RIHA Journal 0276 | 14 July 2022

An Unpublished Lutheran Church Design by Valentin von Saebisch

Marek Świdrak

The unpublished legacy of Valentin von Saebisch (1577–1657), arguably Silesia’s most eminent architect in the former half of the seventeenth century, includes a set of four drawings representing a Lutheran church design. This post-and-beam design stands out from other examples of this kind with its richness and variety. This important testimony to church architecture, perished in the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War, has yet to be fully investigated by researchers. The design by Saebisch is a perfect testimony to the reception of Prague architecture created under the reign of Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612) and the technical standards used by the architects of that time.


[1] The latter part of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century saw the rise of multiple residences and the constant evolution of their architectural form.1 However, no similar phenomena could be seen in sacred architecture. Silesia, which was part of the Crown of Bohemia, remembered the presence of the Hussite tradition. Very early on, right from the 1520s, it also witnessed the rapid progress of the Reformation. In ca. 1580, Silesia had more than 1,200 Protestant parishes and only 150 their Catholic analogues, most notably in the Duchies of Nysa (German Neisse, Czech Nisa), Opole (German Oppeln, Czech Opolí) and Racibórz (German Ratibor, Czech Ratiboř).2 What is more, at the end of the sixteenth century, even the Duchy of Nysa – the then property of the Bishops of Wrocław (German Breslau, Czech Vratislav) – saw most of their parishes convert to the Augsburg Confession.3 The teachings of Calvinism were markedly less popular, and its believers were persecuted by both Protestant and Catholic communities.4 In 1609, Emperor Rudolf II issued the Letters of Majesty, initially for the Kingdom of Bohemia, and later also for Silesia. In so doing, he granted religious freedom and the right to build churches to the followers of the Augsburg Confession.5 This move consolidated Lutheran supremacy in Silesia. According to researchers, however, Silesia was different from Bohemia6 in that the rise of the Augsburg Confession led to almost no foundations of new Lutheran architecture in the area. Researchers point out that Lutheran communities mainly converted former Catholic churches for their needs, by appointing them with new altars, pulpits, baptismal fonts, galleries or organs.7 Only a few new Lutheran churches were built in Silesia in the years preceding the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), and they were similar to sixteenth-century architecture in that they were equally conservative and devoid of style. This was due to the fact that "Silesia was far removed from the leading centres of architectural thought" (Fig. 1).8

1 St Mary’s Church, Szydłowiec Śląski (German Schedlau), 1616–1617 (photograph: TomaszG – Wikimedia Commons)

[2] In light of the above, the drawing legacy of Valentin von Saebisch, which is yet to be fully investigated by researchers, becomes all the more valuable as a source material for the study of Lutheran architecture in the former half of the seventeenth century.9 The collection of Valentin’s theoretical writings and drawings was inherited by his son and continuator Albrecht (1610–1688).10 Following the latter’s childless death, the collection was bequeathed to St Elizabeth’s Church library in Wrocław.11 The collection has only partially survived because most of it perished in the Second World War.12 In its vast majority, it now comprises materials on the art of warfare and military architecture.13 Previously unnoticed, Manuscript R 939 is of a different nature, as it contains a collection of drawings for the design of civilian and sacred architecture.14 The collection comprises a set of four high quality drawings for the design of the church discussed in this paper.15

Drawings by Valentin von Saebisch

[3] The designs represent an unidentified church to be erected using a timber frame structure filled with bricks (Fig. 2-5). They were drawn at a scale of 1:4716 with no indication of orientation with respect to the directions of the world,17 composed of four panels representing a floor plan, a longitudinal cross-section (with a view to the south), a view of the façade and a view of the side elevation ("north"). The first two were provided with linear scales and the date: 1619. The drawings look really impressive on account of their size: they measure 62 × 41.6 cm. In order to provide a full view of the ridge turret, a card measuring 10 × 26 cm was added to the panel representing the side elevation. All drawings were sketched with pen and ink and tinted with watercolours. They stand out with their high artistic value, precision and minuscule detail (every single brick was marked in the draft of the external elevations).

2 Valentin von Saebisch, Design of Lutheran Church Plan, 1619, ink and watercolours on paper, 62× 41.6 cm. Wrocław University Library, Ms. R 939 (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

3 Valentin von Saebisch, Design of Lutheran Church Cross-section, 1619, ink and watercolours on paper, 62 × 41.6 cm. Wrocław University Library, Ms. R 939 (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

4 Valentin von Saebisch, Design of Lutheran Church Façade, 1619, ink and watercolours on paper, 62 × 41.6 cm. Wrocław University Library, Ms. R 939 (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

5 Valentin von Saebisch, Design of Lutheran Church Elevation, 1619, ink and watercolours on paper, 62 × 41.6 cm. Wrocław University Library, Ms. R 939 (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

[4] The church represented in the drawings was designed as a post-and-beam structure with multiple timber details imitating motifs typical of brick architecture.With this type of structure in mind, the designer had to make sure that the properties of the timber materials were taken into account, i.e., that the span of the ceilings was not too long. Accordingly, the designer chose the square with a side length of 4 ells (230.4 cm in all) as a basis for his modular grid. Saebisch used the module to design the church with a longitudinal layout, a three-nave pseudobasilica with galleries, its interior composed of a wide nave and narrow side aisles. The nave ends with a trigonal chancel protruding from the church's architectural structure. Elevated one step above the nave, the chancel equals the nave in both width and height. It is flanked with large two-storey blocks which protrude from the church’s architectural structure. These blocks house two flights of stairs leading to loggias that are connected to the chancel through Palladian windows. In the corners, next to the church’s façade, winding stairs lead to galleries which overhang the nave and are supported by an architrave-bearing colonnade in the Tuscan order. The colonnade is replicated in the upper storey. In the floor plan, Saebisch marked the location and overall shape of the baptismal font and the pulpit. However, his ideas were not fully developed in the longitudinal cross-section. The architect devoted more attention to the altar, which he added both to the floor plan and the cross-section. That is also why its form may now be inferred from the drawings (Fig. 6).

6 Marek Świdrak and Mateusz Gurdak, Visualisation of the church interior according to Valentin von Saebischʼs design, 2019 (© M. Świdrak, M. Gurdak)

Surmounted with a triangular pediment, a triaxial façade is dominated by a large thermal window (Fig. 7).

7 Marek Świdrak and Mateusz Gurdak, Visualisation of the church exterior according to Valentin von Saebischʼs design, 2019 (© M. Świdrak, M. Gurdak)

[5] Mounted on the façade and preceded by three stone stairs, the portal is designed as an aedicula featuring Tuscan engaged columns at the backdrop of external pilasters. The church’s architectural structure gains in monumentality by virtue of two obelisks. Surmounted with spheres and placed at the extremities of the church’s gables, the obelisks are crowned with feature metalwork crosses, their arms ornamented with lily-like endings. Above the chancel, the roof ridge features a tall octagonal ridge surmounted by a bulb resting on an openwork storey. The bulb is topped with a cross and a weather vane, the coat of arms on the weather vane only suggested by rough outline.

Architectural models

[6] The immense value of the drawings is apparent without any prior examination of their artistic qualities. The design provides for the visualisation of the Vitruvian ichnographia, orthographia and scaenographia, which, following Andrea Palladio’s best practices, is additionally supplemented with a cross-section of the building.18 Given the fact that these drawings are dated to 1619, the design under study contains one of the earliest preserved complete sets of drawings of this kind from Central Europe.19 The design is thoroughly intriguing for both its historic and artistic qualities. The church presented in the drawings stands out from the rest of the post-and-beam sacred architecture created in Silesia up until the mid-seventeenth century.20 The design combines elements typical of Silesia with those completely foreign to local architectural practice. The former include the timber frame structure, which probably arrived in Silesia in the thirteenth century on the wave of settlement from the west.21 In subsequent centuries, timber frame structure would become the primary method for the construction of utility, residential and sacred architecture. The design under study was created when timber frame structures were a defining feature of Wrocław’s architectural landscape and almost the only building structure to be used in the suburbs. There were seven timber frame churches (six Lutheran and one Catholic) in the suburbs of Wrocław and in the villages in its immediate vicinity.22 The very first scholarly paper on Saebisch’s legacy indicates that timber frame structures were an important part of his creative output, at least in his designs.23 In the 1630s,24 Saebisch provided designs for "smaller and larger timber frame country residences in Marszowice, Zacharzyce and Prochowice,25 as well as summer residences ("Lusthaus") for Silesian nobility and country churches"26 (none of these designs survived until today). According to Burgemeister, Saebisch also provided a design for the church in then Swojczyce (in present-day Wrocław), which was managed by the Wrocław City Council.27 It is known that works to extend the church began in 1630. As a result, a small square-plan timber-frame nave was added to an already existing chancel.28 Both this extension and subsequent remodellings were simple in character. Therefore, Saebisch's potential involvement cannot be established with certainty. The church design by Saebisch stands out from other timber frame structures created in Silesia prior to the Thirty Years’ War in that it is much larger29 and rich in architectural detail that imitates stonework decorations. This in itself is unprecedented in Silesia, only amplified by the fact that the style of these decorations has little to do with the tradition of Silesian sacred architecture.

[7] The church was designed with a Lutheran congregation in mind, which is suggested by the very historical context and corroborated by the spatial arrangement of the building and its furnishings. The arrangement of the Lutheran liturgical triad is particularly distinctive in this regard.30 An impressive altarpiece was moved away from the polygonal closure of the chancel, which was intended to facilitate the process of ministering Communion sub utraque specie (under both kinds). With this arrangement in place, the faithful would receive the Eucharist on the right-hand side, walk around it at the back, and receive the Chalice on the left-hand side of the altarpiece.31 The central location of the pulpit is also typical of Lutheran churches. The same can be said about the chalice-like baptismal font. Placed on a podium and the focal point of the whole arrangement, it allowed for the baptism ceremony to be held in front of the whole congregation. The presence of galleries, both in the nave and the chancel (those in the chancel being the focal point of the whole arrangement and invested with dazzling architectural form), perfectly epitomises the building tradition that emerged in Silesia on the crest of the Reformation. Celebrated for its unique and exquisite furnishings, the church in Żórawina (1600–1605)32 near Wrocław is the contemporary equivalent of such an arrangement. Extended symmetrical loggias in the chancel were also used in the church in present-day Stara Kamienica (German Altkemnitz, in the vicinity of Jelenia Góra),33 the design of which may likely be attributed to Saebisch. The drawings by Saebisch may have shown certain similarities with the architecture created in Silesia; however, no previous models could be found in the region for the way he designed architectural detail and the overall composition of the building. When investigating potential models for his design, it is worth bearing in mind that his ideas were likely translations of monumental brick structures into timber technology. This is suggested by the opulence and complexity of the design’s architectural programme or multiple details that were typical of brick architecture rather than post-and-beam structures. Similar imitations of brick architecture, even at their most dazzling, were offered as significantly smaller copies of their original models, most notably because of the limitations to their building technology. A case in point is the Church of St Stephen Deacon and Martyr (1765–1770) in Mnichów (Fig. 8), which was created as a smaller copy of Kraków’s Church of St Anne (1689–1703).34

8 St Anneʼs Church, 1689–1703, Kraków (photograph: Zygmunt Put − Wikimedia Commons, 2018) │ Church of St Stephen Deacon and Martyr, 1765‒1770, Mnichów (photograph: Michał Kurzej, 2017)

[8] The Lutheran gallery church model, which Saebisch emulated in his design, derives from the first Protestant construction projects executed in Germany, i.e., castle chapels, such as the one in Torgau (1544), or the pseudobasilica chapel at Augustusburg Castle near Chemnitz (1568–1572).35 This influential architectural model soon engendered multiple adaptations and reworkings,36 Saebisch’s design being the closest to a group of impressive elongated gallery parish churches created in ca. 1600.37 Lined with galleries on three sides, these churches were provided with prominent chancels. These in turn were flanked by salient architectural loggias, which were separated from the nave loggias and provided with stand-alone vertical communication channels. A layout of this kind can be found in the Marienkirche in Wolfenbüttel,38 a structure modelled on medieval architecture and built in 1607 (Fig. 9 A). Even in present-day Marienkirche, the chancel has a model functional and liturgical layout: it is elevated on a podium, the baptismal font being its focal point and placed next to the pulpit’s loggia. The altarpiece can be bypassed at the back along the polygonal apse closure. All of these features can be found in Saebisch’s design. The same trend can be found in the churches adhering to Italian architectural models (Saebisch’s design shows an even closer affinity to these two):39 the pseudobasilica Holy Trinity Church in Klagenfurt (1580–1591)40 (Fig. 9 B) and the basilica Court Church in Neuburg an der Donau41 (1607–1618) (Fig. 9 C), which were both taken over by the Jesuit Order at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In both churches, the galleries overhanging the aisles were extended above the nave. As a result, their arcades act as inner elevations that add to the elongated shape of the building and create a uniform space along the church’s main axis. With the same architectural and functional layout, Saebisch’s design shows certain stylistic affinities with these two churches and belongs in a series of prestigious Lutheran foundations.42 However, its much closer analogue can be found in St Salvator’s Church in Prague’s Old Town, which in fact can be seen as its direct and predominant model43 (Fig. 9 D).

9 Floor plans of A) Marienkirche, Wolfenbüttel │ B) Holy Trinity Church, Klagenfurt │ C) Court Church, Neuburg an der Donau │ D) St Salvator’s Church, Prague (reprod. from: A) Gustav von Bezold, Die Baukunst der Renaissance in Deutschland, Holland, Belgien und Dänemark, Leipzig 1908, 129; B) https://www.kath-kirche-kaernten.at/pfarren/detail/C3074/ein_fuehrer_durch_die_domkirche [accessed February 12, 2021]; C) and D) Praha 1437–1610, ed. Pavel Kalina and Jiří Kotatko, Prague 2011, 163)

[9] Erected concurrently with the Lutheran Holy Trinity Church at Prague’s Malá Strana,44 St Salvator’s Church in the Old Town of Prague was earmarked for use by German Lutheran burghers on the strength of the Letter of Majesty signed by Emperor Rudolf II.45 Both construction projects were invested with great prestige and significance, and they were financed by fundraising carried out across the entire Holy Roman Empire.46 St Salvator’s Church was founded by donations coming from, e.g. Lutheran princes and members of the Schmalkaldic League and a group of 90 German grafs, some of whom hailed from Silesia, as well as multiple cities, including Wrocław, Brzeg, Oława, Legnica, Świdnica and Jawor.47 The construction of the church was probably completed in 1612; the building was consecrated in 1614, and then taken over by the Pauline Fathers in 1624.48 St Salvator’s Church draws upon the local tradition49 and, as such, it differs from the bold architecture of the Holy Trinity Church, which was hailed by the papal nuncio Carlo Caraffa as "bello, capace et fabbricato all'Italiana" soon after its consecration.50 The conventional model of a three-nave Gothic basilica with a prominent pentagonal chancel received a creative remodelling in an early modern style.51 The church’s buttresses were reshaped as pilasters which carry an ancient-stylised corbel cornice, and the apertures were provided with frames in a typically Italian style52 (Fig. 10). The pentagonal chancel was illuminated with tall windows. With a span identical in size to that of the nave, the chancel creates a uniform space with the rest of the church. One notable element that adds variety to the whole arrangement is the different size of the pilasters between the spans (Fig. 11).

10 St Salvator’s Church, Prague, 1611−1614, north-east view (photograph: Tanita Ciesielska)

11 St Salvator’s Church, Prague, 1611−1614, view of the chancel (photograph: Marek Świdrak)

[10] The chancel is flanked with cuboid compartments containing impressive loggias that are connected with the chancel through broad and winding stairs. This section of the church is ornamented on the outside with prominent aedicula window frames. The aisles are overhung by impressive galleries extending between the chancel loggias and the staircases located in the western section of the church. The galleries are communicated with the aisles through broad staircases located in the corners of the façade and illuminated with rhythmically arranged little windows. Despite multiple and close affinities in the arrangement and disposition of the interior, Saebisch’s design contains no forms that would be identical copies of its model. This is due to the fact that the features described above had to be adjusted to the needs of timber technology. The only details that did not have to respond to these necessities were the feature metalwork crosses crowning the church’s gables. In Saebisch’s design, they seem to be identical in form to those used in St Salvator’s Church in Prague.

[11] Having this particular point in mind, it must be emphasised that Saebisch’s design was a free and creative reworking of its Prague-based model. The fundamental differences between the two buildings are mainly due to their construction technology. As an exponent of brick architecture, St Salvator’s Church is of completely different scale and features a different set of detailed solutions. The basilica layout of St Salvator’s Church was reduced to its pseudobasilica analogue in Saebisch’s design. The resulting limited number of sources of light is made even smaller because windows in the aisles were removed from the design. In so doing, the architect illuminated the church’s axis, which only adds to its uniform feel. Saebisch also uses a different architectural order, which distances his design from the tradition of timber frame architecture. In general, post-and-beam churches were not invested with architectural details typical of Renaissance stoneworking and architecture. That being said, Saebisch’s design is a clear testimony to the reception of the Renaissance tradition, notwithstanding the use of woodcarvings instead of stone. A number of detailed solutions from his drawings are modelled on the ideas presented in architectural treatises. The frames in the openwork chancel loggias imitate stonecarved details characteristic of lay architecture; they deploy the Palladian window motif, which recurs in the designs created by Serlio53 and Palladio.54 The architectural structure of the nave, with columns supporting architraves and arranged in two storeys, may be redolent of sixteenth-century solutions such as those from the never completed Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne (1532–1536) in Rome, Palazzo Chiericati in Vicenza (from 1550) or the Palace of Charles V in Granada (1527–1550). In all probability, the nave was modelled on the interiors of architrave gallery churches by Hans Vredeman de Vries (Fig. 12).

12 Hendrik Hondius after Hans Vredeman de Vries, Interior of a Church, in: La haulte & fameuse science, consistante en cincq manieres d’édifices ou fabriques c’est a scavoir, en Toscane, Dorique, Ionique, Corinthiaque, & Composee, La Haye 1606, pl. no. AA (Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Réserve des livres rares, V 1996, source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF)

[12] The design by Saebisch is different from those adhering to the classical style (presented above) for he decided to abandon the superposition of the orders and instead deploy the Tuscan order on both storeys. This solution has its antecedents in sixteenth-century Bohemian architecture. They were deployed in the arcades of the castles in Velké Losiny (1580–1589) and Opočno (1560–1567).55 They can also be found in buildings designed by Baldassare Maggio: Telč Castle in Moravia (before 1580) or in Jindřichůvy Hradec in southern Bohemia (1581), where Serlian windows were also used.56 Designs by Palladio were also a likely source of inspiration for Saebisch in his decision to deploy a relatively rare motif, namely, a façade thermal window.57 However, this may just as well be a quotation from another prominent Lutheran church in Prague, i.e., the Holy Trinity Church at Malá Strana (Fig. 13).

[13] Multiple motifs to be seen in the design recur throughout Saebisch’s entire creative legacy. The uniform Tuscan order was also deployed in the design of a three-storey chapel in Carolath Castle in present-day Siedlisko (created in 1616)58 (Fig. 14).

13 Giovanni Maria Filippi (?), Design of the Holy Trinity Church at Malá Strana, Prague, 1611, ink and watercolours on paper, 37.2 ×153.6 cm. Prague City Museum, Inv. No. 8855 (source: https://staromestska-poprava.muzeumprahy.cz/exekuce/nabozenske-konfese-v-predbelohorske-praze/)

14 Valentin von Saebisch, Cross-section design of the Carolath Castle chapel, 1616 (reprod. from: Günther Grundmann, Der evangelische Kirchenbau in Schlesien, Frankfurt am Main 1970, 115)

[14] An impressive double staircase may have been an established feature in Bohemia,59 but it was still a pioneering solution in Silesia, and it was also introduced by Saebisch in the area.60 He deployed this idea in Wrocław’s Town Hall (his authorship is confirmed by archive records),61 but it can also be found in Carolath Castle in present-day Siedlisko62 and Schweinhausburg in present-day Świny63, as well as the Alt Schönau Castle in present-day Stara Kraśnica,64 which may likely be attributed to his name. Given its proportions and the large thermal window, the design of the church’s façade shows a distant affinity with the central section of the façade of the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Bielany near Kraków65 (Fig. 15), which Saebisch is reported to have designed (no extant drawings are available),66 and the façade of the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, which has recently been attributed to his name67 (Fig. 16).