Like any medieval city, there is a lot of history in Wrocław’s streets for those who are prepared to go looking for it. Nowhere is this more true than on Ostrów Tumski, Wrocław’s beautiful cathedral island. As Wrocław’s oldest inhabited district, Ostrów Tumski’s streets are fit to bursting with folk stories and local myth. Here, I take a look at some of the more interesting of these legends and show you some of the things you might have missed the last time you visited the island.
For those of you interested in locating some of these things for yourself, there is a map at the end of the article.
1. The Dumpling Gate
The Dumpling Gate is a stone archway situated to the north of the cathedral, which appears completely normal until you notice the strange stone shape sitting in the middle of it. According to legend, this is a dumpling, and the story of how it got up there is an interesting one.
Long ago there lived on the island a man who loved two things in the world more than anything else: his wife and the delicious Silesian dumplings she used to cook for him every day.
However, one day, the man’s wife died and he fell into a deep depression since he knew that he would never see either of his favourite things ever again. His wife, seeing how depressed her husband was without her and her cooking, visited the man in a dream. She told her husband that she was giving him a magic pot which would always be full of fresh dumplings. He could eat as many as he liked and the next morning, it would be full again. The only thing he had to remember was to never eat the last dumpling in the pot.
Upon awakening, the man discovered that the dream had been true and he quickly feasted on the dumplings contained inside the magic pot. However, the man got greedy and he foolishly tried to eat the last dumpling.
The moment he stabbed it with his fork, the dumpling sprouted legs, jumped up out of the pot and ran away. The man chased the dumpling all over the island but eventually it came to rest in the middle of the archway where it stands to this day. There, it turned to stone to serve as a warning to everyone about the dangers of giving in to greed.
2. The White Rose
This grim legend tells of the reason why there are no white roses in the cathedral’s rose garden. According to local superstitions, if a priest sees a white rose within three days of coming to office, death will shortly follow.
The reason for this superstition lies with a bishop who lived on the island long ago. Controversially, he had fallen deeply in love with his cousin, a beautiful young girl. Since such romantic love was forbidden to a man of the cloth, the only way the two could communicate with each other was through means of letter, which they would smuggle into a basket of white roses his cousin would deliver him every day.
One day, however, the young girl died and the bishop was so distraught that he insisted his bedchamber be filled with white roses in her memory. Unfortunately for him, the stench emanating from so many flowers overpowered the bishop in his sleep and he suffocated to death.
3. The Footless Statue
On the south wall of the cathedral, there is a statue of St Vincent which has no feet. The story goes that long ago, the city’s master sculptor Master Erasmus – who had been working far too hard – collapsed with exhaustion while he was crossing the cathedral island.
Fortunately, a young boy came to his aid and nursed Master Erasmus back to health. When the Master was recovered, he saw that the boy had no legs and realised how difficult it must have been for such a lame child to save him. He asked the boy how he could return the favour and the boy, without a moment’s hesitation, said that he wanted to be taught how to carve.
At first the Master was reluctant to accept such a handicapped child as an apprentice but it was certainly true that he needed the help. As a compromise, he told the boy that he would give him one chance to sculpt a statue and, if that statue passed Master Erasmus’s rigorous checks, the boy would be allowed to stay on as his apprentice.
Naturally, the boy was eager to try. He worked night and day on creating a statue of St Vincent, waking up before any of the other apprentices and going to bed long after dark. He paid particular attention to the statue’s legs, making sure to give St Vincent the strong, healthy legs he had always dreamt of but which nature, cruelly, had never given him.
On the evening of the last day, his work finally finished, the boy prayed to God that the Master would accept his work.
That night he slept fitfully… In a dream, St Vincent came to the boy and touched him on the legs. Upon awakening, the boy discovered that he had miraculously grown legs during the night! In place of the withered stumps he had been born with were strong, healthy legs just like the ones he had sculpted on St Vincent. And when he went out to look at the statue, he saw that its legs were gone!
When Master Erasmus heard this story, he was amazed and declared that truly God had blessed his young apprentice. He hired the boy on the spot and the child went on to become Master Erasmus’s most trusted helper.
4. The Screaming Head
On the south tower of the cathedral, about 15 meters above the ground, there is a strange stone head, frozen in a silent scream. The head is notable because, as you can see in the picture, it doesn’t look as though it should be there or was part of the cathedral’s original design.
According to legend, this is the head of a young man who fell in love with the daughter of a wealthy goldsmith. When he asked the goldsmith if he could marry his daughter, the man refused, saying that he would only marry his daughter to someone with a lot of money.
Upon hearing this, the young man vowed that he would return one year hence with a fortune. He ran away into the nearby forest and so began a life of crime and banditry, certain that this was the quickest way to become rich.
When he returned to the goldsmith at the end of the year he did so laden with wealth, but with his soul blackened by the sins he had committed. Once again, he demanded that the goldsmith let him marry his daughter but to his shock, the goldsmith refused. He had heard stories about the evil things this man had been doing in the forests – attacking merchants, looting and pillaging. He and didn’t want his daughter marrying such an obviously evil man.
On hearing this, the young man was furious. He declared that if he couldn’t have the daughter then no one would and, locking both the goldsmith and his daughter in the shop, he set fire to the building. He ran away from the shop laughing, his mind finally turned to madness by all the evil he had done. He was so evil that he ran into the nearby cathedral and up the steps of the tower in order to get a better view of the goldsmith’s shop as it burned to the ground.
However, God was watching that day and he was not pleased about his cathedral being used in such a manner. God bewitched the window so that it slowly started contracting around the young man’s head. At first the young man didn’t notice – he was so focussed on watching the fire. Then, he suddenly found that he couldn’t pull his head back through the window. Still the window continued shrinking and the man, terrified, started screaming for help.
People heard his screams and came running, but then they noticed the fire and assumed that he was shouting about that. As the young man watched, horrified, the locals broke down the door to the goldsmith’s shop and pulled the man and his daughter free, completely unharmed.
It was the last thing the young man saw before the last of the window closed around his neck and his final death screams were locked into stone forever to serve as a warning to everyone that God was not to be messed with.
5. The Bald Angels
You can’t miss the statue of John Nepomucen on the church square – its presence in front of Saint Bartholomew church dominates the central plaza. It is an impressive looking thing and the largest baroque monument in Wrocław.
However, look close and you will see something strange about this statue. Hidden among the typical angels depicted on the statue’s side are two whose heads are completely bald.
According to legend, Master Urbanski, the man responsible for building the statue, was an extremely lazy man. He had dragged his feet and missed his deadlines for finishing the statue for many years and some people were wondering if it would ever be completed at all.
In order to meet his latest deadline, Master Urbanski decided to ask his assistant, Gottfried to finish sculpting the angels for him. At the time, Gottfried was extremely happy because his wife had just given birth to a beautiful boy. Overcome by happiness at this event, he decided to carve one of the angels with the head of his newborn son.
When the Master saw what Gottfried had done, he was furious and fired his young apprentice. However, Gottfried’s wife decided to plead for her husband’s job. She took her newborn baby to the Master and showed it to him. When Master Urbanski saw how beautiful and happy the baby was, he was moved and accepted to take Gottfried back. Additionally, in order to keep the statue looking proportional, he ordered that a second bald angel be carved on the other side as well. The statue met its deadline and both bald angels can still be seen to this day.
6. The Double Church
This is one legend that probably finds its origins somewhere in truth. Many years ago, there lived on the island two very rich and influential people, Prince Henry and Bishop Thomas. Both men were very kind and generous to the local community but they had one major failing – they completely hated each other. Since they were the city’s two richest men, this obviously led to a lot of problems, as town meetings would often descend into bouts of bickering between them and nothing would ever get decided.
One day, the two men went to the Archbishop to help settle their dispute. Upon hearing their grievances with each other, the Archbishop advised them that the best way to reconcile their differences would be to build a church together. The church, he said, would be called St Bartholomew’s church. The men agreed.
While they were digging the church’s foundations, however, the Bishop stumbled upon a tree root shaped like a cross. Immediately, he declared that the church they were building should be called St Cross church instead.
The Prince disagreed.
For a time it seemed that all their good work would be undone as the two men started arguing once more, but luckily, the Archbishop was on hand to help settle the dispute. He said that as a compromise they should build two churches on the same spot, one called St Bartholomew’s church and the other St Cross. To this day, the two churches sit one on top of the other and you can visit them both.
So that’s it for Ostrów Tumski. For those of you who are curious, here is a map of the island with the various locations I talked about marked in red.
Next time I will show you some of the legends of Wrocław’s market square and salt market. There are many more stories where these came from!
Written By Robert Burgess