Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Perished Mary Magdalene's old collegiate church

Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene are two women who are the most represented  in the history of Catholic church. Mary Magdalene is the second most shown woman, so we can safely say that as a saint she is the most represented after Virgin Mary. Both Marys are also shown in the type of images called assumption into heaven. Both were honored, and Mary Magdalene wasn't  marginalized as a saint, wasn't pushed into fringes of Catholic faith because the tradition was that she was a reformed prostitute. The marginalization theory is often repeated, and I think I understand where it comes from. Catholic church is most often pointed out as the main villain here, because she was labeled as former prostitute, but the fact gets overlooked that she was exceptionally honored also by the Catholics. I will give you an example of many, the collegiate church built in her honor.

This  was a collegiate church in Poznan, huge as a cathedral, which had a Mary Magdalene school adjacent to it. It was a high school, founded in 1303, the oldest secular school in Poland. The school must have been quite liberal for its days, as sometimes there were fights among the Catholics and the "heretics," when the students started to use fists in order to win arguments. Short tempers aside, but the fact that under the same roof were studying people who often represented very opposing views is nothing so common in old days. The picture above, by Alberti ( thank you Radomil) shows how big the building was even as  a ruin, in late XVIII c. It was built in the Middle Ages, once was one of the biggest Gothic churches in Poland, and the symbol of the city of Poznan. It was as big as St. Mary Basilica in Cracow, than the capital of Poland, but St. Mary Magdalene Collegiate church had even taller tower: 20 m (c.67') higher. The church was destroyed, the school survived until  today. Some trivia: among famous guests Chopin visited and gave concerts there, also the  school was awarded prestigious Order of Polonia Restituta Knights' Cross.

From Civitates ORbis Terrarum ( XVII c.) printed in Cologne
Why I am writing about a church which doesn't exist anymore? Specially because so many St. Mary Magdalene churches exists, or existed all over Europe. Fair point. But this one  has intersting history, which is very representative regarding two Marys, also how medieval art or architecture was treated during XIX c.

According to medieval chronicles, the  collegiate church was founded  in the middle of XIII  century. It had to do with urban planing: the city of Poznan was supposed to be moved to the other side of the Warta river, and people had idea to built a huge collegiate church.  One side had already St. Mary's Cathedral, so, it was decided that the new patroness should be St.Mary Magdalene. Very typical: Virgin Mary as the main super star, Mary Magdalen close to her in fame. Here Mary Magdalene with her church became something of a founding mother of the new city. Nice hommage. Also the church  was under patronage of the dukes of Greater Poland. Another trivia: those were the dukes who took Arthurian legends seriously, even styled themselves according the legends, also had crest of Lancelot. Maybe the dukes were the founders themselves, it is not clear. Other patronage later, when the ducal  lineage died out was taken by the king of Poland, from rather remote capital of Cracow.

The collegiate church of St. Mary Magdalene was different from a cathedral only in some aspects: it didn't have bishop's throne in it, ( the cathedrals have it), was not the sit of a bishop in the administrative sense, but it had body of clergy, canons,  member of a chapter in a similar manner to cathedral.Those members of clergy  who also have special honorary privileges were allowed to elect bishops. So, it was quite a prominent church. This church is one of the artistic examples of Mary Magdalene's prominence in the Catholic fait.

It took long to finish the construction work, very typical for those days too. Today what is left on this location  is only a plazza, one sculpture in a museum, the heart of a bell,  and an archeological dig.

 Once this church had 52 altars, 27 chapels, the tower was 114.8 m tall (376' ) high enough to be listed among tallest church towers. The tower was slightly shorter than the tower of Chartres Cathedral (115 m). The width of St. Mary Magdalene church was 42 m, had three naves  (Chartres has 32 m to 46 m width). St. Mary Magdalene's church was was 70 m long "only" as compared to Chartres, imposing 130 m length. In feet 233, and 433. This is addressed  to those who are familiar with Chartres. However, 70 m length of a church isn't little either, actually it is a lot. In comparison to the cathedral in Poznan (St. Mary's Cathedral) this church was only 2 m shorter in length, but wider 6 m (20') than 36 m wide St. Mary's Cathedral. If devotion can be measure in meters and feet, not bad at all for a saint who was considered a former prostitute. Mary Magdalene got a church which was actually bigger in square meters or square feet measurements, with a  taller tower than the local cathedral. Mary Magdalene wasn't much on the margins.

This model of the church is nice (thank you Poznaniak). I don't know how accurate it is, if during medieval times the roof tiles were so big in proportion to the rest of the church? But I am not an architecture historian. Today the size of the roof tiles would indicate average building in Europe, which this church was of course not. So, squint you eyes to get maybe better feel for the real proportions. This is artist talking in me.

The church suffered the last of devastating fires at the end of XVIII c. People tried to rebuild it, but lightning caused  the wall to fall , and in 1802 the consensus was that the church will not be rebuilt. Those were the times when medieval heritage wasn't as much appreciated as it is today. For example Prussian administration  (Poznan was occupied by Prussia at this time) ordered to destroy the medieval city walls. I didn't know if the people gave up, or the Prussians administration didn't give permission, as often happened, the church is lost forever. But not blaming the Prussian here: destroying parts of Medieval heritage wasn't so uncommon. Krakow, then under Austrian occupation, lost its medieval walls too. For example Paris doesn't have the Old Town anymore because it was destroyed in order to make way for modernisation of the city. Cloisters Museum in New York exist because the old monasteries were considered worthless in France, were in a state of ruin. An appreciative American bought it and shipped to US, cloisters were lovingly re-assembled. Good for us and future generations.

Some churches were demolished by purpose, explosives were used. Chartres again: it was planed to destroy the cathedral, as some were destroyed already, explosives were set, just someone, lucky for us today and the future generations, decided that the explosion will create too much of  unnecessary dust clouds. French Revolution: some churches, if survived the destructive zeal directed  at Medieval and religious art,  were supposed to be converted to the so called "temples of Reason." Sigh...

Today the archaeologists excavate what is left from the St. Mary Magdalene church. They found interesting objects, also conduct genetic research of the human remains found the collegiate church, as it was also the resting place of many prominent figures in local history. Archeology is very interdisciplinary today: DNA testing allows to know quite a lot about public health in earlier days, genetic illnesses shared by members of similar population, or families, etc. In  earlier days  big help for archaeologists was carbon dating, today they have also DNA testing to their disposal, scanning of the grounds or objects, aerial photography, impressive inventions. What comes next, I am curious.

Alberti ,Ruins of the church of St. Mary Magdalen in Poznan, via Radomil