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Wrocław is a city located at the meeting point of three countries very closely connected with one another by history. In a way it is a city of meetings – it is a city which unites. Here spiritual traditions of the East and the West meet. John Paul II


Wrocław against the Silesian landscape – the city’s tangled history

Wrocław, the capital of the Lower Silesia region, is the fourth largest city in Poland, with more than 630 thousand residents living within an area stretching over 293 square kilometres. It was established in the 10th century on islands on the Oder River, an act that provided its security and unique character. Two main communication routes of central Europe crossed here: the old Amber Road connecting Mediterranean states with the Baltic Sea, and the Royal Highway (Via Regia) connecting the Eastern and Western part of the continent. It is believed that its founder was the Czech Duke Vratislaus, after whom Wrocław was named not only in Polish, but also in Czech (Vratislav), Latin (Wratislavia), and German (Breslau).

The first residents of Wrocław were the Silesians, who in the 9th–10th centuries settled on the Oder Plain around Mount Ślęża, which the Silesians considered a holy place. It is after these people that the entire region known today as Silesia (Śląsk) was probably named, with Wrocław as its historic capital.

Silesia, when compared to the main European regions, has always been distinguishable by its geographical separation. The history of Silesia has shown that its natural boundaries are more enduring than any other boundaries, including even political divisions secured by treaties. That is because Silesia constitutes a clear and cohesive unit located within the upper watershed and the middle course of the River Oder, especially in terms of the climate, water conditions, landscape, geological structure and flora and fauna.

Upon entering the historical arena, Silesia has been the subject of disputes among Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany. Despite those disputes, the territorial division into duchies established in the Middle Ages constituted the basis of its administrative structure until the 18th century. The Partition of Silesia carried out by Austria and Prussia did not take into account the historic borders, and after the Congress of Vienna, Silesian Province was given new external borders and a modified administrative structure. According to the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, Silesia was divided between Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia. After 1945, the entire Lower Silesia region was incorporated into Poland, and Wrocław became the capital of the newly-established voivodeship.

The city landscape of Wrocław was shaped over hundreds of years, and despite the scale of the destruction caused by the war in 1945 (affecting 70% of the city’s buildings and infrastructure ), many of its areas have preserved their historic character. This is due in major part to many reconstruction works that have been carried out, not to mention those that are still being carried out today. Therefore, we can find nearly all the main styles in European architecture in the city – from Romanesque remains, to Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Classicism, Historicism, Art Nouveau and Modernism.


Dariusz Przybytek


Silesia – the Slavic Tower of Babel

In the first few centuries AD, the region of Silesia was inhabited by Germanic tribes. In the 6th century, Slavs began to take their place. The oldest written records originating from the mid-9th century mention several Slavic tribes speaking Polish dialects, including the Silesians. When Mieszko I incorporated Silesia into his state, the Polish language was used in the area.

Silesia was first exposed to written culture through the church. Most probably, Great Moravian clergy were the first to arrive in the area, bringing the Cyrillic script with them. However, it did not play a significant role – the language that prevailed was Latin, originating from the Roman Christian civilisation. It was the language used to write various books, mainly of a religious nature. Over time, Latin also found its way into secular life. Thousands of documents were written in Latin; literature was developing, and chronicles and yearbooks were being created. In the 13th century, which is relatively early, the first texts started to be written in national languages. Silesia was the region where Polish first became a written language – the oldest Polish sentence was written in a Cistercian chronicle in Henryków, and in 1475, the first printed Polish texts were published in Wrocław.

Other languages were also spoken here. From the second half of the 12th century, French Walloons and Dutch Flemings, colonists from Germanic countries, later knights and Czech townspeople all settled here. However, it was the arrivals from Germany that changed the linguistic character of Silesia – distinct Eastern-Middle-German dialects were developed that dominated the Polish language nearly completely, as well as the languages of the settlers.

Although Silesia was located at the border of the German cultural region, it played a vital role in the history of German literature. In the Middle Ages, religious literature and love poetry were developed here. In the Baroque period, the Silesian school of poetry, which became dominant in Germany, was formed. Its great representative was Martin Opitz. His works established the basis for the German art of poetry. Silesia also is where two great German Nobel Prize winners – Gerhart Hauptmann and Theodor Mommsen – created their works.


Wojciech Mrozowicz


Art of the old Wrocław – the city of art and artists

Over the centuries, artists specialising in all kinds of activity have been active in Wrocław, including painters, sculptors and goldsmiths. Some were members of the local community, and some of them came to the city on the Oder River from various regions in Germany, Poland, Bohemia, the Netherlands and Italy. These artists, creating their works in Wrocław and in many other Silesian cities, were not unaffected by the current trends of European art, as they attempted to combine local traditions with new inspirations. In doing so, they determined the multinational character of numerous works of art made here.

The first significant centre whose art influenced Wrocław local artists was Bohemia. Between the 14th century and the first half of the 15th century, figuresrepresented by the local painters and sculptors in their works were depicted with elongated body proportions, elegant movements, idealised faces and distinctively draped clothing. A great example of this trend is the so-called Beautiful Madonna of Wrocław.

Starting from the second half of the 15th century, after a local masterpiece, the polyptych in the church of Saint Barbara, was fitted, the greatest Dutch and Southern-German paintings begun to reach Silesia. The local artists paid attention to the realistic representation of details, while religious scenes were shown in a more dramatic and expressive way. In addition, pieces of the highest quality were already arriving in Wrocław at that time, such as the paintings of Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach from the collection of Bishop Johann Turzo.

Upon the introduction of the Reformation in Silesia in the 1520’s, the art of the region was influenced by modern trends coming from Italy and Northern European countries These trends are reflected by various works; among them there are numerous Silesian epitaphs of, for example, Nicolaus Jenckwitz, as well as the painting (now missing) from the Wrocław City Hall from 1537, depicting the Last Supper. In the second half of the 16th century and in the early 17th century, Italian and Dutch Mannerist trends became popular, thanks to artists residing in Wrocław, such as Hans Fleiser, Friedrich Gross and Gerhard Hendrick from Amsterdam.

In the Baroque period, many more interesting works were created. The second half of the 17th century was dominated by Michael Leopold Willmann. Born in Königsberg and trained by studying the paintings of the master painters of the Northern Netherlands, Willmann created paintings for, among others, the abbeys in Krzeszów and Lubiąż, and the main altar of the church of St. Elizabeth in Wrocław. In the next century, fresco painters were active in Silesia; they specialised in architectural and painted decorations. Among these artists are Johann Georg Knoll and Johann Michael Rottmayr, the creators of the decorations in the university church in Wrocław, and Cosmas Damian Asam, who worked at the Benedictine church in Legnickie Pole.


Piotr Oszczanowski

Agnieszka Patała


Lux ex Silesia – light of science from Silesia

The beginnings of science and education in Wrocław reach back to the Middle Ages, when mental life was mainly connected to the Church. At the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist there was a chapter which consisted of numerous well-educated clergymen, graduates of various European universities. Among them Witelon (1230–after 1281) from Legnica especially distinguished himself. He was a philosopher, mathematician and physicist with a European reputation, a precursor of studies on optics and the physiology of vision. Also Nicolaus Copernicus, a famous astronomer, was a member of another Wrocław chapter – at the Collegiate Church of the Holy Cross – in 1503–1538.

First attempts to officially establish a university in Wrocław were undertaken at the beginning of the 16th century. Jesuits returned to these plans at the end of the 17th century. Thanks to the support of Emperor Leopold I in 1702 an academy was established which was called Leopoldina in his honor. However the real bloom of the center in Wrocław took place only after the merger of Leopoldina and the Viadrina University in Frankfurt/Oder in 1811.

Names of scholars and lecturers well-known in the world indicate the rank of the University of Wrocław. They included among others: an astronomer Johann Galle – the discoverer of the planet Neptune; a physicist Gustav Kirchhoff – the creator of the thermal radiation law and the laws concerning the flow of current in electrical circuits; a chemist Robert Bunsen – who together with Kirchhoff developed principles of the spectral analysis; a doctor Jan Mikulicz-Radecki – the discoverer of many surgical techniques, a pioneer of aseptics and antiseptics; a psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer – who was the first to describe symptoms of a disease called Alzheimer today; a doctor Otfrid Foerster – a pioneer of neurosurgery; William Stern – a psychologist and philosopher, the author of a method to study IQ. Also Eleven Nobel Prize Winners were related to the University of Wrocław – sometimes only for a short time.

In 1945 when Festung Breslau was still burning nearly thirty scholars led by Professor Stanisław Kulczyński, came to the city to protect libraries, scientific equipment and buildings for the future of the Polish University. It was a miracle on the Oder. In a culturally alien environment the University became a city-forming factor, and the intellectual elite transplanted from Lviv gave character to the developing city and shaped an opinion about it. Achievements of Ludwik Hirszfeld in the field of establishing paternity based on blood groups, achievements of the anthropological school of Professor Jan Czekanowski, first open heart surgeries conducted by Professor Wiktor Bross, achievements of the Wrocław school of mathematics on a global scale, demarcation of a new direction of physical chemistry by Professor Bogusława Jeżowska-Trzebiatowska and Professor Włodzimierz Trzebiatowski, and participation in polar studies are just some of them.


Kazimierz Orzechowski

Lena Kaletowa


Wrocław modernism – Centennial Hall and other reinforced concrete structures as a precursor of modern European architecture

In the years from 1905 to 1913 in Wrocław, in a period of just eight years, six structures were designed which played an important role in the history of European architecture. The most important of them being Centennial Hall constructed between 1911 and 1913 according to the design by Max Berg. In 2006 the building was entered on UNESCO World Heritage List. The remaining five structures are linked to Centennial Hall due to the pioneering application of reinforced concrete as a new and modern building material, as well as innovative architectural shapes, which aimed at breaking away from decorativeness and designing for the purposes of functionality. All of these projects heralded revolutionary changes in the architecture of the 20th century, which were seen especially in the 1920s in so-called Neues Bauen modern construction.

The authors of four of the buildings were two of the most prolific architects working in Wrocław in the 20th century – Max Berg, the creator of Centennial Hall and of – remaining in the design phase – crematorium for Wrocław, and Hans Poelzig the author of an office building on Ofiar Oswiecimskich Street and the unconstructed Werdermühle plant. The remaining buildings where designed by: Heinrich Küster, later the chief architect for the city of Zgorzelec, the designer of two market halls, and Walter Hentschel – an architect from Berlin who designed the Metropole Theatre which was later renamed Schauspielhaus and is currently the Polish Theatre.

Each of the mentioned designs played an important role in the history of European architecture. The Wrocław Theatre between 1905 and 1908 was the first to have a stage constructed of reinforced concrete. The Market Halls from 1907–1908 were the first public buildings to have such a structure where the concrete was exposed with signs of formwork boards being clearly visible, and their concrete parabolic arches were similar to the dome and monumental arches of the Centennial Hall.

The office building designed by Hans Poelzig between 1911 and1912 heralded department stores and urban architecture designed in the 1920s among other by Erich Mendelsohn. It was also the first reception of American architecture in Europe, of so called Chicago school from the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, while the design of the Werdermühle plant from 1906–1908 showed new streams in industrial architecture of Germany and Europe. The design of crematorium for Wrocław from 1912–1918 is an exceptional work. The concept of this monumental structure made of reinforced concrete originates from the ideas of Max Berg regarding Centennial Hall. Oskar Kokoschka was supposed to be an author of a monumental fresco inside the chapel. The artist was so fascinated with the design of Max Berg that he created his own architectural variations of this structure in the expressionistic spirit. 


Jerzy Ilkosz


St. Hedwig – “Great jewel of Silesia”

Hedwig came from an excellent south German family of count Andechs. In 1190 she married Henry the Bearded, future ruler of Silesia. For two years these lands belonged to Polish statehood ruled by the Piast Dynasty, and Wrocław itself, the capital of the region, in 1000 became the seat of Polish episcopate subordinate to the metropolis of Gniezno. Reign of Henry the Bearded in 1201–1238 opened a period of intense modernization of Silesia – both in the social and economic aspect. Hedwig supported her husband in activities for these changes, inspiring some of his decisions. She was the one who had the idea to fund the Cistercians’ abbey in Trzebnica which was for her like the second house. She was famous for exceptional asceticism and mystical experience, but she is also remembered as a protectress of the poor. This is how she became spiritually close to the Franciscans, from the group of whom an anonymous author originated who wrote the final version of her biography dated approximately for 1300. He also developed the previous piece by Engelbert, one of the Cistercians who experienced her patronage in a special way. To her tomb in Trzebnica in the 17th century Jan Sheffler – famous Angelus Silesius – went on a pilgrimage, continuing the tradition initiated just after St. Hedwig’s death in 1243. Pope Clement IV recommended that the liturgical worship of the new saint was applicable not only in Poland, but also in Germany and Bohemia, proclaiming her canonization in 1267. This decision contributed to deepening of mutual relations of Central European countries, including Silesia, which for years was gaining significance. From the times of the Reformation there were many, sometimes bloody, interreligious conflicts. After the end of the Thirty Years’ War, people were allowed to build so-called protestant Churches of Peace in Świdnica, Jawor and Głogów, while simultaneously the Habsburgs supported recatholicization of Silesia. It was a result of a compromise imposed on the defeated Habsburgs, ruling Silesia from imperial Vienna from 1526.

After World War II, after incorporation of the Lower Silesia into Poland, St. Hedwig became a patron of Polish-German reconciliation, one of the proponents of which was Pope John Paul II, elected on the day of her liturgical memory. During his second visit in Wrocław in 1997 he participated in the 46th International Eucharistic Congress organized there. This event has been included on the list of events of this “city of meetings” on the Oder as one of the most important events.

Spiritual heritage of Wrocław was created for ages by people of numerous nationalities. Among them St. Hedwig was especially remembered as the “great jewel of Silesia”, as it was stated by a protestant historiographer Joachim Cureus in the 16th century.


Stanisław Rosik


Wrocław meetings – city at the meeting point of cultures

“Wrocław is a city located at the meeting point of three countries very strictly connected with one another by history. In a way it is a city of meetings – it is a city which unites. Here spiritual traditions of the East and the West meet”. These words spoken by Pope John Paul II during the International Eucharistic Congress in 1997 became a motto and mission of Wrocław.

By its nature each city was born, functioned and in some cases also died as a result of meetings – meetings of individuals and groups socially, materially, morally, religiously and ethnically diversified. In order to coexist harmoniously on a limited and densely inhabited area and implement their tasks, residents of a city had to develop various mechanism allowing them to function efficiently as a whole complicated body. Each of them added their own brick, as a result of which a structure called a city was created. Obviously, those “bricks” had various characteristic gravity and fulfilled different functions, however all of them influenced the image of the entire, constantly changing and developing structure.

Speaking of multiculturalism of Wrocław, as a rule it means ethnic diversity of its residents. And indeed, since the times when the city belonged to the State of the Piast Dynasty three main nations coexisted with one another: German, Polish and Jewish. Also Bohemians are mentioned, however – excluding the episode from the tenth century – they never significantly existed ethnically in Wrocław, playing an extremely important political role only in the Middle Ages. Each of the ethnic groups brought various elements into the city life, which in some periods coexisted in harmony, and in others they clashed with one another resulting in domination of one of the cultural elements at the expense of others. Although these conflicts frequently took on a tragic form, cultural heritage remained after all these groups, which was differently perceived in collective memory of the residents of Wrocław depending on the era.


Cezary Busko

Marcin Bradke