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Swieta Lipka/Heiligelinde:

Our Lady of the Holy Linden Tree

In her sanctuary in the little village Swieta Lipka in Northern Poland, in what used to be East Prussia, a part of Germany until 1945, about 6 km S/E of Reszel and 70 km N/E of Olsztyn.

Though she does not bear the title ‘Black Madonna’ I included Our Lady of the Holy Linden Tree in this index because she shares so many characteristics of Black Madonnas: she is dark, has a strong connection to the earth, to pre-Christian spirituality, and she has been miraculous from her inception.

Legend tells of a 13th century convict who was saved by Mother Mary in the following manner: The night before his scheduled execution she appeared in his cell in the jail of Rastenburg. Handing him a piece of wood and a knife, she told him to carve what he liked. Now the accounts differ. Most say he carved a beautiful Madonna and child, others claim it was only Baby Jesus.(*1) In either case, the image was so moving that the jailors and the judge believed the convict’s apparition story and set him free. On his way home to Rössel the freed man did as Mary had told him: he hung his carving in the first linden tree he passed. Many miracles began to happen at this tree and so the ‘holy linden tree’ became a place of pilgrimage, whereby Baby Jesus, Mary, and the tree all became one in the hearts of the faithful.

Many Black Madonnas appeared in trees or are somehow associated with sacred trees (see e.g.: Telgte, Halle, Altötting, Neuerburg, Neukirchen-beim-Heiligen-Blut, Bar-sur-Seine , Foggia, Monte Civita, Antipolo ). However here in East Prussia the connection is particularly strong. Many villages that grew around sacred trees dedicated to Mary are called something like “Mary’s linden tree”,(*2) but here Mary is not in the name, only the sacred tree: Holy Linden Tree/ Swieta Lipka. Also many of the above mentioned shrines preserve as best they can any remnant of the ancient trees, but nowhere else have I seen an almost life size statue of the tree being erected after its death in the place where it stood.
I wonder if this centrality of the tree is due to the very late and then forced conversion of the local population from Paganism to Christianity. The Baltic Prussian tribes were conquered in a crusade by the Teutonic Order in 1241 A.D.(*3) According to Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewska the convict of the Swieta Lipka legend was actually a Prussian tribal leader and the judge a Teutonic knight.(*4) Aha, the plot thickens….


A German print from 1885
"the holy linden tree: pilgrimage church of the holy Virgin near Rastenburg"

It is also said that the Holy Linden Tree in which he hung his statue wasn't just any old linden tree but one that had been revered as sacred already during pre-Christian times. It was seen as the dwelling place of Puskaite, Goddess of fertility and grains, in whose honor festivals were held in spring and fall. Her name sounds a lot like that of her people who called themselves Prusai or prusiskan (adjective). So Puskaite and her tree may well have been of central importance to the identity of the local tribe. The Prusai also believed that humans could reincarnate in trees, whereby the souls of women would inhabit linden trees and those of men oaks.(*5)
Another piece of the story is that the Teutonic Order took control of the Holy Linden Tree, built a little Christian shrine around it in 1320 and placed its own priests in charge of it.
Combining all those pieces of the puzzle, I see the following picture emerge: The pre-Christian Prussians had a holy tree dedicated to a goddess. They were conquered by Christians in 1241 and forced to convert. They resisted the conversion and occupation and one of their leaders was sentenced to die. That’s where Mary showed up as the peace maker and mediator. The compromise she offered was this:
1. Let the subjugated live.
2. Embrace whatever is holy to them as long as it is not contrary to Christian teachings. (Creation being sacred is definitely not contrary to the Bible.)
3. Make whatever was the domain of a goddess and the sacred feminine the domain of the Mother of God.

To sweeten the deal for all Our Lady threw in a few miracles. Apparently both sides could live with this and the fame of the tree spread beyond its original tribal teritory. In due time a first primitive chapel was built around it. The first extant historical records that mention a pilgrimage chapel in a linden tree (in Latin: capella in linda) stem from 1482.(*6)

Alas, all was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation around 1525 when Prussia became the protestant state par excellence. Only in 1605 did it become legal again to be Catholic in East Prussia and soon the Jesuits began to rebuild the sanctuary in its present Baroque style. In 1993 Pope John Paul II gave it the privileged status of ‘basilica’.

During tourist season, hourly concerts are given from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on the famous organ that doubles as a sort of cuckoo’s clock: movable baroque statuettes let angels blow their trumpets, the archangel Gabriel bow deeply before Mary, cherubim dance, etc.
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*1: e.g. the German wikipedia article on Swieta Lipka and another German article on "the pilgrimage church of Heiligenlinde" say he only carved the Baby Jesus.
*2: e.g. Marialinden near Cologne, Germany
*3: See: German Wikipedia article on Prussians: The Teutonic order was a crusading military order that forced Christianity on Baltic areas not yet Christianized in the 13th century.
* 4: See her article on "The Linden Tree: Lore and Significance"
*5: See the German wikipedia article on Baltic Mythology
*6: According to a German Poland travel guide published by Dumont Buchverlag, p. 395