The Cistercians, builders of the Basilica and the adjacent monastery, were brought to Pelplin in 1274 by the Gdańsk Duke, Mestwin II. They came here from the village Pogódki, which they had received 16 years earlier from an uncle of Mestwin, Duke of Lubiszewo Tczewskie Sambor II. It was here, in the meander of the Wierzyca River, that they found an ideal place for their seat. The solitary and wild area perfectly corresponded to their strict spirituality and encouraged a simple, solitary life – based on hard work of their own hands, according to the rule adopted from St. Benedict ora et labora – “pray and work”. The land, muddy and afforested, required a great deal of effort before any construction work could begin. The draining and piling of the land took nearly 20 years – it was not until approx. 1300 that the construction of the walls began.
The Cistercians carefully planned the whole establishment according to the guidelines created for all their congregations by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The main part was built on the plan of a square. Three wings of the monastery cloisters from the south are adjacent to the orientated church, whose alter is located towards the east, closing around the inner courtyard – cloister garth. The whole complex consisted of many more buildings, mainly farm buildings, such as the brewery, mill, granary, but also gardens surrounded by walls, or the “chapel in front of the gate”, an additional, small church for lay brothers and secular population.
The heart of every religious congregation is its temple. In case of the Cistercians, it is always located in the northern part of the establishment. Construction of the Pelplin temple began with the construction of the monastery walls at the beginning of the 14th century, and lasted for another 250 years. It was planned as an 11-span, three-nave basilica on the plan of a Latin cross. The nave body consists of 5 spans, which open to a two-span transept (forming the arms of the cross), followed by a four-span, rectangular chancel. The main altar was placed between the second-to-last, looking from today’s main entrance, i.e. the second, pair of pillars from the east, obtaining the illusion of an ambulatory – a passage around the chancel. The church, one of the largest brick Gothic buildings in Poland, is 80 m long, 26 m wide (40 m in the transept) and 25.8 m high. The vaults are supported by huge octagonal pillars, which blend into the walls of the main nave above the side naves. Huge towers – staircases – were built in the corners of the nave and in the chancel, giving the building
a fortified nature. Between them, on both gable façades, there were only huge, ogee-arched windows. Above them one could find steplike peaks, constituting an extremely decorative attic wall, full of panels imitating windows, columns and turrets. However, today's main entrance did not exist at that time. The front façade was on the northern part of the temple and it contained one of the two entrances – for secular people. The entrance from the side of the monastery was intended for monks – the Gothic portals rich in sculptural decorations have survived to the present day.
The main body was built around 1400, but the roof of the main nave was completed 40 years later. The church and its main altar were consecrated in 1476 and the roofs of the side naves were built around 1500. However, the works on the vaults were still in progress – almost the entire church was covered with stellar vaults (six-armed vaults in the main nave and the chancel, and four-armed vaults in the side naves). An exception is the transept, which has a crystal vault made by master Antoni Schultes, a bricklayer from Gdańsk. The northern transept-arm with its single, narrow, pointing pillar is considered to be one of the most beautiful sacred spaces in Poland, and 1557, the year in which its vault was completed, is considered the date of the final completion of the Basilica.
During 250 years, successive builders had consistently adhered to the original plans to achieve a coherent and harmonious whole. A monumental, but at the same time modest and simplified building was created – fully consistent with the strict spirituality of such Cistercian masters as St. Benedict, St. Robert of Molesme, or St. Bernard of Clairvaux.
External architecture of the building shaped interior aesthetics of the temple. Equally raw, almost empty, yet delightfully beautiful, reflecting the glory springing from the mystery of creation. High pillars focus our gaze on the stellar vaults, whose orderly, harmonious lines force us to reflect on the wonder of nature, cosmic laws and the majesty of their Creator. The vast space was decorated mainly by light and sound – the sun at sunrise or sunset falling through the windows and voices of Cistercian choirs or, later on, the organs. At every step, in every aspect, men gave way to God, and God filled them with spirit.
Over the following centuries, the abbey developed and grew, thus enriching the Basilica. The temple gained, among other things, Gothic and Renaissance stalls, and the walls gained subsequent paintings. However, the preserved character of its interior is mainly attributable to the Baroque era and one of the most eminent modern abbots – Leonard Rembowski II (1618-1649). During his reign, numerous construction works were carried out. They included crowning of the towers in corners of the main nave with helmets (1640). Above all, however, the abbot continued to equip the temple with new works of sacred art. More stalls and altars in Mannerist style were created, including real woodcarving masterpieces by Bartłomiej Strobel (altar of St. James) or Herman Han – such as the Marian altar for the people and the main altar. The latter masterpiece, which is the largest altar in Poland (25 m – for comparison, the altar of Veit Stoss in St. Mary's Basilica in Cracow is 11 m high), makes an unbelievable impression with the richness of its sculptural decoration. At the same time, it is an expression of the triumph of Catholic Church after the Council of Trent and an ideological manifesto of the abbot, advocating for the unity of Christianity (against Protestantism that destroys it) and strong royal power (against the magnates that weaken it). A few momentous events took place under the reign of Abbot Rembowski II – the monastery was visited by kings Sigismund III Vasa (1622) and Władysław IV (1633). In 1626, the abbey was also visited by Charles X Gustav, the Swedish king, who came here to lead his troops during the war with Prussia. He was greatly impressed by the Basilica and even forbade its plundering, although the soldiers did not completely follow that order after his departure (fortunately, the monks had managed to escape earlier with their most valuable possessions to Gdańsk).
Even though the second half of the 17th century began for Pelplin and the whole Poland with the Swedish deluge, which had a severe impact on the monastery, the abbey still functioned and continued to expand. In the following decades, the Basilica was filled with more and more works of art – including the Baroque organs with a magnificent front (1677-1680), an amazing pulpit by the woodcarver Mateusz Scholler from Gniew (1682), and paintings by Andrzej Stech and his workshop. The development also continued in the first half of the next century – the interior of the temple was constantly enriched, the number of late Baroque altars was growing, such as those made by stucco decorators from Prague – the altars of St. John of Nepomuk and St. Adalbert (1741).
The end of the abbey came with the First Partition of Poland in 1772. That same year the Prussian King, knowing the pro-Polish views of Pomeranian Cistercians, carried out secularization of the assets belonging to Catholic monasteries. During that time, the region was mainly settled by Evangelical colonists from the depths of Prussia. In 1810, it was forbidden to accept newcomers, and in 1823 the abbey was finally dissolved. However, two years earlier Pope Pius VII had decided to merge the Diocese of Chełmno with the Pomeranian archdiocese and that decision saved the Basilica from total degradation. In the year of the dissolution of the Monastery, the Canons chose Pelplin as their new residence. Therefore, the basilica became a cathedral, and a year later – on 3 August 1824 – the bishop of Chełmno settled down in Pelplin.
The transfer of the bishopric's seat to the post-Cistercian complex not only saved the entire historic complex, but also contributed to its further development. Renovation works have been progressing since the 1940s, adapting the church to the new, cathedral function.
A neo-Gothic portal was built in the place of the Baroque porch in the western façade, and in 1849 a matroneum with romantic organs was added between the first pair of pillars. In the 1990s, a decision was made to regothicise the Basilica in order to restore its original, stark appearance. At that time, most of the Baroque additions were removed from the façades (for example helmets were removed from towers), and the remaining Gothic paintings were removed from its interior. The new plasters were decorated with a new polychrome – with toned-down colour scheme, composed of modest ornaments with mostly abstract forms. They were designed by Friedrich Stummel of Kevelaer.
After World War I, the majority of Gdańsk Pomerania was regained by the Polish state, and the new diocesan authorities, headed by Bishop Stanisław Okoniewski, were trying to restore the role of a cultural centre to Pelplin. The bishop, involved in the protection of national heritage, established the Diocesan Archives and Museum, began the construction of the House of Social Movements (today’s Diocesan Library) and founded monuments emphasizing the Polishness of Pomerania.
All plans were ruined by World War II, although the Basilica survived the war without major damage. Priest Antoni Liedtke, a diocesan art conservator, managed to transport many of the most valuable collections to Warsaw, including the Gutenberg Bible in Poland. In 1945, during artillery bombardments, stained-glass windows from the period of regothisation were destroyed. However, the air bomb that had fallen into the interior did not explode. While the buildings and the works of art had survived, the war took a bloody toll on the hosts of the Basilica. On 20 October 1939, the Nazis murdered almost all of the Pelplin priests, and half of the diocesan priests – 350 people – were killed by the end of the occupation.
The post-war history of the Basilica is marked by the struggle of the communist authorities with the Church – collections of the Diocesan Museum, although slowly recovered and enlarged, could not be presented due to, among other things, lack of a proper seat. The election of a Polish Pope brought change – in 1988 the newly built Museum was finally opened. In 1992, John Paul II removed the confusing name and the Diocese of Chełmno, according to the facts, changed into the Diocese of Pelplin. The first Bishop of Pelplin, Jan Bernard Szlaga, began work on the renovation of the cathedral and its monuments which continues to this day. In 2014, the entire post-Cistercian complex became a Historical Monument of the President of the Republic of Poland. The project “Cathedral Basilica in Pelplin – renovation and opening of a new exhibition area”, co-financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage from the European Regional Development Fund, continues the work to reclaim the former glory of the Basilica.
- Pytlik, K. Szroeder-Dowjat, Przewodnik ilustrowany Pelplin, Ed. Foto Liner, Warsaw 2015
- Dawne Opactwo Cysterskie w Pelplinie, Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Zabytków Pelplina, electronic publication, 2015