The Church of St. Elizabeth in Wrocław (Breslau), Poland
The Church of St. Elizabeth in Wrocław (Breslau), Poland

By Agnieszka Patała | Institute of Art History, University of Wrocław, Poland


The Parish Church of St. Elizabeth of Thuringia in Wrocław (until 1945 Breslau) is located next to the north-western corner of the market square, on the site of an older late Romanesque hall church, erected ca. 1230–57, initially dedicated to St. Lawrence and at least since 1253 to St. Elizabeth. It is a red brick structure, with black glazed brick decorations, and stonework made of sandstone. The construction of the now existing church started ca. 1300. Abandoning the initial project of a hall church shortly afterwards, resulted in the present three aisle basilica-type body, with a high nave (29.7 m) of six bays, covered with the rib vaults, supported by the flying buttress hidden under the roofs of the side aisles, completed ca. 1340. In the next phase of construction, 1340–69, a three aisle chancel of three bays, with aisles terminating in apses at the eastern end was erected. The chancel embellished with carved keystones and consoles came into existence within one phase, created by a new group of architects and builders. No separate transept was introduced. The main altar was founded in 1361 and consecrated in 1387. The tower was finished only in 1482, and was long hailed as the tallest in the region. Two chains of 15 chapels (14 family-owned and 1 belonging to the guild of rich market traders), adjacent to the northern and southern aisles, were erected between 1380 and the second half of the 15th century. Since 1598, the roof has been covered with two-coloured tiles (green and red), which has helped distinguish the church on the city skyline.

In 1525, the church was taken over by the Lutherans, and until 1945 remained the principal Protestant church in the region. Its history has seen many catastrophes (the most important in 1530, 1649, 1807, 1857, 1976), which resulted in numerous repairs, reconstructions, and neo-Gothic interventions (1890–93). However, these have not changed the essential Gothic characteristics of the church.


The church is regarded as one of the most important and representative objects in the history of medieval art and architecture in Silesia. Its monumental structure set a previously unknown measure and new standards of Gothic sacral architecture in the region. At the same time, its preserved medieval furnishings are among the most important works of Silesian Gothic art created predominantly in the workshops of Breslau-based artists, often migrants.

The existence of the St. Elizabeth’s parish (parochia b. Elizabeth) was first mentioned in February 26, 1253, when the right of patronage over it was granted to the order of the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star, whose members kept it until 1525. The parish comprised the area inhabited by the most affluent Breslau burghers, councillors, and the local intellectuals. This group bore the costs of the construction, maintenance, remodelling, and furnishing of the church building as well as the parish school and library through the agency of two lay administrators designated by the City Council. Therefore, St. Elizabeth’s Church was a testament to the financial capacity, ambitions, and broad horizons of the city’s elite. Next to St. Mary Magdalene’s Church, it was one of the two most important parish churches of medieval and early modern Breslau, as well as an intellectual, educational, and cultural center of the city. For many years scholars have considered the church of St. Elisabeth as a copy of the Cistercian church in Zlatá Koruna. Recent research has indicated, however, the presence in the church’s western part of forms typical of sacred architecture from the south-western regions of Germany, with particular emphasis on St. Lawrence’s Parish Church in Nuremberg. The formal analysis of the church’s chancel, in turn, led to conclusions about its Rhineland origin, as it bears a striking resemblance to the western part of the late 13th century church of the Canons Regular of Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune in Strasbourg (consecrated in 1320). The interiors of the Alsatian nave and the Breslau chancel are distinguished by a striking similarity in the use of slender lesenes with profiled corners.

A specific feature of St. Elizabeth’s Church is the immense proportions of the nave – unusually high for brick architecture and rather uncommon in the south-western regions of Germany. The tendency for the expressive elevation of the naves was, however, noticeable earlier in Silesia and Bohemia, for example in the Cistercian church in Kamieniec Ząbkowicki (Kamenz) and St. Jacob's Church in Prague. Some scholars presume that Breslau councillors intended either to compete with the monastic churches or to refer to gigantic parish churches of the Hanseatic region. Nevertheless, the body of St. Elizabeth’s Church opened a new chapter in the history of Silesian Gothic architecture and set an obligatory benchmark for urban parish churches in Silesia for the next two centuries. The earliest example of an almost literal reference to the western part of St. Elizabeth’s Church is the Parish Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Legnica (Liegnitz), built beginning in 1333.

The high importance of the church in medieval and early modern times is also evidenced in its furnishings, partly preserved until today. Its interior housed one of the richest collections of pre-Reformation (31) and Protestant pictorial epitaphs in this part of Europe, as well as a fair number of Gothic altarpieces (47 in the early 16th century) and early modern sepulchral monuments. The oldest elements of its furnishings still preserved in the church include the monumental (15m high) sandstone sacrament house by Jodocus Tauchen (1450s), wooden stalls and stone epitaphs commemorating, among others, Sebald Saurmann, Christoph Rindfleisch, and Ursula von Hemmerdey.

During pre-Reformation times, the interior of the church was covered with wall paintings, evident not only in traces of architectural polychromes, but also in the scene of the Last Judgment in the chapel of the von Restis family, and the recently discovered rich set of late Gothic wall-paintings from the Smedchin chapel.

The most valuable artworks originating from this church, including the remnants of the retable of the main altarpiece by Hans Pleydenwurff (1462), the Polyptych of Annunciation with Unicorn, St. Hedwig’s altarpiece, the furnishings of the family Krappe chapel, and several painted epitaphs belong now to the museum collections in Wrocław, Warsaw, and Nuremberg.

Further Reading

Luchs, Hermann. Die Denkmäler der St. Elisabeth-Kirche zu Breslau, Breslau: Hirt, 1860.

This monograph offers a useful overview into works preserved in the church in the 19th century. It also contains short analyses of almost every object.

Patała, Agnieszka. “Hans Pleydenwurff and Wrocław contexts” In Migrations. Late Gothic Art in Silesia, edited by Agnieszka Patała, 83–93. Wrocław: Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, 2019.

This article provides a short history of St. Elisabeth’s Church and the circumstances of the commission of the main altar retable.

Schmeidler, Johannes C. H. Die evangelische Haupt- und Pfarr-Kirche zu St. Elisabeth: Denkschrift zur Feier ihres 600 jährigen Bestehens. Breslau: Max, 1857.

This book is the first monograph of the church, containing its history (up to the early 19th century) and a rather complete list of the artworks preserved inside.

This contribution was sponsored by the International Center of Medieval Art through the 2021 Advocacy Seed Grant.


Agnieszka Patała, "The Church of St. Elizabeth in Wrocław (Breslau), Poland," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,