Over centuries, the structure which currently houses the Historical Art Department of the National Museum in Gdansk fulfilled various functions. It was erected as a Franciscan monastery on the plan of an irregular quadrangle, adjoining one of the largest temples in Gdansk – the Holy Trinity Church (formerly dedicated to the Last Supper).
The first monastery buildings, probably timber-framed, were constructed as early as in 1423. The erection of a monumental brick complex was commenced eight years later. It was then that the western wing – the oldest part of the monastery, with a large, grand space including a passage to the southern aisle of the church – was commenced. Currently, the level of this hall is marked by a protected fragment of the floor from square brick tiles glazed yellow and green, located in the area of the display of tin objects.
In the 1480s, the complex underwent a sizeable extension – the monastery was provided with two-storey wings: the eastern one with winter refectory and library, and the southern one with the kitchen and the great refectory, as well as a garth surrounded by cloisters with diamond vaults. The first floor housed cells for 55 monks. The construction was not finished until the first half of the 16th century.
Soon after the completion of the construction, due to the first wave of reformation in Gdansk, the monastery began to decline. In 1555, the custos of the Franciscan monks – Johannes Rollaw – concluded an agreement with the Protestant City Council, under which the church, the monastery buildings and the library were provided to the city. In compliance with Rollaw’s wish, the monastery was to be transformed into a school.
In 1558, a Reformational Gdansk Gymnasium (renamed Academic Gymnasium in 1580) was opened in the post-monastery building. The monastery space was adjusted to the learning and residential needs of professors and students. It was one of the most important educational facilities in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and its graduates included such eminent scholars, representing different disciplines, as Johannes Hevelius, Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit and Johann and Georg Försterow. It was also within the walls of the Gdansk school that the first public autopsy in the world was performed.
In 1596, a public Library of the City Council was opened in the eastern wing of the former monastery building. Its collection was founded on the books left by the Franciscans, as well as the collection of books of the Italian humanist Bonifacio Bernardino d’Oria, who donated to the city in excess of 1,500 books of distinguished antique and Renaissance authors, published in the greatest publishing houses of Europe, in exchange for a lifelong shelter in the Gymnasium.
In the 18th century, the underfinanced Academic Gymnasium of Gdansk started to experience a crisis – the number of professors and students fell, and some classes were suspended. During the Napoleonic era, the school was transformed into a lazaretto and storage facilities. The building was significantly damaged as a result of bombardment in 1813, and towards the 1820s it was purchased by the Prussian Ministry of War and changed into a military hospital and an armoury. Due to its being used inappropriately, the structure continued to fall into further disrepair. Everything seemed to indicate that the facility would vanish from the cultural map of the city. However, a man appeared whose passion and determination changed the course of events. It was Rudolf Freitag – a sculptor and professor of the Royal School of Fine Arts. In 1848, the artist was allowed to live in the monastery, arrange an atelier there and display a collection of Gdansk-related and regional “antiquities” in its interiors. It was for many years that Freitag fought for the survival of the former Franciscan monastery and its designation for museum purposes – he wrote appeals to the authorities, published articles on the history of the building, and guided people through the historical interiors, raising the city inhabitants’ awareness of the huge value of the structure which was falling into ruin. Finally, in 1856, the military authorities provided the historical building to the city for the purposes of education and art.
A thorough refurbishment of the facility was carried out to the design of the city architect, Julius A. G. Licht, between 1867 and 1872. It was possible owing to the efforts of Lord Mayor Leopold von Winter and the merchant Friedrich Theodor Hennigs, who gathered the necessary amount of money, acting as a part of Carl Klose’s foundation. It was the first such important project in Gdansk, adjusting the late-medieval complex to the modern purposes of education and museum activity, and taking into account its historical nature.
Firstly, a decision was taken to demolish the extension playing the role of the kitchen and the professors’ timber-framed houses located by the southern façade. The repair and renovation works were commenced in the western, most heavily damaged wing of the monastery, which was designated to become a Provincial School of Craftsmanship (Kunstgewerbeschule). This part of the building underwent the greatest transformation, which left only the original peripheral walls and ceilings; the vaults of the cloisters damaged in this part were reconstructed in 1793. The rooms for the teaching of various subjects, including drawing and modelling, and the director’s office spanned three floors. In 1903, the school was relocated to a new building at ul. Wielkie Młyny 11/13, owing to which the exhibition of the Museum of Decorative Arts, which was displayed in the cloisters as of 1885, was arranged on the ground floor and the first floor.
The first floor of the eastern and southern wing was adapted for the purposes of St. John’s High School (Realschule) with its twelve classrooms and assembly halls. It was operating here until the end of the Second World War. The entry to the school was located in the southern façade of the building, where a large entry hall with splendid, granite stairs was erected in place of the former kitchen. Currently, an entrance to the museum is located in this place. Towards the end of 1870, a large share of the works was almost finished. The ground floor with the cloisters was designated for the exhibition of a museum collection, including the objects gathered by Rudolf Freitag, and on the top, third, floor a gallery of paintings, drawings, and prints was planned. These were high, spacious rooms provided with additional light through a system of skylights in the roof. In the space of the garth (an internal yard) a garden was arranged with a fountain in the middle. The entry located in the eastern façade from the side of ul. Rzeźnicka was leading to the City Museum – and in consistence with the local tradition, it was decorated with two spheres originating from one of the stoops from ul. Długa.
The Second World War did not spare the former monastery buildings – they were 65% destroyed due to the bombardment by the Soviet air-force in March 1945. After the war, the building was rebuilt by Poles and designated for museum purposes in its entirety.
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Zbigniew Nowak, “Bibliotheca Senatus Gedanensis 1596 – 1817”, [in:] Gdańskie Gimnazjum Akademickie, vol. 1, Edmund Kotarski, ed., Gdańsk 2008, pp. 109-134