By Jakub Adamski | Institute of the History of Art, University of Warsaw
The Collegiate Church of the Holy Cross is located on Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island) in Wrocław, the historical capital of Silesia. It occupies a square adjoining the west side of the now-lost ducal castle, founded in the 10th century by the Polish Piast dynasty. From 1202, Wrocław and Silesia were ruled by a separate branch of this dynasty, after whose extinction in 1335 the Wrocław principality became part of the Crown of the Kingdom of Bohemia. The collegiate church was founded in 1288 by one of the most prominent Silesian Piasts, Henry IV Probus (r. 1270–90), who thus commemorated the end of a long-lasting property dispute with the Bishop of Wrocław, Thomas II (r. 1270–92). At that time, a canonical chapter was also established, which was forced to finance the church’s construction following the prince’s untimely death in 1290. This also contributed to the prolonged construction of this spectacular building project.
The church is built of brick and a large amount of sandstone ashlar, from which all decorative details were made. The structure is two-storeyed and consists of an elongated four-bay choir with a three-sided termination, a transept with two-bay and three-sided closed arms, as well as a hall nave on a square ground plan. The towers were built at the western corners of the transept. The southern tower retains its original spire from 1484. The lower church, with its squat interior, bears a separate dedication to Sts. Bartholomew and Hedwig, patron saints of the Silesian Piasts. According to the founder’s intention, this story was originally reserved for the college of mansionaries, who were to hold anniversary services for his and his ancestors’ souls. The choir of the lower church was probably completed in 1295, while the nave, divided into five bays, was built around 1330–40. The upper church, with its spacious and well-lit interior, was used by the Collegiate Chapter of the Holy Cross. The eastern part, housing the liturgical choir, was completed around 1330, while the nave, divided into three bays of unequal length, was laboriously constructed until the end of the 14th century. The vault was probably put in place around 1380.
The collegiate church of Wrocław is one of the finest Gothic buildings of the 13th–14th centuries in Central Europe. The founder intended it to be dedicated to the glory of the Silesian house of the Piasts. This accounts for its unusual spatial arrangement and its location before the ducal castlet. The two-story structure stems from the early Christian and medieval tradition of mausoleums and palace chapels. The cruciform layout with polygonal closures of its eastern arms is a reference to St. Elisabeth’s church in Marburg (begun in 1235), which was the sanctuary of St. Elisabeth of Hungary (niece of St. Hedwig, co-patron of the church in Wrocław) and the necropolis of the landgraves of Thuringia. The combination of these solutions in the Wrocław building, which has an additional centralizing layout with towers set almost in the center, is unique and speaks to the quality of both the founder and the anonymous designer.
The eastern arm of the church, which is the earliest part of the building, is the first monumental example in Silesia of a long choir with a polygonal apse. The vaults of the austere lower story are based on heavy semi-octagonal supports, which originated in the architecture of Bohemia, Moravia, and Austria of the mid-13th century. The upper story of the choir, on the other hand, completely dispenses with wall articulation and instead features refined architectural details, such as the fan-shaped rib springers of an unusual form, the figural keystones, and especially the complex tracery with multiple cusps and thin moldings. Two windows in the diagonal walls of the apse are filled with triradial tracery, which gained popularity in Central Europe thanks to the cathedral lodges of Strasbourg and Cologne, while in Silesia, they appeared as early as the 1290s in the castle chapel at Racibórz and in the Cistercian church at Lubiąż.
The concept of erecting both stories of the church nave in a hall system must be considered original. In the lower part, a restrained yet stylistically modern type of aisle arcades was used, supported on elongated piers without capitals, whose corner moldings run uniformly into the moldings of archivolts. This solution, originating in several Central European buildings from the turn of the 14th century, became popular in Silesia thanks to the aforementioned Cistercian church at Lubiąż (ca. 1280–1330) and the nave of the cathedral in Wrocław (ca. 1305–50). The original idea of the designer of the collegiate church was to articulate the piers with flat lesenes, which became popular in Silesia, most likely thanks to the influence of the church of St-Pierre-le-Jeune in Strasbourg (1300–20).
The uniformly profiled arcade with added lesenes was also used in the upper story of the nave; only the cross-section of the piers was enriched through the addition of corner rolls. The most important idea of the designer of this part of the church was to introduce the use of the “pseudo-bond” system of the two eastern bays, consisting in the juxtaposition of the square bays of the main vessel, covered with a stellar vault, with the elongated bays of the aisles, each of which is lit by a pair of windows and supported on the outside by a double number of buttresses, supporting asymmetrical vaults, built with a combination of three triradial ribs. This solution had already been used in the eastern bay of the basilican nave of the nearby cathedral. The designer of the collegiate church doubled this arrangement of bays in the hall version, which gave the interior an unusual spaciousness resulting from the large width of the arcades and its abundant illumination. This layout of the building became a regional model for hall buildings – it was repeated in Wrocław in the churches of the Canons Regular and Augustinians-Eremites, and outside the capital in the parish churches of Paczków, Namysłów, Góra, and Lwówek Ślaski.
The most magnificent architectural decoration of the church is its tracery windows, probably executed around 1350–60. Their curvilinear forms with abundant use of mouchettes and soufflets derive directly from the Upper Rhineland, finding their closest counterparts in the Cistercian churches at Salem, Kappel am Albis and Bebenhausen. The tracery of the west window of the nave in Wrocław is the most advanced work of its kind in the whole of Central Europe, which was created before the beginning of Peter Parler’s activity in Prague and Kolín. It can be concluded that the Collegiate Church of the Holy Cross is an example of innovative stylistic changes in Gothic architecture at the turn of the 14th century.
Adamski, Jakub. Gotycka architektura sakralna na Śląsku w latach 1200–1420. Główne kierunki rozwoju (“Gothic Church Architecture in Silesia 1200-1420. Main Paths of its Evolution”), 329–347, 411–431. Cracow: Societas Vistulana, 2017.
The newest comprehensive survey of the church’s architecture and decoration. Originally written in Polish, it is currently being translated into German and will be published in Böhlau Verlag (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Verlage).
Burgemeister, Ludwig (ed.). Die Kunstdenkmäler der Provinz Niederschlesien, vol. 1, Die Stadt Breslau, part 1, Die kirchlichen Denkmäler der Dominsel und der Sandinsel, 174–204. Breslau: Korn, 1930.
This is a detailed description of the church prior to the damage it suffered in 1945 during the siege of the city.
Kaczmarek, Romuald. “Das Grabmal Herzog Heinrichs IV. Probus (+1290) und die Bauplastik in Breslau (Wrocław).” In King John of Luxembourg (1296-1346) and the Art of his Era, edited by Klára Benešovská, 181–188. Prague: KLP, 1998.
An important detailed study of the sculptural decoration of the choir that offers new dating for the completion of the eastern part of the church to ca. 1330, instead of the traditional date of 1295 proposed in the previous literature.
Tintelnot, Hans. Die mittelalterliche Baukunst Schlesiens, 66–75. Kitzingen: Holzner, 1951.
One of few more extensive analyses of the church, written before World War II. Although outdated in many respects (e.g., in the dating of the construction), it contains several important observations on the church’s architecture.
This contribution was sponsored by the International Center of Medieval Art through the 2021 Advocacy Seed Grant.