About gardens

Cistercian Gardens: Medieval gardens

Although the heart of every religious congregation is its temple, in the case of Cistercians an almost equally important role was played by their gardens. All of them were primarily functional – the monks, preferring modesty and simplicity, did not establish purely ornamental gardens. Cistercian gardens were supposed to satisfy all needs of the community, according to their basic rule – remaining self-sufficient through the work of their own hands. They formed a garden programme, which included a cloister garth with a well, a vegetable garden (kitchen garden), a herb garden (hospital garden) and a cemetery, as well as orchards, vineyards and other crops – including carp farming in artificial ponds – that extended outside the abbey but were still a part of the vegetable garden. At the same time, the profound symbolism of all these gardens and the work meant that their practical functions were always deeply connected with contemplative functions. Under the influence of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, they became a reflection of divine order, obediently succumbing to its laws in the alternating cycle of seasons. Another medieval mystic, St. Hildegard of Bingen, wrote: “The whole Creation is the Garden of God”. From this perspective, one can look at the gardens and the plants as a part of the divine creative process that brought the Cistercians closer to God. It favoured the application of prayer – contemplation, as one of the basic forms of observing the Rule of St. Benedict – Ora et labora – “pray and work”.

The most important of the Cistercian gardens was the cloister garth, called the Garden of the Cross. It was an internal courtyard, formed by four buildings – the church (in Poland churches were usually located on the north side, as in Pelplin) and three, originally one-storey, wings of the monastery. The four-sided buildings were connected by cloisters running around the garth, i.e. long corridors opening to the inner garden with ogee-arched windows. The garth, initially covered by grass, was the location of a well that was later replaced by a fountain. Four perpendicular paths led to the fountain, thus creating four arms of the cross – hence the name of the garden. Its symbolism is clear – the inner space enclosed and tenderly protected by walls of the abbey symbolises the sacred space of Paradise with the source of life in the centre hidden from man, and four paths symbolise the four paradise rivers flowing from its source.

The cloisters surrounding the garden were just as symbolic, and they were much more than a mere passageway. The monks' daily practices, their spiritual exercises, included circulating around the cloister garth - the Paradise. Walking among these almost identical corridors, with the same view at every corner, resembles endless wandering through the maze, intensifying the need to keep pushing forward to find the right path – spiritual and life.
A characteristic aspect is that its visitors remain “on the path” to perfection – holiness and salvation symbolised by the cloister garth. The monks felt the very essence of contemplative life and, at the same time, formed a spirit of humility. It reminded them of their entanglement in the maze of imperfections, weaknesses, and sinfulness that prevent the imperfect human beings from achieving their goal in the mortal lifetime. At the same time, the exercise that was repeated over and over again enabled them to keep pushing forward, protecting them from the two most malicious enemies – pride and discouragement.

The sheer symmetry of the garden was captivating – geometry of lawn fields crossed by paths representing cosmic order and the glory of its Creator. Over time, as the monks departed from their original spiritual hardness and the resulting aesthetic modesty, more sophisticated plant compositions were added to the garden. With the passing of centuries, the practice of daily circulation around the cloister garth was also abandoned.

The second most important garden was the vegetable garden, otherwise known as the kitchen garden. Grey monks were vegetarians and they received their basic food from this garden. It was usually located in the immediate vicinity of the kitchen and refectory (dining room) in the farthest wing from the church (in Pelplin – the southern wing). Broad beans, peas, cabbage, lettuce, cucumbers, onions or garlic – almost all products used for the monastic diet - were grown in symmetrical lines of beds. The vegetable garden extended to orchards and vineyards established behind the walls of the cloister that were developed over time as the Convention gained new monks, especially lay brothers. Even though they stayed in the monastery, instead of taking vows, they made a promise of obedience, purity and poverty; they served the congregation with their craftsmanship, carrying out work consistent with their profession (such as gardener, shoemaker, medic, or bricklayer). Facing the vastness of land grants received by the abbey from Pomeranian dukes, cultivation of farms and livestock breeding were based mainly on their work. The situation was similar in the case of water projects regulating the flow of the river, which enabled the creation of, among other things, artificial ponds for carp farming – like the one located in the Bishops' Gardens.

Another Cistercian garden was the herb garden, located near the hospital and hence called the hospital garden. It provided the community with herbal medicines necessary to provide basic medical care. In the Middle Ages, not only the commonly bred herbs, such as sage, wormwood, mint, tansy, or catnip, but also some vegetables such as leek, celery, radish, or fennel were considered to be herbs. The herb garden was extremely important because of the Cistercian approach to the sick, taken from the Rule of St. Benedict, who commands: “serve them, as though they were Jesus Christ Himself”. Therefore, the hospital was one of the first buildings that the grey monks constructed. The first hospital in Pelplin was arranged in the building originally used as dormitories (bedrooms) for lay brothers and a nearby church “behind the walls” (today known as the “Corpus Christi Church”) intended for them and the rest of the lay people. It is currently the oldest civilian building of Pelplin, that is nowadays used as a fireplace room for parish meetings.

The last of the original, medieval programme of Cistercian gardens was the cemetery. It was the place of reflection and meditation – on the short duration and transience of human life, and on the continuity and durability of the Cistercian monastery, its path, effort and achievements. The brothers were buried in identical modest graves, whose only decoration was a simple cross. The cross was also the central point of the cemetery garden, referring to the tree of life in the Paradise of God, and thus clearly symbolizing the mystery of sacrifice and redemption, the certainty of death and promise of resurrection. The mystery of death that brings life.

Cistercian Gardens: Baroque abbey garden

As the centuries went by, the abbey and the contacts with the outside world grew, thereby expanding the discipline. Although the Cistercian Monastery was born out of the rebellion of a few Benedictines against the departure of their congregation from the ascetic Rule of St. Benedict, slowly but relentlessly, the grey monks fell into the same trap as their “black brothers”. Abbeys functioned as large and modern agri-industrial enterprises and it was difficult for the monks to follow the path of strict hermits. Their role in the progress of civilization cannot be overestimated, but it was done at the expense of abandoning the ideals of the first Cistercians, led by St. Robert of Molesme, founder of the Citeaux Abbey. One of the most visible signs of this state of affairs was the transfer of abbots from the common dormitory (bedroom) in the monastery to their own private residences – the Abbot's House or Palace. They were built outside the walls of the cloister, within the area accessible to the lay people, and were accompanied by the creation of the last element characteristic of the Cistercian gardens – the Abbot garden.

Contrary to the spirit of the Rule, it also remains far from the original Cistercian humility – it is purely representative, and with time it became increasingly filled with vain decorations. However, it was created in the Baroque era and displays basic features of Baroque gardens, also known as French gardens. It is characterised by a complete flattening of the open terrain and stiff geometry achieved and emphasized by a regular network of paths marking the so-called parterres, that is lawns with low compositions of flowers and shrubs framed by boxwood. A series of impressive parterres situated axially in relation to the main building, formed the so-called park area. Covered by wooded alleys, it was supposed to endlessly move away from the building.

The source of this departure from simplicity and modesty, from ascetic spirituality was not in the pride of monks – at least not exclusively. This phenomenon was also a fully conscious consequence of the Council of Trent, which ended in 1563, a Catholic response to the reformation that flooded Europe and the associated wave of terror. Following the Council of Trent, counter-reformation and Baroque art were born, which, in the spirit of triumphalism, was supposed to stun and overwhelm the viewer – with a huge emotional load and the splendour of decorations. The Cistercians also follow the direction of the Jesuits' postulate that Catholic art, even garden design, should be distanced from the Protestant aesthetics, which, paradoxically, was very close to their original spirituality – impoverished, simplified, strict... Ironically, it is the abbot gardens that have been preserved to present days in the best condition.

One of the best known and most impressive examples in Poland is the Oliwski Park, not far from Pelplin, around the local Abbots' Palace. Its shape known to us today is the result of the actions undertaken by two successive abbots and their gardeners – Jacek Rybiński and Karol Hohenzollern. Its typical Baroque, French part was created together with the Palace on the initiative of the first one after 1740. Some of the characteristic features include not only floral parterres, but also geometrically depicted ponds, evenly trimmed rows of high lime trees, or tree alleys, known in the Middle Ages as coolers, running in the tunnel formed by intertwined crowns of trees – most often hornbeams – growing on both sides of the alley. The late Baroque English garden was developed in the time of the second abbot, after the death of his predecessor in 1782. Its main distinguishing feature is the departure from artificial geometry towards naturalism. For this purpose, the existing land relief was formed and used, and the gardens were filled with many more trees. Resignation from open parterres provided shade, which was lacking in the previous era. The cascade by the ponds of the Potok Oliwski or artificial hills, as in the case of the Whisper Grottoes, have preserved to this day in the Park.

The Abbot's House in Pelplin was established around 1651, under the reign of Abbot Jan Karol Czarliński. The House was certainly established together with a garden. Although it has not survived to our times, we have some idea as to how it looked like thanks to the preserved panorama of the abbey, the so-called veduta, made in 1774 by an unknown painter. On the eastern side of the monastery, outside the walls, one can see a white plastered building in front of which there is a flower bed garden with four decorative geometric compositions. Each with a single, slender tree in the centre – pointing to the sky like a pointer on a sundial. The four parterres are delineated by two perpendicular paths, with a much wider transverse path, and its northern branch leading directly to a slightly higher level. On the higher level there is a second garden with a distinctly different composition – formed by two fields with a much larger number of concentrically planted trees. Between them, in the very centre, there is a small building on the extension of the path leading from the lower level. It is difficult to say what can be seen on the 18th century panorama. Perhaps the plastered building is the Abbot's House, and the garden in front of it is the two-level abbot's garden. However, another possibility is that it was located only on the lower level, and was connected with the garden-cemetery, where the central building could form a funeral chapel – similar to the cemetery in Oliwa. It expands under the “church behind the walls” and it is known that its cemetery was built in the second half of 17th century, similarly like the Abbot's House and the gardens. Regardless of their intended use, the veduta made over a hundred years later clearly indicates that these gardens existed in the area spreading between the Corpus Christi Church and the Wierzyca River. Nowadays, the area is still green and is located at the back of the former presbytery of Priest Bernard Sychta built in the nineteenth century in the neo-Gothic style at Mestwina Street.

Veduta was made two years after the First Partition of Poland, shortly before the last division of the Cistercians in Pelplin, which ended with the dissolution of the monastery by the Prussian King less than 50 years later. Despite the changes that their gardens underwent as the abbeys grew, we can still see other gardens from the Cistercian programme on the veduta. A brick quadrilateral building is adjacent to the south-eastern corner of the monastery, covering the kitchen and the technical and sanitary building (dansker). It seems that it could have housed a new, larger hospital (from the beginning of the 17th century), and the garden visible at its feet, surrounded by its own wall, could have been a herb garden. Under the wall there is a channel that flows around the whole garden, creating a rectangular island which can be accessed through a bridge. Looking to the right, on the other side of the hospital, one can see another garden, perhaps a form of a vegetable garden. Fenced-off from the world by a wall, it is located deep inside, between the wall of the southern wing of the monastery and the kitchen buildings on one side and other plastered buildings on the other side. This white quadrilateral building probably consisted of farm buildings – a granary, a mill, or other buildings typical of Cistercians such as a fuller or a smithy – as indicated by the technical channel passing under them. At this stage of the abbey's development, food was delivered to the monastery from more extensive crops outside the walls of the cloister. In Pelplin, orchards were located just behind the southern wall of the abbey, traversing down the Wierzyca River and continuing on its other bank. The veduta shows them in the foreground, and among the trees one can see working monks. However, the cultivation of farms was organised primarily through Folwarks – like the Maciejewo Folwark, visible on the northernmost part of the veduta, between the Basilica and the “church behind the walls” (Corpus Christi). In 1827-29, a group of seven canons was built in its place.

Bishop's Gardens at the post-Cistercian pond

Unfortunately, the 18th century panorama of the abbey does not show enough of the other bank of the Wierzyca River, so it might be difficult to imagine what the place, that 60 years later became the Bishop's Palace and its Gardens, looked like.

We can only see that the eastern wall of the abbey, after approaching the southern wall, runs further, reaching the river, and the above mentioned orchard grows on the separated patch of land. From here, a bridge – closed with a gate – leads to the other bank of the river. On the other side of the monastery wall, on the “world” side, there is a footbridge leading across the river. However, both passages are shifted to the right in relation to the currently existing stone bridge on the path leading from the Basilica, along the monastery, to the Wierzyca River. The bridge leads to the magnificent Baroque staircase, climbing two arches to the other side of the river. Originally, the water from the pond was falling down the stairs to the river below. However, it is difficult to say when they were built.

It is known that the pond had already existed long before, probably from the beginning of the abbey, because it was the Cistercians who created it. They were masters of irrigation and their water projects still impress with their monument and ingenuity. The Pelplin Pond was merely a part of the total system of controlling the water and using its energy. The pond was used for fish farming, especially carps, which were a speciality of white monks. It has
a rectangular shape and is supplied with a small channel from the south. From the north side, there is a sluice that poses a passing of the pond to the Wierzyca River. It constitutes almost a quarter of the area covering today's Bishops' Gardens, on their eastern side. In its south-western corner there is a fair-sized, almost equally rectangular island, which in turn occupies almost a quarter of the pond.

The Palace itself was built in 1837-38, on the initiative of the bishop of Chełmno, Jan Stanisław Kutowski. After the dissolution of the abbey in 1823, due to the reorganization decisions of Pope Pius VII, the bishops of Chełmno moved to Pelplin in the following year. The palace was built of red brick in the Neo-Romanesque style. The palace was built of red brick in the Neo-Romanesque style. The cart house and the gatehouse, located on the western side of the park, also date from around the same period. The Bishop's Office, located to the east of the Palace, was built in 1851-52.

The analysis of forest stands indicates that the park, composed of parterres located on both sides of the axially marked main path, was opened behind the Palace. The parterres grew along the pond, covered with wooded alleys – hornbeam alley and lime trees and chestnut trees alley. Luckily, a precise drawing with a list of plants used in the first parterre, the most decorative, located directly under the Palace, has been preserved in the book of W. Bielski from 1908. The composition is visible in a photograph from 1905 and will be reconstructed as part of the revaluation of the Gardens. In a relatively small space in front of the Palace, from the side of the bridge over the Wierzyca River and the Basilica, an oval flower-bed marked a convenient driveway to the residence that is still used to this day.

Thus, the arrangement of the Bishops' Gardens clearly shows the character of a baroque garden, otherwise known as a French garden, even though the Palace was created in the Romanticism era. Only the island, overgrown with a little more lush greenery, with its charming bridge, introduces a little more naturalism resembling an English garden. On the island, just like in Oliwa, there used to be a gardener house – unfortunately, unlike in Oliwa, the one in Pelplin has not survived to our times.

One hundred years after its construction, in the years 1927-28, the Palace was once again rebuilt. The decision was made by Bishop Stanislaw Okoniewski, who wanted to dissociate himself from German influences after Pelplin's return to the reborn Poland. Hence the stylistic change of the Neo-Romanesque associated with Germany – to triumphant Neo-Classicism. The relatively simple shape, inspired by the Middle Ages, still visible on the photograph from 1905, was complemented by an impressive portico, resembling ancient architecture, built from the side of the driveway. Its huge tympanum is supported by four robust columns with Corinthian heads. At the end of the reconstruction, Bishop Okoniewski established the Museum and Diocesan Archives based on the collections from the Palace.

At that time, two multifigured monuments, which emphasized the Polishness of Pomerania, appeared in the Gardens. Although they did not survive World War II, their image has been preserved quite well on photographs. They seem to indicate that the monument to St. Adalbert stood on the semicircular terrace at the top of the Baroque stairs that is now covered with bushes. Perhaps the second monument – the Maritime Monument – is hidden somewhere in the immediate vicinity of the pond, showing figures important for the development of maritime in Poland.

Although two interwar monuments have been destroyed, the Park has another one with an interesting history. It is a post-war copy of the pre-war Gutenberg monument, which stood at Jaśkowa Dolina Street in Gdańsk. The statue disappeared after the war, at the end of the 1940s. It was reconstructed by professor Radwański, rector of the Gdańsk Academy of Fine Arts, and placed in the Pelplin Gardens, in the immediate vicinity of the only Polish copy of the Gutenberg Bible.



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  • M. Milecka, Średniowieczne dziedzictwo sztuki ogrodowej klasztorów europejskich, Hereditas Monasteriorum vol. 1, 2012, ss. 31-56
  • M. Milecka, The Cistercians large-scale water systems, Architectus 1(31), 2012
  • W. Pytlik, K. Szroeder-Dowjat, Przewodnik ilustrowany Pelplin, Ed. Foto Liner, Warsaw 2015
  • Dawne Opactwo Cysterskie w Pelplinie, Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Zabytków Pelplina, electronic publication, 2015

Plan of Bishops' Gardens

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