Those who follow the European Route of Brick Gothic and visit the medieval city centres or villages will not only admire the impressive historical monuments of past ages but also feel the ubiquitous influence of the Hanseatic League, being once so powerful. Additionally, traces of Vikings and the Knights of an Order as well as the later Reformation did leave their mark on the region. The route entrances by its richness of churches and their peaks rising up to the sky, impressive town halls, decorated town gates or city walls marking former boarders. At the same time, the uniqueness of the glacially formed countryside and again and again the Baltic Sea with its steep coasts, crooked pine trees and endless beaches are revealed to the visitor. Despite all differences, diverse cultures from three countries, joined to a history rich in tradition, can be experienced on the route.
The “European Route of Brick Gothic” connects countries, regions, towns, cultures and human beings with a common architectural language. This fascinating language – made indistinguishable by its powerful and warm timbre – can be heard all around the Baltic Sea in churches, city halls and castles. The glittering colours of burnt clay, the rough surfaces and the large variety of architectural forms enabled by the brick’s simple and flat shape have fascinated and intrigued builders throughout the centuries. Medieval brick architecture experienced its artistic peak in the Central and Northern European countries around the Baltic Sea. The large number of examples for “Brick Gothic” architecture along the coast lines and far into the interior of the countries still bears witness of a sophisticated and richly developed architectural culture.Brick Gothic enjoys a position of particular importance in European architectural history. Its development is closely connected with the history of the countries in the Northwest and Northeast of Europe between the 13th and the 16th century as well as the rise and fall of the Hanseatic League. In the 13th century, the trade relationships between the countries around the Baltic Sea and the states which occupied the territories of modern-day France, Belgium and the Netherlands established cultural links which benefited not only the countries directly involved but also the territories at the eastern edge of the Baltic Sea and beyond.
In the middle of the 13th century, clergy and master-builders became increasingly infatuated with the opulent French-Flemish architectural style of building cathedral basilicas. The construction of St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck set the standard, and the other large basilicas of Wismar, Stralsund, Riga, Malmö and Gnesen followed. Many towns in the Hanseatic League opted for the most expensive and “noble“ type of all Gothic sacral buildings, the three-naved basilica with a choir gallery, chapels, exterior buttresses and a transept.
At the same time, a fashion for hall churches developed in rural and urban parishes. These churches with their wide and unbroken interiors provided the antithesis to the oblong and complex spaces of the basilicas. This competition between the two spatial concepts “hall“ and “basilica“ generated a wide range of variations. Many of the hall churches eventually developed differentiated spatial patterns of their own, complete with choir gallery and chapels, such as the two St. Mary’s Churches at Rostock and Gdansk. First inland and then, starting in the 15th century, just about everywhere, the hall becomes the predominant architectural form. Monastic builders – concentrating on remote regions or the spiritual well-being of the growing number of people in the emerging urban centres, depending on the objectives of their order – left behind a large number of important church and monastic buildings. From the second half of the 14th century onward, ornaments in increasing number and opulence are starting to embellish house fronts and (in particular) gables. Important examples can be found in Neubrandenburg, Greifswald, Torun and Malbork. Turned profiles enliven doors, windows and balconies, while scintillating icings In black, brown or green adorn the wall surfaces, often in the form of multilayered lattice-work. The buildings of Hinrich Brunsberg in particular are distinguished by the richness of their ornaments. The most stunning motives of brick architecture include the stellar and loop vaults which developed towards the end of the 13th century mainly in the territories of the Teutonic Knights Lithuania developed a late Gothic style, and some of the most richly expressive variations on the Brick Gothic theme can be found here. Masterpieces of this era include the St. Anne’s Church and the St. Bernard’s Church in Vilnius, both of them closely related to the style of the Flemish Brick Gothic.Although towns and regions may have been engaged in a heated political and economic competition, their common architectural idiom demonstrates the existence of a coordinated cultural understanding. Even the modern visitor will experience these buildings simultaneously as something new and something familiar. These buildings once served to create, express and preserve a cross-border cultural identity which was founded on common religious and economic ideas. The fact that you can still feel the effect of this today is one of the central points of the European Route of Brick Gothic.
The shared cultural identity is still most impressively reflected by the architecture of the old Hanseatic League towns. The skylines are dominated by the large cathedrals and downtown parish churches. Stately city halls with decorative fronts still bear witness to the medieval citizens’ urban pride. City fortifications, occasionally preserved in their entirety although mainly as individual towers and gates, assert the towns’ military strength, while Gothic residential homes and commercial buildings with their characteristic steeped gables testify to the economic pride and self-confidence of the emerging bourgeoisie.
Many buildings share common lines of development and historical contexts, linking towns and regions through history and architecture. The “European Route of Brick Gothic“ marks a path into a part of European history which is still unknown to many. Unexpected and eventful discoveries still remain possible in this terra incognita. Intrepid explorers are welcome.