Each monastic orders apparently have their own personality and the Benedictine order based in the Kraków suburb of Tyniec is roughly the equivalent of a happy-go-lucky type that loves to shoot the breeze and have a microbrew or two over dinner. If you are expecting somber stares, vows of silence, lives of depravity and a general sense of withdrawal from the outside world, then you’ve definitely come to the wrong place. Throughout the entire Abbey complex the monks are visible, social and surprisingly accessible and interactive. When you head down to the restaurant for a traditional meal or up to the coffee house for the best view of the area, you may well find a monk or two sitting right alongside you, enjoying the same view and the very same beverage. Having high tech devices like many of us. It is hard to imagine a more gregarious religious order, especially so close to the tourist capital of Poland. But if you get to Tyniec Abbey you will also find the oldest existing monastery in Poland which was founded in 11th century. And you will get to historic place which witnessed many important historical events.
The earliest order which had been brought to Poland
Perched in an awesome setting on a limestone crag above the Vistula River, Tyniec’s Benedictine Abbey is the oldest of its kind still in operation in Poland. It has stood there for nearly 1000 years and reflects the artistic changes of successive epochs. Remains of its Romanesque buildings have been preserved, both a part of the church and monastery.
The first monks living according to the rule of St. Benedict arrived to Tyniec in the 11th century. The legend tells, that the medieval owners of the village came into conflict with Prince Casimir the Just, who finally deprived them of their land and settled the monks on the Tyniec Hill. However it is unknown when exactly Tyniec Abbey was founded. Probably it happened in 1040 but it is certain that the Benedictines were the earliest order which had been brought to Poland. The Abbey has been repeatedly transformed and expanded, notably in the 15th and 17th centuries. The alterations introduced in the Baroque style were crucial for its contemporary guise, with a characteristic façade and two towers. The well in the yard fronting the church was dug 40 m (130 ft) deep into sheer rock. There is also a gothic cloister, gothic-baroque church, and baroque monastery buildings.
Benedictine spirituality is the foundation of the abbey’s existence
Tyniec Abbey has always been of great significance, chiefly religious but also political and artistic as mentioned above. The attention paid to liturgy is visible in the small but significant collection of liturgical objects. Benedictine spirituality is the foundation of the abbey’s existence. Monks organize retreats, seminars and meditations. The interior of the church and of the monastery are a reflection of the artistic changes over time. The remains of the older building phases permit one to trace the development of its architectural forms. Unique stone details are preserved in the Museum.
“The abbot of a hundred villages”
The Abbey appears on the historical map of Poland as a place of great economic and political importance. Tyniec enjoyed plenty of favours from local rulers, many of whom were kings of Poland, and there are many arguments to support the claim that it was a medieval economic power. One of them is the nickname given to the abbot: “the abbot of a hundred villages”.
The area inhabited by the Celts
The name of the village of Tyniec comes from a Celtic language word “tyn”, which means wall or fence, and which also means that the history of Tyniec as a fortified settlement dates back to pre-Slavic times. It is most likely that the area was inhabited by the Celts a thousand years before the Order of St Benedict arrived in the place.
The traditional monasticism of the early medieval centuries
Benedictines are members of the Order of Saint Benedict (O.S.B.), a group of confederated congregations who follow the Rule of St. Benedict and who are descendants of the traditional monasticism of the early medieval centuries in Italy and Gaul. The Benedictines, strictly speaking, do not constitute a single religious order because each monastery is autonomous.
St. Benedict wrote his rule with his own abbey of Monte Cassino in mind. The rule, which spread slowly in Italy and Gaul, provided a complete directory for both the government and the spiritual and material well-being of a monastery by carefully integrating prayer, manual labour, and study into a well-rounded daily routine. By the 7th century the rule had been applied to women, as nuns, whose patroness was deemed Scholastica, sister of St. Benedict.
The chief repositories of learning and literature in western Europe
By the time of Charlemagne at the beginning of the 9th century, the Benedictine Rule had supplanted most other observances in northern and western Europe. During the five centuries following the death of Benedict, the monasteries multiplied both in size and in wealth. They were the chief repositories of learning and literature in western Europe and were also the principal educators.
Each community within the order maintains its own autonomy, while the order itself represents their mutual interests. Internationally, the order is governed by the Benedictine Confederation, a body, established in 1883 by Pope Leo XIII’s Brief Summum semper, whose head is known as the Abbot Primate. Most Benedictine houses are loosely affiliated in 20 national or supra-national congregations. Each of these congregations elects its own Abbot President. These presidents meet annually in the Synod of Presidents.
“To live in this place as a monk, in obedience to its rule and abbot”
Benedictine monasticism is fundamentally different from other Western religious orders insofar as its individual communities are not part of a religious order with Generalates and Superiors General. Rather, in modern times, the various autonomous houses have formed themselves loosely into congregations that in turn are represented in the Benedictine Confederation. Throughout the Benedictine confederation and its subdivisions, independence and autonomy among communities are uniquely valued. The basic unit has always been the individual abbey, rather than the Congregation. This explains why some houses (e.g. Monte Cassino, Subiaco, Saint Paul-outside-the-Walls (Rome), Montserrat and Pannonhalma) have unbroken histories of more than a thousand years while the Congregations to which they belong are more recent.
Section 17 in chapter 58 of the Rule of Saint Benedict states the solemn promise candidates for reception into a Benedictine community are required to make: a promise of stability, conversion of life, and obedience. Much scholarship over the last fifty years has been dedicated to the translation and interpretation of conversion of life. The older translation of conversatio morum (a Latin phrase often translated ‘conversion of life’ or ‘reformation of life’, one of the three vows made by the Benedictine monk – the others being obedience and stability) has generally been replaced with phrases such as “[conversion to] a monastic manner of life”. Some scholars have claimed that the vow formula of the Rule is best translated as “to live in this place as a monk, in obedience to its rule and abbot.”
Cementing the position of the State and the Church
In fact the origins of Tyniec go back to the time of the very first Piasts and scholars still argue about who its founder was. There are two personalities taken into consideration: King Casimir the Restorer and his son King Boleslaw II the Brave. The former decided to rebuild the newly established Kingdom of Poland, after a Pagan rebellion and a disastrous Czech raid of Duke Bretislaus I (1039). The latter is claimed by some historians to be a founder since there is no conclusive evidence to support the foundation date as 1040. Anyway monks in black habits, invited to Tyniec by the King, were tasked with restoring order as well as cementing the position of the State and the Church. So the abbey wasn’t necessarily built out of spiritualism then. This partly explains why the abbey boasts such a defensive and austere allure, as well as its strategic location atop a limestone mountain overlooking the Vistula River. The configuration changed quite drastically over the years as the site underwent raids, cosmetic remodeling and invasions, and it even served as a fortress to rebel Poles during the 1768 War of the Bar Confederation against the Russian Empire.
A hard nut to crack for the enemy
The fortified monastery on a steep hill was indeed a hard nut to crack for the enemy, so no wonder that it often suffered their revenge. Although the church received stout fortifications in the 13th century, they could not save it from destruction: it was burnt down when the Tatars invaded the Polish lands, Swedes burnt it down in the 17th century, and Russians in the 18th century when the Tyniec Abbey was a crucial stronghold of the first Polish national uprising mentioned above.
In 1816, that is during the era when Poland was partitioned, the Austrians dissolved the Order, and the Benedictines were forced to leave the Abbey. From that time on Tyniec changed hands many times, falling more and more into ruin. No one seemed to care for its fate until the Archbishop of Kraków, Prince Adam Stefan Sapieha, brought back the Benedictine Order from Belgium in 1939. One final time when the abbey acted as a fortress was in 1945, when much like in Monte Cassino, in southern Italy, which was defended by German forces against the Allies, the monastery likewise was held against the Red Army.
The monastery serves an enclosed monastic order, therefore only some sections are accessible to visitors. Listening to Gregorian chants, sung daily by the monks in the church, is unforgettable, much like the extraordinary timbre of the organ (organ recitals are held here in summer). A walk on the top of the nearby Vistula River embankments is worthwhile, as it commands highly impressive views of the Abbey’s walls.
The Benedictine work
Benedictine monks of the Middle Ages were famous for their tenacious, patient work, especially writing, copying and illuminating the books. There are many valuable codes in Tyniec Library. Benedictines, in addition to their monastic life of contemplation and celebration of the liturgy, are engaged in various activities, including education, scholarship, and parochial and missionary work. They are also known for their natural and healthy products, like honey, herbal tinctures, cookies, pasta, which can be bought in the monastery shop. Tyniec Abbey sightseeing tour is a unique spiritual experience and a wonderful opportunity to have commerce with history and art of the highest class.
I hope I have encouraged you to visit Tyniec Abbey. Get ready for an amazing journey to the past.
See you there!
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos: Michał Stanisławski
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