Frombork – Cathedral Hill


   Around 1288 bishop Henry Fleming transferred capital of the Warmia diocese and the cathedral chapter from Braniewo to Frombork. The task of the chapter was to take care of the cathedral and organize and supervise the liturgy. It also acted as a bishop’s advisory council and managed the subordinate area.
   The brick fortifications on the cathedral hill in Frombork have been erected since the beginning of the 14th century.
Until 1330, the eastern section of fortifications with the chapter house and school was established. By the end of the fourteenth century, the western part of the hill was formed, ordering the slopes and leveling the terrain level. In the years 1330-1388 a cathedral was also built. Initially, it was surrounded by a cemetery, while the western part of the courtyard was open. Further extensions of the fortifications and buildings on the cathedral hill were carried out in the 15th and 16th centuries.
In the late Middle Ages, the fortified cathedral complex was besieged and captured by Polish, Teutonic and Czech armies. The first serious threat came in 1414, when Polish-Lithuanian troops invaded Frombork. The next destruction was caused by the Teutonic Knights in 1455 in retaliation for the tribute paid by the city to king Kazimierz Jagiellończyk. The damages suffered by the Swedes in 1626-1630 and 1655-1660 and the destructions caused by the Second World War were particularly severe.


   A hill with dimensions of 80×163 meters was surrounded by a brick wall on which eastern side a chapter-house and a school were added, and close to the northern curtain the cathedral basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Andrew was erected. Chapter house initially had the form of a defensive, corner tower. From the beginning of the 15th century, residential and commercial buildings were added, including the custodian’s house from 1512-1517 in the western section of the northern curtain. Before 1513 in the south-east corner a palace of Warmian bishops was erected on the site of the cathedral school. Defense devices have also been modernized. The stronghold had two gates and one wicket gate. Porta Maior, located from the south, was flanked by two half-round towers. The second Porta Minor gate was located on the west. It had a rectangular form in the plan of the tower with a passage closed by a portcullis. The gate leading to the city was placed in the fifteenth century in the north-western curtain. A very important defensive element was the octagonal artillery tower located in the south-east. corner. It was probably built before 1448, supplying two levels of fire stations and a battle terrace protected by battlement. In the 17th century, the octogon obtained a high four-sided superstructure called the Radziejowski Tower, which served as a belfry. In the four-sided, massive north-west tower according to tradition, from 1504, Nicolaus Copernicus lived. The tower dates back to the year 1400 and at the end of the 15th century it was superstructured.

   The cathedral built in the years 1329-1388, is a Gothic, hall, three-aisle structure with a length of approximately 97 meters and a width of 12 meters (presbytery) up to 22 meters (central nave). The height from the floor to the bosses of the vault is 16,5 meters. The church has a very long, five-bay chancel ended by a straight wall and almost twice as long as an eight-bay nave. The architecture of the interior is shaped by two rows of arcades, based on seven straight, octagonal pillars, carrying stellar vaults. This contributed to the integration of a narrow and long interior. The towerless west façade with a triangular gable and eight-sided turrets is also unique, as it has no equivalent in the architecture of the Teutonic state. Particular attention is paid to the decoration of the lateral parts of the gable, which were captured by a series of climbing recesses, topped with ogee arches. The western porch, which covers the limestone portal, is also unique. In archivolts it has a set of sculptures depicting angels, parable of the Ten Virgins, and on the edge of creeping creatures and hybrids, probably symbolizing sin and evil.

   The external façades of the church were reinforced with buttresses, while both eastern corners of the chancel received two buttresses perpendicular to the walls, which around 1330 was a somewhat archaic solution. Two portals, symmetrical in the north and south walls, led to the presbytery. It was lit by eight tall, relatively narrow pointed windows, splayed both inside and out. The elevations were not decorated, except for the plinth, the cornice at the level of the window sills, with a simple eaves frieze and a modest eastern gable. From the south, a rectangular tower adjoined the central bay of the chancel. In the ground floor, it housed a small vestibule in front of the southern portal and a spiral staircase. Originally, the tower was at least one floor higher than the walls of the chancel. On its upper floors, above the vestibule, there were small, barrel-vaulted rooms of an unknown function. Perhaps the tower served as a temporary small belfry.
   A two-story sacristy with two bays on each floor adjoined the chancel from the north. Its northern façade was buttressed in a similar way to the chancel. The sacristy ground floor was accessible through the portal leading from the presbytery, while the first floor could be accessed through the entrance in the west facade of the sacristy, accessible by stairs adjacent to the southern wall of the chancel. It was possible to enter the sacristy from the ground floor also via internal stairs. Stairs made in its eastern wall led to the attic of the sacristy. The ground floor and the sacristy upper floor were illuminated by pointed, not splayed windows, the first floor also had a small window open to the cathedral choir.

   The interior architecture of the cathedral’s nave was shaped by two rows of high arcades, based on seven simple, octagonal pillars, bearing stellar vaults: eight-armed in the nave and four-armed in the aisles. This contributed to the integration of the narrow and long interior. The four-arm stellar vault also received five bays of the presbytery. The vestibule of the tower at the presbytery was covered with a cross vault supported in the corners on shafts ended with cup corbels. Probably already in the first phase of the construction of the cathedral, the lower floor of the sacristy was also vaulted, using a solution similar to that in the vestibule of the tower. Its first floor was also supposed to have a vault with two bays, but it is not certain whether it was ever made. This room may have been the first chapter house (it was mentioned in written sources as early as 1305, but without specifying the location).
   Even in the Middle Ages, the first major reconstruction of the two-storey sacristy took place. At that time, the existing staircase to the first floor was constructed, a small four-sided annex was separated behind the stairs on the ground floor, and the ground floor was covered with a new cross vault adapted to the changed size of the room (two extreme, eastern, older corbels were used during its construction, the others were new or reused). In the middle of the room, two corbels with tracery decorations were installed, and in the western annex – simple corbels. The sacristy floor and the staircase also received new vaults. Subsequent works on the eastern part of the cathedral were associated with the construction of the so-called canonical sacristy. At that time, a two-bay, buttressed room was created on the northern side, corresponding to the length of the older part. It was illuminated by three pointed windows located in the eastern and northern elevations. The new sacristy was covered with a mono-pitched roof, which covered two windows illuminating the room on the first floor above the older bishop’s sacristy. On both sides of the new roof, there were two half-gables decorated with shallow blendes. The new sacristy was connected by a covered porch with the north-eastern tower of the defensive walls of the cathedral hill. The interior of the canonical sacristy was originally covered with a two-bay cross vault.

Current state

   The fortified hill with the cathedral belongs to the objects of the highest artistic values both in Poland and in the world. Repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, however it retains the basic elements of the medieval architectural complex. Among the medieval equipment one can see a late-Gothic polyptic funded in 1504 by bishop Lukas Watzenrode, uncle of Nicolaus Copernicus, painted epitaph of canon Bartłomiej Boreschowa from the fifteenth century, a crucifix from the end of the fifteenth century, and fragments of Gothic stalls in the presbytery.
   The unique significance of this place is raised by the historical tradition and the figure of Nicolaus Copernicus. Currently renovated and neat, it houses the Copernicus Museum and the planetarium in the Radziejowski Tower. You can check the pricelist and opening hours on the official website of the museum
here. The cathedral still has sacral functions, but it is open to visitors.

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Architektura gotycka w Polsce, red. T. Mroczko i M. Arszyński, Warszawa 1995.
Garniec M., Garniec-Jackiewicz M.,  Zamki państwa krzyżackiego w dawnych Prusach, Olsztyn 2006.

Leksykon zamków w Polsce, red. L.Kajzer, Warszawa 2003.
Walczak M.,Kościoły gotyckie w Polsce, Kraków 2015.