Gniezno - Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Adalbert, Gniezno
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Gniezno - Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Adalbert

Gniezno

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Aducal stronghold was raised on Lech Hill (Góra Lecha) towards the end of the 8th century. Timber-and-earth ramparts protected Gniezno - the largest settlement of the Polanian state. It played an outstanding role in the history of Poland, serving as the stronghold capital of the first Piasts, and as the starting point for Bishop Adalbert’s Christianising mission to Prussia in 997. It was here that the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III came in pilgrimage in the year 1000 to visit St Adalbert’s grave, and here that in 1025 the coronation of Boleslaus I the Brave took place (and later that of his successors - Mieszko II and Boleslaus II the Bold). In 1018 part of the stronghold settlement and cathedral were destroyed by fire, and a new church was built to replace the pre-Romanesque one at the decree of Boleslaus I. This three-aisled cathedral basilica featured two towers, though little of it survives. It was damaged in 1038 during a raid on Poland by Bretislaus, Duke of Bohemia, and in 1331, when attacked by the Teutonic Knights.

Relict remains of these earlier buildings are concealed within the walls of the present Gothic cathedral, which was built around the mid-14th century thanks to Archbishop Jarosław Bogoria Skotnicki. The first stage of this project saw the construction of a chancel with an ambulatory and a series of radiating chapels around it. In later years (up to 1512) the nave and towers were built. Further restructuring obscured the cathedral’s Gothic form, which was ultimately restored in the 1950s. Chapels which were built or partially remodelled in the 17th and 18th centuries to make burial chapels for bishops and canons, are sealed off by wrought-iron screens (14th-18th century) set in Baroque portals made of dark and pale marble.

The most famous works of art in the cathedral are the Gniezno Doors and the coffin containing the relics of St Adalbert. The Gniezno Doors, fitted in the Gothic portal of the south entrance, represent one of the finest examples of Romanesque metalwork in Europe. The pair of doors, cast in bronze in c. 1170, are of uneven size and, interestingly, one of them was cast in one piece whilst the other is made up of 24 sections soldered together. The surface of each door is divided into nine low relief panels depicting scenes from the life and death of St Adalbert. Each door is circumscribed by a scrolling foliage border featuring entwined figural and zoomorphic motifs. In the chancel, beneath a decorative canopy, stands a silver coffin containing St Adalbert’s relics. Made in 1662 by the Gdańsk silversmith, Peter van der Rennen, it is adorned with 10 low-relief scenes from the life of St Adalbert, with a sculpture of the martyred saint on its lid. In 1986 the reliquary became damaged when it was stolen. Fortunately, it was recovered and partially restored in the following year. Behind the shrine stands the former tomb of St Adalbert, made in red marble by Hans Brandt (1478-1486). Two late 15th-century tombstones feature inside the cathedral, set in its west wall. One, commemorating Archbishop James of Sienna, was cast in bronze, while the other, made in marble for Archbishop Zbigniew Oleśnicki, was the work of Veit Stoss.

The treasury contains priceless liturgical vessels, among them unique examples of the work of medieval goldsmiths, including an assemblage of vessels from the monastery in Trzemeszno. The cathedral library houses a collection of valuable historic books and manuscripts. Part of its former fixtures, including beautifully illuminated codices, liturgical vessels, reliquaries and portraits, are held in the Archdiocesan Archive and Museum.

Gniezno Cathedral, final resting place of the archbishops of Gniezno, is known as the mother of Polish cathedrals. It is one of the most important monuments in Poland because of its historic, religious and artistic significance, as well as its role as a symbol of Poland’s royal traditions and as the venue for the coronation of Polish kings, and lastly as the shrine of St Adalbert, patron saint of Poland.

General information

  • Type: ecclesiastical complex
  • Chronology: koniec IX - XVIII w.
  • Form of protection: Historical Monument
  • Address: Tumska, Świętego Wojciecha , Gniezno
  • Location: Voivodeship wielkopolskie, district gnieźnieński, commune Gniezno (gm. miejska)
  • Source: National Heritage Board of Poland

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