenetrable than the physical one. One of the arguments produced was that the monks needed the isolation, silence and tranquillity which the gardens provide for their ‘spiritual work’. Quite apart from the useing of metaphysical arguments against the rational needs of a changing society, faced with which the Church remains unyielding, it is worth emphasising that the suggestion that a garden is a place of prayer is stretching reality. In order to understand why monasteries have been so generously endowed with green spaces, one has to know their history and development. The Rule of St Benedict, a great reformer of the Church, was totally revolutionary for the anarchic 6th century society. The work ethic and the principles of the self-sufficiency of monasteries, which he introduced, became the foundation for the way that monasteries were to operate for many centuries to follow. According to the Rule of St Benedict, work and prayer, ora et labora, are of equal importance for the salvation of the soul. A monastery was a fully self-sufficient unit which meant, in practice, that all the monks’ needs, both physical and spiritual, had to be satisfied inside its walls. This was translated directly into the architecture of the buildings and the layout of the surrounding in-walled-in land. The plan of an ideal establishment reflected, in miniature, the cosmic order of the complete universe. This becomes striking when looking at the surviving drawing of the plan of the Sankt Gallen Abbey in Switzerland. It shows clearly the distribution of the buildings, including such detail as the goat, sheep and other animal enclosures. The plan includes the horticultural needs of the monks. We can find there gardens which differ in character: a herbarium – for producing herbs for the monastery’s apothecary, a vegetable garden, a pomarium – or an orchard and a florarium –  the garden for growing the flowers necessary for decorating the interior of the church. A contemplation garden –  the hortus  contemplationis remains a completely separate area. The idea of a space designed for contemplation was inspired by Persian gardens and replaced with Christian symbolism. This was an Augustinian centre, around which space – in this case, the monastery – was shaped. This was the place where the monks spent time after their everyday activities or before prayers. The garden was surrounded by cloisters, which protected the monks from too much sun or else rain and snow. Sub-divided ad quadratum by intersecting paths, along which run privet hedges, and full of herbs and flowers, the garden was a symbolic representation of Eden, divided between the four life-giving rivers. Usually a fountain, the symbol of eternal spring, was placed at the centre. From the cloisters, one entered all the remaining parts of the monastery: the  dormitorium, the dining hall, and, above all, the church. The contemplation garden was the hortus conclusus proper. The small garden which provided the space for detachment from work and for concentration was the central, crucial part of the private area of the monastery. The remaining green space satisfied the bodily needs, providing food. For these reasons, for today’s monastery authorities to evoke the spiritual needs as an argument for the necessity for monasteries to have vast gardens is to obfuscate their real function; it is to use faith as an all-purpose argument that brooks no dissent.

Quo vadis?

Activities which confiscate the city’s green spaces without offering anything in return are particularly harsh and incomprehensible. In 2007, the Jalu Kurka Kurka Park in Szlak Street, was closed to the public, in spite of active protest by local people and against the decision of the BoroughCity Council; this was one of the very few parks inside the 2nd Circularouter ring road, which that is to say, in the city centre. The land was granted to the Salvatorian monks by the Property Commission as part of the compensation programme which aims to return to the Church the lands confiscated byin the People’s Republic of Poland. In all the noise surrounding the attempts to atone for the faults of the communist government, what is forgotten is that in 1950 the Church Fund was created, which, according to what I can be seen on the web page of the Ministry of the Interior and Administration – was to serve ‘as a form of compensation for the Church for the land taken over by the State.’ The Fund, financed by the national budget, exists to this day and, apart from providing finance for the Church’s charity activities, it provides insurance for the clergy. For example, in 2010 the amount came to ‘only’as much as over 86 million zloty. In spite of the existence of the Fund, the Church has also received compensation in the form of land. The affair with the Jalu Kurka Kurka Park illustrates the ambiguities surrounding the changes in the history of land ownership in Poland. Since Since the mid-19th century, this land, together with his rebuilt palace, belonged to Stanisław Tarnowski, who donated a part of the garden for public use. After the Tarnowskis were dispossessed during the two decades between the world wars, the land was handed over to the Salvatorian monks. After WWII, the government of the People’s Republic of Poland took it over, preserving its proper function, that of a park. Soon after the monks took possession of the land, and they closed it to the public, using as the reason the lack of funds for maintaining the place clean as the reason. Perhaps it was in order to gain more finance for cleaning that they sold off some of the land, on which a less-than-attractive tower block has been built. The Municipal Council City Council explains that they areit is powerless as regards private land and the Salvatorians can dispose of it as they wish. After squaring the its accounts with the Salvatorian order, it transpired that the City Council was running out of available land to give back, which, however, did not , however, stop it from providing new land for the Cistercians and for St Mary’s parish. Another incomprehensible case is the that of Kremerowski Park, 2.6 hectares which today belong to the Carmelite nuns at Łobzowska Street. At During the 19th century, this was a public park, designed in Biedermeier style, with two ponds, on which you could go boating. There was also a building there with a snack bar and bowling. Today, this all sounds quite surreal.

I Was Free, Now I’m Caged – Hence the Cause of My Sorrow [3]

During ArtBoom, the No Local campaign ran an information desk on matters related to mMonastery gGardens, where such details of the closed gardens were provided such as their legal and financial status, their history and, most importantly, how they wereare being used. A central element of the programme was  trips organised by the Insiders collective, run along two different routes. No monastery agreed to allow access into their gardens. The guide would point out convenient spots from which to peep into the garden – such as holes in the wall and gaps in gates – or how to look in from a neighbouring flat or staircase. The non-invasive action of the peepers emphasised the inaccessibility of the closed sacrum and its distance from the public space. As a last resort, one could use a mirror with a long handle, designed especially by Malwina Antoniszczak. The artist also created a periscope, purpose-made for the project, which was placed in the garden of the Institute of Pedagogy of the Jagiellonian University at Batorego Street, from which an extensive view could be had of the garden of the Carmelite order (one hectare plus 2 700m2 of paid parking). The expanse of greenery contrasted with the tight, unpleasant spaces in which the participants found themselves.  One of the obstacles was the 8m high wall of the 2.8 hectare garden of the Order of the Visiting Sisters, which was erected in order to protect their virtue from the Uhlans, stationed just on the other side of the wall. The lusty cavalrymen are no longer there, but the ‘chastity wall’ as the local people call it, still stands, and is considered a historic relic, so cannot be touched.

As part of the project, a meeting called The Right to the City also took place. The participants Jan Hartman, Przemysław Pluciński and Agnieszka Tarasiuk discussed not only the issue of urban space but also that of the Church as a completely autonomous entity within the Polish state. They talked about the injustice of a state policy which favours the demands of a minority over a general social benefit. The artistic project acquired an incredibly political dimension. It drew the attention of society to the privileged groups and the restriction of access to selected spaces, separated by durable boundaries, which, paradoxically, are invisible. As long as we don’t know what lies behind the wall – in other words, what it is that we are forbidden access to – we don’t feel that we are missing anything. For this reason, the main aim of the project and its follow-up in the shape of articles and reviews is to raise awareness of that which for the majority is ‘invisible’; if only via a cheeky question, scribbled on the pavement, and asked of incidental passers-by, ‘Do you know what’s behind the wall?’ An anonymous person was moved to answer by writing underneath, ‘the Vatican’. Many a true word… Behind the wall, we have another country and a different political system which exists outside Polish legislation and which is closed to the needs of its fellow human beings.


Katarzyna Wąs - (born 1985)

Art historian, graduate of art history and the postgraduate gender studies at the Jagiellonian University. Co-ordinator of exhibitions and projects at MOCAK.





[1] From Monachomachia or Monks at War, Ignacy Krasicki, 1777. A mock-heroic poem which criticises the vices of Polish clergy, including greed.


[2] From the Song of Solomon, 4:12

[3] From Birds in a Cage, in: Fables and Parables, Ignacy Krasicki, 1779.