Unknown Wroclaw: Stepping crane in Ossolineum

We are standing on the courtyard of the National Ossolińscy Institute. Today all facilities around it contain valuable collections, including the manuscript of “Pan Tadeusz” by Adam Mickiewicz. However, this beautiful building was inherited by Ossolineum from Knights of the Cross with the Red Star.

Tourists ask about a secret hook

It is for this order that Duchess Agnieszka, a widow of Henry II the Pious, appropriated a piece of land for the construction of a monastery in the 1st half of the 13th century. Even today we can find here many traces left by monks, such as a secret hook being a part of an inventive stepping crane. But let's start from the beginning.

We are being shown around today’s Ossolineum by Arkadiusz Dobrzyniecki, a custodian in the graphic arts room of the National Ossolińscy Institute. The courtyard is dominated by a green landscape – a finely trimmed hedge of rather short height, with an over 100-year-old chestnut in the background and plants growing abundantly on facades. In the middle, there is an excellently preserved historic well. This is what we see today. A few centuries ago, the view was not so picturesque; it was rather grey and functional. „In the past, a utility yard was located here” explains Arkadiusz Dobrzyniecki. „People entered it by horses, and there was enough room to return with a cart – on the left, of course, because the right-hand side of the road was used for riding only from Napoleon’s times”, adds the custodian.

It is from the courtyard that you can have the best view of the aforementioned hook about which many tourists ask. It hangs on the highest storey of the southern wing of the building, with wooden gates closed tightly behind it. In order to see what’s on the other side, we have to climb a few storeys higher and enter the garret.

Stepping monks

Maybe this garret smelling of old wood will become available to visitors, but, for the time being, it is being entered only by us. We have to move cautiously, because the door being crossed is small and low, and it is possible to go only on specially mounted wooden platforms. While we are going inside, Arkadiusz Dobrzyniecki shows us a vault, but it is located under our feet, not under our heads. On the storey below, we would see its front side. Now we are looking at the elaborate construction. "Although it looks solid and stable, you can’t walk over it, because it functions according to the stone wedging principle – if one stone falls out, others will follow,” remarks the custodian. It is interesting to know that the corners of the vault (called “pits”) were once filled with debris. “In modern times this seemed unnecessary and the debris lying there was removed, but our predecessors had known better what to do – the role of the debris was to load down the vault for the adequate distribution of forces within it,” emphasises our guide.

We are approaching a huge wooden wheel. It is a part of the elaborate construction of a stepping crane which was used for lifting of construction materials or goods from the courtyard (by means of the hook that we see from there) and transporting them to the garret. It was mounted in the last decade of the 17th century (circa 1690) and miraculously survived. The crane was not dismantled at the time when the Middle School of Saint Matthias functioned here (from the secularisation of the order in 1810 till 1945), nor was it destroyed by a bomb during World War II (the bomb hit the staircase). Now it would benefit from some renovation (for instance, replacement of leather belts), but, even in its current form, it is the only historic device of this type functioning in Poland and a true gem for European researchers. Before the war, there was also a huge crane in Gdańsk, but it was destroyed (nowadays, only its reconstructed part is available).

Why is it called a stepping crane? „Because a man or two people went into this big wheel and set it in motion by walking and stepping on it and, thereby, lifting the goods that were below”, describes Dobrzyniecki. The custodian points out the ingeniousness of the crane structure. „It consists not only of the wheel, which is the most spectacular element, but also of beams with a pinion that were connected with leather belts,” he adds.

And how were goods received at the garret? “It would be difficult to catch a sack behind the window where the hook hang, because there was a risk of overload and falling out onto the courtyard,” says the custodian. “This is why the arm of the crane protruding outside retracted after pulling goods upwards and the sack approached the window safely,” tells Dobrzyniecki. After the receipt of goods, people in the wheel started stepping on it again, and then the arm of the crane moved outside, and the line with the hook was dropped to the courtyard again. The designer of the crane also remembered to include a counterweight that each device of this kind should have. “We won’t see any traditional counterweight here, but beams of the crane were supported against the roof truss, which protected the entire construction against overbalancing,” explains the custodian of Ossolineum.

Belvedere – an attractive view of Ostrów Tumski

We return to the courtyard and go across it, this time heading for the northern wing. We already know that this green courtyard used to serve as a utility yard, but monasteries could not include gardens in the city. However, for the purpose of giving noble persons an opportunity to walk and admire views around the building, the northern wing was lowered to create a terrace and a belvedere (in Italian, this means a beautiful view). “Monks, particularly the general of the order, could enter it and look at Ostrów Tumski and the Oder,” says Arkadiusz Dobrzyniecki, inviting us to the terrace. It provides a view of the Art Nouveau building of the former Silesian Society of Homeland Culture, and Ostrów can clearly be seen in the distance. “This terrace served as a garden, and the belvedere was used on rainy days,” the custodian leads us into the dome. The balustrade is made of wood, but a trick called marbleising was used here – wood was painted to imitate the special texture of precious stone. Marble would be not only too expensive, but also, which is even more important, too heavy. The cup of the dome was reconstructed after World War II, so the vaults lack paintings that presented scenes of foundation of the monastery. But the emblem of Knights of the Cross with the Red Star – a hospital order founded in the 13th-century Prague, whose monks arrived also in Wroclaw – still proudly crowns the dome of the belvedere.

Magdalena Talik