Gniezno – St John’s Church

History

   The church of St. John the Baptist was erected around the middle of the fourteenth century by the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, came to Gniezno in 1179. In 1243 they took over the original church of St. John with the hospital, but this oldest temple could have been destroyed during the town’s desolation by the Teutonic Knights in 1331, due to its location outside the fortifications. The Gothic presbytery was the earliest to be built, the construction of the nave was probably not completed until around 1370, and the tower only at the beginning of the 15th century.
   A small reconstruction of the church was carried out at the end of the 17th century. Then the windows in the chancel were pierced and the gothic polychrome was plastered. The interior was restored in the middle of the next century. During conservation works in the years 1902-16, medieval paintings in the chancel were unveiled.

Architecture

   The church is a Gothic, orientated, one-nave, masonry building bricked in Flemish bond. Its chancel received two bays, while the eastern one was closed on two sides. The nave received a slightly larger height and width than the chancel, four bays of length, and a quadrilateral tower was added to it from the west. This tower received four floors, with elevations decorated with pointed and round windows and blendes. Outside, the nave and presbytery were enclosed by stepped buttresses, between which ogival windows were placed (the choir was originally pierced with only three, narrower than today openings) and covered with gable roofs. From the south, an ogival Gothic portal lead to the nave, the other was on its opposite side.
   While the church looked quite modest from the outside, it received an exceptionally rich interior. The presbytery was covered with a rib vault, separated by a massive arch band with ribs based on consoles in the shape of prismatic, inverted pyramids. As the vault was not very high, it intensified the impression of massiveness, somewhat dispersed by later covering the walls with polychromes. Two deep niches were in each wall, of which the western ones were filled with three arcades, and the eastern ones were closed with ogival arches. These alcoves were the seats of the celebrant and his assistants.
   The single-space nave, higher and brighter, was composed of four bays and covered with a rib vault. These ribs, extremely elegant, with a sharpened rectangular profile, were hung with effective corbels of sculptural decoration. Along all the ribs, five-petal roses were placed in rows, and in the ribs keys fantastic masks and bosses with suspended canopies.
   The vault and the walls of the presbytery were covered with polychromes, painted on a thin lime pale, from which the shape of the bricks stuck out. On the vault there are images of 17 heads of kings and prophets of the Old Testament and one female head. The walls in two levels depict scenes from the life of Christ, John the Baptist and the Mother of God. The presbytery was separated from the nave by an ogival arcade, and probably also by a rood screen at which stood an altar for lay congregation.
   The tower once housed a gallery, open to the nave through a large, pointed arcade. A cramped room in the ground floor (now the sacristy) was accessible through a small portal and was illuminated through a small window from the south, in the form of an oculus with a quatrefoil tracery.
   The monastery adjacent to the church was built in the second half of the 13th century as a free-standing brick building. It was a gothic-style building with a basement and probably two upper floors.

Current state

   The church at first glance, especially from the outside, seems a simple building, but in fact it is a unique work of medieval art, one of the most unusual in Poland. The oldest preserved wall paintings in Wielkopolska region, figural consoles and nave vaults with sophisticated canopy bosses stands out especially. The monastery adjacent to the church, rebuilt and expanded over the years, has now lost its original appearance.

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bibliography:
Architektura gotycka w Polsce, red. T. Mroczko i M. Arszyński, Warszawa 1995.
Kowalski Z., Gotyk wielkopolski. Architektura sakralna XIII-XVI wieku, Poznań 2010.
Maluśkiewicz P., Gotyckie kościoły w Wielkopolsce, Poznań 2008.

Walczak M., Kościoły gotyckie w Polsce, Kraków 2015.