The Remarkable Amber Altar of St. Bridget's

more than a year ago
Best known as a sanctuary for the leaders of Solidarność under martial law, St. Bridget's Church was almost completely destroyed during WWII. It was rebuilt in 1973, based on original designs dating from 1394-1420. The church was founded as a place of worship for members of St. Bridget's Order, itself founded after the remains of St. Bridget laid in a small chapel that existed on this spot as they were carried from Rome to Vadstena in Sweden in 1374. Today the church is both an impressive and at the same time simple place of worship.

The stand out feature is the ‘Amber Altar’, which was dedicated on December 16, 2017 by Archbishop Sławoj Głódź and President Andrzej Duda. The idea of creating this quite remarkable altar was born during a pilgrimage to Czestochowa, where the Pauline Fathers presented the guests from Gdansk treasures of Jasna Gora decorated with amber. This inspired the then parish priest, Father Henryk Jankowski, famous as the Solidarity chaplain, to begin work with Professors Stanisław Radwański rector of the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdansk and Mariusz Drapikowski to design the altar. The altar was intended as a tribute to the Divine Providence in thanks for the papacy of Pope John Paul II and the regaining of Polish independence.

At the centre is the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Protector of the Workers, painted by Father Franciszek Znaniecki and inspired by his experiences from the workers’ massacre of December 1970. Her long train is made from unique white amber. Above that can be seen a white eagle, the emblem of Poland, soaring into the Gothic vaulted roof. In 2014, an amber monstrance or ostensorium, containing the relics of the heart and blood of Pope Saint John Paul II and Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, was added to the altar. Either side of the figure of the Blessed Virgin are the figures of St. Bridget of Sweden and St. Elizabeth Hesselblad while seated before the figure on either side are the figures of Pope Saint John Paul II and Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, two of the most powerful religious figures of Poland in the second half of the 20th century.

The plans for the altar were ambitious but later grew even from the original plans of Radwański and Drapikowski were drawn up. In December 2015, following the agreement of Archbishop Glódź, a series of ‘vines’ were installed which stretch from the floor up into the vault and cover a space of 120m2. Slowly these vines were being covered with small donations of amber, silver and gold given by ordinary people – parishioners, pilgrims and tourists from all over the world. Now completed the altar contains more amber than was supposed to have been in the famous Amber Room.

While the Amber Altar is worth a visit to St. Bridget’s by itself, it is by no means the only reason to visit. The church is as close a visual confirmation as you will see of the idea that, for many Poles, the Catholic Church and Poland are indivisible – that patriotism and devotion are intertwined. St Bridget’s is not just a place of worship but it’s also a shrine to a number of important events in Polish history. Decorating the walls are numerous memorials to various conflicts including the Soviet massacre of Polish officers at Katyń as well as crosses used during the Solidarność strikes. Particularly poignant is the small shrine to Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the chaplain of Solidarność who was murdered by secret police in 1984. To the right of the altar as you look at it, you will see the Chapel of Fatima. Note the dates in the surrounding gates – all important years in Polish history. There’s also a display of religious artefacts, while you should also keep your eye out for the huge doors on the east side of the north nave showing Solidarity scenes from August 1980 until the imposition of Martial Law in December 1981.

In 2010, work on the spiral staircase leading to the choir revealed a previously hidden crypt containing hundreds of bones. It is thought that they originated from the early 17th century and were possibly buried in shallow graves around the church and we moved to this crypt when rebuilding work was carried out but tests are still ongoing. You can now visit the crypt which contains the relics of St Bridget of Sweden and a couple of the skulls discovered here in 2010.

The church was granted the title of Lesser Basilica by the Pope John Paul II in 1991 and another statue to him can be found outside, while a short distance from the church a statue to its most famous priest, Father Henryk Jankowski, can be found on ul. Stolarska.


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