A distinctive feature of the landscapes around the Baltic Sea are the area’s medieval brick buildings: vibrant red and architecturally unique church towers, city gates, town houses and monastery walls. In a region devoid of natural stone, a construction method emerged that drew on the rediscovered tradition of fired clay blocks and went on to produce a new design vocabulary. The interplay of colours produced by fired clay, its rough surface and the variety of shapes that can be built from the flat stone make brick a fascinating building material. Brick mass production made it possible to play with and combine different shapes. Medieval brick building reached its zenith in the central and northern European coastal countries dotted around the Baltic Sea. The numerous examples of Brick Gothic found along the coast and far inland are visible reminders of a richly impressive architectural culture.
Brick Gothic has a special place within European architecture. Its development was closely associated with the history of the north-western and north-eastern European states between the 13th and 16th centuries and the development of the Hanseatic League. In the 13th century, economic ties between the countries of the Baltic Sea and the western countries of today’s Netherlands, Belgium and France fuelled an exchange of cultural developments that reached deep into the Baltic States.
In the mid-13th century, clergy and master builders adopted the Franco-Flemish architectural style as the standard design for cathedral basilica construction. Lübeck provided the strongest impetus for this design style with its St. Marien zu Lübeck church, which inspired the construction of large churches in Wismar, Stralsund, Riga, Malmö and Gniezno. For their most important churches, many Hanseatic cities chose the most elaborate and “elegant” style of Gothic sacred buildings, the three-aisled transept basilica including a chancel with ambulatory and chapels, outer buttresses and transept.
In parallel, a preference for hall churches developed in rural and city parish churches. These churches featured a broad, parallel space as opposed to the longitudinal, staggered layout of the basilica. The competition between the “hall” and “basilica” layouts produced a broad array of different styles. Hall churches, such as the Marienkirchen in Rostock and Gdansk, also developed different floor plans, some with a chancel with ambulatory and apse chapel. Inland, the hall church became the dominant building style from the 15th century onwards.
Monastic building, which focused either on isolated regions or providing spiritual guidance in the ever-expanding cities, depending on the order’s priorities, left behind a large number of important churches and monastery complexes. From the second half of the 14th century, a richly decorative style developed, with an emphasis on gable decoration. Important examples can be found in Neubrandenburg, Greifswald, Torun and Malbork. Cable mouldings in the shape of twisted rope were attached to frames and windows and used as decorative highlights. A multi-layered latticework of shimmering black, brown and green glazes brought wall surfaces to life. The buildings of the architect Hinrich Brunsberg are a particularly fine example of this rich ornamental style. Some of the most beautiful brick building patterns have stellar (star) and looped rib vaulted ceilings, which have been used since the end of the 13th century, chiefly in the Prussian State of the Teutonic Order. Lithuania’s predominant style was late Gothic, one of the most expressive variations of Brick Gothic. This period’s masterpiece is the ensemble formed by St. Annen’s Church and St. Bernard’s Church in Vilnius, which have close parallels to Flemish Brick Gothic.
Although the cities and regions competed politically and economically, the common architectural language hints at a level of shared cultural understanding. Even today, visitors experience the buildings as something that is both familiar and new. The buildings’ ability to establish an identity that transcends borders may have been motivated by religious and economic considerations but continues to this day, and is a central idea of the European Route of Brick Gothic. Even now, the most visible aspect of this shared culture is the architecture seen in the Hanseatic towns and cities. Large cathedrals and city churches dominate the skyline. Imposing town halls with ornate facades symbolise economic self-confidence. Ramparts and town gates have been preserved as intact architectural ensembles, but mainly as individual fortified towers or gates. Gothic residential and commercial buildings with characteristic stepped gables are physical examples of the aspirations and self-confidence of the middle class.
The European Route of Brick Gothic combines all of these elements and offers charming insights into an often-undiscovered cultural heritage that is waiting to be explored.