Their church towers and town gates, their town houses and monastery walls are all glowing red. The towns and landscapes around the Baltic Sea are characterised by medieval brick buildings, their unique architecture and their aura of warmth.
In areas where hardly any natural stone is found, a construction method was developed which was based on the ancient and re-discovered tradition of firing clay blocks: the art of brickmaking. And yet, the humble brick brought about a novel style. The play of colours of the fired clay, its rough surface and the wide range of architectural forms made possible by this relatively flat stone make brick a truly fascinating construction material. Serially produced shaped bricks permitted a playful combination of different individual shapes.
It was in the central and northern European coastal countries around the Baltic Sea that medieval brick building reached its most significant and widespread development. Numerous examples of Brick Gothic along the coasts and well inland bear witness to an abundant and impressive building culture.
In European architecture, Brick Gothic holds a special position. Its development is closely linked to the history of the north-western and north-eastern European countries between the 13th and 16th centuries and the emergence of the Hanseatic League. In the 13th century, close trade relations between the countries of the Baltic Sea and the western countries of today’s Netherlands, Belgium, France and England also led to an interchange of cultural developments extending far into the Baltic region.
In the middle of the 13th century, clergy and master builders took up the Franco-Flemish building scheme of the representative cathedral basilica. The strongest stimuli for this type came from Lübeck with the construction of St. Mary’s Church. Following its model, large basilicas were built in Wismar and Stralsund to name but two. Many Hanseatic cities chose the most elaborate and sophisticated type of all Gothic religious structures for their main churches: the three-aisled basilica with a transept, an ambulatory, side chapels and outer buttresses.
At the same time, a preference for hall churches developed among rural and city parish churches. In contrast to the longitudinal, stepped spatial scheme of basilicas, these hall churches feature a spacious room with the same or nearly the same height for the individual aisles. The competition between the building types “hall church” and “basilica” led to a rich spectrum of variations. The hall churches also developed similarly differentiated floor plans, including an ambulatory and apsidal chapels, like the St. Mary’s Churches in Rostock and Gdańsk. Further inland and generally from the 15th century onwards, the hall church became the dominant building type.
Depending on the aims of the order, the monastic building activity was directed either towards secluded areas or towards the spiritual care of the growing towns and cities, leaving behind a large number of important churches and monasteries.
Starting in the second half of the 14th century, a rich decorative style developed, mainly adorning the gables. Important examples can be found in Neubrandenburg and Greifswald. Twisted mullions emphasize portals and windows. Multi-layered latticework in artful designs with iridescent glazes in black, brown or green animate the wall surfaces. Most notably, the buildings of master builder Hinrich Brunsberg are characterised by a particularly rich decorative style. Among the most beautiful motifs of the Brick Gothic style are the elaborate star-shaped and wound rib patterns of the vaults, known as Stern- und Schlinggewölbe, which emerged since the end of the 13th century, especially in the area formerly controlled by the Teutonic Order.
Although the cities and regions competed politically and economically, the common architectural language testifies to a coordinated cultural understanding. To this day, visitors can still experience these buildings as being both familiar and new.
The common culture can still be seen most clearly in the architecture of the Hanseatic cities. The large cathedral and city churches dominate the cityscapes. Representative city halls with ornate facades were built as an expression of economic self-confidence. Only a few ramparts and city gates have been preserved as parts of intact ensembles, they mainly remain as single fortress towers or gates. Gothic residential and commercial buildings with characteristic stepped gables bear witness to the aspirations and self-confidence of the economic bourgeoisie.
The identity-building function of Brick Gothic buildings across borders, formerly motivated by religious and economic considerations, is still effective today and is a central idea for the European Route of Brick Gothic.