Chełmno – Dominican friary and the church of St Peter and Paul


   The Dominicans came to the vicinity of Chełmno around the 30s of the 13th century, initially settling in Starogród. After founding the town of Chełmno, they moved to it and together with the emerging urban buildings began to build a friary with the church of St. Peter and Paul (as evidenced by its orientation in line with the direction of the streets). In 1244, they received a brickyard for 35 years, which they used to build the claustrum and a section of the town walls, which they were obliged to maintain. In the fourth quarter of the 13th century they erected a small oratory (later chancel), then gradually expanded to the form of an increasingly larger church.
   At the beginning of the second quarter of the fourteenth century, the existing monastery church must have seemed too small for the needs of the Dominicans. Around 1330, the expansion of the chancel began, the work on which was completed with the installation of the truss over the nave, built of wood cut at the turn of 1335 and 1336. However, already in the third quarter of the fourteenth century, after making new passages from the monastery to the church, the Dominicans decided to expand the nave, initially in the form of an asymmetrical two-aisle hall with six bays, completed around 1400 as an asymmetrical three-aisle structure. In the fifteenth century, the intensive construction works of the Dominican convent ceased due to the Polish-Teutonic wars, the change in the economic situation of the town and the slow decline of its importance in relation to other great Prussian cities.

An important event in the history of the church was the rebuilding of the nave in the 17th century. At that time, the walls of the central nave were raised, and Baroque vaults were spread on six massive pillars. This changed the existing hall layout of the church to a basilica one. The porch and sacristy as well as the monastery were also rebuilt.
In 1720 a roof fire took place, which may have influenced the need to fund a new interior design in the mid-18th century. In 1829, the Prussian authorities liquidated the convent and the church’s decor was moved to other Catholic churches. A year later, monastery buildings adjacent to the church were burnt down. From 1841, the new owner – Evangelical commune – adopted the church to meet its needs. It stayed in their hands until 1945, when after over a hundred years it became a Catholic temple again.


   The Dominican oratory from the fourth quarter of the 13th century was a small, three-bay building on a rectangular plan, built of bricks in the monk bond. An entrance located in the first eastern bay led to it. It was 2.7 meters wide and was covered with a segmental arch made of chamfered bricks. Around 1300, a low nave was added to the oratory and a beautiful, pointed, stepped portal, made of moulded black and yellow glazed bricks, was embedded in the northern wall of the chancel.
   In the first quarter of the fourteenth century, the nave of the church was extended to the west, and in the second quarter of that century, the eastern wall of the chancel was pulled down, the choir was extended to the east by another bay, and then closed polygonally. In the new wall in the southern wall there were recesses for the sedilla and the sacramentary opposite (in the northern wall). Above the chancel there were rib vaults and one which was a simplified version of the stellar vault. Above the rood arch, there was a gable with six plastered blendes. This indicated that the nave during the construction of the chancel was so low that the roofs above it did not obscure the gable. Soon after, due to the expansion of the friary, on the northern side of the church, three new, similar passages were made in the northern wall, and for unknown reasons, the rich old portal of the former oratory was removed. It was partially walled up and its eastern part destroyed.

   In the third quarter of the fourteenth century, the nave was widened to the south and slightly extended to the west. The new west wall was probably built with a stylistically uniform facade. Certainly, from the very beginning it was planned not to build windows, but blind niche. In the same construction phase, the northern wall was also raised by about 2.7 meters, and five recesses were built from the inside, so assuming that there would be no windows in them. It seems, therefore, that the new nave was originally wanted to be five-bay, but during the work, perhaps due to the replacement of the master mason, the concept was changed and the southern wall was completed with six windows. The interior of the nave was probably not yet vaulted. The ceiling was installed at a height of 15.1 meters, and the roof itself was almost twice as high. The ridge of which in the Gothic period was at the same height as the ridge of the roof above the chancel. The roof was gable and for the first years from the west it was not covered by the gable, but probably by a wooden partition. Under the partition, there was a plastered frieze ending the western wall with an engraving and painted geometric decoration in the form of interpenetrating circles.
   Ultimately, the church received the form of a building orientated towards the sides of the world, consisting of a nave in the form of a two-aisle hall with six bays and an elongated chancel. After the reconstruction in the fourth quarter of the fourteenth century, when the third, very narrow northern aisle was added, the nave was 54.5 meters long and 19.3 meters wide. Due to the fact that it stood on the edge of the Vistula embankment, it received solid foundations and walls, the thickness of which in the chancel was 1.5 meters. The location also meant that a new entrance was created for the congregation, located in the third bay of the southern wall, counting from the west.
   The greatest architectural ornament of the church was the beautiful, thirteen-axis western gable, which was 31 meters high and 19 meters wide (it is asymmetrical in relation to the presbytery, which is clearly visible when looking from the altar steps towards the entrance). Its fine and dense vertical divisions were not broken by horizontal band friezes. The individual fields were divided by angular pinnacles, between which were pointed blendes.

   The elongated chancel of the church received three bays and a half octagonal closure. It was 22.9 meters long, 8.7 meters wide and 19.2 meters high. It was the first soaring interior in the Chełmno Land. The slim-proportioned choir was then a completely new phenomenon in the Gothic architecture of the Chełmno Land, starting a new stage, characterized by the constant increase in the height of the buildings. From the outside, the chancel was reinforced with buttresses. Its interior, once available only to monks, was topped with a cross-rib vault and a stellar vault in one bay. They were supported on carved corbels with shafts hanging on the walls. The wall shafts were created in two versions: the older one in the form of circular overhanging rollers on conical corbels with a spiral, floral and tracery decoration, and the younger one, where the shafts were arranged in bundles, five-fold, placed on corbels with a mermaid and a lion motif, and with tracery decorations. Different forms of the wall shafts and their suspension at different heights indicate that in the first phase, the vault was made in the first bay from the west and in the eastern closure. In the second phase, it was intended to install stellar vaults, but they were implemented in only one bay.
   The buildings of the friary claustrum were attached to the northern wall of the nave of the church, where three wings surrounded a rectangular garth. This courtyard was surrounded on four sides by 14th-century cloisters, which must have been built after the nave of the church was built. Probably the oldest part of the claustrum was the eastern range with an annex containing the sacristy added to the chancel of the church. It was two-storey, probably with a dormitory room upstairs and a chapter house on the ground floor. Outside the strict claustrum and in front of the town walls situated in the north, there were additional economic buildings of the Dominicans (granaries, coach house, stables and gardens).

Current state

   The original hall form of the church has not survived to modern times due to early modern rebuilding. Unfortunately, the interior was baroqueized (although in the nave, the 14th-century frescoes depicting the Carnage of the Innocents and Golgotha were discovered and unveiled in 1969), and the western facade was preceded by a neo-Gothic porch, built over the oldest part of the church. Fortunately, it does not spoil its character, because its gable is a reduced repetition of the main Gothic gable. Entering the church through it, it is worth paying attention to the ogival Gothic portal made of moulded bricks. The chancel, one of the first in the Baltic lowlands, in which the tendency to erect squat and low blocks was overcome, remained close to its original condition. The buildings of the medieval friary adjacent to the church have been completely demolished. 

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