Evocative photo essay captures ancient custom of praying at roadside shrines
A photographer from the village of Wyskitna near Nowy Sącz has captured the ‘charm and beauty’ of countryside life with a series of fascinating shots showing the ancient custom of gathering to pray at roadside shrines.
Krzysztof Ligęza had been living in the UK for six years when he realized how much he missed rural life.
Returning to Poland, he set off across the country on a quest to capture hundreds of shrines, which he then turned into an evocative exhibition shown both in Poland and Slovakia.
Ligęza told TFN: “I began the project because I missed the simple charm of the countryside near my home and I noticed this beautiful custom of praying at roadside shrines was disappearing.
"When I was young, they were something ordinary and obvious. I took part when I was a child. It was so popular. But I noticed that it was gradually disappearing.
“So I decided to take these photographs. Just to make sure it was recorded. Because I had lived abroad, I knew that it was unique and not practiced in Western countries.”
Often placed at sites of spiritual power pre-dating Christianity such as trees, hilltops and next to water, roadside shrines can be seen in many villages and small communities around Poland.
The shrines and crosses have survived the turbulent times of the partitions of Poland, both world wars, as well as communism, which was hostile to manifestations of religiosity.
They have often remained unchanged for centuries and some have been maintained and cared for by the same family for generations.
On Sunday evenings as the sun sets, especially in late spring and summer, it is common to see small groups gathered by the shrines huddled in concentrated prayer or reverent song.
Such sights are so ubiquitous in rural areas that they often go unnoticed. However, this custom has largely died out in many parts of Europe, making it special to Poland, though under threat of increasing secularisation.
Ligęza explained that the practice, though it goes back a very long time, really got a boost during the counter-reformation in the 17th century when it was widespread in Europe.
More shrines and crosses appeared after 1848 when peasants were liberated from serfdom. The shrines from that time give thanks for their freedom and receiving their own land.
“They were like a big thank you to God. And they were also symbolic. They carried symbolic funerals of serfdom in these places,” Ligęza said.
Although meetings by the shrines can happen at any time of year, they are most frequent in May when people meet to bless the fields at the start of the growing season.
There are processions to crosses and shrines located near farmland that take place just before the feast of Ascension. During three days, local people say prayers to plead for a good harvest.
“They meet at the shrine for 20 or 30 minutes and sing religious songs. Then they pray. It is not a mass and there is not normally a priest present,” Ligęza said.
The places where the shrines are set up is no accident. Many are placed by trees, which Ligęza says is significant.
“The tree is an important plant in many religions. In Christianity we have the Garden of Eden, the tree of life and the tree of good and good and evil.
“The tree is deeply rooted in religion. Often an oak or a linden, they appear in many, many different creeds,” he said.
In some cases the shrines are in pre-Christian sites that for many centuries people have believed have spiritual strength or power.
This idea is expressed in the name of the exhibition: Axis Mundi, which Ligęza says means the place where earth is linked to paradise.
“The idea of paradise comes from old European myths, and the word itself comes from Persian and means garden. When you look at the shrines, they look like small gardens, where people pray. In this way they connect themselves with heaven.”
When he visited the shrines to take photos, Ligęza wondered what the reaction of local people would be.
“Actually, it was very positive. I was surprised because we live in strange times. People can be hyper allergic to being photographed because they worry what you are going to do with the images. Actually, I was surprised. It was 100% Positive
“I was deeply grateful that they were so open because it is such a beautiful custom. Many families meet together to pray and sing.”
Ligęza says that normally the groups number around 10-15 people. Predictably, they are often older people and parents with young children.
“I met people who I photographed again at exhibitions. It was really touching to see them recognise themselves and their houses in the photographs.
“I met a lady who visited the exhibition with her daughter and grandchildren. The little kids were shouting ‘Oh, grandma, look, look, there's, there's our shrine over there’”
Photographs from the project have appeared at exhibitions in Wrocław, Gorlice, Przemyśl and in Bratislava. The project is currently being exhibited in Ligęza’s hometown of Nowy Sącz until February 13.