One of the greatest representatives of Medieval art in Poland is a pair of bronze doors that has decorated the entrance of the Royal Gniezno Cathedral for almost eight hundred years.
These famous doors, named the Gniezno Doors, have held the attention of researchers and art historians since the 18th century. The importance of this work of art is increased by the fact that only a few such examples have survived until now: in Aachen, Magdeburg, Hildesheim, and Augsburg. However, the Gniezno Doors are also distinguished among this exclusive group as they describe the life of a single saint. The eighteen panels (nine on each door) show the story of life and death of Adalbert, who died in 997 trying to convert the pagan Prussians. As a descendant of the wealthy Czech Sławnikowic family, he was well educated in Magdeburg, visited Rome many times, was friends with the German emperor and became a bishop of Prague.
The story starts from the bottom of the left door and goes upwards, featuring: the birth and baptism of Adalbert, the sick child is laid down on the altar, Adalbert is sent to the monastery in Magdeburg, he prays before a shrine, Emperor Otto II gives him the bishop’s crosier, he expels a demon from a possessed man, he has a vision of Christ telling him to save Christians from slavery, he pleads with the Duke of Bohemia for the release of Christian slaves by their masters, his miracle with a wine pitcher in the Adventine monastery.
Then continues on right door going downwards: Adalbert comes to the land of Prussia by a boat, the baptism of Prussians, Adalbert preaching, Adalbert celebrating his last holy mass, Adalbert’s martyrdom, Adalbert’s body laid out in state, Bolesław Chrobry buys Adalbert’s body, Adalbert’s body is moved from Prussia to Gniezno.
The order of the panels shows the Christian idea of martyrology, understood as a mimesis of Jesus Christ (imitation Christi) and a sign of his presence on the Earth. It is not a coincidence that the cycle resembles the iconic stories about Christ by starting with Adalbert’s childhood, going through his public activity (full of miracles and preaching) and ending with the Passion. Even some single chapters (both in their general compositions and in their particular details) refer to the established medieval iconography of Christ.
However, the sumptuousness of the depicted world is not limited to the representation visible in the panels. Those which depict Adalbert as a saint are enclosed by a plant-based bordure. Within this we find figures of men and animals: next to winery workers and hunters with their dogs we find a typical medieval bestiary with lions, peacocks, goats, dragons and centaurs. Those creatures seemingly lead their own separate lives but based on the knowledge gained from studying medieval theologians’ works we are allowed to assume that each of those representations and situations are meant to be allusive to the single idea of martyrology and even as a commentary to particular scenes: e.g. the winery workers seem to represent Adalbert’s ministration as work in the ‘Lord’s winery’.
Despite the fact that most of the visualized episodes have their origins in St. Adalbert’s Hagiography (written at the turn of the 10th-11th centuries), not all of them do. A specific decision was made: an equal number of episodes is dedicated to St. Adalbert’s life before arriving to Poland and to his short mission to Prussia, only 10 days long. It suggests that the original pattern was edited in Gniezno by a person who knew local conditions.
It is very hard now to name the creators of the Gniezno Doors. Damage and unskillful repairs have blurred the alleged inscriptions with the names of the craftsmen. An analysis of the style of the figures suggests that there were at least three of them and that they made a complicated cast in Gniezno but learnt their style somewhere else. They are most often said to derive from the region of the Lower Rhine (the leading centre of metalcrafting in the 12th century).
A lack of direct local analogies for the Gniezo Doors is usually explained by the fact that the local masters completed the job based on some external patterns. A door with a similar composition (horizontally placed panels that present a story) can be found in Hildesheim (1015). The pattern of the graphic legend was most probably drafted at first as a miniature painting.
Author: Paweł Freus, November 2009, translated by Antoni Wiśniewski, February 2016