The first Christian temple in the area lying on the Lech Hill was funded during the life of prince Mieszko I, that is before 992. According to the tradition handed down by chronicler Jan Długosz, the founder was the wife of the prince, Dąbrówka. In the rotunda, a modest group of Christians arrived together with the duchess Dąbrówka and the local elites participated in the masses celebrated by the first Polish bishops: Jordan and Unger. The importance of the building increased after 997, when the body of St. Adalbert was put in it, probably it was buried in the semi-circular annex. It is not certain how long the rotunda functioned, it was possible that even before 1000 the construction of a more magnificent temple was started in its place.
Another temple in this place was a towerless basilica, which was the site of the first royal coronations in Poland. In 1039, it was destroyed during the invasion of Bohemian prince Brzetysław. At that time, valuable equipment was stolen, along with the golden altar offered by the emperor Otto III and the corpse of St. Adalbert. The church was rebuilt in the romanesque style and consecrated in 1064. In 1076, Bolesław II the Generous was crowned as king of Poland, and after the coronation, until further year 1097, further expansion was taking place. Around 1175, the bronze Gniezno Door was founded, a unique monument of romanesque foundry art. They contain nine parts with bas-reliefs of figural scenes and framed with a floral ornament with woven figures of people and animals. In 1295, the penultimate royal coronation took place in the romanesque cathedral, when prince Przemysł II was crowned king. Five years later, Wenceslaus II of Bohemia, who invaded Gniezno, made the last coronation in it. In 1331, the town was attacked by the Teutonic Knights. They plundered the church, but thanks to the courage of an altar priest named Wojciech, they did not set fire, in exchange for the price of thirty masses that the altarist was to celebrate in their intention.
The construction of the gothic cathedral began in 1342 on the initiative of archbishop Jarosław Bogoria Skotnicki. Although he was already 66 years old when work started, he held his office and supervision over the construction until 1374. He died two years later at the age of about one hundred years. In 1343, Pope Clement VI called for sacrifice for construction, offering indulgences, and the archbishop himself secured permanent funds for this purpose. First, a three-bay, seven-side ended chancel with a wreath of chapels was built from sandstone and bricks. It was completed around the mid-1360s; it was certainly still under construction in 1357, when half of the first year’s income from the episcopal villages was transferred to construction works. Archbishop Skotnicki started to build a part of the nave, continued by his successors Jan Suchywilk and Bodzanta. The work was completed around 1390. At that time, the northern tower was also built. The southern tower was added in the 16th century.
In 1613 during the great city fire, the roofs and wooden structures of the towers burnt in the cathedral. During the reconstruction a new western gable was created, chapels and interiors in the baroque style were also rebuilt. In 1760, the church was destroyed by another fire, and the reconstruction gave the cathedral classicistic features. The last fire consumed it because of Soviet soldiers in 1945. As a result of subsequent conservation work, the original gothic forms were partially restored.
Discovered relics of the pre-romanesque church of Mieszko I, preserved in the basement of the cathedral, allow to determine its spatial form as so-called a simple rotunda, consisting of a circular nave with a diameter of 9 meters and an eastern apse. From the north to the rotunda, an annex was added, perhaps of grave character.
The romanesque church from the end of the 12th century was a three-nave basilica, ended from the east by three apses, with the west part endowed by two four-sided towers. Despite similar dimensions, it differed in the technique of walls building. The first one was erected of crushed stones, the second one of carefully worked stone blocks.
The gotgic cathedral was erected as a three-nave structure, with a basilica layout with a chancel polygonaly ended and with ambulatory. A wreath of fourteen side chapels adjoins the aisles and ambulatory. From the west, the building is decorated with two huge towers reinforced in corners with buttresses. The roof over the central nave and the chancel is gable and mono-pitched above the aisles. The naves and the chancel are reinforced with buttresses, between which two-light and three-light, pointed windows with traceries are placed. The wall strengthening system in Gniezno also involved placing brick arches, carrying above the buttresses of the main floor of the central nave, under the roofs of the aisles and ambulatory. These arches reach their peak point directly under the buttress, in front of the contact with the wall, after which they pass into a short arm of the opposite direction, penetrating into a thinner wall semi-shaft.
According to the original plans, developed at the latest in 1342, a wreath of chapels was not foreseen (arcades to them were later pierced in the already finished walls), which, however, as in the case of the Wrocław and Kraków cathedrals, were quickly and in random order added to the ambulatory. It cannot be ruled out that these chapels did not have an identical form, some could be polygonal and some rectangular. Equipping the Gniezno cathedral with a three-bay choir enclosed by seven sides of the twelve-side, with an ambulatory on an identical plan and wreath of chapels, clearly manifested the primary position of the temple among all the churches in the kingdom. In addition, the closest cathedral using this classic variant of the chancel was the cathedral in Magdeburg built from 1209. It was in that cathedral school that Saint Adalbert received his education, and the Magdeburg metropolis was always a traditional “competitor” of Gniezno, which often led to serious competence and legal disputes. For this reason, it is likely that the use of the seven-sided closure in the gothic cathedral of Gniezno was to be a manifestation of the hierarchical equality of both churches.
Three gothic ogival portals led to the church: from the north, south and west. It were made of artificial stone and contain unique on the Polish scale tympanums with figural decoration. In the north it is the Crucifixion, and in the southern The Last Judgment, unfortunately, the original portal from the western façade has not preserved. Inside, the choir, central nave and side aisles are covered with rib vaults supported by octagonal inter-nave pillars. Arcades between the aisles received ogival finials, richly profiled, but in the eastern part of the church more severe, supported by massive rectangular pillars, with corners enclosed by small concaves. Only in the closing of the choir the breaks of the pillars were emphasized by the thin shafts of octagonal ancillary columns. Also noteworthy is the transition without capitals of the ribs from the wall-shafts of the perimeter wall of the ambulatory. The choir’s severity was clearly softened by two unique architectural ideas: a frieze under the cornice in the choir closure, consisting of square panels with added tracery toes, as well as ogival niches between the inter-nave arcades. The nave of the cathedral was maintained in a more decorative style with a richer and more vivid articulation (opposite to model used in most medieval churches, where the presbytery was more impressive than the raw nave). An unusual compositional idea was to accumulate three storeys of lesenes in the facade of the central nave with the middle section thicker than the others – a motive without analogy in Central European architecture.
The nave also received rich sculptural decoration. All the cornices, capitals, consoles and portals were covered with a thicket of plant flagella and rosettes, between which there was a pageant of carved humans and animal figures. The imperfections made in artificial stone (i.e. in a mixture of gypsum and lime mortar with the addition of sand, ash and ceramic crumbs) bas-reliefs were once covered by colorful polychromes. The romanizing decorations of the leafy flagella may have been taken from the Gniezno Door, playing in the cathedral a role similar to the reliquary of the main patron in other churches. There was no original reliquary in Gniezno (it was looted during the invasion of Brzetysław), and the monumental tomb, first Romanesque, and from the beginning of the 15th century Gothic one, located in the middle of the central nave, housed the head of Saint Adalbert, about which there were doubts (the other one was found in Prague). In this situation, the decorative door took over the pictorial function of a reliquary, persuading the faithful where the real grave of the martyr is, with their decoration stretched in Gothic period over the entire nave.
The impressive shape of the three-nave, two-tower basilica with a full ambulatory around the seven-sided ending of the choir, among episcopal churches in the Polish kingdom placed it closest to the prestigious model of a gothic cathedral of the French type. However, from this model in the classic variant there are noticeable deviations in the form of the lack of a transept and much simplified and transformed interior articulation. The choir part more restrained in form and decoration arose from the traditions of Central European monastic construction, primarily Cistercian and Mendicant, while the more plastic and decorative interior of the nave was based on the experience of brick architecture of the southern Baltic area.
The gothic cathedral in Gniezno, next to the royal temple in Wawel, is one of the most important churches in Poland. After the devastation of 1945, the regothisation, which did not cause much controversy, largely restored its medieval shape, and thus a unique architectural creation in Poland.
Many valuable monuments have survived from the medieval furnishings. In the chancel, behind the reliquary there is a tombstone of Saint Adalbert, made of the red marble from 1480, and above the altar, a chancel arch with a gothic crucifix made of linden tree from around 1430. Under the choir, you can find the late-gothic tombstone of archbishop Zbigniew Oleśnicki by Wit Stwosz, while at the entrance to the old chapter-house there is a tombstone of archbishop Jakub of Sienno. In the northern porch above the entrance to the interior of the cathedral there is a gothic portal with the Crucifixion scene. In the southern porch there are the Gniezno Doors, one of the few romanesque doors in Europe and the most valuable in Poland. In the basement of the cathedral you can see, among others the oldest gravestone inscription in Poland, about 1006, discovered during archaeological research of relics of a stone building from the end of the ninth century, and fragments of the walls of the basilica of Mieszko I.
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