Kapliczki: Poland’s Small Treasures
by Catherine Hodorowicz Hennessey
© 2004 Polish American Journal

Anyone who has traveled in Poland is familiar with the site of numerous religious figures and statues along the roadside. Sometimes, instead of a religious figure or statue, there is a cross or a building that resembles a little house or miniature chapel. They can be seen almost anywhere—at the entrance of a village, up on a hill, at the outer boundaries of a village or town—but most frequently, along a main thoroughfare or at a major crossroads. As a result, these small religious chapels and figures are commonly called roadside shrines. In Polish, these outdoor, roadside shrines are called kapliczki.

The word origin of kapliczka is distinctly Christian. As far back as the 7th century, a small building containing the coat and relics of St. Marcin began to be called capella, a diminutive of the Latin cappa, meaning cover or cloak. In countries accepting Christianity, capella became a common term for every small building outside of a church that gave shelter to a religious object or figure. In Poland, the term emerged as kapla, kaple, and eventually kaplica, meaning chapel. Kapliczka, a diminutive of kaplica, refers to something smaller than an actual chapel; the words today, however, are used almost interchangeably.

Polish ethnographers claim that kapliczki, or roadside shrines, have their origins in ancient pagan traditions and Christian religious beliefs. In the times of our ancient pagan ancestors, the outer boundaries of a village or the place where two roads met, was considered to be an evil place where unfriendly spirits waited to pounce upon the unsuspecting traveler. By the same token, certain trees were seen as having magical powers. Water also had magical properties. Pagan shrines were placed at the feet of such sites and various cult activities occurred here. With the acceptance of Christianity, old beliefs and rites were hard to abandon. Our ancestors sought to protect their old beliefs yet incorporate the new faith. As a result, many kapliczki are found near trees that were believed to have magical powers such as linden, birch or sycamore trees. The mighty oak had similar properties as did evergreens. The linden, for instance, was considered especially sacred as protection against lightening and evil spirits. Later, within the Christian realm, the linden tree was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Sycamore leaves had the power to remove spells, but were also utilized on St. John’s Eve as window and door decorations to prevent entry by witches.

This mingling of past and present can be seen along Route 777 in Poland in the little town of Swiniary. Erected at the edge of a wheat field in the shadow of a great willow tree, the roadside shrine consists of a very large crucifix surrounded by a wooden picket fence. The crucifix is adorned with stalks of wheat. Thin streamers of red, blue, yellow and white descend from the top of the crucifix to the edge of the small fence, creating an overall effect of jubilant color and celebration.

In ancient times, branches of the willow tree were used to bless cattle when sent out to the pasture for the first time in the spring. The colors of the streamers signify various religious themes—the red streamers representing the suffering of Christ, the blue and white streamers associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The oldest kapliczki were carved from wood and date back to the 15th century. The height of their development came later during the Counter Reformation in the 17th century. The church began issuing decrees demanding that parish priests ensure the sign of the cross was represented in all villages to demonstrate that Catholics had nothing whatsoever in common with heretics and pagans.

In the 19th century, as the affluence of the Polish peasant grew, the shrines began to take on a more secular, personal purpose and began to be built at the expense of individuals, families and sometimes entire villages. The shrines were built to express needs or gratefulness: to thank God for blessings received, to ask for the undoing of misfortune, asking for a return to health, protection against calamity, gratefulness for the establishment of a new home, success in the harvest, the satisfactory conclusion of an important task and protection from fire, flood or epidemics. The wayside shrines were also located at the sites of battles, in front of graveyards and at the site of crimes. These shrines were expected to contribute to the salvation of the dead and also to protect the living from wandering souls. Every small hamlet, village or town had their own shrine. It could be a large crucifix, a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or a particular saint. St. John Nepomucen for instance, can be found near rivers and streams since he the patron saint invoked against floods.

 The variety of different types of shrines throughout Poland could be a lifelong study. They stand as a testament to the faith of the Polish people but also as a study of their character, their hopes and dreams and their history as well.

Catherine Hodorowicz Hennessey studied in Poland under a grant from the Kosciuszko Foundation in 1999 while a student at the University of Pittsburgh.

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