RIHA Journal 0233 | 30 December 2019

History of the Medieval Furnishings of the Franciscan Church in Toruń during the Reformation Period*

Juliusz Raczkowski

(Wersja polska zob. RIHA Journal 0232 / For Polish version, see RIHA Journal 0232)

The article investigates the history of the medieval interior design and furnishings of the former Franciscan Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Toruń during the Reformation period. The Franciscan Friars were brought to the Old Town of Toruń in 1239; they used the conventual complex until 1557, when it was taken over by the Protestant congregation of the City of Toruń, the former Franciscan Church becoming the major Protestant church both in Toruń and the surrounding region. In 1724, the former Franciscan complex was returned to the Observant Order, who added a number of serious alterations to the church’s interior (including the provision of eighteenth-century furnishings and altars with their retables, and the removal of an old rood screen, etc.). The article elucidates the way medieval interior design and furnishings—mural paintings, tomb slabs, the pulpit, the organ casing, and matronea—functioned in the lay area of the church when used by the Lutheran congregation. In addition, the following furnishings of the former monastic ecclesia interioris are discussed: the high altar and its retable, the medieval choir stalls, the rood screen, and the late medieval sculpture of the Crucified Christ. The analysis of the alterations added to the church’s interior demonstrates that measures undertaken when converting the church for the needs of the Protestant congregation were of a pragmatic rather than iconoclastic nature. The former Catholic and Franciscan medieval furnishings of the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary were neither destroyed nor removed. What is more, whenever possible, they were used in a new interior design, and were either modernised or provided with inserts for the purpose.


[1] Founded in 1239, the Franciscan Friary in Toruń was one of the most respected and prominent mendicant communities in the State of the Teutonic Order. In all probability, the Franciscan Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Toruń was completed by the end of the 1360s, and it was extended in height in the early fifteenth century. The structure, now one of the prime examples of medieval brick-built architecture in Prussia, served the Order of Friars Minor until the mid-sixteenth century.1 The church is now a reference point for researchers investigating the former mendicant legacy for two reasons: the artistic import of its architectural design and its current shape. The medieval structure of the church has essentially survived without any noticeable alterations and additional layers, and the interior, despite its tempestuous history and changing functions and users, still features many of its historic decorations and original furnishings (Figs. 1a-c).

1a-b Toruń, Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, interior: a) looking east, b) looking west, with historic tomb slabs visible (photograph © Juliusz Raczkowski)

1c Toruń, Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, church plan with time-slicing data and GPR (ground penetrating radar) anomalies (location of burial vaults and tomb chambers), survey completed in December 2018

[2] The fact that medieval monuments have survived in a relatively large number in Toruń reflects the Protestant history of the town and the utilitarian approach of the Lutheran congregation to their Catholic inheritance, which is often pointed out by researchers.2 The furnishings of the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary as we know them, are probably but a fraction of what they used to be. Given the significance of Toruń’s friary and its rapport with the wealthy power elite in the city,3 as well as its substantial income, the interior design and furnishings of the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary must have been truly impressive in the Middle Ages. The structure must have inspired awe, which can now be partially traced through written records, the surviving works of art from the era, and the reconstruction of the church’s liturgical space based on the conventual rule.4

[3] From its very foundation, the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary must have been fitted with a rood screen, main altarpiece, rood screen retable (or retables), side altars, and pulpit.5 It is worth noting that the church also boasted the first organ casing in the region (created as early as the fourteenth century).6 The surviving choir stalls in the chancel were fitted much later, in the late fifteenth century. Surviving moveable furnishings include: Gothic panel paintings of what we now know as the Toruń Polyptych7 (at the Diocesan Museum in Pelplin), two Gothic crucifixes8 (in the modern era, one of the crucifixes was probably transferred to the Observant Friary in Skępe), a recumbent figure of the Dead Christ in the Tomb9 (deposited by the parish at the District Museum in Toruń), and a stone-carved baptismal font. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the church’s windows were decorated with stained glass (few remains have survived),10 while the interior was decorated with opulent mural paintings, which covered at least the south aisle, north arcade and matroneum walls, chancel vaults, and cloister.11 Additionally, the nave featured three fourteenth-century brass tomb slabs and over seventy stone-carved tomb slabs,12 which were described by Johann Baumgarten in his memoranda dating to 1715–1719.13

[4] Little is known about the precious medieval liturgical implements. A document dated to 10 February 1456 mentions a grand silver crucifix and six chalices weighing a total of 12 marks (ca. 6 lbs).14 They were handed over to the Toruń city council and subsequently put in pledge for the purpose of military operations during the Thirteen Years’ War (1454–1466). The items were to be bought back and returned to the friary, but they eventually never were. Additionally, the friary boasted a substantial library including numerous works by Saint Bonaventure, writings by Thomas Aquinas and his continuators, works by Scotists, and those by Albert the Great, Henry Suso, Denis the Carthusian, and John of Głogów.15 The Franciscans of Toruń also used a range of sermon collections (sermones de tempore, sermones de sanctis, sermones quadragesimales), including those by the eminent members of the Order of Friars Minor: Bernardino of Siena, Bernardino of Bustis, Hendrik Herp, Guardian of Malines, etc.16 Sadly, all these books perished: researchers in the manuscript legacy of Prussia are yet to rediscover a single copy from the Franciscan library in Toruń.

[5] Elements of the medieval liturgical space survived in the church for a long time, despite its change of denomination in 1557. In all likelihood, the rood screen was dismantled in 1735 by the Observant Friars,17 who commissioned a new rood beam (1731) and replaced the frameworks of both the main altarpiece and all the retables in the nave. They must have removed some of the Protestant furnishings, too. In the western section of the church (where the veneration of the Passion of Christ flourished from the Middle Ages), they fitted a stage representation of the Holy Sepulchre, made of wood and covered in profuse polychrome decorations.18 The old main altarpiece was stripped away in the process of re-Catholicisation. Conventual buildings,19 used by the Protestant congregation (for the purpose of the Academic Gymnasium) and Observant Friars (serving its original function as a conventual complex), were demolished in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The surviving medieval legacy is but a fraction of what it used to be before the Reformation period, the reorganisation of the church’s interior by the Observant Order, the dissolution of the Observant Order, and the subsequent change of the church’s function. The aim of this analysis is to describe and assess the alterations to the medieval structure and furnishings in the Reformation period.


[6] Lutheran innovations reached Toruń in a relatively short period of time. Already in 1525, the city was witnessing a riot called "the little revolt", which hit Catholic churches and monasteries, including the Franciscan Church. At the Franciscan Church, liturgical vestments and implements, choir stalls, and retables were damaged.20 After 1525, some of the friars converted to Lutheranism, e.g. Bartłomiej Jöricz, who continued to preach at the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary after his conversion, and subsequently at the Church of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist. In their sermons, Lutheran preachers (e.g Matthias Monsterberg) often attacked Catholic monks and their customs; they were initially counteracted by the city council in this respect.21 Those Franciscans who remained in the friary gave their consent for the city council (from the 1530s, Lutheran in their majority) to take the conventual complex into custody, including valuables, mainly liturgical vessels. Conventual life essentially died out: with a growing number of conversions in the city, the friary ceased to recruit novices.22 The two remaining Franciscan friars died in 1559, but the church had begun to provide Lutheran service two years before. For researchers, the year 1557 marks the beginning of the Protestant history of the church and conventual buildings.23 This period came to an end in 1724, when the entire complex was handed over to the Observant Order.

[7] Apparently, the first change of denomination was much kinder to the medieval legacy of the church than its eighteenth-century re-Catholicisation and nineteenth-century restoration works. Naturally, new owners added necessary alterations to the spatial organisation of the church (discussed several times by Piotr Birecki).24 However, these changes had little effect on the interior’s structure (the little choir and large choir overlapping with the former "church of the clergy" and "church of the laity"). Some of the paintings were most probably taken down or at least corrected in line with a new doctrine (which was not tantamount to iconoclastic practices, as Protestants in Prussia were rather sceptical about the trend).25 More importantly, however, most of the alterations were added with the aim of providing new and more fashionable furnishings. As such, they were focused more on new formal trends rather than doctrinal necessities.

[8] The subsequent sections of the article present the history of the surviving medieval interior design and furnishings in the nave: mural paintings, tomb slabs in the floor, and the matroneum’s balustrade, which was transformed during the installation of a new pulpit and organ casing. The medieval design of the chancel cannot be described in full detail; the final section of the article presents a hypothetical Protestant re-organisation of the chancel’s interior, including the alterations added to the choir stalls and the main altarpiece.

Mural paintings

[9] A great variety of mural paintings, which remain to be the church’s most spectacular decoration, were probably covered with whitewash or stucco during the Protestant period.—They have gradually been restored since the end of the nineteenth century.—There are no sources that indicate when it happened and whether it was part of a new programme or a long-term reorganisation of the interior. Both the monumental mural representations of the saints in the south aisle and the decorations of the northern section of the nave (Franciscan themes and The Ecstasy of Saint Mary Magdalene) were whitewashed (Fig. 2). This was very much in line with how Protestants in Prussia reorganised former Catholic interiors: mural paintings were not scrubbed off, but only covered with whitewash or stucco, as in Kwidzyn Cathedral or the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Gdańsk. However, it is also possible that mural paintings were finally covered in the Observant period.

2 Toruń, Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, mural paintings with Franciscan representations, fifth vault bay from the east, north side of the nave (photograph © Juliusz Raczkowski)

Ornaments in the buttresses in the south aisle were not discovered until the late nineteenth century, while other mural paintings were revealed during the subsequent instalments of the restoration work carried out in the twentieth26 and twenty-first centuries.

[10] A case in point is the mural painting in between the buttresses in the third vault bay from the east in the south aisle, with an unknown narrative composition with an inscription.27 Its central part was screened when in 1637 the late Mannerist epitaph of Johann Muck von Muckendorf (an inscription epitaph) was mounted (Fig. 3).28 In 1722 (before the church was taken over by the Observant Order), in the course of the restoration of the epitaph,29 a late Baroque illusionist canopy was added with a purple-and-green patterned drapery, which was 'suspended' from the base of a window aperture and gathered to the sides with two festoons. It is worth noting that also the new composition failed to fully cover the old mural painting, the remains of which are still legible in its lower corners.30

3 Toruń, Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, epitaph of Johann Muck von Muckendorf with an eighteenth-century painted drapery and visible sections of a mediaeval painterly composition (photograph © Juliusz Raczkowski)

[11] In the first vault bay from the west in the south aisle, the walls of the side chapel were in turn whitewashed. In 2006, when dismantling the epitaph of the Neisser family (mounted on the existing wall painting in 1594),31 a medieval mural representation of two Passion scenes was discovered underneath (Fig. 4).32 Apparently, in both cases, the mural paintings were covered with whitewash or epitaphs in order to promote a new function of the shallow spaces in between the buttresses and to introduce new furnishings, which, rather than an iconoclastic programme, served the burghers and their funerary remembrance aspirations.

4 Toruń, Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, simultaneous mural painting Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane / Christ Carrying the Cross, south nave wall, first vault bay from the west, ca. 1400 (photograph © Juliusz Raczkowski)

Tomb slabs

[12] Inserted into the floor above the burial vaults, tomb slabs were a traditional way of commemorating the deceased. According to archival sources, the civic tradition of memorials in the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary dates back to the second half of the fourteenth century. Members of one of the most prominent patrician families in the city, Gerhard von Allen († 1371), his wife Margaretha († 1367), and his son Conrad († 1371), were buried at the entrance to the chancel. Other known tomb slabs commemorate the town councillor Heinrich von Werle († 1373) and his wife Christina († 1373). There is also a record of the brass memorial plate of the town councillor Ludolf Wale († 1381) and his sister Margaretha († 1381). The remembrance function was accentuated by expensive monumental brasses cast in Western European foundries, most probably in Flanders;33 they were a rare sight in the State of the Teutonic Order. These artworks are known thanks to archival descriptions of the church interior by Johann Muck von Muckendorf (1637) and by Johann Baumgarten (1715–1719).34 Furthermore, according to the tomb slab inventory made in 1709, the church held still at least 70 Gothic stone-carved tomb slabs.35 All the medieval and modern slabs are collected in "Epitaphia und Inscriptiones zu Thorn in der S. Marien Kirche" by Efraim Praetorius (1714),36 a number is also mentioned in the Thornische Chronica by Jacob Zernecke (1727).37 All of these sources were compiled by Artur Semrau, who also used the tomb slab inventory report from 1709 to provide a hypothetical visual representation of the tomb slabs and their distribution in the church in the early eighteenth century.38

[13] The brasses are particularly worthy of note. Early Modern descriptions suggest that inventory inspectors were well aware of their quality material and artistic value: Johann Baumgarten wrote about their elegance and historic value, "their ancient qualities".39 That said, these authors had some difficulty reading their imagery. Baumgarten, e.g., saw head cushions as haloes, lacked the requisite vocabulary for describing a girl’s outfit, and he also 'dressed' Gerhard von Allen in a toga.40 These brasses, the location of which is now indicated by their stone-carved frames, survived until the eighteenth century.41 The Wale family tomb is the only exception in this respect: in the 1709 inventory, their burial vault was already consigned to the Klosmann family.42

[14] The medieval tradition of commissioning tomb slabs for funerary remembrance purposes was continued in the Protestant period: both new slabs and epitaphs were added during the Reformation period (see Fig. 1b), also in the chancel. The 1709 inventory mentions 159 tomb slabs altogether.43 According to Arthur Semrau’s count, more than 90 slabs were to be found in the church at the end of the nineteenth century.44 Only five medieval tomb slabs have survived.45

The pulpit, the organ, and the matroneum’s balustrade

[15] Other furnishings of medieval origin could also be found in the nave; at least for some time, they also served the Protestant congregation. The pulpit was the most prominent permanent furnishing in Franciscan churches, as it served the fundamental mission of the order, and also the central feature in the "Space of the Word" in the Protestant interior. There is no data on the location, material, or shape of the medieval pulpit in the Franciscan Church in Toruń. However, given the mission and duty of the order, it must have been fitted in the church from its very foundation in the fourteenth century. Importantly, the pulpit is known to have been used by the Protestant congregation as late as the seventeenth century; it was eventually dismantled on 10 July 1616. Subsequently, the nave was fitted with a new and finely carved Mannerist pulpit (Fig. 5), which has remained in the same place ever since and continues the tradition of the former Franciscan pulpit.46

5 Toruń, Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, late Mannerist Protestant pulpit, 1605 (photograph © Juliusz Raczkowski)

[16] The second most valuable fitting of the nave was the organ, which was probably mounted in the church already before 1350. The instrument was so unique for the city dwellers of that time that its construction went down in Toruń’s history: it was mentioned by all the chroniclers of Toruń and Prussia: Simon Grunau,47 Lucas David,48 Christoph Hartknoch,49 Jan Leo,50 and Kaspar Hennenberger51. In his sixteenth-century account, Lucas David said that the organ attracted the crowds who flocked into the church to see the instrument and listen to its sound.52 From 1601 to 1609, the northern matroneum was fitted with an organ with a Mannerist case (Fig. 6).53 Most probably, this new organ supplanted the old instrument, whose casing perished: its current reconstruction is purely hypothetical.54 However, it is important to note that the Gothic organ was replaced a long time after the interior had been taken over by the Protestant congregation, who initially must have used the medieval instrument.

6 Toruń, Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, late Mannerist organ case, 1601–1609 (photograph © Juliusz Raczkowski)

[17] It must be noted that the new organ casing partially cut into the continuity of the matroneum’s balustrade, which is dated to the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,55 with earlier balks, partly extant, dated back between 1353 +/-6 (the oldest) and 1400 +/-6 (the latest one).56 Wooden segments of a pseudo-log structure with a thin oak coping hammered in between the pillars have survived in all the six vault bays in the aisle; from the nave’s side, they are decorated with an array of coffers, each of which is decorated with a tracery rosette.57 The only exception in this respect is the segment in the fourth vault bay, where the organ casing was inserted: it is devoid of ornaments from the external face of the parapet wall. The balustrade was topped with a broad and relatively high oak coping, protruding and intricately profiled from the nave’s side. Similar massive copings were added (probably at the same time) to older balustrades in the second and third vault bays from the east. The modernisation was probably intended to open up the space to the faithful. Early Modern graffiti, which have survived in precisely those segments on the surface of the Gothic timber frames of the balustrades from the inner side (Fig. 7 a-b),58 suggest that the matroneum in the Protestant period was largely accessible to the faithful.

7 a-b Toruń, Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, eighteenth-century graffiti, matroneum’s balustrade, inner side (photograph © Juliusz Raczkowski)

[18] Apparently, the Flamboyant style was not disagreeable to Early Modern users of the church’s interior: a section of the rosette balustrade was dismantled for pragmatic reasons, while the ornaments in the remaining segments were left virtually intact.59 From the west side of the church, with the construction of a timber matroneum,60 after the year 162361 a new Early Modern-style pine balustrade was mounted (see Fig. 1b) and integrated with the older balustrade. From the inner side, it had the same size as the earlier balustrade; from the nave’s side, it was also divided into segments. (Already in the Observant period, in 1724, these segments were covered with painted representations of Franciscan saints).62 The coping in the new balustrade created a halving joint structure with the horizontal beam of the old balustrade (Fig. 8).

8 Toruń, Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, late medieval coping, balustrade, matroneum, final vault bay in the nave (photograph © Juliusz Raczkowski)

Chancel reorganisation

[19] The former ecclesia interior, which served the sole purpose of conventual liturgy in the Franciscan period, enjoyed the most prominent status in the Protestant era: as a place of congregation for the clergy and the community of the Academic Gymnasium, while the town’s elite was allocated separate places in the nave, next to the pulpit (in what is called the Realm of the Word).63 The chancel must have been fitted with seats; it must also have been separated from the nave with a barrier, which, according to Observant sources, was not dismantled until the eighteenth century.64 Older medieval components were used in a new interior design. Firstly, "the old gallery opposite the altar", as mentioned in the sources, was most probably a medieval rood screen (no information is available on its form).65

[20] Apparently, the rood screen had a timber structure of a matching width to that of the chancel, fitted with an altarpiece and two passageways to the sides. Presumably, the structure initially carried a late Gothic crucifix (one of the most precious sculptures in the region from that time and still preserved in the church), which was designed to be exposed rather low in the church.66 Most probably, the rood beam was not mounted in the chancel until the 1560s. The crucifix may have been used by the Protestant congregation for the purpose of a new interior design. This, however, is still a matter of conjecture because the surviving composition of the rood beam dates from the Observant period. In the Protestant period, the rood was double-sided; from the chancel’s side, the figure of the crucified Christ carried a German inscription dated 1563; from the nave’s side, a Crucifixion group faced the congregation. The second crucifix bore an inscription dated 1675, which commemorated its restoration.67 It must be noted that the double-sided design of the rood survived the Observant period and beyond, until 1931, when the former Franciscan Gothic figure was mounted from the chancel’s side, which was probably in accordance with the original tradition of the church. Similarly, in Saint James’s Church in Toruń, a late Gothic figure of the Crucified Christ was preserved on the eighteenth-century rood beam; until recently, this figure, too, was mounted from the chancel’s side.

[21] In the Reformation period, the medieval oak choir stalls were retained in the chancel, and they are now one of the earliest and most splendid furnishings of this type across the entire Baltic region.68 In the Franciscan period, the choir stalls were leaning against the side walls of the chancel, and most probably also its back wall (this analogy can be drawn based on the furnishings of Saint Catherine’s Church in Lübeck, and, slightly later, the Holy Trinity Church in Gdańsk). According to archival sources, the choir stall complex was extended (probably in the late sixteenth century) with pews or individual choir stalls for the rector, professors, and students of the Academic Gymnasium.69 In this context, the eight-seat segment of the stalls, which was preserved in the southern row from the east, stands out from the entire complex (Fig. 9). The segment is a general copy of other stalls in terms of structure, composition, and its late Gothic style. However, it comes without a parapet (fitted with prayer desks), openwork canopies (these elements possibly failed to survive), and openwork partitions.

9 Toruń, Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, eight-seat choir stalls in the southern row of the chancel, eastern section (photograph © Juliusz Raczkowski)

[22] From detailed analysis ensues that this segment was added in order to extend the choir stalls by six additional seats. Apparently, an older structure was used for this purpose: two seats from the eastern side, which are matching in composition to the entire choir stall complex in the chancel and identical in terms of wood-carved detail. The other six seats were created by a different workshop. Only later were they integrated into the older structure: joints are visible in the coping frieze and armrests, which are connected with a wooden insert. The added structure differs in size from the rest of the complex70 (the seats are slightly narrower).71 Most notably, however, a different technique was used to produce their ornaments and wood-carved details. Their high backs were plain,72 and only a line of wood-carved rosettes in the Flamboyant style was added. However, these were not carved directly in the backs, but created in an openwork technique and added onto the planks. They show a lower level of craftsmanship than the other, finely carved choir stalls in the chancel. A rather flat oakleaf ornament in the coping frieze is Early Modern in style, while pinnacle decorations were carved in a fashion more austere than that of the fleurons and ornamental buds in the Gothic section. The consoles are devoid of an openwork tracery blind arcade and heads. The profiles of the partitions in the stalls also vary (despite a similar curvilinear composition). The partitions in the Gothic section have an analogous layout;73 however, they vary in composition in the eastern segment, and their roughly carved fantastic lambrequin-spewing heads (Fig. 10-11) are Early Modern in style.74 Most probably also Early Modern, the massive and profiled canopy of this segment stands out from the rest of the complex. It supplanted the openwork canopies of the main line of the choir stalls.

10 Toruń, Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, wooden armrest with ornamental head, choir stalls in the southern row of the chancel, western section, late Gothic (photograph © Juliusz Raczkowski)