A well with no bottom – New Wiśnicz

For the non readers 🙂 – a podcast here: A well with no bottom – New Wiśnicz

(Title photo: M. Tabor – Castle in Nowy Wiśnicz with Tatry mountains in the background)

Nowy Wiśnicz is a village that’s neither big nor small. You can however find a variety of super interesting places out there: a castle, house and descendants of Jan Matejko – one of the most famous of Polish painters, one of the most guarded prisons in Poland located in post-monastery buildings and a Wiśnicz high school of fine arts known throughout the country.

I managed to see all these places from the inside and I definitely recommend a ride to this area.

When still in high school, one winter I came up with this ingenious idea to live in a school boarding buildings for a while. One of the girls in my practically male class lived there and it so happens that she shared a room with a girl attending “plastyk”, the art high school in Wiśnicz.

Three of us spent a fantastic winter sharing a room. The end of the stay however came quickly and unexpectedly when the manager entered our room one evening, and one of the visiting colleagues (from another room) could not hold it in and let go of a mega puke into the first bin bucket she managed to locate. And all that right under the nose of the woman…

Before winter came to such an abrupt end, I managed to sneak into that art school in Nowy Wiśnicz and become a part of  what was going on there. And a lot was going on in there. Artists from all over Poland. Some painters, others sculptors, yet others potters, making ceramic masterpieces. It was here where I saw a kiln for firing ceramics for the first time. Awesomeness. We made more than one Jesus and a Christmas bell together out of clay there. 🙂

Around the same time, we also managed to do something else unusual. The guy who got hooked with the daughter of a colleague of my dad’s from work, turned out to be a lay catechist. As fate would have it, he got a job at the high school I attended. Ethics classes were unusual, and one day an unusual man appeared in the classroom. I do not remember his name anymore, but he deals with the rehabilitation of prisoners from the Wiśnicz prison.

The Penitentiary in Nowy Wiśnicz is a closed prison for repeat offenders. Sentences of 30 years to life imprisonment. The department reports to the district director of the Prison Service in Kraków.

Who are considered the qualifying offenders according to the Polish Penal Code can be found here: Polish Penal Code

The Prison Service employed in the local unit deals, to a large extent with resocialization. There are readaptation programs in which a group of inmates selected for a specific problem (substance abuse, domestic violence, problems with controlling emotions, etc.) participates.

Annually, about 80 inmates take part in professional courses organized on the territory of the unit in various professions, mainly construction. Convicts have the opportunity to work in a penitentiary and for private companies outside the prison. All convicts have the opportunity to use the common rooms, and with the consent of the Director and after a positive opinion of the doctor, from the room for recreational activities. During the summer, sports activities are conducted. There is a well-equipped library as well as a Roman Catholic chapel, where services are celebrated, and in addition, the convicts hold meetings with representatives of other churches and religious associations.

The Wiśnicz penitentiary is located in buildings inherited from the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites. An outstanding work of the early Baroque. Erected on a hill, it towers, together with the neighboring Castle, over the entire village. The monastery was founded by Stanisław Lubomirski (1583-1649) as a gift of gratitude for the victory at Chocim in 1621.

The monastery complex includes: the monastery building, the church of Christ the Saviour and bastion fortifications.

You can read more about this building and, above all, see beautiful photographs here: The monastery that became a prison

The dissolute of the Discalced Carmelite Monastery was proclaimed by a decree of 1783 by Emperor Joseph II. The monastery buildings were intended for a heavy prison, and from 1786 it also housed a court and judges’ apartments. It was here that the painter Juliusz Kossak, the son of the judge of the criminal court Michał, was born.

In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, after the Germans took over, the prison was used for a concentration camp – until the Auschwitz camp was founded.

The monastery church was systematically devastated and then demolished. In 1940, the Germans held a party modeled on the Germanic holiday of Walpurgis to celebrate the annexation of Denmark. Part of the church was burned at that time. In 1944, political prisoners were recaptured here.

The Wiśnicz prison has been operating in various forms for over 230 years. A dramatic thread of the recent history of the unit was the rebellion of prisoners and the seizure of the institution in 1989. Thanks to the negotiations undertaken by the prison management, the riot of the convicts ended bloodlessly.

In 1990, the buildings were canalized and central heating installations were brought to each residential cell.

In the years 2014-15, using external means, thermal modernization of the entire facility was carried out, the lighting was replaced with modern ones, making it not only more functional, but above all cheaper to operate.

In 2020, a new penitentiary pavilion was put into use, in which there are 60 four-person residential cells.

I only remember a few things from that day. We were standing at the prison gate – a group of about 25 – seventeen-year-olds with three or four guardians from the school. Around us armed masked guards. At some point, a big guy came out. Had a wild look on him. And he just out of nowhere suddenly looked at me. I was terrified, even though it was probably only one of the guards, but the atmosphere was rather heavy and when I saw that he went to the phone booth, my imagination went wild too and in my head he was certainly some dangerous guy they had just released after 30 years behind the bars… well, you know… adrenaline.

And then we suddenly heard buzzing. A huge heavy outside metal door was opened and a tall old man invited us inside. And then it buzzed again. Only now we were inside. Panic. They told us to give up our ID cards and left them in a small office to the right, where one guy was sitting. After a few minutes, our whole group passed through another gate to a large courtyard under an open sky. It buzzed behind us again.

Straight ahead we saw huge beautiful paintings of the Wiśnicz Castle, which is only maybe a kilometer away. Many of the prisoners are talented people. On the left, the buildings of the old monastery.

We look at the remains of the chapel. Mr. “klawisz” (a slang way to call the prison guard) tells us the story of this place. He talks about bones that for years could accidentally be found in the courtyard on the occasion of smaller or larger renovations, etc. Apparently, there were times in the post-war period when, while playing football, somewhere in the sandy courtyard, you could stumble on a bone protruding from the ground….

Suddenly, a group of prisoners appears on the left. I don’t remember if they were handcuffed even. They were led by prison staff. Our “Mr. Guide” said that this particular group was probably going to work or to some classes. Unfortunately, I don’t remember anymore.

Currently, there are 678 places for penitentiaries in the Wiśnicz prison, and 224 officers of the Prison Service and 30 civilian employees, including 7 teachers.

In 1978, the School Complex at ZK Nowy Wiśnicz was established. On average, in each school year, it educates about 100 inmates at the level of the High School, the Basic Vocational School in the field of electronics fitter and tinsmith, and since the school year 2012/2013 a Gymnasium has been established.  After completing their secondary school education, inmates have the opportunity to obtain the leaving cert. The exam is held on general principles, as in libertarian schools.

The stories of the guards in this prison are pretty shocking. Our Mr. Guide limped a little. One day, he was hit with a metal bar by one of the prisoners into the neck area. This damaged his spine and led to permanent motor dysfunction.

From the resocializer we have already heard (prior to that) about completely crazy situations, where inmates could even insert nails into their heads between the brain lobes, just to get outside the walls, e.g. to the hospital and try to escape from there.

After such stories, we entered one of the pavillions with cells. Only for a moment, of course, but it was a rather unpleasant experience. In such moments, one really wonders what we humans are and how it is possible that such places exist at all and that they are de facto filled up. Who is to blame? Parents? System?

I once watched the movie “Mustang” about prisoners who tamed wild mustangs as part of rehabilitation. I liked the initiative, but to tame a mustang means to imprison it, so it’s a bit paradoxical. However, I remember one scene where the psychologist asked each of the participants of the meeting how many years they were already in prison, how much time they still had left and how much time it took each of them between making the decision to perform the act and its execution. And you know what most of those men said? The act was done in seconds, and the punishment often lasts a lifetime.

I recommend an article “The Curse of Being a Repeat Offender” to be able to look at this issue from a different perspective.

Some claim that the Wiśnicz monastery was once connected by underground tunnels with the Kmit and Lubomirski castle (which by the court ruling in Tarnów in 2009 was taken away from Lubomirski family and handed over to the State Treasury). Such tunnels would probably not be unusual and unexpected considering that the monastery was built at the request of the Lubomirski lords. However, none of the current castle employees confirms this fact. Apparently, there are no documents or plans that would support this theory.

Wiśnicz is also associated with the legend of “aviators”, which tells about Turkish or Tatar prisoners employed in the construction of the fortress (probably a monastery, since it was founded after this victory), taken hostage during the Battle of Chocim.

They were to try to escape with the help of wings constructed by themselves. Of course, none of them succeeded, and in the places where they fell, tall, stone columns were set up, topped with crosses.

The Wiśnicki Castle, how else, has always served as a kind of art gallery for artists from the nearby art school. No matter where you go there, art will accompany your every step, as well as historical exhibitions, e.g. the recently ended exhibition of children’s costumes from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, etc.

A beautifully told story of the creation of the castle can be found here: History of Wiśnicz Castle

One of the chambers is constructed in such a way that being in one corner of it, you can hear even a very quiet conversation taking place in the opposite corner of the room. In olden times, this room was used for confession. It was here that Lubomirski eavesdropped on his wife’s confessions. And while the above-mentioned curiosities may contain more or less truth in them, this one is true, and I tested it personally.

An interesting fact at the Castle is also the so-called Bat Route – a secret underground passage, where there is an exhibition of torture instruments.

Maybe not everyone knows that Queen Bona, who resided on the Wawel Hill on a daily basis, was a frequent guest at the castle in Wiśnicz. The then Lord of the Castle, Piotr Kmita of the Szreniawa coat of arms, was a loyal supporter of Bona. Apparently, it was here, and at the behest of Bona, that Piotr Kmita gave Barbara Radziwiłłówna, the wife of Bona’s son, Sigismund II Augustus, a slow-acting poison. Queen Bona hated her daughter-in-law.

Barbara Radziwiłłówna, was a Lithuanian princess. At the time Lithuania was under the ruling of the Polish king. After the death of her first husband, she began a fiery affair with the young Sigismund Augustus, and he married her in secret. She was called a Lithuanian harlot with allegedly many secret lovers. A pervasive scandal broke out. However, despite this restless atmosphere in royal circles, Sigismund Augustus did everything to ensure that his beloved wife was crowned. This happened six months before her death, preceded by a serious illness. Doctors helplessly spread their hands. In the final phase of the disease, Barbara’s supposedly beautiful body was covered with ulcers and began to emit an unpleasant smell to such an extent that no servant wanted to look after her. Barbara died in torment.

The ghost of Barbara Radziwiłłówna sometimes appears in the chambers of the castle in Nowy Wiśnicz.

And those who have not yet had the opportunity to see it can do it with the help of a novelty which is VR projection using virtual glasses, where we take a flight around the interiors of the castle, also meeting its inhabitants.

Despised and misunderstood by the nation, beautiful Barbara was the King’s great love. So great that using the spells of Master Twardowski he wanted to bring her from the afterlife.

The most famous sorcerer of Kraków, Jan Twardowski, was an alchemist. He worked to invent the philosopher’s stone, which would make it possible to turn any metal into gold. He was also able to rejuvenate and cure diseases. Apparently, it was he who built the Błędowska Desert located near Kraków.

Twardowski owed his knowledge and knowledge of magic to the devil, to whom he sold his soul by signing a cyrograph. However, he wanted to outwit the devil, so he added a paragraph to the cyrograph saying that the devil could take his soul to hell only in Rome, which for many years the master carefully avoided.

He gained wealth and fame, eventually becoming a courtier of King Sigismund II Augustus, who after the death of his beloved wife Barbara surrounded himself with astrologers, alchemists and magicians.

One day, the Mniszko brothers reported to Master Twardowski, offering the Great Mage a bag of ducats for summoning the spirit of Barbara Radziwiłłówna from the afterlife. Its sight was to comfort King Sigismund in his icing sorrow and protect him from debilitating depression.

Twardowski asked for a few days to think. Once in his chamber, he took out of his drawer a sorcery book he had once received from the Devil Trzeciak. Something flashed and a small goat jumped out of the open book, which in the blink of an eye turned into a Devil that bowed to his Lord. The devil’s power, however, was not able to restore the deceased from other worlds, and even more so because Barbara did not go to hell at all. Twardowski had a problem because in heaven he did not have any plugs at all. So he decided to use a trick.

The Mniszko brothers brought a beautiful townswoman – Barbara Giżanka. This woman was like a mirror image of Barbara Radziwiłłówna. The king was brought into the dark chamber where a mirror was placed in front of him. Over that mirror, Master Twardowski made magical signs.

When the clock struck midnight, a woman appeared in the mirror, deceptively resembling the king’s beloved wife. This sight shocked Zygmunt so much that he fainted. This event apparently calmed the king’s nerves, and although he still wore mourning robes, he was less lamented by Barbara.

Twardowski and the royal peacekeeper Mniszek, however, had no intention of stopping there. After a few weeks, the latter introduced Barbara Giżanka to the king. The king went crazy for her and she became his uncrowned queen. She had such a huge influence on the king that the lords decided to get rid of her. To avoid this, the king sent the whole family to Podlasie and himself, sick, went to the residence in Knyszyn, where he died. Apparently, the king’s body had not yet cooled down, and Giżanka and her family were already robbing all the royal property to such an extent that there was nothing left to cover the body of the last of the Jagiellonians.

There is no certainty as to who took Twardowski’s mirror to the church in Węgrów. Some say that he himself, fleeing from the revenge of the Mniszko brothers, others that the servant of the Royal Castle in Warsaw gave it to his brother, the parish priest, who sprinkled it heavily with holy water, knowing the history of evoking the spirit of Radziwiłłówna.

Once, a local churchman looked into the mirror and instead of his own reflection he saw a terrible mascara. Without thinking he hit it with a heavy set of keys and the mirror cracked.

The parish priest ordered that it be taken to the sacristy and hung so high that no one could look into it again.

And Twardowski? One day he ended up in an inn with an unfortunate name… “Rome”. Apparently, it is the same one in which you can still eat and drink in Sucha Beskidzka. However, when the impatient devil came there for his soul, Twardowski jumped on the rooster and soared into the sky! Apparently, he is still sitting on the moon and longing for Kraków. Only his spider-like servant visits the city once a month to collect the latest gossip.

I can’t help but mention one more amazing thing, which few people know about, and which is a unique legacy of Polish history and you can take a closer look at it in Wiśnicz, namely the pompa funebris.

Radosław Gajda from the Channel Architecture is a good idea talks beautifully about this tradition: 

The video is in Polish however it is supported by plenty of visuals and therefore is quite easy to understand.

Noble funerals in the lands of Middle Age Poland were full of splendour, dignity and ostentatiously manifested wealth. The funeral ceremony itself usually lasted many days and was a very theatrical event. The deceased was supposed to watch this spectacle, in which he and his merits were praised, so while he was still alive he funded a coffin portrait from which he could observe this party. See below what it looked like. I will describe this interesting custom another time, because it is really unusual.

Sarkofag Jana Karola Opalińskiego w Muzeum „Zamek Opalińskich” w Sierakowie.
Sarkofagus of Jan Karol Opaliński in „Zamek Opalińskich” Museum in Sieraków, Source: Wikipedia

I went on a virtual walk around the castle and I managed to take a photo of just a few coffin paintings that are exhibited in Wiśnicz. Take a look:

It so happens that my last bonfire-sausage-alcoholic party that I remember took place just under the Wiśnicz castle. I was 19 years old and probably a week or 2 later I was going on holidays to Ireland. Yes! My vacation has dragged a little bit and became sixteen years long 🙂 well….

Wiśnicz and its surroundings are so rich in the legacy of culture, art and history that I will tell you about it more than once. Bottomless well.

For now – so long,



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