The church of St Elizabeth in the northwestern corner of Rynek is one of the two main churches in the old town. The church, a characteristic example of Silesian gothic, is a basilica with main nave and side aisles but no transept. Lower chapels accompany the side aisles of nave and chancel. It is entirely built from bricks, including the steeple.
The parish church was probably founded around 1250, the present church was built in the 14th century. With the introduction of the reformation in 1525 it became Lutheran, and remained Lutheran-protestant until 1945. After World War II it became a Catholic parish church, and the interior was adapted to the requirements of the new confession - for example, the baroque main altar was equipped with a painting of the Madonna of Czenstochowa. Nevertheless the church still contains a large number of artworks from the four centuries of the German-speaking, the protestant era. The pulpit's back wall has a German inscription with a verse from psalm 96: „Preach his salvation day by day“ - a very protestant reference to the importance of the sermon, and the biblical promise. Along the walls and pillars and inside the chapels there are dozens and dozens of tombs and epitaphs from the 16th to the 18th century which commemorated important (and wannabe-important) families and individuals from the parish community.
The Steeple, and the Fallen Spire
The steeple of St Elizabeth is the highest building in the old town. It can be climbed, so if you have two healthy feet (unlike me) and feel like some exercise, go ahead. The entrance is from outside the church at the foot of the steeple. Tickets can be obtained from the little hut next to the entrance.
No matter if you decide to climb up or not - have a look at the wall of the steeple. Among some tombstones and epitaphs there is a stone relief that recalls a dramatic incident. In 1529, four years after the introduction of the reformation, a heavy thunderstorm struck and the spire fell off. Luckily there were no fatalities, the only victim was a cat, a beer mug was broken and some roofs in the surroundings suffered light damage. The catholic citizens of the town called the incident God's punishment for the protestants' denegation of the true faith.
The protestants, however, considered it a miracle that no one was hurt and no severe damage occurred - they said that angels had caught the falling spire and lead it gently to the ground, and this miracle was actually proof that theirs was the right way. The relief shows the flying angels with the broken spire underneath and explanatory inscription.
(Nobody asked the cats' opinion.)
Modern Stained Glass Windows
During the decades since World War II the now catholic church has received new stained glass windows which refer to its present confession. Styles differ widely.
The central window in the chancel behind the main altar depicts the rose miracle of St Elizabeth (photo 1). I assume that this was one of the earliest windows after the war; the style of the faces and figures bears resemblance with 19th entury paintings. The most interesting windows, however, are those in the side chapels. They commemorate important events in Poland's history of the 20th century. Some still have clear glass and are waiting to be filled.
Photo 2: Pope John Paul II. The window recalls his visit to Wrocław in 1997 for the Eucharistic World Congress. The face can be seen from the outside as well.
Photo 3: The massacre of Katyn in 1940, where thousands of Polish army officers were murdered by the Soviets.
Photo 4: Stalinist work camps in Siberia and commemoration of the victims
The Lost Organ
The gallery in the west of the nave is where the organ belongs, but it is empty. St Elizabeth had a magnificent baroque organ, built by Michael Engler in 1752 - 1761. A fire in 1976 destroyed the instrument. Since then the church community has been dreaming of rebuilding it.
The organ was built in the era of Prussian government; the front of the gallery bears the monogram of King Friedrich II (F R = Fridericus Rex) under a crown.
A model in a showcase in the northern aisle by the chancel shows what the organ looked like. For the costly reconstruction donations have been collected for years but not enough yet.
Tombs and Epitaphs
The church of St Elizabeth is full of tombstones and epitaphs from the protestant, German-speaking era. There are several dozens inside, and many more on the outer walls of the church. Experts (I know some) could give a spontaneous lecture on the development of protestant sepulchral art from the 16th to the 18th or 19th century along these examples, but no worries, I will not bother you with too many details.
Fashions and styles changed. In the 16th and 17th century many tombs and epitaphs had pictures, often biblical scenes or symbolic theological images referring to salvation thanks to divine mercy - which ist purest Lutheran theology. Later times preferred having just inscriptions, German or Latin, sometimes combined with allegorical figures. Portraits of the defunct were also popular.
Being buried inside the church was a special privilege and honour which was not granted to everyone. If that wasn't possible, an epitaph (i.e. a memorial stone or platter without a real grave underneath) was the second best option. The parish counted many ambitious, noble, influential, wealthy, learned, or otherwise important citizens among its members. Their grave monuments are symbols of status. The best artists and craftsmen were hired to make them.
Jas i Małgosia and the Artist
The two houses that frame the former entrance to the churchyard of St Elizabeth are usually nicknamed „Jas i Malgosia“ (Hansel and Gretel, like in the Grimm fairytale). Originally they were built as residential houses of the altar priests at the church. There were more of them, only two are left. „Malgosia“ is now a pub and restaurant.
The smaller of the two, „Jas“, was in very bad shape but was saved thanks to the sculptor Eugeniusz Get-Stankiewicz, who rented the house, had it repaired, and installed his studio inside. The artist has in the meantime died, but some of his works are on display on the facades of the house. This guy must have been a bit excentric methinks...
Towards Rynek there is his self-portrait on the wall.
Another work is attached to the shady northern wall facing the church, the Do It Yourself Crucifix. Funny, philosophical, or downright blasphemic? Decide for yourselves.