THE RENAISSANCE CHURCH IN KLĘPSK
A PEARL OF WOODEN ARCHITECTURE
Klępsk, a small village in the municipality of Sulechów, is famous worldwide for its historic wooden church, which is a pearl of style and art value of the highest national class. This is an object with a unique form and content, an invaluable treasure of sacred architecture, a pride of the parishioners and the whole area. The wooden tower dominating the rural landscape is an architectural peculiarity of a unique form, attracting more and more attention of domestic and foreign tourists. It is also an excellent tourist draw card and “must see” for the village and the Lubuskie Province in Poland, located on the route leading from Zielona Góra through the Babimost region to Poznań.
The church dedicated to the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a unique monument of art representing the unique artistic values of Protestant architecture with an authentic Renaissance interior that impresses everyone. In terms of painting and stucco decoration, the church is unique. Late-Renaissance interior furnishings with a folk character of the highest order. The distinctive design delights, amazes and captivates everyone. Visitors leave the facility impressed by the extraordinary beauty. This monument of church history harmonizes with the countryside adding color and enrichment to the landscape.
Klępsk, an early Slavic linear settlement, was located on the medieval trade route connecting Lusatia and Wielkopolska (Great Poland province cradling more than a thousand years of history of the Polish state), and was probably founded in the 12th century. In the next century it became a parish village. Soon after, a modest, rectangular-based Catholic temple was built there, representing the gothic type of a wooden church, so characteristic of the rural architecture of the first Piasts (first Polish dynasty). From the beginning, the church was closely related to the history of Silesian Piast princes and Polish folk culture of the Middle Ages, and as such, its form was typical of a Silesian temple. The church was the seat of a Catholic parish for almost three centuries until the Reformation.
In 1576, this modest wooden temple was taken over by local Evangelicals, beginning a long-term renovation work, adapting the building to the needs of the Lutheran faith. As a result, a great work was created.
Time has shown that Protestantism on the Central Odra region was not just an episode. It inscribed itself into the history of the religious life of the region over many centuries. The predominance of the German-speaking ethnic element and the zealous followers of Lutheranism deeply entrenched Protestantism in the village and the surrounding area. It is fortunate that Lutheranism has never threatened Catholics, anywhere even during this colorful German period.
Renovation work began with changing the construction of side walls from the log construction to the half-timbered one. In order to introduce the emporia (balconies) necessary for the evangelic temple, a two-level window arrangement was introduced in the southern façade. Then, the interior design started. Painting works took the longest time, resulting in biblical paintings covering almost the entire interior. The paintings were done carefully and now they are most precious. Bringing the church to such bewitching beauty was possibly due to the generosity of the founders, the rich family owners of the villages, the Kalkreuts and Unrugs. The initiators of the great changes were the first pastors of the Evangelical community: Baltazar Nevius, who started the work and his worthy successor Stefan Holstein, who led the work on interior of the Evangelical church to an unprecedented glory. Both, while alive, became legends, leaving the parish with inspirational memories of their work and influence.
Next to the paintings, the interior was successively equipped with necessary equipment for the evangelical worship. First, in 1581 a beautiful mannerist baptismal font was placed in the church. In 1610, the Gothic altar was renovated, without violating the Catholic triptych, which adorns the church to this day. The altar depicting the Mother of God with the Child - the work of the Lower Silesian master from 1400, is the oldest monument of the church, being one of the peculiarities of interior design.
In 1614, a beautiful pulpit was installed. The fact that the church served evangelicals in the past is testified by the sculpture of Martin Luther, the initiator of the reform movement, preserved at the pulpit.
The peaceful coexistence of elements of Catholic and Evangelical worship in one temple best proves that the entire Central Odra region is a common, centuries-old cultural heritage of Poles and Germans. This fact is also a material example of mutual religious tolerance, a very precious thing from the past that is most relevant to the present particularly in the times of integration in Europe, and is worthy of broad emulation and popularization in every field of modern life.
The greatest richness of the church is its captivating polychrome. At various levels of the temple there are as many as 117 biblical paintings, which are very often accompanied by carefully made inscriptions. They occur in up to 90 places. Subtitles - hundreds of sentences and thousands of words, which are a verbal commentary to religious illustrations, indicating the relevant verses, containing quotes from the Bible, or depictions of the scenes. Among them there are also a few inscriptions on the secular content, providing descendants with more valuable chronological information related to important events in the history of the church, its pastors and investors.
The biblical scenes were painted during the 16th and 17th centuries with the first paintings commencing in 1566. However, most of the scenes were created later and in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. The formal and color diversity of individual iconographic bands clearly indicate that at least a few nameless artists have undertaken work at various times, which is normal for artistic paintings of this nature.
Let us remember that in the past biblical images of the Old and New Testaments (now we would call them comics) served the faithful as a painted Gospel, addressed to parishioners who couldn’t read. Renaissance paintings also have elements of the mannerist forms of the mannerism style, which can be seen, among others in the disproportionate shapes of human figures. It is noteworthy that in several paintings, among the biblical characters, appear the portraits of the village's inhabitants who were influential in the church.
The arrangement of images is not accidental. They resemble a literal anthology of Bible illustrations and illustrated quotes from a literary source. For the full interpretation of all the paintings, it must be appreciated that the artists used as many as 9 editions of German bibles from the 16th century.
The structure of the church is very simple. It is a temple, with a rectangular presbytery, a brick sacristy from 1588 and a square, wooden tower from 1657. The long, northern and southern walls are of half-timbered construction, filled with brick. Primary walls are shorter, eastern and western, with a log building structure. The church is covered by a shingle roof with two ridges: lower than the presbytery and higher above the nave. The main entrance leading to the nave is on the south side. There are also several separate entrances leading to the galleries.
As a valuable object of Protestant religious worship, absorbed into the seclusion of a provincial village, it may not impress on the outside, and we may not realize the unique artistic value of the interiors. However it is a treasure of Renaissance wooden architecture, not found in any other object of evangelical worship, in Poland, or in Europe.
Klępsk (Klemzig) is also well-known in Australia due to the emigration of ‘Old Lutherans’ from Prussia to South Australia. As a result of religious persecution by the Prussian authorities under King Friedrich Wilhelm III, several hundred German Lutherans decided to leave their homeland in search of religious freedom. The majority of these came from Klemzig and surrounding areas, and under the leadership of Pastor August Ludwig Christian Kavel, they immigrated to South Australia, arriving in late 1838 and early 1839. They first settled at Klemzig (named in honour of the village they had left behind), Glen Osmond and Hahndorf. Many of the Klemzig families moved to settle permanently in the Barossa Valley and initially named a town there after Langmeil – later renamed Tanunda (after WW2 named as Okunin in Poland). They were preceded by a smaller group of Old Lutherans from Pomerania who had arrived in SA in 1837, and in 1841 they were followed by around 200 further Old Lutherans travelling with Pastor Gotthard Daniel Fritzsche. Today descendants of those first Lutheran emigrants regularly visit Klępsk and the surrounding areas, in search of their roots or simply to visit the places where their ancestors lived and worshipped. They are all warmly welcomed and anticipated guests.
Today, the church retains its former splendor and historic rank, as an attractive religious building, which is gaining wider interest in Lubuskie, Poland and abroad. The church gained significant distinction on March 15, 2017, when thanks to the act of the President of the Republic of Poland – Mr. Andrzej Duda, the church was honored with the very prestigious title of "Monument of History."
Leon Okowiński (Initial text) / Jaroslaw Wnorowski (Updates in 2019)
Frank Ingvarson (WA) and Janette Lange (SA) - Australia
Substantial reading: Janette Lange - Lutheran Archives in Adelaide (SA)
Fr. Olgierd Banaś
We kindly thank Mr. Frank Ingvarson, descendant of the Schillings family, as well as Janette Lange from the Lutheran Archives in Adelaide for their proof and substantial reading and their contribution in creating this text.