St Mary's Church

sights / Religious

St Mary's Church information

Location
Gdańsk , Poland
Address
ul Podkramarska 5
Prices
tower adult/concession 5/3zł
Opening hours
8.30am-6pm, except during services
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Dominating the heart of the Main Town, St Mary’s Church is often cited as the largest old brick church in the world. Some 105m long and 66m wide at the transept, its massive squat tower climbs 78m high into the Gdańsk cityscape. Around 25,000 people can fit easily into its 5000-sq-metre (0.5-hectare) interior, and – this being Poland – that stat might have been tested for real a couple of times. Even from streets away, this awe-inspiring colossus looms sinisterly in a million red bricks, dwarfing the houses at its oversize Gothic feet.

Begun in 1343, St Mary’s didn’t reach its present gigantic proportions until 1502. It served as the parish church for the Catholic congregation until the Reformation blew into town. It passed to the Protestants in 1572, to be used by them until WWII.

The church was a sitting duck for the Red Army shells in 1945, when half of the vault collapsed and the interior was largely burnt out. Fortunately, locals were wise enough to hide the most valuable works of art before the carnage commenced. Long and complex reconstruction was completed when these were returned.

The church’s elephantine size is arresting and you feel even more antlike when you enter the building. Illuminated with natural light passing through 37 large windows (the biggest is 127 sq metres, the same area as a very large apartment), the three-naved, whitewashed interior, topped by an intricate Gothic vault, is astonishingly bright and spacious. It was originally covered with frescos, the sparse remains of which are visible in the far right corner.

On first sight, the church looks almost empty, but walk around its 30-odd chapels to discover how many outstanding works of art have been accumulated. In the floor alone, there are about 300 tombstones. In the chapel at the back of the left (northern) aisle is a replica of Memling’s The Last Judgment – the original is in the National Museum’s Department of Early Art. The extraordinary Baroque organ manages enough puff to fill the space with its tones.

The high altar boasts a Gothic polyptych from the 1510s, with the Coronation of the Virgin depicted in its central panel. Large as it is, it’s a miniature in this vast space. The same applies to the 4m crucifix high up on the rood beam. Directly below it is a lofty wooden sacrarium from 1482, elaborately carved in the shape of a tower.

One object that does stand out, in terms of both its size and rarity, is the 15th-century astronomical clock , placed in the northern transept. Another attraction of the church is its tower (adult/concession 4/2zł; 9am-5.30pm Mon-Sat, 1-5.30pm Sun), offering unrivalled vistas from its tiny viewing platform, 405 steps above the city.