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The European Route of Brick Gothic was awarded a gold medal for "outstanding achievements in the preservation of historic monuments in Europe" at the denkmal2010 fair in Leipzig. 

Brick Gothic

The European Route of Brick Gothic connects countries, regions, towns, cultures and human beings sharing a common architectural language. This fascinating language – distinguished by its powerful and warm timbre – echoes across the Baltic region in its churches, city halls and castles. For centures, builders have been intrigued by the glittering colours of the burnt clay forming the brick, by its rough surfaces and by the large variety of architectural forms enabled by the brick’s simple and flat shape. Medieval brick architecture experienced its artistic peak in the Central and Northern European countries around the Baltic Sea. The large number of examples of “Brick Gothic” architecture – both along the coast lines and far into the interior of the countries in the Baltic region – still bears witness to a sophisticated and richly developed architectural culture.

Brick Gothic enjoys a position of particular importance in European architectural history. Its development is closely connected to the history of the countries in North-West and North-East Europe between the 13th and the 16th century as well as to the rise and fall of the Hanseatic League. In the 13th century, trade relations between the countries around the rim of the Baltic Sea and the states which occupied the territories of modern-day France, Belgium and the Netherlands were established. These relations gave rise to cultural links which benefited not only the countries directly involved, but also the territories at the eastern edge of the Baltic Sea and beyond.

From the middle of the 13th century on, clergy and master-builders became increasingly infatuated with a French-Flemish architectural style emphasising opulent 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  Gothic sacral buildings, generally featuring a three-naved basilica complete with ambulatory, chapels, exterior buttresses and a transept.

At about the same time, a fashion for hall churches developed in rural and urban parishes. These churches – with their wide and unbroken interiors – were the antithesis of the width-aligned and tiered spaces found in the basilicas. This competition between these two spatial concepts generated a wide range of variations. Many of these hall churches developed individual spatial patterns: for example, sister churches called St Mary's in Rostock and Gdánsk were distinguished by their ambulatories and apse chapels. Starting in the 15th century, firstly in the Baltic region's interior and later throughout the region, the hall became the predominant architectural form.

Monastic orders, who worked either in remote regions or in the emerging urban centres caring for the spiritual needs of the population (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 on, ornaments (in particular gables) started to embellish the region's house fronts in increasing number and opulence. Important examples of this tendency are to be found in Neubrandenburg, Greifswald, Torun and Malbork. Contorted profiles enlivened doors, windows and balconies, while brilliant glazing in black, brown or green adorned the surfaces of walls, which also often featured multilayered lattice-work. The buildings of Hinrich Brunsberg in particular are distinguished by the richness of their ornaments. Another stunning Brick Gothic tendency was the use of star-shaped and looped arches from the thirteenth century on, a style found mainly in the territories once inhabited by 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, which show affinities with Flemish Brick Gothic architecture.

Although the medieval towns and regions to be explored along the Route may have engaged in heated political and economic competition, their common architectural idiom demonstrates the existence of a coordinated cultural understanding. The modern visitor experiences these buildings as simultaneously something new and something familiar. These Brick Gothic buildings once served to create, express and preserve a regional 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 ideas underlying the European Route of Brick Gothic. This shared cultural identity is reflected most impressively in the architecture of the old Hanseatic League towns. Even today, the skylines of the cities are dominated by the large cathedrals and downtown parish churches. Stately town halls with decorative fronts still bear witness to medieval citizens’ urban pride. City fortifications, occasionally preserved in their entirety (although more often be found in free-standing towers and gates) attests to the towns’ military strength. Meanwhile, Gothic residential homes and commercial buildings with their characteristic steeped gables testify to the economic pride and self-confidence of the emerging bourgeoisie.

The European Route of Brick Gothic brings together all the ideas we've explored here; it also allows travellers to find their own way back to a moment of European history still unknown to many. Unexpected and eventful discoveries still remain possible in this terra incognita. Intrepid explorers are welcome.