The Dominican Church of St. Nicholas is one of the oldest churches in Gdansk. Its history begins in the 12th century. It was built at the junction of two important trade routes: the ancient mercantile path (via mercatorum) and the route leading from the royal castle of Gdansk’s estate in Pomerania.
On January 22, 1227, the Pomeranian prince Svatopluk entrusted the Church of St. Nicholas to the Dominicans, who had just arrived in the Polish territories. Immediately they began intensive pastoral activities both within the city and in neighboring Prussia. The church became the site of a thriving Dominican priory, which soon had a population of nearly two hundred brethren. After Gdansk passed under the dominion of the Teutonic Knights in 1308, Dominicans built a new church alongside the old one, which is preserved to this day.
The most dramatic period in the history of the church was the 16th century, the age of the Reformation. The church was repeatedly destroyed and plundered during the riots. The friars were expelled, and several of them lost their lives. In 1578 they returned to the priory and assumed the pastoral care of the Catholic population in the increasingly Protestant Gdansk.
Since that time, St. Nicholas became once again a celebrated church. Within the walls of the priory lived more and more friars, and the intellectual life and preaching of the brethren thrived. The church received new and significant appointments (the main altar, choir stalls, pulpit, organ). Visits by Polish kings on the occasion of their trips to Gdansk attest to the centrality and importance of St. Nicholas Church.
The end of the heyday of the monastery came with the Polish partitions (1772), and Napoleon wars. In 1813, as a result of Russian bombardment of the city, the priory was burned. Twenty years later, the Dominicans were forced to leave town, and eventually the ruined monastic buildings were demolished. The church was established as the Catholic parish of the city (one of four in what was then Danzig).
The year 1945 proved to be disastrous for Gdansk. The city was 90% destroyed and the people were expelled. All the churches downtown were reduced to rubble, except one. This sole survivor was in fact St. Nicholas.
In April 1945, the Dominicans returned to Gdansk (112 years after their departure in 1833). They had come mostly from Lviv, which had been abandoned by the Poles. They brought from there a medieval icon of Our Lady of Victory, the patroness of the city (today it is in the church).References:
From 1239, Raynaud, the Bishop of Quimper, decided on the building of a new chancel destined to replace that of the Romanesque era. He therefore started, in the far west, the construction of a great Gothic cathedral which would inspire cathedral reconstructions in the Ile de France and would in turn become a place of experimentation from where would later appear ideas adopted by the whole of lower Brittany. The date of 1239 marks the Bishop’s decision and does not imply an immediate start to construction. Observation of the pillar profiles, their bases, the canopies, the fitting of the ribbed vaults of the ambulatory or the alignment of the bays leads us to believe, however, that the construction was spread out over time.
The four circular pillars mark the start of the building site, but the four following adopt a lozenge-shaped layout which could indicate a change of project manager. The clumsiness of the vaulted archways of the north ambulatory, the start of the ribbed vaults at the height of the south ambulatory or the choice of the vaults descending in spoke-form from the semi-circle which allows the connection of the axis chapel to the choir – despite the manifest problems of alignment – conveys the hesitancy and diverse influences in the first phase of works which spread out until the start of the 14th century.
At the same time as this facade was built (to which were added the north and south gates) the building of the nave started in the east and would finish by 1460. The nave is made up of six bays with one at the level of the facade towers and flanked by double aisles – one wide and one narrow (split into side chapels) – in an extension of the choir arrangements.
The choir presents four right-hand bays with ambulatory and side chapels. It is extended towards the east of 3-sided chevet which opens onto a semi-circle composed of five chapels and an apsidal chapel of two bays and a flat chevet consecrated to Our Lady.
The three-level elevation with arches, triforium and galleries seems more uniform and expresses anglo-Norman influence in the thickness of the walls (Norman passageway at the gallery level) or the decorative style (heavy mouldings, decorative frieze under the triforium). This building site would have to have been overseen in one shot. Undoubtedly interrupted by the war of Succession (1341-1364) it draws to a close with the building of the lierne vaults (1410) and the fitting of stained-glass windows. Bishop Bertrand de Rosmadec and Duke Jean V, whose coat of arms would decorate these vaults, finished the chancel before starting on the building of the facade and the nave.
Isolated from its environment in the 19th century, the cathedral was – on the contrary – originally very linked to its surroundings. Its site and the orientation of the facade determined traffic flow in the town. Its positioning close to the south walls resulted in particuliarities such as the transfer of the side gates on to the north and south facades of the towers: the southern portal of Saint Catherine served the bishop’s gate and the hospital located on the left bank (the current Préfecture) and the north gate was the baptismal porch – a true parish porch with its benches and alcoves for the Apostles’ statues turned towards the town, completed by an ossuary (1514).
The west porch finds its natural place between the two towers. The entire aesthetic of these three gates springs from the Flamboyant era: trefoil, curly kale, finials, large gables which cut into the mouldings and balustrades. Pinnacles and recesses embellish the buttresses whilst an entire bestiary appears: monsters, dogs, mysterious figures, gargoyles, and with them a whole imaginary world promoting a religious and political programme. Even though most of the saints statues have disappeared an armorial survives which makes the doors of the cathedral one of the most beautiful heraldic pages imaginable: ducal ermine, the Montfort lion, Duchess Jeanne of France’s coat of arms side by side with the arms of the Cornouaille barons with their helmets and crests. One can imagine the impact of this sculpted decor with the colour and gilding which originally completed it.
At the start of the 16th century the construction of the spires was being prepared when building was interrupted, undoubtedly for financial reasons. Small conical roofs were therefore placed on top of the towers. The following centuries were essentially devoted to putting furnishings in place (funeral monuments, altars, statues, organs, pulpit). Note the fire which destroyed the spire of the transept cross in 1620 as well as the ransacking of the cathedral in 1793 when nearly all the furnishings disappeared in a « bonfire of the saints ».
The 19th century would therefore inherit an almost finished but mutilated building and would devote itself to its renovation according to the tastes and theories of the day.