Domes – hemispherical, onion-shaped, sharpened, oval, resting on a drum or on pendentives, adorned with a roof lantern, made of stone, brick, steel or reinforced concrete. Although domes are associated with ancient religious architecture, this style of roof has been used by architectural designers throughout the ages, from the times of classical antiquity to the 21st century. This is the only type of roof which looks glamorous from the outside and the inside alike. Here is an overview of Polish domes, for which it is worth ‘lifting up your eyes and looking to the heavens’.
The ancient Roman dome of the Pantheon, the Renaissance dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence, the gigantic dome covering the Hagia Sophia or the ultramodern dome over Berlin’s Reichstag – these are world-famous hemispherical roofs. Since the most ancient times and throughout the ages, dome-shaped roofs were especially often used in the construction of sacred buildings rather than aristocratic palaces; domes in civil architecture came only in neoclassical times and in the following 20th century when advanced construction materials and designs enabled the construction of huge and nearly ‘air suspended’ domes covering huge halls. Inside, a dome may be adorned with trompe l’oeil paintings or finished with béton brut – each of them is attractive in its own way and has its individual character. Whatever the final touch, the effect is always worth looking up to see.
Sigismund’s Chapel, Wawel Cathedral, Kraków
Covered with gold-coated scales and based on a characteristic drum featuring a row of circular windows, the dome of the Sigismund’s Chapel is one of the most recognizable landmarks of Kraków. The chapel itself, which was meant as a mausoleum, was built between 1519 and 1533 as an attachment to Wawel Cathedral by Italian architect Bartolomeo Berecci, who was hired by King Sigismund I. The Italian designed an exceptional building – it is the first and the most successful example of Renaissance architecture in Poland. The mortuary and chapel designed on a centralised plan is crowned with a dome of the kind which grace Rome or Florence. The dome’s drum featuring circular windows, and the dome’s inside and the lantern are richly adorned with figural decorations. Segments divided by adorned pilasters contain floral compositions and medallions bearing the emblems of Poland and Lithuania. The inside is covered with coffers containing rosettes which grow smaller towards the top. It is worth paying attention to the fact that each rosette is of a different shape: the architect designed 80 different rosette shapes. A tall lantern mounted on top of the dome lets in light, which brings out all the richness of the decorative details to the visitor’s eyes.
The first Cistercian monks came to Poland in the 12th century and the first Cistercian monastery was built around 1150. During the following century the monks founded several dozen monasteries on Polish ground, which was quite beneficial for the local communities, as the Cistercians were an order which promoted cultural values and fostered economic development as good managers of their domains.
The abbey situated in Ląd-on-Warta was probably founded around 1175, with a church, a monastery, and a farm, which developed dynamically over the following years. In 1651 the order’s abbot, Jan Zapolski, initiated a redevelopment of the church in the Baroque style. Work on it lasted nearly one hundred years and many architects were involved. The first design was prepared by Tomasz Poncino (the architect of the Bishop’s Palace in Kielce), but the most glamorous part of the building – the main nave roofed with a 38-metre dome, was designed by Pompeo Ferrari and constructed from 1728 to 1735. A huge dome eight pillars was adorned inside by the paintings of Jerzy Wilhelm Neunhertz of Silesia. Trompe l’oeil polychromes by the Silesian artist present an iconographic theme of ‘Domus Sapientiae’ (‘the church as the house of wisdom’, with images of the seven Church Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Expressive, colourful, and dedicated to detail according to the Baroque style, the paintings harmonise with the building structure, e.g., the painted segments have their continuations in elements of architecture.
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Michael the Archangel Basilica at Trzemeszno
In the Baroque era, architects were particularly willing to build domes – over palaces as well as over sacred buildings. A soaring dome, dominating the building and richly adorned and finished with expensive materials, reflected the exuberance of the then prevailing architectural style. Baroque was fashionable in Western Europe as well as in Poland, especially given that at the time architects travelled and worked for the kings of various countries, which facilitated the free movement of design patterns and innovative solutions.
This was the case with Trzemeszno church. Owned by the Benedictines, it underwent thorough reconstruction in the period of 1764 to 1781, which was initiated by the then abbot. Gothic walls were used for the construction of a new temple, the design of which was modelled directly on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. As in Rome, the church was built on an axial plan, with a huge dome located over the place where the axes crossed. As well as the shape of the building, its interior polychrome paintings were inspired by those of the Rome basilica. The church at Trzemeszno boasts paintings depicting scenes from the Old and New Testament in opulent Baroque framing.
The Oratorian’s Church in Gostyń
The church in Gostyń was under construction for a long time: it was initiated in 1675 by its founder, Adam Konarzewski who unfortunately died the following year. The construction was continued by his wife, but she also did not manage to finish the church before her death. Wars and epidemics halted the works for many years; the church was completed only in 1731. However, it owes its architectural form to the founder’s wife Zofia Konarzewska nee Opalińska. During her trip to Venice she was fascinated with the Santa Maria della Salute church. She decided to copy Balthasar Longheny’s design in Gostyń, and so a replica of the Venice temple was built in Poland – 60 km away from Poznań.
The frescoes covering the inside of the tall oval dome were painted in 1746. Jerzy Wilhelm Neunhertz of Silesia was hired for the job by the Oratorian congregation’s provost. The Silesian painted a cycle dedicated to the life of Saint Philip Neri, the founder of the Congregation of the Oratory. He created eight scenes framed into eight richly adorned segments of the dome’s inside. Faithful to the typically Baroque style, Neunhertz arranged his trompe l’oeil paintings in the form of posed theatrical scenes depicting the life of the Florentine monk immersed in clouds, waving curtains, architectural elements, and decorative items.
Holy Trinity Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Convention in Warsaw
In 1777 King Stanisław August Poniatowski issued a permit for a Lutheran church to be built in Warsaw. The king is also said to have chosen the architectural design of the church from three designs presented to him. Stanisław August Poniatowski decided to select a plain and monumental classical design by Szymon Bogumił Zug. The construction works were completed in 1781.
The architect of the church is said to have been inspired by the Roman Pantheon; in his design Szymon Bogumił Zug used a Greek-cross plan, the whole building being roofed by a huge dome, the diameter of which is 34 metres. The dome is topped with a slender lantern of magnificent height (12 metres). Clambering up the dome used to be one of the best tourist attractions of Warsaw – at that time the top of the dome was one of the highest landmarks and offered beautiful panoramic view of the town. The height of the dome also mattered for… constructing Warsaw’s waterworks. It was the cross located on top of the church’s dome which served as the centre of the coordinate system determined by William Lindley when drawing a map of Warsaw for the purpose of designing the municipal water pipe system.
As in the Roman Pantheon, the inside of the dome is adorned with a network of square coffers; the lowest level of the dome is cut with circular stained glass windows. Thanks to the precisely designed shape of the dome and the rows of galleries encircling the nave, the church is well-known for its exceptional acoustics, which makes it the venue of numerous classical music concerts and festivals.
The Temple of Sibyl in Puławy
The Temple of Sibyl is one of the outbuildings within the Czaroryskis’ property in Puławy. Subsequent pavilions with ancient forms and intended for important functions were erected by Izabela Czartoryska on the grounds of the property, the design and layout of which dated back to the 17th century. The princess used the buildings to store memorabilia, documents, and collectibles related to the history of Poland and its sovereignty and statehood (at that time Poland did not exist as a state – it was partitioned among its neighbours: Russia, Prussia, and Austria). Among the collectibles were precious and important archives, maps, drawings, and works of art, as well as symbolic items, such as a piece of marble from the tomb of Bolesław III Wrymouth in Płock or cannonballs from a Swedish cannon found in Zamość. The Temple of Sibyl, constructed in the period 1798-1801, is regarded as the first Polish national museum. Aware of the importance of the national memorabilia for keeping alive the memory of the once independent state among its citizens, Izabela Czartoryska collected regalia, banners, and memorabilia related to the history of Poland. The cornice above the entrance to the temple is adorned with a dedication ‘[From the] Past to the Future’ – to explain the goal pursued by the founder of the venue.
The Temple of Sibyl was designed by ChristianPiotr Aigner, who modelled it after the Temple of Vesta at Tivoly near Rome. He created a small, monopteral structure seated gracefully on a steep embankment. The building is topped with an oval dome with a skylight on top. The inside of the dome features sunken panels, and all the dome construction is based on a cornice adorned with ancient art-styled decorations.
The Centennial Hall in Wrocław
Domes, in the form of huge rounded vaults made of reinforced concrete resting on the more and more technologically advanced structures of the second half of the 20th century, have become very popular in the designs of huge sports and entertainment halls. Thanks to modern technology, the structures used to support ancient roofs, such as pillars and columns of poles which obscured visibility, have disappeared from contemporary designs, but in the first years of the 20th century they were considered nothing but a pipe dream.
When in 1911 Max Berg revealed his vision of constructing a reinforced concrete dome above the Centennial Hall to the public, nobody believed that such a structure was at all possible. Moreover, when the dome was completed and the scaffolding and boarding were being removed, a lot of people were certain that the building would eventually collapse – it seemed that the reinforced concrete structure would not be able to support so massive a form. The Wrocław hall’s dome is 67 metres in diameter and is 42 metres high. The German architect Max Berg not only believed in the endurance of reinforced concrete – he decided to make the material’s properties widely known to the public. Thus, the enormously large dome was not adorned with any decorations so that it could present the impressive potential of concrete.
The Parachute Hall of the Warsaw School of Economics
The magnificent roof of the hall of the main building of the most important Warsaw economics school is not a typical dome. It is more like a pyramid, atypical in that it is made of 224 windows rather than blocks. Thus, it is not only the shape of the roof, but also the illuminating effects of the penetrating sun beams that make this unusual structure absolutely unique.
The building itself is also rather unusual. It was designed in 1924 by Jan Koszczyc-Witkiewicz, who shaped the structure into forms which were to inspire patriotic feelings following the regaining of independence by Poland after its 123 years of absence the map of Europe. The architects of that time tried to develop a national style which would enable to demonstrate how proud the Poles were of their regained statehood. Koszczyc-Witkiewicz was among the architects looking for such stylistic features. Thus, when looking at the Warsaw School of Economics building, one can see the architect’s inspiration from Polish decorative art and native folklore motives combined with modernist simplicity and geometry. The beginning of WWII halted construction. Work was continued after the end of the war, in the period in which architecture was dominated by socialist realism. It turned out that the design, developed with a view to finding the ‘national style’ during the times of dynamic development of modernism, was quite appreciated by the communist regime. Although the pre-war structures were in principle an antithesis to socialist realism, the school building, including its stepped-pyramid-like well-lit dome was finally completed in 1950.
Governmental Presidium Building, Warsaw
The time when the doctrine of socialist realism ruled in architecture was very difficult for those architectural designers who did not want to work within the framework strictly prescribed by the regime and within the limits of style imposed upon them. As a result, some of them stopped design work entirely, and some of them tried to bypass the imposed rules while looking for forms which would satisfy the officials and exceed the boundaries defined for architectural style by a slogan about architecture which should be ‘national in form and socialist in content’.
The building of the Government’s Presidium in Wspólna Street in Warsaw, constructed in 1952, is one of the most interesting developments of those times. Its architect, Marek Leykam, while being aware for whom he was designing the building, developed an edifice inspired by … the forms of the Renaissance Florentine palaces. The square building sports bossaged façades with elaborate cornices which clearly separate the subsequent floors. The impressive exterior walls hide unusual interiors: the architect designed a rotunda surrounded with galleries supported on pseudo-Roman columns (modelled on St. Leonard’s Crypt of Wawel Castle). The finishing touch was put in the form of a flattened dome full of circular skylights.
The Presidium Building is one of a few remnants of post-WWII architecture which was fortunate to finally find an owner who is fully aware of the building’s architectural values. Marek Leykam’s building has recently been renovated and regained its splendour, and the black flooring wonderfully enhances the beauty of the stacked colonnades topped with a somewhat futuristic dome. Today the building houses commercial offices.
The Church of the Holy Spirit in Tychy
The Silesian town of Tychy was one of the model investments of the communist regime – starting in 1951, its modernist housing estates were to become home to the workers of the surrounding industrial plants. When the construction of the first blocks of flats was started, the small settlement of Tychy was inhabited by 8 thousand people; nearly a decade later its population had increased to 50 thousand. The town developed dynamically, housing estates full of matchbox-like blocks of flats mushroomed one by one, but for political reasons the inhabitants were not allowed a church; the situation changed in the 1970s, when a permit for such a construction was easier to get from the authorities.
One of the Tychy churches was designed by Stanisław Niemczyk, a great individualist and one of the most outstanding Polish contemporary architects. As a fervent opponent of modernist grand ensembles made of concrete panel buildings, he decided that the church should clearly stand out from the surrounding architectural monotony. This is why the Church of the Holy Spirit resembles a Mesoamerican pyramid from outside and a tent from inside ; the roof panels almost touch the ground, separating the interior of the church from the outside world, providing shelter to the congregation and isolating them from the overwhelming ugliness they lived in. The church was built on a centralised plan: there is the alter in the middle, under the top of the pyramid made by the roof, and the nave walls are covered with wooden planks on which the paintings of Jerzy Nowosielski are displayed. The cosy interior was closed from above by an original, triangular dome covered with multicolour paintings.
The Temple of Divine Providence, Warsaw
The history of the Warsaw Temple of Divine Providence goes back to the 18th century: it was the first time when the idea of building a church as a votive offering for the passing of the Constitution of 3rd May was conceived. Subsequent historical events – partition, wars, political changes – halted the project. Many architectural contests were organised and the location of the church was changed many times, but a real chance to start construction appeared only in the 1990s. However, even then it was not without a scandal. The winner of the 1999 contest for the design of the Temple of Divine Providence, which was to be erected in fields in the Wilanów district of Warsaw, was Marek Budzyński. Despite his unusual and visionary design, it was rejected by the church authorities. Another contest was organised in 2001. This time the winners, Wojciech and Lech Szymborski, presented a quite conservative and historicist design. Work on the extremely expensive project was ongoing for quite some time – the shell of the church was completed only in 2011, and it opened in late 2016. Its enormous 30-metre-high dome is a prominent element of the monumental structure. The dome, covered with shining copper sheets, is a landmark of the surrounding residential district. Because of the characteristic dome, however, the Temple of Divine Providence has been nicknamed ‘the world’s biggest lemon squeezer’.
Written by Anna Cymer, Sept 2016; translated by IS, Nov 2016