Wrocław – Augustinian church of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Sand


   The original romanesque church and convent were probably founded by palatine Peter Wlost, his wife princess Maria and their son Świętosław in the first half of the 12th century and completed before 1148. Probably after 1150 the first regular canons arrived. The first abbot was a monk named Oger or Oqer. The oldest church was located in the area where the central part of the nave and the southern nave are now. In the 13th century the chancel was extended to the east by about 10 meters. In this form, the romanesque church survived until 1334.
   In the years 1334-1375 a new Gothic three-aisle hall was erected according to Master Pieszko’s plans.
The construction was initiated by abbot Konrad from Oleśnica, then from 1364 the works were supervised by abbot John from Krosno, for whom part of the choir was built and the interior was decorated. The church was consecrated in 1369 by bishop Przecław from Pogorzela. Then, in the years 1375-1386, the vaults of the nave were made under the abbot Jan of Prague, in 1386-1395 abbot Henry Gallici vaulted the aisles, in 1390 the first of the side chapels was completed, and in 1430 the southern tower was completed (the northern one remained unfinished).

   The erection of the monumental church was dictated by many factors. One of them was the constantly growing area of the island, due to the accumulation of sand, river sludge and land from diggings for buildings. With time, the town council began to claim rights to parts of the island and even divided it into a monastery and town part. The second reason was the transformation in the first half of the fourteenth century of the tower of town fortifications to the town gatehouse, which facilitated communication with left-bank Wrocław and resulted in the increase of secular settlement on the island, and consequently the formation of the parish, which was supposed to serve the new temple.
In the fire of 1730 burned down the roof of the church’s body, rebuilt in 1732. The fire from 1763 and 1791 caused further, later rebuilt, damage to the roof. During the siege of Wrocław at the end of World War II the church and the monastery were severely destroyed. It was considered to leave the monastery complex in the form of permanent ruins, but eventually they were rebuilt. The church was renovated in 1946-1948 and 1961-1963, the interior was restored in Gothic form and equipped with altars from the destroyed churches in Silesia.


   The church was situated on the Sand Island, surrounded by the waters of the Odra River. On its west side there was an old road leading in the Middle Ages to the river crossing, connecting, among others, the ducal castle and the cathedral with the city on the south side.
   The first Romanesque church was built of granite cubes and sandstone in architectural details, had a short transept and elongated chancel, narrower than a nave, with chapels on both sides and a crypt.
From the west there were two towers with the gallery between them. The small nave width of 11.5 meters indicates a single-nave structure, or possibly a small three-aisle basilica. In the Romanesque phase, on the sandy culmination of the island, apart from a free-standing church, there was also a monastery building and a cemetery between them. The whole was most likely surrounded by a stone fence.
   In the first Gothic phase (since the quarter of the 13th century to 1334), the chancel was extended in the brick construction to the east by about 10 meters. Then, at the north – east corner of the church, the founders’ chapel was built, reinforced from the outside by numerous buttresses. To the south of the church there was a patio with a side length of over 19 meters, surrounded by cloisters. They were built of brick in the Flemish bond. From the inner side, they had evenly spaced buttresses, five on each wall, sandstone columns and window recesses on both sides.
The cloisters were topped with rib vaults. On the eastern side of the patio there was a rectangular building with dimensions of 7.5 x 11.5 meters, probably a chapter house. According to graphics from the seventeenth century, it had three windows axes, a gable roof, and the gable wall was set to the east. To the south of it was another, two-segment building. Thanks to the rich decorations of sandstone traceries, you can see the refectory in it. It is also worth noting that in the Middle Ages, the coastline was running a short distance from the refectory, the Sand Island was much smaller than it is now.

   The present church architecture, created in the second Gothic phase (1334-1468), show forms of Reduction Gothic, it is compact and massive. Built of bricks in a Flemish bond and sandstone used for architectural details, the church has the shape of a three-aisle hall about 65 meters long and 22.5 meters wide, with two towers in the western elevation, of which finished only south and north are not rising above the walls of the nave. It received a length of six bays, half of which belonged to the chancel, not separated externally from the nave. The chancel was originally separated inside from the central nave by a stone rood screen. From the east it has a quadrilateral end, and the aisles are closed triangular. In the central nave were built stellar vaults, and between the towers a rib vaults. The aisles are covered by three-support vaults with nine fields in every bay. Thanks to this, the northern façade has a dense butresses spacing, occurring twice as often as the pillars of the nave. High tracery windows were placed between the buttresses, and initially the walls were topped with a Gothic balustrade. The western façade has a simple form, without buttresses, with a retracted gable. The facade rested on a high plinth finished with a stone, moulded cornice. The walls of the towers were also divided with intermediate cornices, on the fourth and fifth floors, respectively. The central part of the façade was filled with a portal with a triangular gable against the background of a rectangular panel with blind tracery. The other two portals of the church received a more modest form. The northern one with stepped jambs was equipped with moulding smoothly turning into an archivolt, while the southern one with open, moulded jambs was decorated with figural decorations in the area of the heads and at the top. Initially, the church had three parallel roofs, separate for each aisle.

   Inside, the division into aisles was initially provided by cylindrical pillars, but quite quickly it were replaced with octagonal pillars, equipped with pilaster strips and high plinths. It did not receive heads, but their moulding smoothly turned into inter-nave arcades. The northern elevation was left smooth, and the architectural and sculptural decoration was limited to the zone of vaults. The southern façade was built according to newer plans, and, like the pillars, it was fragmented with pilaster strips. The finishing of the nave walls was continued in the same way in the presbytery, but in the central aisle it was completely separated from the side aisles by screens and by the above mentioned rood screen from the central nave. From the west, the rood screen opened with three arcades, in the depths of which there were side altars, and a small portal on the axis. It was crowned with a carved, openwork balustrade reaching up to 7.5 meters in height, i.e. up to about 1/3 of the height of the church. Behind it, there was a porch-balcony, accessible by a cylindrical staircase.
   The polygonal, eastern ends of the aisles received vaults with ribs falling on the corbels, decorated with figural sculptures covered with colorful polychromes. In the central apse, below the corbels, figural sculptures of supernatural height were placed, situated on decorative consoles and topped with canopies, probably originally also covered with colorful polychromes. This magnificent decoration was intended to be continued on the pillars of the central nave but was probably never completed.

   The construction of the Gothic church, due to the shortage of the monastery area on the island was associated with the necessity of liquidation of the northern wing of the cloisters. The chapter house and the refectory still functioned, to which a new three-spatial building was added from the east. It was rectangular in plan, 25 meters long and 13 meters wide, reinforced with external buttresses. According to sources, it was created in 1468 and was referred to as a dormitory, which raises doubts, due to such a late erection. It was associated rather with increased needs of servicing a large church. To the north-east of it was a wall, running along the coast line of the island. Probably it served as a breakwater, but also defensive wall in connection with the increased number of secular settlements on the island. After 1468 (third Gothic phase), a sacristy was erected along the east side of the south aisle of the church, an economic buildings were erected next to the coastal wall and to the southwest of it – a brewery and a bakery.

Current state

   The Gothic church did not undergo major transformations in the early modern period. Despite various cataclysms, efforts were always made to restore it to its original appearance. Thanks to this, it still impresses with its unique treatment of the space. Narrow, tunnel aisles seem to drag on endlessly, and a large number of perspectives encourage unrestricted circulation around the building. The tripartite choir is one of the most characteristic features of the Silesian churches, a solution popular in Romanesque architecture, but used at the end of the thirteenth century in the cathedral in Regensburg and in the church of St. Urbain in Troyes.
   The overwhelming part of the church’s old equipment was destroyed. In the basement of the tower there is a richly decorated late Gothic stone baptismal font from 1464-1472. The architectural details of the interiors include the carved consoles on which the vaults are based, and the full-length depictions of the angels and prophets under the baldachins. These 44 figures are a unique sculptural decoration, creating an iconographic program, so far unread in a convincing way.

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Architektura gotycka w Polsce, red. T. Mroczko i M. Arszyński, Warszawa 1995.
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