Sacred Restorations: Polish Cathedrals Built Anew
default, Sacred Restorations: Polish Cathedrals Built Anew, Photo by Henry N. Cobb of St John’s Archcathedral, Warsaw, 1947, photo: DSH promotional materials, center, Henry N. Cobb, St. John Cathedral, Warsaw, 1947, photo: press materials DSH
On 15th April 2019, the world froze as it watched flames ravaging the roof of the gothic Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral. But just as this historic cathedral will certainly be rebuilt, so were the Polish churches that were once reduced to rubble.
As soon as the fires of Notre-Dame’s 13th-century roof were controlled, President Emmanuel Macron proclaimed that it would one day be ‘more beautiful than it ever was’. These words caused confusion among the public. How could he promise to restore a priceless building while alluding that its appearance might be changed?
There is nothing outrageous in the words of the French leader. After all, it is impossible to perfectly recreate architectural elements from 700 years ago – the materials and techniques used by Mediaeval builders are no longer available to us. This is one reason why any promise of an exact reconstruction would be false.
The restoration of destroyed buildings is also often treated as an opportunity to apply architectural solutions that are more durable and resistant to damage. Even now, there are some who claim that Notre-Dame’s new roof should not have a wooden frame, but a steel one, indestructible by fire.
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In the wake of tragedy
With Notre-Dame, only the spire and parts of the roof and interior were destroyed. The situation in Poland after World War II was altogether different, as a significant number of architecturally valuable churches were completely destroyed. Conservator-restorers, art historians and architects were engaged in tense debates while determining how best to restore Poland’s architectural heritage.
During the National Conference of Art Historians in September 1945 in Kraków, Jan Zachwatowicz, the head national conservator-restorer at the time, stated:
Being unable to accept the monuments to our culture being taken from us, we will reconstruct them. We will rebuild them from the ground up to show future generations if not the authentic, then at least the precise shape of these buildings. […] A sense of duty towards future generations requires us to reconstruct in full what was destroyed, knowing the tragedy that would result from a false restoration.
Zachwatowicz, who decided on the look of some of the restored buildings, would often be reminded about his own mention of ‘false restoration’. Many of the buildings were not reconstructed according to their appearances right before the outbreak of the war, but to even earlier versions, which were considered ‘the most original’. Therefore, these reconstructions did not incorporate all of the previous renovations and changes that were carried out in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
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The best example of this approach to restoration is the reconstruction of the Archcathedral Basilica of St John the Baptist in Warsaw’s Old Town. The first wooden church on the site was most likely built at the turn of the 14th century. A hundred years later, a gothic church was constructed at the site, which was then expanded over the following centuries – its interior decorations also changed in style several times. The last major alteration took place in the years 1837-1841, when the church’s exterior took the shape designed by Adam Idźkowski in the English neogothic style.
During the Warsaw Uprising, the cathedral was reduced to rubble. Zachwatowicz decided to rebuild the church in its ‘most original’, earliest gothic form. But the architects and historians knew the least about this shape of the church – no documents or drawings had survived. As a result, Zachwatowicz created a kind of fantasy of how the cathedral might have looked in the 15th century. He drew inspirations from the Mazovian gothic and the shapes of Mediaeval temples from Lower Silesia (there was a theory that the first version of the church could have been created by builders from Wrocław).
According to the architect, the austere, severe look of the cathedral was intended so that it would tower over the neighbouring buildings without being jarringly and aggressively decorative.
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In the case of the Church of St Alexander on Three Crosses Square in Warsaw, its original edifice (before major alterations) was also restored after the war. The church, designed by Chrystian Piotr Aigner and built in the years 1818-1826, was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. Built on a classical plane, the chapel quickly turned out to be too small for the growing parish. In the 1880s, Józef Pius Dziekoński created a plan for the church’s expansion: a three-nave construction with two towers was added to the existing rotunda, which now displayed a heightened dome, topped with a high cupola.
The eclectic, decorative church was destroyed in September 1944. After the war, there was a long debate on which version of it should be restored, as both had high architectural value and were created by talented architects. Zachwatowicz’s idea of ignoring later alterations prevailed, and in the end, it was Aigner’s design that was selected. Interestingly, for quite a long time, there were plans to expand the classical church by adding a modernist wing. These never came to fruition, however.
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Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul in Poznań’s Ostrów Tumski, 2011, photo: Marek Maruszak / Forum
With many churches destroyed during World War II, architects and scholars were troubled by dilemmas surrounding their reconstruction. These problems were particularly difficult in the case of chapels which held not only architectural, but symbolic value. The cathedral in Poznań, located on Ostrów Tumski, is certainly one of such temples, as it is also one of the oldest Polish churches – it achieved the status of a cathedral back in 968.
Over the cathedral’s more than a thousand years of existence, its structure has been altered and expanded many times. In the 11th century, it most likely took the form of a romance chapel and was radically expanded in the gothic style in the 14th and the 15th centuries. The church caught fire several times. In the 17th century, it was rebuilt in the baroque style, and after a fire in the middle of the 18th century, it was renovated as a neo-classical church (according to the designs of Ephraim Schroeger and, later, Bonaventura Solari).
In 1945, the temple was destroyed: its facade, towers and roof collapsed and the interior burned down. The group of smaller chapels surrounding the naves saw the least destruction. As soon as the reconstruction work began, it turned out that the fire had destroyed the newer plaster, revealing the gothic walls. This is when Franciszek Morawski, who was in charge of the reconstruction, decided to restore the Poznań cathedral’s look from the first half of the 15th century.
The renovation was based on research conducted upon the discovered gothic elements, which were supplemented with a contemporary finish (exemplified by the stained-glass windows or the brass door in the main portal). Archaeological excavations which took place in the ruined church also revealed the remains of the romance building – these can be now seen beneath the church. Scholars disagree as to whether the graves discovered there were the burial sites of Poland’s first rulers: Mieszko I and Bolesław I the Brave.
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Cathedral Basilica of St James the Apostle in Szczecin, 2019, photo: Cezary Aszkielowicz / AG
This church was consecrated in Szczecin in the year 1187, intended for the rapidly growing number of German colonists. In the 13th century, the site housed a brick basilica, which was turned in the 14th century into a hall church (a church in which all the naves are of the same height, unlike in a typical basilica, where the side naves are lower than the central one). In the 17th century, the cathedral, which was Protestant at the time, was destroyed in a fire, and subsequently rebuilt with a baroque design. Another important renovation took place at the end of the 19th century – during which the tower collapsed in a hurricane that destroyed the roof of the church.
When World War II broke out, the church had a monumental, gothic silhouette, richly decorated with baroque details. In 1944, as a result of the Allied air raids, the cathedral was destroyed, its chancel surviving in the best condition. The ruins were secured, but the church was not reconstructed until the 1970s. The parishioners tried to receive a permit to begin renovations much earlier, but it was impossible due to political reasons – the German origin of the building proved to be problematic for the authorities.
In 1972, when Pope Paul VI recreated the Archdiocese of Szczecin-Kamień, the decision was made to rebuild the Szczecin cathedral. The renovation work lasted until 1974, and the design of the cathedral was created by well-known Szczecin architects: Stanisław Latour and Adam Szymski. The church saw its gothic form restored, but its northern side was built in a contemporary style, with modern windows inserted in the brick walls.
The work didn’t finish there – in 2007, the tower was topped with a slender helmet, which restored its original look, and in 2018, the northern, modern side of the church was destroyed. It is currently being replaced with a new one resembling the gothic original. Thanks to this contemporary process of restoring the gothic features of the cathedral, its uniform and consistent look will be restored.
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Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in flames, Sosnowiec, 2014, photo: Daniel Pietryga / Foto Gość / Forum
As we saw in April 2019, cathedrals can be threatened by factors other than war. It turns out that even the latest technologies cannot save buildings as valuable as the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral from fire. Poland, too, has had its share of church fires.
In 2006, firefighters risked their lives to save not only the burning edifice of the oldest church in Gdańsk, but also the valuable elements of its interior. The flames led to the collapse of the roof and one of the walls. After several years of reconstruction and more than a dozen million złoty, the ordeal is still not over.
More recently, in 2014, a fire destroyed a large part of the cathedral in Sosnowiec. It consumed not only the roof, but also valuable paintings and accoutrements. The damage was enormous, but funds for the renovation were collected from all over Poland. While the church was reopened rather quickly, the art nouveau polychromes will never be restored.
The roof of the cathedral in Gorzów Wielkopolski caught fire during city celebrations in 2017. It took 30 hours to put it out. The roof truss, the organs and a part of the tower all burned down, but another consequence of the fire – a fact, rarely remembered, although it is part of all such tragedies – was water damage. The dampness that remains in the building long after a fire is put out can promote the growth of fungi, which is devastating to the interior decorations.
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Chapels are extremely important places on the map of human heritage – for a part of society, their value resides not only in their artistic, architectural and decorative qualities, but also in their spiritual significance. For this reason, any reconstruction or alteration of the look of sacred buildings are connected not only to controversy, but to a great sense of responsibility. History shows how the approaches and methods of action can be different in light of these factors and many more.