Levoča town has a historic center with a well preserved town wall, a Renaissance church with the highest wooden altar in World, carved by Master Paul of Levoča, and many other Renaissance buildings. Levoča is part of the UNESCO to World Heritage List of Levoča, Spiš Castle and the associated cultural monuments.
Levoča was inhabited as early as the Stone Age. In the 11th century, this region was conquered and, subsequently, became part of the Kingdom of Hungary and remained such until 1918. After the Mongol invasions of 1241/1242, the area was also settled by Germans. The town became the capital of the Association of Spiš Germans, with a form of self-rule within the Kingdom of Hungary. The oldest written reference to the city of Levoča dates back to 1249. In 1317, Levoča received the status of a royal town. In 1321 a wide storing right was granted enticing merchants, craftsmen and mine owners to settle in this town.
In the 15th century the town, located on an intersection of trade routes between Poland and Hungary, became a rich center of commerce. It exported iron, copper, furs, leather, corn, and wine. At the same time the town became an important cultural centre. The English humanist Leonard Cox taught around 1520 in a school in Levoča. The bookseller Brewer from Wittenberg transformed his bookstore in a prolific printing plant, that lasted for 150 years. Finally, one of the best-known medieval woodcarvers Master Paul of Levoča settled here.
The town kept this cultural and economic status until the end of 16th century, in spite of two damaging fires: the first in 1550 destroyed nearly all of the Gothic architecture and another in 1599. In this period of prosperity several churches were built and the town had a school, library, pharmacy, and physicians. There was a printing press as early as 1624. Levoča was a center of the Protestant Reformation in Northern Hungary. The town started to decline during the anti-Habsburg uprisings in the 17th century.
The old town is picturesquely sited and still surrounded by most of its ancient walls. The town square boasts three major monuments; the quaint Old Town Hall (15th-17th century) which now contains a museum, the domed Evangelical Lutheran Church (1837) and the 14th century Roman Catholic Church of St. James. It houses a magnificently carved and painted wooden Gothic altar, the largest in Europe, (18.62 m in height), created by Master Paul around 1520. The square is very well preserved and contains a number of striking buildings which were the townhouses of the local nobility in the late Middle Ages. Also notable in the square is the wrought iron 'Cage of Shame', dating back to the 17th century, used for public punishment of miscreants. A plaque on one of the houses records the printing and publication in the town of the most famous work of Comenius, the Orbis Pictus. Other buildings on the square house a historical museum and a museum dedicated to the work of Master Paul.
Behind the square on Kláštorská Street are the 14th-century church and remains of the old monastery of the Minorites, now incorporated into a Church grammar school. Nearby is the town's Polish Gate, a Gothic construction of the 15th century.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.