Swidnica (Świdnica) is a historic merchant town over 700-year-old and picturesquely located near the Sudety Mountains. It has a number of famous churches, several fascinating museums and an Old Town, enough to satisfy any visitor. As many as 11 charming parks ring the town center and the outskirts, giving space for the array of events and festivals that are organized here. Swidnica breathes culture.
History of Swidnica
As early as the 10th century there was a Slavic settlement in the place of today’s Swidnica. Its name first appears in a document from 1226, about the foundation of a church for Franciscan friars. Another document dated from 1267 describes Swidnica as being already a town. Before long, it became to be one of the wealthiest of Silesian towns, too.
At the end of the 13th century, Silesia was divided into several separate principalities. One of these principalities was the Swidnicko-Jaworskie principality, with Swidnica as a seat for the line of Swidnica Piasts. It continued to stay independent, where other principalities became under control of Czech King Jan Luksemburczyk. Rulers of the Swidnicko-Jaworskie principality retained trade connections with Poland, which brought many material benefits. At the time, in terms population and economic value, Swidnica was comparable to Wroclaw, while Lublin, Poznan and Lwow all lagged behind.
At the dawn of the 14th century, the principality passed into hands of the Czechs and then the Austrian line of the Habsburgs controlled it. Under their rule, the process of Germanization began. Up to 1623, Swidnica minted its own coins, unquestionable evidence of the town’s wealth. In the 16th century, weaving began to help the prosperity of Swidnica while annual cattle markets drew merchants from as far as Prague, Dresden and Nurnberg.
The town deteriorated during the Thirty Years’ War, and the Austrian-Prussian war for Silesia in the 18th century steepened the decline. The last stage came as a result of the Seven Years’ War, following which Swidnica fell into Prussian hands. The first factories were built in the second half of the 18th century, allowing Swidnica to recover from its decline. However, the development of Swidnica was again hindered in the period between the two world wars, but especially during World War II. The victory over the Nazis resulted in the town returning to within the borders of Poland after six centuries of foreign rule.
By 1945 some 50% of the industrial plants had been destroyed in Swidnica, and yet the town still survived. I took a year and a half to reactivate the factories that had been deliberately demolished by Nazi and Soviet troops.
The Swidnica population increased in the post-war years, the historically important center was renovated, industrial establishments were modernized and a new town infrastructure was created as well.
Church of Peace Swidnica
The Church of Peace was founded by the Peace of Westphalia (hence its name) which ended the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Before the war, the townsfolk of Swidnica were free to follow Luther’s ideas and Lutheran services were held in the town. When the war broke out, the Protestants were deprived of the right to have their own faith and their own churches.
However under the Peace of Westphalia, the Catholic emperor Ferdinand III of Habsburg was obliged by the Swedish to allow the Protestants in the hereditary duchies of Jawor, Głogów, and Swidnica to build one so-called Church of Peace in each duchy. Although the consent of the Habsburgs had many severe restrictions – the Protestants could only build their place of worship outside the town walls, it could not have any towers nor a belfry, and it could only be built from non-durable materials like wood, sand, straw, or clay. The building could not look like a church and the construction works could not last longer than a year.
Two similar churches emerged in Głogów (which burned down after 100 years), and in Jawor (which is still standing today).
The Church of Peace in Swidnica is a half-timbered church (wattle and daub fill the timber frames) based on a cross-shaped plan.
The 1,090 m2 church can accommodate 7,500 people. The exquisite 18th century wooden altar dominates the Baroque interior. The relief above the altar stone shows the Last Supper. Above the relief stand sculpted figures of Moses, arch-priest Aaron, Jesus, John the Baptist and the apostles Peter and Paul. The central scene between the figures shows the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan. The frieze above the six Corinthian columns holds the inscription: “Dies ist mein geliebter Sohn, an dem ich Wohigefallen habe” (“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” – Matthew 3:17). A book with seven seals, a lamb and a banner surmounted the altar.
The other dominating element is the 18th century pulpit. Faith with a cross, Hope with an anchor and Love with a child support the body of the pulpit. The figure of an angel with a trumpet announcing the Last Judgement crowns the pulpit. Reliefs showing the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Golgotha, and the Paradise decorate the stairs leading to the pulpit. The hourglass on the lectern was divided into four half-hour parts that measured the length of the sermon.
17th century pipe organs, decorated with moving figures of angels, with a wonderful Baroque casing supported by two Atlases, have just been thoroughly renovated. Due to many reparations, the large organs have often been out of operation. Therefore a second set of smaller organs were built in the topmost gallery over the altar. There are several levels of galleries inscribed with 78 fragments from the Bible and 47 allegoric scenes. These are richly decorated with epitaphs and guild shields of the bakers, brewers, butchers, cloth traders, etc., as well as portraits of the townsfolk and nobles.
The most privileged families had their own boxes, the most impressive is the one belonging to the Hochbergs. It is a token of gratitude for the family of count Johann Heinrich von Hochberg, who donated two thousand oaks – two-thirds of the wood needed for the church’s construction. The paintings on the ceiling show the Holy Trinity, the Last Judgement, the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Fall of Babylon.
While in the Baptism Hall, make sure to pay attention to the wooden polychrome baptismal font from 1661, the portraits of clerics who delivered sermons during the 300 years of the church’s history, and their lush liturgical robes.
The church is situated in the central part of the Square of Peace, surrounded by a wall one kilometre long. Among the historic stand of trees, one can find 17th and 18th century monuments – the belfry, the old Evangelical high school (now a boarding house Barokowy Zakątek, i.e. BarocCorner), the Bell-ringer’s house with the lavender garden (now the Center for Promotion and UNESCO Partnership), the Gatekeeper’s House (Baroccafe) and the cemetery that served as the sole burial-place for several thousand Evangelicals for 250 years. Following its renovation, the parish house will become the seat of the Lower-Silesian Evangelical Institute. Here the valuable collection of the parish is available to the visitors, including the 300-year-old Bibles and old prints form one of the largest Lutheran archives in Poland.
After World War II, the Evangelical parish in Swidnica dwindled from over twelve thousand to around one hundred faithful. The church is still their home today, but at the same time it also functions as a monument of growing esteem – the church is one of only three monuments in Lower Silesia inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is also a symbol of reconciliation: in 1989, prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki and German chancellor Helmut Kohl prayed for peace here on their way to Krzyżowa.