Antoni Bartosz

Light from the Treasure Trove

Reading time: approx. 16 minutes

Tradition and craftsmanship in one? Really? Do artisans, masters of shaping matter, really affect how customs develop? Can they create symbolic aspects of social life? 

Kraków’s history show this to be the case. It was a humble stonemason Michał Ezenekier who originated the beautiful local tradition of nativity scene-making. It was craftsmen who created masterful works, acclaimed by artists from the Kraków Workshops association. And they were right, since artisans were behind at least some of their triumphs at the World Expo in Paris in 1925. Craftsmen also drew in artists into their own circles, as did the acclaimed bookbinder Robert Jahoda who worked with Józef Mehoffer, Stanisław Wyspiański, Jacek Malczewski… We could name myriad such examples.

Traditions and craft have long gone hand in hand in Kraków. They continue to be inspirational, although we have some catching up to do. First and foremost, it is a sphere guided by the passion of Cracovians, head over heel in love with their city. Without it, it would be impossible to understand local rituals such as pageants, re-enactments, fairs, even language and subtle gestures all coming together to shape the city’s unique atmosphere.


This text will explore these ideas in more detail. It will also pose questions on traditions vs. modernity. What does it mean to treasure traditions? Should we repeat them, or perhaps change them? Or, in Kraków’s case, should we first immerse ourselves in this subtle aura shaped by mysterious tangles of history, urbanism, culture and customs…

Invigorating gestures

A city is a living organism. It is shaped by its space, social bonds and ways in which it reaches to its treasure trove for symbols – legends, messages, attitudes, practices and the entire wisdom of taming the world which was born right here.


Kraków’s treasure trove is unique, as is the collective responsibility for preserving it, and – even more so – searching for sense within it. “How to become modern and to return to sources?” asked Paul Ricoeur. For Kraków, the question is existential.


My intuition instantly guides me to suggest two inspirational phenomena: the nativity scene-making tradition, and Kraków Workshops.

Ezenekier’s intuition

“Old Michał is a veteran of nativity scenes. […] He thinks is all up himself, these ornate towers, domes and cloisters adorning Cracovian nativity scenes and modelled on Wawel or the Basilica of St. Mary…” wrote Tadeusz and Stanisław Estreicher in 1904 about Michał Ezenekier, master stonemason and tiler from the village of Krowodrza (now a district of Kraków). They added, “For the last forty years, since 1864, Michał has been wandering around Kraków with his nativity scenes every winter.” Michał was just ten years old in 1864, and he most likely carried a traditional model of a stable. As time went on, he came up with the idea to create a nativity scene in which Bethlehem is transformed into Kraków. Luckily for us, the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków holds one of his earliest constructions, dating back to the 1890s. The intricate two-and-a-half-metre nativity scene is the oldest surviving. It was originally used as a stage of a puppet theatre, with the marionettes representing characters from the Bible, Polish national heroes and ordinary Cracovians. They were voiced and animated by hidden nativity scene makers. They were stonemasons and builders who needed to earn extra money in winter; they lined up on the Main Market Square with their constructions, waiting to be invited into burghers’ homes. That’s how they were first encountered by the Estreichers…


Did Ezenekier create his fantastic constructions and puppets himself? According to the Estreichers he was the main driver of the process, albeit he built his nativity scenes with his two sisters, his son Leon and Leon’s wife. Together, they developed the distinctive style of the nativity scenes: Bethlehem with strong Cracovian touches and contemporary scenes on several levels, all designed by two generations of men and women who worked on the constructions. Is this combination the secret of Cracovian nativity scenes and their vitality? Ezenekier’s model opened the door for extraordinary creativity. It sanctions stepping beyond the traditional formula (here, a Franciscan stable), plays a fascinating game with the city’s architecture and symbolism and processes within it (theatre of the present day), as well as encouraging fresh interpretations.

Ezenekier’s intuition

This was well understood by Jerzy Dobrzycki: following a slump in the nativity scene-making tradition, he launched an annual competition for the constructions in 1937, using Ezenekier’s seminal nativity scene as the opening point. The competition, now run by the Museum of Krakow, continues until the present day. Ever since, families with long-standing traditions of nativity scene-making and new authors have been spending long months in their apartments and workshops devising their very own constructions. Some are radically different from Ezenekier’s original scene, even though they clearly reference it. In 2011, Piotr Michalczyk replaced the traditional towers of the Basilica of St. Mary with a skyscraper at Grzegórzeckie Roundabout and the unfinished (at the time), skeletal construction of the Unity Tower at Mogilskie Roundabout, plastered with advertising banners. He also created new actors and new roles in the context of contemporary Christmas customs. Every year, constructors dream up their own characters for their nativity scenes which reflect the rhythm of the city, the country, the world.


Nativity scene makers present their vision of Kraków at the foot of the Adam Mickiewicz statue on the Main Market Square on the first Thursday of December. As the hejnał bugle call resounds at noon, the assembled crowds form a colourful procession to the nearby Krzysztofory Palace, branch of the Museum of Krakow, to present the nativity scenes to the assembled jury.


Ezenekier’s original, timeless idea and the shrewd decision of the municipal authorities to found the competition are fundamental to the event. To mark this, in 2018, the Cracovian nativity scene-making tradition was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Every year, the Museum of Krakow hosts an exhibition of constructions submitted to the competition, and in recent years selected nativity scenes have also been displayed in the city space.

Intuition of the Kraków Workshops

Jerzy Warchałowski, theorist and practician of the movement known as Polish Applied Art and later as Kraków Workshops, described the circle’s radical aspirations in 1904, saying, “Art infiltrating life from top to bottom […], art always and everywhere.” Warchałowski’s contemporary Stanisław Wyspiański was living proof that art can be expressed through all aspects of life.


The interesting point here is the driving force behind these movements, in particular the Kraków Workshops founded in 1913 and serving as a model for industrial design over the following 13 years. It was a cooperative group bringing together artists, craftsmen and young people from nearby villages. The word “workshops” was used to mean “a symbol of movement, a negation of any permanence, a living mechanism activated by engaged people” (Irena Huml). The idea was to design and create “beautiful and useful things”, and in the Kraków Workshops fertile imagination went hand in hand with masterful delivery. One of the group’s members was Bonawentura Lenart, “an outstanding authority on paper, fonts, typesetting and bookmaking who started as a bookbinder’s apprentice and, according to guild laws, studied the finest bookbinding techniques from all over Europe; he was a model artist-craftsman in the best meaning of the word” (Wojciech Jastrzębowski).

Intuition of the Kraków Workshops

This joining of artistic visions, practical skills and bold imagination fed by local culture made the Workshops a pioneering concept. The very nod towards the rustic was inspired by the Workshops’ respect for independent authors, in particular those from rural areas – for their instinctive sense of the material intertwined with genuine inventiveness. It is no wonder, then, that the Workshops dared follow the path set down by Antoni Buszek, author of an inspired method of teaching art. Following his fascinating experiences in Paris, he arrived in Kraków just at the time when the Workshops were being formed. His proposed methods were later awarded the Grand Prix at the World Expo in Paris in 1925.


Buszek had a knack for inspiring children and teenagers’ creativity. He started by approaching peasant women working at the cigarette factory at Dolnych Młynów Street. He convinced them that they’d make better money doing a more interesting job at the Kraków Workshops at Smoleńsk Street. After a few trials, he asked them to draw and paint the way they did when they were children. They were soon creating fabulous patterns for batiks, fabrics and wooden toys, working alongside artists such as Zygmunt Lorec and Zofia Stryjeńska. This process uncovered the flair of Józefa and Zofia Kogut and Felicja Kossowska, all of whom were awarded individual Grand Prix in fabrics at the Paris expo. (There is not enough space here to include the full list of prizes awarded to the Workshops, but it’s worth noting that the Workshops won 20 of the 36 Grand Prix presented to Polish entrants.)


The Kraków Workshops wouldn’t have been possible without support from the Museum of Science and Industry at 9 Smoleńsk Street, which provided technical backing such as a weaving loom, batik and dyeing studios, metalwork workshops, carpentry tools, a bookbinding workshop and a printing press. The collaboration resulted in many fascinating designs, perhaps the finest of which is the stairwell balustrade designed by Józef Czajkowski. Today, the site of the former Museum of Science and Industry is home to the Faculty of Industrial Design of the Academy of Fine Arts. The façade, also designed by Czajkowski, still bears the inscription in a distinctive font: “Municipal Museum of Science and Industry. Institute Supporting Industry and Craft”.


The economic crisis of the 1920s put a stop to the experiment, and the Workshops closed in 1926. However, this doesn’t change the fact that the gesture of the Kraków Workshops remains a visionary one, bringing together circles of heritage, education, design, craft and modernity. What’s more, the invigorating spirit of the Kraków Workshops arose in spite of previous disasters and crises faced by the city. The association also resisted the temptation to simply copy patterns and designs from folk culture. On the contrary, Czajkowski postulated, “Let’s create freely without looking at categories and concepts, instead simply drawing on our greatest pleasures” – and his motto came true.


A century later, the concept of “beautiful and useful things” and “art penetrating everyday life” is making a comeback in Kraków. The Ethnographic Museum is working with designers, craftsmen and local communities to create solutions for public space inspired by the spirit of the location. There is also talk about founding a design museum in Kraków. Another interpretation of the Workshops’ code is proposed by Jerzy Hausner from the Kraków University of Economics, held under the banner Firm-Idea – a concept of enterprise management that answers major problems of today. It is implemented by the Open Eyes Economy Summit.


Will the gesture of the Kraków Workshops return to Kraków?

Same but different

The Greek philosopher Sallust explained stories told by people to help them make sense of the world around them by saying, “Now these things never happened, but always are”. Cracovian tales come from a melting pot of legends, the departed, the sacred, anniversaries and anecdotes. The city boundaries are marked by mounds of Krak (Krakusa), Wanda, Kościuszko and Piłsudski. The first two are familiar from legends, the latter two – from Poland’s history. Wawel Hill, towering over the city, draws its power from legends and history alike.


Kraków tells its stories faithfully while constantly seeking new formulas. And, as with any search, it’s hit and miss.

Consciousness and performance

Let’s compare two dragon-themed spectacles celebrated in early June. During the former, huge, inflatable beasts rise over the Vistula in the evening among pyrotechnic displays and to the sound of rousing music. Does the humble cobbler Skuba even get a look-in..? The latter, the Dragon Parade, sounds a tone of authenticity. It brings together kids and parents in constructing vast, fantastical models. They then take to the streets for a flamboyant pageant. Two different takes on the same topic…


The motif of garlands, originating from Warsaw and traditionally linked with fortune-telling, also undergoes a fascinating metamorphosis. The event recently freed itself from its former ostentatious formula and, transformed into a music festival, headed to the city!

Consciousness and performance

Rękawka has undergone an even more fascinating evolution. Celebrated on the first Tuesday after Easter, the nature of the event is encapsulated by Andrzej Nowak’s words: “An ancient pagan celebration of the sacrum of place and customs. A gentle pressure of tradition…” It is a sacrum of place since it is held at the foot of the Krakus Mound, dedicated to the legendary founder of Kraków. Ancient pagan rites are explored through the theme of a funeral wake. Yet the event is celebratory: it became a feast in the 19th century when wealthy Cracovians rolled various foodstuffs – nuts, eggs, bread, cakes – down the hill for the poor to chase (the motif of food returns, as though at a wake). Today, Rękawka returns to its roots and presents demonstrations of life and contests from the early Middle Ages, as well as exploring contemporary problems through the prism of the era. Need to cure a disease? Ask one “in the know” – a witch, an alchemist, a herbalist… We will meet warriors, shamans, mediaeval contests and historic and legendary figures.

Funerals, pageants, strolls

In the 19th century, Kraków became the nation’s necropolis. Perhaps that’s why funerals are celebrated so sombrely here even now. Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, author of the quip “Such a nice place, Kraków. Only the dead here”, seemed more fascinated by the fact that Kraków’s spirit remains in debt to its personalities after their passing.


Kraków adores pageants, processions, parades, and their array is absolutely fundamental. The rules governing the procession of St. Stanislaus were once overseen by the rector of the Alma Mater, since Cracovian fraternities could never come to an agreement. Kraków’s fraternities are a separate subject; two particularly worthy of mention are the Archconfraternity of the Passion and the Fowler Brotherhood. The procession of St. Stanislaus is held on the first Sunday after 8 May; it is followed by the procession of Corpus Christi and the Lajkonik parade a week later. The bearded rider of the hobby-horse, clad in flamboyant robes, recalls the legend of the bold 13th-century raftsmen who held back a Tatar invasion on the octave of Corpus Christi. The start of the summer is marked by the music and dance parade down Floriańska Street on the New Orleans Sunday, held as a part of the Summer Jazz Festival (running since 1996). The route is followed again in early September by the Dachshund Parade. In December, the Main Market Square is filled with the dazzling pageant of nativity scene-makers. Not long after, a procession of carollers heads down Floriańska again, and on 6 January the Three Wise Men appear from three different locations in the city; the recent tradition, originating from Warsaw, has been enthusiastically adopted by Kraków.

Funerals, pageants, strolls

In Kraków, simply going for a walk is a ritual. The Planty Garden Ring was devised with strolls in mind, providing delightful meeting spots among the trees and benches. Kraków has been blessed with green spaces. The vast Błonia Meadow near the city centre attracts visitors from near and far. The city is also home to numerous parks, with the Kościuszko Mound, Wolski Forest and even Tyniec slightly further afield. The city has turned its eyes back towards the Vistula, tempting with strolls along the boulevards offering beautiful views over the ever-evolving city. Nowa Huta is as green – or perhaps even greener! – as Kraków’s older districts. As elsewhere in Poland, Kraków’s churches present nativity scenes in the run-up to Christmas and Christ’s tombs around Easter. But one of the religious celebrations is very local: the indulgence in Zwierzyniec on Easter Monday, known as Emaus. The event bustles with crowds, resounds with barrel organs and the market stalls abound with wooden toys and lucky charms, reaching peak levels of kitsch. There are plenty of traditional sweets, including the aromatic honeycomb (also sold at cemetery gates on All Saints’ Day in November). Why does Emaus continue to draw such huge crowds? Perhaps, like in the days gone by, we feel the need to “go beyond” and immerse ourselves in festive cheer?

Kraków’s fairs are another form of theatre. Today, local symbolism comes face-to-face with global motifs, and the clash is becoming all the more marked.

The dynamics of cultural processes are also fascinating. At a recent Easter fair, I was struck by the large, decorative Easter eggs bearing prints of idyllic scenes. This had an official feel to it, since the eggs represented different regions of Central Europe. What’s changed? The traditional symbolism of patterns expressing the power of life and grassroots art celebrating life overcoming death seems to be gradually replaced by a longing for nature and the familiar.


Kraków’s Christmas market is becoming a major event – CNN has listed it in its top ten festive fairs in Europe! A recent custom is the gala opening by switching on the illuminations on the tree at the Main Market Square. The event is deliberately non-commercial and opens no earlier than at the start of December, recalling the symbolic meaning of light at this special time of the year. The fact that the festive stage holds performances by students at art and craft schools serves as a reminder that Kraków continues to search for living traditions.

What do legends reveal today?

The cobbler Skuba from the legend of the Wawel Dragon inspires us with the cunning ploy he used to defeat the evil beast. An even more interesting figure is the bugle caller who warned Kraków about the Tatar invaders creeping towards the city in early morning for, and emboldened Cracovians to stave off the attack. He fell to his death pierced by the enemy’s arrow, hence the bugle call – played every hour on the hour from the taller tower of the Basilica of St. Mary – ends suddenly mid-note. The story captivates sacrifice for the greater good, keen eyesight and utter dedication to the cause – the caller could have left his post once he roused the city to fight. And of course there is the pure drama of the sound – brilliantly simple yet moving.


The city continues to abound with tiny rituals. For example, if you want to be certain you’ll pass your high school finals, you must hop around the Adam Mickiewicz statue at the Main Market Square at dawn. On one leg. One lap per subject. And, speaking of the bard, the flower sellers, trading their bouquets at the Main Market Square, place blooms at the foot of his statue every year on his nameday (24 December).


Heading a bit further afield to the Church of St. Catherine in Kazimierz, on the 22nd of every month we’ll find people bearing roses for Saint Rita. She didn’t come from Kraków – bah, she wasn’t even Polish! But she was a strong woman, and the roses symbolise people’s admiration for her and serve as an offering accompanying prayers.


Wandering around the Old Town we encounter craftsmen. For example, at Smoleńsk Street you’ll find a shoemaker working with traditional tools. You might be surprised by how young he is – but the passion when he talks about his trade! And there are myriad more examples. Let’s just mention miniatures from the Balthasar Behem Codex, turrets defended by trade guilds recalled by plaques in the Planty Garden Ring marking their former locations – needlemakers, haberdashers, tanners, barbers, guards – and the later seat of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry at 1 Długa Street with its stunning Mehoffer Hall.


You’ll find shops with long traditions: Voigt on Floriańska and Kowalczyk on Zwierzyniecka (opticians), Turbasa at Św. Gertrudy (tailor), Płonka on Szewska and Strojny on Sławkowska (watchmakers), Lenart on Sławkowska (cobbler), Świerblewski on Św. Krzyża (glazier), Kilean on Mostowa (upholsterer), and Pawlikowski on Krowoderska and Kurkowski at Wolnica Square (luthiers). And there are plenty of newer workshops, with shoemakers and cobblers perhaps the most numerous. The Dobre Cechy Association works hard to showcase the finest craftsmen and artisans working in Kraków today ( The topic is important and current, down to the terminology used. Does the term “vanishing trades” give justice to skills which are surely not just contemporary but perhaps even trades of the future? The progressing globalisation makes us long for originality; for a human dimension. This is expressed by grassroots journals, social networks and websites such as, stressing the importance of common design.

Will we find something we’d lost in our chase for transformation? What would the Kraków Workshops make of the city today?

Finally, Kraków’s atmosphere is marked by the rhythm of life, by music, by light. Much has been written about this before, so I will keep my musings short. It’s true that Kraków runs to its own clock, and the hourly bugle call only serves to confirm this. What about the Sigismund Bell at Wawel Cathedral, which has only ever been rung by hand since 13 July 1521? What other city can boast a bell it takes a team of thirty to ring? The Sigismund Bell’s toll is deep, powerful, significant. Perhaps that’s why, when you touch its heart with your left hand, your dreams will come true?



More than ever, Kraków is now at risk of becoming culturally flat. This is clear as day at the Cloth Hall stalls, where Fabergé eggs have displaced traditional Cracovian designs. Kraków must reach back to its treasure trove, and even more so it needs people who are ready to explore it – like Ezenekier back in the 19th century and like members of the Kraków Workshops after him – people with strong, clear ties to the city.


Kraków has already taken care of a lot. It looks after its appearance (cultural parks) including green spaces. It has created beautiful contemporary interpretations of its heritage with the Manggha Museum and Cricoteka.


But it’s time for a new city imagination and visionary memory. This, in turn, shapes a modern city while exploring the “unknown connection with the place and with the departed who rest there” (Tomasz Różycki).

Antoni Bartosz

Medievalist, doctor of the humanities at Paris-Sorbonne University, literary scholar and translator. Director of the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków since 2008. He describes ethnography as a close look at our everyday lives and seeing humankind beyond established frameworks. His passions are discussions, reading, mountains and football.

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