St. Mary's Church, Gdańsk

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St. Mary's Church
Bazylika Mariacka Wniebowzięcia Najświętszej Maryi Panny w Gdańsku (Polish)
St. Marienkirche (German)
Danzig Marienkirche Profil (2011).JPG
Basic information
Location Gdańsk, Poland
Affiliation Roman Catholic
Province Roman Catholic Diocese of Gdańsk
District Old Town
Architectural description
Architect(s) Heinrich Ungeradin,
Hans Brandt,
Heinrich Haetzl,
Tylman Gamerski (Royal Chapel)
Architectural style Brick Gothic
Completed 1502

St. Mary's Church (Polish: Bazylika Mariacka, German: St. Marienkirche) or, properly, Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Polish: Bazylika Mariacka Wniebowzięcia Najświętszej Maryi Panny w Gdańsku) is a Roman Catholic church in Gdańsk, Poland and is currently the largest brick church in the world. Its construction began in 1379.

St. Mary's is one of the largest European Brick Gothic buildings, which include castles. Between 1536 and 1572 St. Mary's Church was used for Roman Catholic and Lutheran services alike.[1] Since then until 1945, when the German Danzig once again became the Polish Gdańsk,[2] it was the biggest Lutheran church in the world. It is 105.5 metres (346 ft) long, and the nave is 66 metres (217 ft) wide. Inside the church is room for 25,000 people. It is an aisled hall church with a transept. It is a co-cathedral in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Gdańsk, along with the Oliwa Cathedral.


According to tradition, as early as 1243 a wooden Church of the Assumption existed at this site, built by Prince Swantopolk II.[3]

Interior of St. Mary's (c. 1635) by Bartholomäus Milwitz, also depicting the Last Judgment by Hans Memling.

The foundation stone for the new brick church was placed on 25 March 1343, the feast of the Annunciation.[3] At first a six-span bay basilica with a low turret was built, erected from 1343 to 1360. Parts of the pillars and lower levels of the turret have been preserved from this building.

In 1379 the masonry master Heinrich Ungeradin led his team to start construction of the present church. St. Mary's Church in Lübeck, the mother of all Brick Gothic churches dedicated to St. Mary in Hanseatic cities around the Baltic, is believed to be the archetype of the building. By 1447 the eastern part of the church was finished, and the tower was raised by two floors in the years 1452-1466.

Since 1485 the work was continued by Hans Brandt, who supervised the erection of the main nave core. The structure was finally finished after 1496 under Heinrich Haetzl, who supervised the construction of the vaulting.

In the course of the Reformation most Danzigers adopted Lutheranism, likewise St. Mary's parishioners.[4] After a short wave of turbulent religious altercations in 1525 and 1526, also overthrowing the previous city council, the new city council was rather in favour of a smooth transition to Lutheran cult than a harsh caesura.[4] In 1529 the first Lutheran preach was held in St. Mary's. Since 1536 - consented with Włocławek's Catholic official - one Lutheran preacher was permanently employed at St. Mary's and Lutheran services and preaches were held besides Catholic masses.[1][4] The Lutheran congregation started in this time registering acts of rites de passage and the oldest surviving register is that of burials starting in 1537.

After on 4 July 1557 King Sigismund II Augustus had granted Danzig the religion privilege allowing to celebrate the communion under both kinds the city council ended Catholic masses in all other parish churches in the city and those in its countryside territory, except of in St. Mary's.[1] Here Catholic Masses at the high altar were continued until the city council stopped them in 1572.[1] As part of the smooth transition Lutheran pastors and services at first also continued Catholic traditions, including using precious liturgical garments, such as chasubles.[4] However, over time these traditions unnecessary in Lutheranism were more and more given up and the traditional garments fell into disuse and were stored away.[4]

In most Catholic churches garments were continuously used until new ones could be afforded or the old ones fell apart, with the garments cast-off being burnt.[5] At St. Mary's this practice ended with Lutheranism. Danzig's Lutheran congregation, like a number of congregations such as Brunswick, Halberstadt, Lübeck, Stralsund, and Uppsala,[6] once richly endowed with garments and which had smoothly adopted Lutheranism, stored their garments - less and less used in Lutheran services - and then forgot about them.[4][7]

The inventories of St. Mary's tell us about the actual usage of Catholic-style accessories in Danzig's Lutheran services. The inventory of 1552 still mentions a great stock of garments and embroideries, exceeding today's collection by far.[4] The parishioners of St. Mary's formed a Lutheran congregation which - as part of Lutheran church polity - adopted a church order (Ordnung, wie es mit predigt und anderem in der pfarrkirche zu St. Marien zu halten,[8] 1567, besides the all-Danzig Kirchenordnung of 1557[1]) and elected bodies. Each pastor of St. Mary's was member of the spiritual ministerium (Geistliches Ministerium), the collegial body leading the Danzig state church. Since 1567 the senior of Danzig chaired the spiritual ministerium as primus inter pares.[1] The first senior of Danzig's Lutheran state church was Johannes Kittelius, prime pastor (Erster Pfarrer, pastor primarius) at St. Mary's between 1566 and 1590.[1] The church was called Supreme Parish Church of St. Mary's (Oberpfarrkirche St. Marien), indicating its prominent position in the city.

In 1577 the Polish King Stephen Báthory imposed the Siege of Danzig (1577) onto the city. The defense of its liberty forced the city to hire mercenaries, who were so costly that all around the city the city council confiscated gold and silver of the inhabitants and from the treasuries of the city and its Lutheran state church.[9] Thus most of the gold- and silverware of St. Mary's had to be minted to pay the mercenaries.[9] An inventory of 1552 still recorded no less than 78 silver gilt chalices, 43 altar crucifixes, 24 great silver figures of saints and the like more.[9] After 1577 most of it was gone.[9] The Danzig rebellion ended with a compromise forcing the city to pay the king the sum of 200,000 Polish guilders. But he also acknowledged for Danzig's religious reality and recognised its Lutheran faith on 12 December 1577.[10] As a compromise the jurisdiction over Danzig's Lutherans as to marital and fornication matters remained with Włocławek's Catholic official.[1] What remained with the congregation was the collection of precious garments, however, dropping into oblivion. Inventories of the 17th and 18th century don't mention the garments anymore, although they record lengthy and detailed lists of various items.[4]

When in 1594 the Polish royal court tribunal declared St. Mary's Church to be restituted for Catholic rite the city council rejected that judgment.[1] But as a compromise, since the kings of Poland had remained Catholic and being the nominal heads of the City since 1466, the city council authorised building the baroque Catholic Royal Chapel.[1] It was erected by Tylman van Gameren (Gamerski), completed in 1681, near St. Mary's Church for the king's Catholic service when he visited the City. With St. Mary's pastor Constantin Schütz (1646–1712) a moderate pietist theology and practice replaced the previously dominant Lutheran Orthodoxy.[1]

St. Mary's Church around 1900, from the then-Frauengasse street.

In the course of the Partitions of Poland the city lost its liberty in 1793, regaining it for a short period (1807–1814), however, as a Napoleonic client state only, before it – impoverished by the previous Prussian economic embargo and the Napoleonic requisitions and wars – returned to the Kingdom of Prussia. The Prussian government integrated St. Mary's and all the Lutheran state church into the all-Prussian Lutheran church administration.[1] In 1816 the Danzig Consistory was established taking on the tasks and some of the members of the Danzig spiritual ministerium.[1] Danzig's then senior, and prime pastor at St. Mary's (1801–1827), Karl Friedrich Theodor Bertling, became a consistorial councillor in the church body.[11] In 1817 the government imposed the union of Reformed and Lutheran congregations within the entire monarchy. First intended to win all these congregations to adopt a United Protestant confession, the vast Lutheran majority insisted to retain their Augsburg Confession, thus St. Mary's remained a Lutheran church and congregation, but joined the new umbrella of the Evangelical Church in Prussia (this name as of 1821), a regional Protestant church body of united administration but no common confession, comprising mostly Lutheran, but also some Reformed and united Protestant congregations.

In 1820, during Bertling's pastorate, at opening long forgotten chests and cabinets in the sacristy the first ancient garments and paraments have been rediscovered.[4] In the 1830s more ancient garments were found.[4] At that time the congregation did not grasp the richess and rarity of these findings.[12] So when Chaplain Franz Johann Joseph Bock, the known parament expert, art historian and curator of the then Cologne Archdiocesan Museum collecting, restoring, conserving and exhibiting liturgic garments and paraments, reviewed the discovered collection he acquired a number of the best pieces from the congregation.[12] Bock showed them in an exhibition in 1853.[12] After his death some Danzig pieces from his personal collection were sold to the Victoria and Albert Museum.[12] These alienations and also later sales to private collectors included cloths and vestments made of fabrics from ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, obtained during the Crusades; as well as renaissance wares from Venice, Florence and Lucca (more than 1000 items altogether).[13]

Between 1861 and 1864 Sexton Hinz systematically searched chests, cabinets and other storages in chambers and rooms, also in the tower, and found many more ancient garments.[4] In the 1870s and 1880s the congregation sold more than 200 incomplete pieces, but also intact altar cloths and embroideries to the Berlin Museum of Decorative Arts.[12] The remaining pieces of the garment collection, the so-called Danziger Paramentenschatz (Danzig Parament Treasure),[14] mostly originate from the 150 years between 1350 and 1500.[5] Older garments were rather not in use anymore, when the Reformation in Danzig prevented their further usage and wear, and newer were hardly bought anymore, since Lutherans stopped using them.[4]

The congregation also sold other artifacts, such as the winged triptych by Jan van Wavere, acquired by Archduke Maximilian, it is today held in the Church of the Teutonic Order in Vienna; and the sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Michael of Augsburg from the main altar, sold to Count Alfons Sierakowski, is today located in the chapel in Waplewo Wielkie.[3] In addition, the Prussian authorities melted down gold and silver reliquaries for reuse[when?]; they also reused golden threads from embroideries in uniforms for Prussian officers.[13][clarification needed] Until the 20th century, both the church interior and exterior were well preserved.

Between 1920 and 1940 St. Mary's became the principal church within the Protestant Regional Synodal Federation of the Free City of Danzig. In this time the presbytery (board of the congregation) discerned the value of its parament collection and prompted its inventarisation.[12] During the renovation of St. Mary's in the 1920s more ancient garments, no chasubles, but altar cloths, were found.[4] From 1930 to 1933 Walter Mannowsky, then director of the City Museum (now taken on by the National Museum, Gdańsk), delivered a detailed four volume inventory of the Paramentenschatz.[15] It was then presented in the St. Barbara Chapel of St. Mary's.[12] In 1936 the Paramentenschatz was moved to a newly equipped room in the City Museum without natural light and a suited climatisation, since the Barbara Chapel was too wet for the pieces.[12] The Paramentenschatz remained property of the congregation, presented on loan in the city museum (Stadtmuseum).

St. Mary's on a German Nazi propaganda poster; the inscription reads: "Danzig is German" (summer 1939).

Starting in 1942 more or less movable major items of Danzig's cultural heritage have been dismantled and demounted in coordination with the cultural heritage curator (Konservator). So also the presbytery of St. Mary's church agreed to remove items like archive files and artworks such as altars, paintings, epitaphs, mobile furnishings to places outside the city. Since 1942 church congregations in Danzig as in Germany and German-occupied areas saw their church bells requisitioned as non-ferrous metal for the war production.[16] Bells were classified according to historical and/or artistical value and those categorised the least valuable and cast after 1860, and especially those requisitioned in occupied areas, were smelted down the first.[16]

The church was severely damaged in World War II, during the storming of Danzig city by the Red Army in March 1945. The wooden roof burned completely and most of the ceiling fell in. Fourteen of the large vaults collapsed. The windows were destroyed. In places the heat was so intense that some of the bricks melted, especially in the upper parts of the tower, which acted as a giant chimney.[3] All non requisitioned bells crashed down when their bell cages collapsed in the fire. The floor of the church, containing priceless gravestone slabs, was torn apart, allegedly by Soviet soldiers attempting to loot the corpses buried underneath.

By the end of the Second World War many German parishioners of St. Mary's fled westwards, and also the parament treasure was rescued in the west. In March 1945 Poland started expelling remaining ethnic German Danzigers as part of the ethnic cleansing which was decreed in August the same year under border changes promulgated at the Potsdam Conference. Most of St. Mary's parishioners, fled or expelled, landed in the British zone of Allied occupied Germany. Lübeck became a centre of exiled Danzigers. Whereas all property of St. Mary's Lutheran congregation in Gdańsk was expropriated, its cemetery desecrated, the presbytery could regain the few of its chattels located in the British zone. Two unsmelted bells of St. Mary's, both acquired by the Lutheran congregation in 1632 and 1719, respectively, were found in the so-called Hamburg bell cemetery (Glockenfriedhof).[17] The bell Osanna (1632) was later loaned to the Lutheran congregation of St. Andreas in Hildesheim.

The other surviving bell from Lutheran times, the Dominicalis (1719), renamed as Osanna and the parament treasure were united in Lübeck, given on loan to Lübeck's St. Mary's congregation as of 1955. Until today the bell is used by the congregation, hanging in its Lutheran St. Mary's Church, and the parament treasure is shown to the public.[18]

The city was gradually repopulated by Poles, and Polish authorities handed over St. Mary's Church to the control of the Catholic diocese. Most of the artworks from the interior survived, as they had been evacuated for safekeeping to the villages surrounding the city. Many of these have returned to the church, but some are displayed in various museums around Poland. The diocese sought to secure their return.

The reconstruction started shortly after the war in 1946. The roof was rebuilt in August 1947, using reinforced concrete. After the basic reconstruction was finished, the church was reconsecrated on November 17, 1955. The reconstruction and renovation of the interior is an ongoing effort and continues to this day.

On November 20, 1965, by papal bull, Pope Paul VI elevated the church to the dignity of the basilica. On February 2, the Congregation for Bishops established the Bazylikę Mariacką as the Gdansk Co-Cathedral in the then still non-metropolitan Roman Catholic Diocese of Gdańsk.[3] Since 1925 the Oliwa Cathedral is the cathedral of the diocese (elevated to archdiocese in 1992).


Star vaulting


St. Mary's Church is a triple-aisled hall church with a triple-aisled transept. Both the transept and the main nave are of similar width and height, which is a good example of late gothical style. Certain irregularities in the form of the northern arm of the transept are remnants of the previous church situated on the very same spot.

The vaulting is a true piece of art, and was in great part restored after the war. Main aisle, transept and presbytery are covered by net vaults, while the side aisles are covered by crystal vaults.

The exterior is dominated by plain brick plains and high and narrow gothical arch windows. Such construction was possible due to placing corbels and buttresses inside of the church and erecting chapels right in between them. Gables are divided by a set of brick pinnacles. All corners are accentuated by turrets crowned by with metal headpieces (reconstructed after 1970).


The church is decorated within with several masterpieces of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque painting.

The most notable, The Last Judgement by Flemish painter Hans Memling, is currently preserved in the National Museum of Gdańsk. Other works of art were transferred to the National Museum in Warsaw in 1945. It wasn't until 1990s when several of them were returned to the church. The most notable parts of internal decoration are:

  • Jerusalem Altar, 1495-1500 (currently in the National Museum in Warsaw),
  • High Altar, 1511–1517, Michael of Augsburg
  • Ten Commandments, approx. 1485
  • Gravestone of Simon and Judith Bahr, 1614–1620, Abraham van den Blocke
  • Pietà, approx. 1420
  • Holy Mother of God sculpture, approx. 1420
  • Gdańsk Astronomical Clock, 1464–1470, Hans Düringer of Toruń, reconstructed after 1945
  • Organ set, partially transferred from the St. Johns church in 1985.


There are two bells in St Mary's Church. Both of them were cast in 1970 by foundry Felczyński in Przemyśl. The larger one is called Gratia Dei, weighs 7,850 kilograms (17,310 lb), and sounds in nominal F sharp. The smaller bell is the so-called Ave Maria, weighs 2,600 kilograms (5,700 lb), and sounds in C sharp. Of the prewar chimes, there still exist two bells. Osanna from 1632 today can be found in St. Andrew's Church, Hildesheim, and Dominicalis from 1719 can be found under the name Osanna in St. Mary's Church, Lübeck, both in Germany.

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Heinz Neumayer, „Danzig“, in: Theologische Realenzyklopädie: 36 vols., Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1977–2006, vol. 8 (1981): 'Chlodwig – Dionysius Areopagita', pp. 353–357, here p. 355. ISBN 3-11-013898-0.
  2. ^,89,684.html
  3. ^ a b c d e (Polish) "Historia Bazyliki Mariackiej w Gdańsku". Retrieved 2009-11-23.  Official website (translated from Polish)
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Walter Mannowsky, Der Kirchenschatz von St. Marien in Danzig, Landesverkehrsverband für das Gebiet der Freien Stadt Danzig (ed.), Danzig: Danziger Verlags-Gesellschaft, 1936, p. 10.
  5. ^ a b Walter Mannowsky, Der Kirchenschatz von St. Marien in Danzig, Landesverkehrsverband für das Gebiet der Freien Stadt Danzig (ed.), Danzig: Danziger Verlags-Gesellschaft, 1936, p. 9.
  6. ^ Walter Mannowsky, Der Kirchenschatz von St. Marien in Danzig, Landesverkehrsverband für das Gebiet der Freien Stadt Danzig (ed.), Danzig: Danziger Verlags-Gesellschaft, 1936, p. 5.
  7. ^ This is why these Lutheran churches have garment collections often comprising a broader range and greater number of old garments than Catholic parishes.
  8. ^ The full title is: Verzeichniss und ordnung, wie es mit predigt und anderem in der pfarrkirche zu St. Marien zu halten (Record and Order, how to do preach and other things in the parish church of St. Mary's). A more elaborate church order (constitution) followed in 1612, the Alte kirchenordnung der kirchen Sanct Marien, in der rechten Stadt Dantzig, nach itzigen zustande, und wie mit allen derselben kirchenofficianten, nach dem gefallenen babstthumb biss dahero gehalten wird. Item schulordnung der schulen daselbst, wie sie die itzige kirchenväter vor sich gefunden, und in etzlichen puncten verbessert. Durch die dahie bestellten kirchenväter oder vorsteher aufs neue revidiret und artickelweise in eine gewissen ordnung gebracht. Im jahre 1612 (Old church order of the church of Saint Mary's, in the Right Town of Danzig [Rechtsstadt/Główne Miasto a quarter of the historic centre], according to the current state of affairs and how to do things with all its church officials after the fall of papacy until today. Item school order of the schools thereat as the current elders have found it and improved it in several points. Revised anew and brought article-wise into a certain order by the here appointed elders or churchwardens. In the year 1612).
  9. ^ a b c d Walter Mannowsky, Der Kirchenschatz von St. Marien in Danzig, Landesverkehrsverband für das Gebiet der Freien Stadt Danzig (ed.), Danzig: Danziger Verlags-Gesellschaft, 1936, p. 3.
  10. ^ Heinz Neumayer, „Danzig“, in: Theologische Realenzyklopädie: 36 vols., Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1977–2006, vol. 8 (1981): 'Chlodwig – Dionysius Areopagita', pp. 353–357, here p. 354. ISBN 3-11-013898-0.
  11. ^ Heinrich Doering, Die deutschen Kanzelredner des achtzehnten und neunzehnten Jahrhunderts: Nach ihrem Leben und Wirken, Neustadt an der Orla: Wagner, 1830, p. 5.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h Walter Mannowsky, Der Kirchenschatz von St. Marien in Danzig, Landesverkehrsverband für das Gebiet der Freien Stadt Danzig (ed.), Danzig: Danziger Verlags-Gesellschaft, 1936, p. 11.
  13. ^ a b Wtedy to władze pruskie wywiozły z gdańskiego kościoła Marii Panny skarb, na który składały się szaty kościelne z tkanin pochodzących ze starożytnej Mezopotamii i Egiptu (!), a zdobytych w czasach wypraw krzyżowych, średniowieczne dalmatyki i kapy, renesansowe wyroby mistrzów z Wenecji, Florencji i Lukki, naczynia liturgiczne i relikwiarze, w sumie ponad tysiąc arcydzieł. Większość rozprzedano, wyroby ze złota i srebra przetopiono, część haftów... spruto, a złotej nici użyto na galony oficerskie!
    (Polish) Jan Pruszyński. "Kulturkampf". Retrieved 2009-11-21. 
  14. ^ Among the pieces is a Chinese silk cloth with an embroidered blessing for al-Malik al-Nasir Nasir al-Din Muhammad ben Qalawun, an Egyptian sultan. Cf. Walter Mannowsky, Der Kirchenschatz von St. Marien in Danzig, Landesverkehrsverband für das Gebiet der Freien Stadt Danzig (ed.), Danzig: Danziger Verlags-Gesellschaft, 1936, p. 4.
  15. ^ Cf. Walter Mannowsky, Der Danziger Paramentenschatz: 4 vols., Berlin: Brandus, 1932–1933.
  16. ^ a b Volker Koop, Besetzt: Britische Besatzungspolitik in Deutschland, Berlin: be.bra, 2007, p. 144. ISBN 3-89809-076-6.
  17. ^ Besides thousands of public monuments from non-ferrous metal altogether 45,000 bells from churches in Germany and 35,000 from churches in annexed or occupied areas were requisitioned. They were brought to various factories. In Hamburg in the storage yard of the Norddeutsche Affinerie, nicknamed the Glockenfriedhof (bell cemetery) the British authorities found 16,000 bells in 1945. The Committee for the Restitution of Bells (and monuments), established in 1947, took the task to identify the bells and restitute them to the congregations which owned them. Until 1950 this task had been concluded. Cf. Volker Koop, Besetzt: Britische Besatzungspolitik in Deutschland, Berlin: be.bra, 2007, p. 144. ISBN 3-89809-076-6.
  18. ^ Between 1955 and 1993 the parament treasure was shown underneath the western organ loft in Lübeck's St. Mary's. Together with paraments from the collection of Lübeck's St. Mary's it is now shown in the Paramentenkammer (parament chamber) of St. Anne's Museum for the History of Arts and Culture. Without the church and the parish the Lutheran congregation of St. Mary's as a religious corporation of enrolled members has been dissolved long ago, with former congregants - if at all still alive - possibly having joined other parishes in the places they live today. Since its dissolution the congregation's property rights are wielded by the umbrella church body, it used to belong to since 1817, the Evangelical Church of the Union, now succeeded by the Union of Evangelical Churches.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 54°21′00″N 18°39′12″E / 54.3499°N 18.6533°E / 54.3499; 18.6533