St. Mary's Church, Gdansk, Poland

This hulking, massive structure is the largest brick built church in the world and one of the largest brick Gothic structures in Europe. It is 105.5 metres long, the nave is 66 metres wide and it can accommodate a jaw-dropping 25,000 people. The Church is also the co-Cathedral (along with the Cathedral in Oliwa) for the Archdiocese of Gdańsk.

A wooden church first existed here around 1243 built by Prince Swietopelk II.

The foundation stone for the stone church was laid on March 25, 1343 and the initial structure was completed by 1360. Some parts of this original structure still survive today. In 1379 a rebuild was started modelled on St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck, Germany. By 1447 the eastern sections of the church were completed. The tower was raised by two stories between 1452 and 1466. By 1496 the church was complete to its current megalithic size. Imagine just how massive this church must have been to 15th Century onlookers.

In 1577 the church converted to Lutheranism, and it remained a Lutheran church until 1945. The Catholics of Gdańsk worshipped in the nearby Royal Chapel.

St. Mary’s suffered somewhat after the partition of Poland. The Prussians, who gained control of Gdańsk, sold off many of the treasures inside the church. Vestments from the Crusades and earlier were removed as were renaissance wares from Venice, Florence and Lucca. These have all vanished. The triptych from the alter-piece was sold to Archduke Maximillian and today lives in Vienna. All the precious metals were melted down and golden threads from embroideries were removed and reused in Prussian officers’ uniforms.

The church survived most of World War II intact, however, when the Red Army arrived in March 1945 most of Gdańsk was utterly destroyed. The wooden roof of St. Mary’s was burnt out, the windows were destroyed and such was the fierceness of the heat that many of the bricks actually melted, particularly around the top of the tower which acted as a massive chimney. The gravestone slabs were broken up by Soviet troops, allegedly as they looted the bodies beneath them.

Repair works began in 1946, the roof was rebuilt in 1947 and worship began again in 1955. Such was the destruction that renovation work is ongoing to this day. Most of the German population of Gdańsk left for Germany after the War and the church converted back from Lutheranism to Catholicism. In 1965 it became co-Cathedral with Oliwa Cathedral.

Today the massive presence of St. Mary’s Church is inescapable wherever you may go in Gdańsk and the scale of this church is something that is hard to perceive unless you are stand underneath it looking up to a brick-filled sky above.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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