Erik Ross

Galitsyaner Jerusalem

There’s a Jerusalem in Galicia. It’s disheveled and rambling. You can smell cows in it. It’s wet most of the year, and slick with mud. There are a bunch of odd Mannerist chapels with oxidized copper domes dumped over the landscape like rejects from a Hapsburg’s pastry plate.

It’s a very holy spot.

This is Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, the Calvary that Zebrzydowski built. It’s one of dozens of such sacred parks erected during the Counterreformation in this part of Europe; probably the largest.

And it survives, four centuries on, in the very same role for which it was constructed.

Kalwaria is supposed to be an exact copy of Jerusalem. In going there, you’re putting your feet on sacred soil. As you shuffle around with the farmer and his wife, you enact the salvation of the world.

What happens at Kalwaria is not a passion play; not like Oberammergau in Bavaria with its stiff tableaux accompanied by choir and orchestra. There, you’re a viewer, and viewers sit — staid — in a purpose-built hall to take in a Gesamtkunstwerk made of gingerbread and boiled wool.

Here, you’re an actor. You wear galoshes. You need to follow Jesus or he leaves you behind. You hike over hill and hillock for hours, mumble-moaning memorized hymns. It’s far out.

Words cannot describe it, and so I turn to Adam Bujak‘s photos for help.

Photo by Adam Bujak
Photo by Adam Bujak

The whole thing was planned according to the best 16th-century research: a map made of Jerusalem by a Dutch Catholic priest, Christian Kruik van Adrichem.

Christian Kruik van Adrichem, Map of Jerusalem, 16th c. Hebrew University.

In enacting Christ’s Passion, you trail after Jesus and the whole cast of Christian characters over a landscape meant to duplicate this version of Jerusalem on a 1:1 scale. There are 42 churches and chapels stretched out on a six-square-kilometer patch, intended as facsimiles of ancient sites. There are miles of paths over irregular ground. UNESCO has registered them all.

Using these paths is a slog in the best of weather. But the time leading up to Easter is when Kalwaria comes fore — and in Poland, Lent and Holy Week are often far from Spring.

Through rain and sleet the faithful slip, draping Jesus and Mary in plastic sheeting if necessary. Everyone’s damp. It’s a real mess.

It’s real.

Photo by Adam Bujak
Photo by Adam Bujak

This is a place where the desire to be there — the need to taste and see — is so strong that crowds press forward with wooden swords and fringed capes and curly wigs to make the Lord come.

Photo by Adam Bujak
Photo by Adam Bujak

This is a wormhole — one of so many — between this land and the Holy Land. It was born of longing for the Divine. That’s what keeps the galoshes going still.

Photo by Adam Bujak

Here is a scrap of land on which lovers of Jerusalem, frustrated in their progress to the Holy City, cry out their defeats on their knees.

We pray and we pine. At the end, there’s a Resurrection.

About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.