The founding of the friary took place in 1453, on the initiative of John Capistran, the papal legate, preacher and founder of the Bernardine Order who came from Italy. Thanks to fiery preaching, he quickly gained the support of the townspeople against Hussitism, and at the same time contributed to the persecution of Jews. An expression of support for the Bernardines was handing over by the parish priest of St. Maurice a plot of land for the planned monastery, on which the first, probably provisional, oratory was erected and consecrated in the same year. The erection of a brick church dedicated to St. Bernard of Siena was started in 1463, initially under the supervision of master Hannos. After the break in construction works, the pace of works slowed down, it also had to be carried out unprofessionally, because in 1491 part of the chancel collapsed. Removal of damages and further construction lasted until consecration in 1502. At the same time, monastic buildings were also erected, thanks to the help of municipal gifts and numerous donors. The works were carried out by a well-known construction workshop from Lusatia, Hans Berthold, a master bricklayer and stonemason. Peter Franczke, a stonemason, and Hans’s son, Erazm, collaborated with him.
With the advent of the Reformation, the Bernardines lost their privileged position, and new ideas turned the townspeople against them. Already in 1522, the city council ordered the Bernardines to move to the monastery buildings at the church of St. James, but the brothers, offended by this decision, ostentatiously left the city. The monastery was turned into a hospital, and the church, initially closed and unused, from 1526 became an Evangelical parish. Beginning in 1674, there was also a library operating there.
The monastery complex was ravaged by fires many times. Lightning strikes destroyed the church tower in 1557, 1589 and 1609. The most serious fire in 1628 destroyed the walls of the western facade of the church, roofs, vaults and organ choir, as well as, quite seriously, the monastery buildings. After the temporary renovation of the roofs and covering them with shingles, the slow reconstruction began, which lasted until the end of the 17th century. In 1634, the chancel vault was restored, and a year later the master bricklayer Georg Sauer strengthened the chancel from the south-east. The windows were also re-glazed. The completion of the work was commemorated with the date 1704, engraved on the new Baroque western gable of the church, but already in 1654 the building was damaged by artillery fire from the Prussian army.
In 1853, a rather unsuccessful reconstruction of the church was conducted. In 1871 the Gothic, eastern range of the monastery was dismantled, replacing by the pseudo-Gothic, and in 1872 the monastery was dismantled. Another reconstruction of both the church and the monastery was conducted between 1898-1901. In this condition, the site survived until the end of World War II. In 1945 the losses were estimated at 60%. The reconstruction was carried out in 1947-1949 and 1957-1967 according to projects and supervised by Edmund Malachowicz.
The oldest building in the monastery was the oratory built in 1453, set on the north-south axis on the south-west side of the later church. It was a single-space, two-story building on a hexagon plan, with a polygonal, non buttressed ending from the south. The upper floor had pointed windows and was topped with a steep, hip roof. An analogous, also polygonal oratory was built (perhaps after replacing the earlier one with a chapel dedicated to Jan Kapistran) in the west wing of the monastery. Probably the first oratory closed from the west the oldest, longitudinal half-timbered monastery building located on the east-west axis, partly in the place of the later southern church aisle and adjacent to the southern wall of the half-timbered chancel and the nave of the first church.
The monastery church received a late Gothic, three-aisle form of the basilica with an elongated, polygonal chancel. It was built of bricks, however, a stone strip every few layers was introduced, a characteristic feature of Hans Berthold’s workshop. The tower, low due to the vicinity of city fortifications, was placed in the corner between the nave and the chancel, on the southern side. The front elevation of the Gothic church, supported on a stone, squared pedestal, consisted of a high, topped with a triangular gable facade of the central nave and symmetrically added on both sides, lower facades of aisles finished with mono-pitched gables. Front elevation was divided by three stone, steep Gothic cornices, with the highest, richest eaves cornice surrounding the nave around. Its concave quarter shaft was additionally decorated with a sculptural frieze of stylized floral decoration. The central nave was illuminated from the west with a large tracery window, also side aisles had large single, pointed windows. The main, late-Gothic richly decorated entrance portal with a ogee arch was placed on the axis of the west facade of the central nave (probably it replaced a slightly earlier, double, pointed portal).
The west facade of the church was initially added to the northwest corner of the former oratory of Jan Kapistran. In the next stage of building the Gothic church, the southern aisle of the nave absorbed the northern part of the oratory. This required its partial demolition, but the left walls were used to build the west wall of the southern aisle and the new chapel of the Virgin Mary, shifted to the south and roughly retaining the body and dimensions of the previous building. The demolition of the northern wall of the oratory and opening of the chapel inside the southern aisle created structural problems and required additional support of the western wall with a massive buttress.
Inside the church, the irregularly spaced pillars of the cross plan, separate the naves. The cetral nave and the chancel have stellar vaults, and the aisles have rib vaults. The six bays of the central nave were rectangular in shape, while in the northern aisle they were similar to squares, and in the southern nave also rectangular, although many of them had an irregular form as a result of adapting the walls to older buildings or inadequate planning. The chancel was divided into a square western bay, two central rectangular bays and a polygonal eastern closure. Originally, it was separated from the nave by a partition – the rood screen.
The monastery buildings were added to the church from the south side. In 1492, there were three ranges. In the north there was a sacristy with a vestibule on one pillar. The wide western range and south range housed the cloisters and refectory, that is dining room of the convent. The latter was connected with a free-standing kitchen. In the southern range on the first floor there was a dormitory, that is a bedroom of monks. The eastern range erected at the latest, around 1500, housed a chapter house and a chapel extended eastwards to the chapel. The quadrangle of the monastery surrounded an inner courtyard. In 1517, the south range was extended westwards, presumably for the reception of monastery visitors. This range, the church’s corpus and the quadrangle of the monastery were surrounded by a second garden.
To modern times, the Bernardine monastery has survived almost entirely. The exception is the original gable of the church façade replaced with a Baroque one, the pulled down friary kitchen and the eastern wing of the claustrum destroyed in the 19th century, replaced today by a nasty modernist building that brings shame to the city. The church and the friary are now open to the public. Inside is located the Museum of Architecture. Open on Tuesdays 11: 00-17: 00, Wednesdays 10: 00-16: 00, Thursdays 12: 00-19: 00, Friday – Sunday 11: 00-17: 00.
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Architektura gotycka w Polsce, red. T. Mroczko, M. Arszyński, Warszawa 1995.
Encyklopedia Wrocławia, red. J.Harasimowicz, Wrocław 2006.
Małachowicz M., Pietras K., Przemiany zachodniej elewacji kościoła św. Bernardyna we Wrocławiu [w:] Dziedzictwo architektoniczne. Rekonstrukcje i badania obiektów zabytkowych, red. E.Łużyniecka, Wrocław 2017.
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