Construction of the first Romanesque church of St. Nicholas began in the second half of the 12th century. It was erected at the intersection of two important trade routes: the merchant road and the route leading from the Gdańsk stronghold to the prince’s estates. It served both the local population and merchants or sailors who came here in large numbers from all over the world.
In 1227, the Pomeranian prince, Świętopełk, handed over the Romanesque church to the Dominicans, who founded their convent in Gdańsk only eleven years after the approval of the new monastic rule. The bishop of Włocławek, Michał, gave the Dominicans of Gdańsk extensive pastoral powers, and granted special indulgences to those who helped build the monastery. The works were undertaken quickly and after eight years, the claustrum buildings were erected and the church was rebuilt and enlarged, which was probably done in Gdańsk for the first time with the use of bricks. Its consecration took place in 1235.
The construction of the new church and monastery was associated with the destruction of the old buildings during the Brandenburg-Teutonic Knights battle for Gdańsk in 1308. In 1344, the property of the Dominicans was reorganized as a result of the Teutonic regulations, and the new income over time allowed to build of a Gothic church. Work began on a new site after 1348. The old church was completely abandoned, while some of the old monastery buildings were included in the new claustrum. In the first phase, a four-bay chancel was erected, then a six-bay Gothic nave. In 1487, the church was covered with a stellar vault and the tower was raised by an octagonal part.
In the 15th century, the Dominican friary was strongly associated with the Teutonic Order. At the beginning of that century, in the so-called the Herrenkapelle Chapel, members of the Gdańsk Teutonic convent were buried, and in 1446, the Teutonic knight, Winrich von Manstede, who supervised the collection of the duty, founded a vicarage in the church. A mass for the Teutonic Knights was celebrated in the chapel every day, and four times a year the entire Dominican convent was to take part in masses for the Teutonic Order. Only after the loss of the Thirteen Years’ War and the recapture of Gdańsk Pomerania by Poland, Herrenkapelle around 1492 was taken by the merchant brotherhood.
In the 16th century, during the turbulent times of the Reformation, the church was destroyed and plundered several times during the riots. The riots in 1523 and 1524 were the most dangerous, during which the monastery library was destroyed. The monks were expelled from the monastery, and several of them lost their lives. In 1578, they returned to the monastery and took over the care of the Catholic population of Gdańsk, in the more and more Protestant city. From that moment on, under the protection of the Catholic kings of Poland, the process of raising the monastery from its fall began. Over time, more and more monks lived within its walls, intellectual life flourished, preaching was conducted, and the church also received early modern equipment.
The end of the monastery’s splendor was brought by the partitions of Poland and then the Napoleonic wars. In 1813, as a result of the Russian shelling of the city, the monastery was completely burned down. Twenty years later, the Dominicans were forced to leave the city, and the ruined monastery buildings were finally demolished in 1840. St. Nicholas church survived, remaining a Catholic parish. Another happy rescue took place in 1945, when the church was not destroyed as the only one in the Gdańsk. According to tradition, it owed it to his patron, who was revered by Orthodox Russians, or, more likely, to bribing them with wine from a church cellar.
Romanesque church of St. Nicholas from the end of the 12th century was situated on a small hill, which ensured a stable foundation and, at the same time, dominated the landscape from the perspective of the Vistula and Motława flowing around the town from the east. In addition, it was located near the town’s market square, lying at the intersection of two main communication routes: running from south to north (via mercartorum), and another, leading from the port to the west.
The orientated church was made of erratic stones. It consisted of an aisleless nave, a three-section, slightly wider massif in the west, a four-sided chancel with external dimensions of 11 x 4.8 meters and a semicircular apse on its eastern side. The total length of the church was 34.5 meters. The western massif consisted of two square towers with sides at the base measuring 6.9 meters. Their internal corners were supported by two brick pillars, 3.1 meters apart. At a distance of 2.2 meters to the west of the pillars, in the gable wall there were pilasters supporting the arcade. In the middle, between the towers, the western entrance to the church was also located, framed by a stepped portal with a semicircular archivolt and tympanum. The ground floor of the towers and the central porch could be covered with cross vaults or a timber ceiling. Between the towers, above the porch, there was a gallery, probably opened to the nave by an arcade with a span of 3.5 meters. The nave and the presbytery were probably also covered with a wooden ceiling, while the apse with a conch vault.
As a result of the rebuilding of the Romanesque church in the 13th century, its plan changed significantly, and the length of the church reached 40 meters. This was due to the enlargement of the eastern part by 10 meters while shortening the western massif to the line of the pillars, i.e. by 5 meters. Only the nave was used from the older building, while the chancel was pulled down together with the apse, obtaining a rectangular choir 12.8 meters long, closing an internal space measuring 11 x 7 meters. A shallow transept was also built, or two side chapels (9.5 x 5.5 meters each), which, judging by the smaller foundations, were probably lower than the nave. Their eastern walls ran along the axis of the rood screen separating the presbytery from the nave. The new elements of the church were built of bricks. Inside, the nave was probably covered with a flat wooden ceiling, and the choir was probably topped with two bays of cross vaults.
A Gothic church from the 14th and 15th centuries was erected south of the older buildings. It received the form of a three-aisle, hall structure, 63 meters long and 22.2 meters wide, covered with a separate gable roof over each aisle. The nave was divided into six bays, and, as in many other Gothic churches in Gdańsk, the walls were reinforced with buttresses pulled into the interior of the church, creating shallow side chapels between them. The central nave was extended on the eastern side with a rectangular chancel, to which a tower and sacristy were added from the south.
The sacristy received an irregular form, with the outer wall inclined towards the rest of the southern facade of the temple, which, as it was once incorrectly believed, was due to its construction on the foundations of an older church. From the outside, the sacristy, much lower than the other parts of the Dominican church, received a raw décor in the form of a massive brick face, enriched only with small pointed windows in the ground floor and blendes in the upper part of the wall with battlement.
The southern tower in the lower part (built in the fourteenth century) received a square section, with the façade pierced with two pointed windows and decorated with high, pointed blendes. The upper octagonal part of the tower (added at the end of the 15th century) was divided into semicircularly closed long recesses with narrow openings. Directly under the tower’s sharp roof, there was a frieze crowning it, made of recesses closed with segmental arches and separated from the rest of the tower by a moulded cornice.
Pulling the buttresses inside the church meant that the side facades of the aisles had a crude character, mitigated only by high ogival windows, blendes with moulded edges placed between them, starting at the height of half of the windows and a band frieze under the eaves of the roof. The western façade, the only one supported by buttresses, had slightly more decorative character, topped with three gables decorated with blendes and pilaster strips turning into pinnacles, and small gables pierced by round openings. Their fairly simple forms, not equal to the degree of complication of the Gdańsk gables from the second half of the 15th century (eg in the church of St. Catherine or the church of the Holy Trinity), would indicate that they could have built in the first half of that century. The eastern gable of the chancel was set back over the offset, with angular pilaster strips passing into pinnacles, decorated with two large, double-headed blendes.
The interior of the nave, divided by ten massive, octagonal pillars and two pairs of half-pillars into six bays in length, was covered with stellar vaults. The pillars were placed on pedestals and framed with rollers in the corners, and with bands at the base of the arcades. The arches of the arcades were stepped on both sides. The four-bay chancel was also crowned with a stellar vault of a similar, six-armed form as in the central nave. In the aisles, sacristy and chapel under the tower, four-arm stellar vaults were used. The ribs of the vaults of the central nave and the chancel were lowered onto bundles of shafts, in the chancel overhang on canopies with wimperg decoration and capitals decorated with floral and tracery motifs. In the nave, the ribs were also springing from tracery and moulded corbels. Around 1430-1440, the chancel was decorated with rich wall polychrome. The paintings depicted Passion scenes against the backdrop of landscapes and architectural views. Medieval polychrome was also found in the chapel under the tower, and the pillars of the nave were decorated with paintings popular in the Middle Ages, in the form of red geometric squares imitating the shape of stone blocks.
The buildings of the late Romanesque monastery were on the south side of the church, on the extension of its southern annex. They probably did not yet fit into the typical pattern of a four-sided claustrum, but referred to the early, single-wing Cistercian and Dominican solutions. For a change, the buildings of the Gothic claustrum were located on the northern side of the new Gothic church, where three wings and cloisters surrounded a four-sided garth, with the northern wing very close to the curtain of the city’s defensive walls of the Main City of Gdańsk.
The western part of the Gothic claustrum included the basement of an older building from the third quarter of the 13th century, the above-ground part of which was probably destroyed in 1308. The underground part (about 1.4 meters deep in the ground) was a hall 3.2 meters high, with four bays of elliptical vaults, supported on pendentives (corner elements of a rectangular vault passing into a circle) with a central cross pillar. The construction of the walls and vaults was also based on eight wall-pillars, between which arcades were stretched. They were filled with brick material, creating blendes. In the longer walls, they had a full arch, and in the shorter walls lancets. With full and pointed arches (depending on their span), the load on the walls was transferred to the central pillar, thus creating arch bands, while the wall pillars were crowned with brick, trapezoidal consoles. The arch bands did not intersect, which resulted in a rhomboidal network of stripes, with arcades separating individual sections of the vaults. The original entrance to the basement with the neck leading inside was in the southern wall on its west side. In the northern wall, in its eastern part, there was a splayed window, enabling ventilation of the room. In the 15th century, during the construction of the cloister, the room was divided across the wall into two parts. The northern wall was than pierced to add the basement neck to the north, while the southern exit was bricked up.
The Gothic church of St. Nicholas from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is one of the most valuable sacral monuments in Gdańsk, the more valuable as it has survived World War II without damages. It has fully retained its medieval appearance and much of its original equipment. Currently, the oldest Gothic monuments in the church are Pieta from the beginning of the 15th century in the chapel of St. Jack and paintings on the northern wall of the presbytery from around 1430. The Gothic furnishings also include a tablet image of the Mother of God with the Child from 1466, a crucifix made of a chancel beam from around 1520 and a bit later, artistically valuable stalls placed on both sides of the presbytery, consisting of Gothic seats from the mid-16th century and later backs from 18th century.
Until recently, it seemed that the monastery buildings did not survive at all to modern times. Luckily, in 2005, a buried late Romanesque monastery room was discovered under Dominican Square, most of which has been preserved in good condition and has been restored to the public. This hall has a vault structure unique in Poland.
Architektura gotycka w Polsce, red. M.Arszyński, T.Mroczko, Warszawa 1995.
Friedrich J., Gdańskie zabytki architektury do końca XVIII wieku, Gdańsk 1997.
Szyszka M., Romański kościół pw. św. Mikołaja i trzynastowieczny zespół podominikański w świetle badań archeologicznych na stanowisku 5 w Gdańsku [w:] Architektura romańska w Polsce. Nowe odkrycia i interpretacje, red. T.Janiak, Gniezno 2009.