Before renovation


(a text excerpt from the conservation programs of Prof. Dr hab. Ireneusz Płuska)

The Gothic cathedral complex, surrounded by 15th century defensive walls, is still an essential architectural element and part of the unique view of the City of Opole. Undoubtedly, the recognised style and construction technology of this medieval temple belongs to the most magnificent examples of the sacral architecture of the medieval Silesia.

The durability of such buildings depends not only on their design and the quality of the used building materials, but also on the undertaken safeguard and protective measures. Many times in the past, renovation works were carried out to prevent the risks posed by the mechanical damage of various architectural parts, to make alternations and to improve the functioning of the church. However, these were never the typical renovation works in the present scientific meaning. They were not of preventive importance allowing for the prolongation of the durability of the materials from which the church was built and for the highlighting of the stylish aesthetic features.


The overall state of the temple's façade should be characterised as very bad, even though the degree of deterioration of various parts of the building differs. None of the architectural elements, except for the 19th century towers and the entrance hall, have survived in their original state or at last in the original architectural form and texture.


The whole of the body's façade, at the southern as well as at the northern side, has been filled in with machine made bricks which is why their degree of conservation is relatively the best in the whole architectural Gothic complex, preserved to this day. The windows, which do not suit the style of the building, are framed with stripes of white plaster.


Most of the brick work of the presbytery is still in the authentic Gothic fired bricks (with finger drags), but the walls have been radically rebuilt and filled in with machine bricks, in at least two historical periods. All of the upper parts of the buttresses have been super-structured with new brick. Drip roof flashings have been covered with monk-nun-roofing. The windows are wrongly framed with a plaster band. Some of the windowsills have been filled in with concrete where the stone had been damaged. The degree of conservation of the presbytery walls at the northern side is much worse, therefore the scope of the reconstruction with newer machine brick is better visible. The extremity of the base plinth of the presbytery at the western side has been sloppily reconstructed in recent years with modern brick which does not match the colour of the original and does not fit the structure of the buttress. The original joints of the whole historic part of the presbytery were not preserved. The new sand-lime ones were placed flat and without due care. Presently they are badly damaged and covered with black, harmful atmospheric patina.


The top parts of the walls of the chapels have been radically rebuilt in the form of an arcaded wall with semicircle niches plastered and painted white. The white of the niches significantly reduces the aesthetic value of the façade of the chapels. The façade walls of the chapels have been filled in with 19th century machine made brick. Clearly visible original brick parts stand out in an unfavourable manner due to their bad state. Contamination, black false patina and sloppy grouting only deteriorates the aesthetic appearance of the walls. Window embrasures are plastered with cement mortar. The thick mortar is very damp, cracked and tends to fall off. The forged grids in the windows have been protected with not that aesthetic anticorrosive varnish.


The sacristy was built at the end of the 19th century, concurrently with the addition of both church tower to the body of the temple at the western side. The degree of conservation of the bricks is fairly good, even though they are partly covered with the harmful atmospheric patina. Some fragments of the brick walls are grouted with cement mortar. The windowsills are made from concrete in which metal grids were placed some years later.


In 1899, two neo-Gothic towers were super-structured at the main western façade. Both towers have been incorporated on the walls of the original Roman – and later Gothic – temple. This can be seen in the large fragments of the walls made of Slavic and Polish brick bonds. Those parts of the walls of the two towers show the worst degree of conservation. The original Roman and Gothic bricks with finger drags have been supplemented with ceramic fittings during the erection of the towers. An especially negative aesthetic impression is given by the brighter in colour machine bricks. The lower parts of the tower walls were grouted several times; unfortunately, the joints are wrong in structure, colour, texture, and shape. Because of the fragmented architectural forms of the towers, the meteoric water could drip uncontrollably over the surfaces of the walls causing numerous streaks and washings on the surface of the bricks, washing out of the grouting mortar, and blistering of plaster. Badly set gargoyles and perhaps a poorly thought-out drainage system for the meteoric water from the horizontal surfaces of the towers completes the scale of damage.


On the walls of the temple – especially the chapels and presbytery – 11 epitaphs are present, including 8 of cast iron, 1 marble, and 2 made from porous stones (limestone and sandstone). The degree of conservation of the metal epitaphs is not good. The cast iron is highly corroded and presents numerous new rust centres as well as mechanical damage. The Baroque stone epitaph of Heinrich Ziegler, made of porous limestone, shows an especially low degree of conservation. Fine but numerous cavities in the stone and the visible grain disintegration indicates further progressing degradation of the epitaph. Two stone epitaphs set on brick walls showing from under the plaster work in the church interior, show substantial damage, mainly mechanical. Five historic epitaphs (Gothic and Baroque) are set on the wall surrounding the church square from the south-west side. All stones show signs of considerable damage, mainly mechanical.


The interior of the Cathedral Basilica of the Holy Cross in Opole constitutes priceless cultural heritage in the form of valuable Gothic architectural articulation of walls and inter-naval pillars. Despite past transformations and less than valuable layering of plaster, the interior has maintained its Gothic character typical for "grand" hall Silesian cathedrals.

Walls and pillars

Mechanical damage of the brick were caused by numerous fires of the temple (in 1415, 1446, 1615), uprisings for national independence, and many transformations of the interior and exterior walls of the building (in 1470, 1518, 1555-1557, 1617, 1652, 1836, 1882, 1897-1902, 1905, 1963-66). Some damage was significant and severe. However, the damage of the then bare and not plastered walls progressed slowly and constituted a normal ageing process of building materials. Damage of the brick bonds along with the grouting mortar are presently visible on the two eastern spans of the both side-aisles. In the past, the significantly damages walls of the Opole cathedral, weakened by the passing time, underwent a radical treatment of plastering of the whole interior with thick layers of cement-lime mortar. In this radical way, the damaged brickwork was covered and the interior was given a character far removed from its original Gothic aesthetics. The physical and chemical changes caused by water in different physical state resulted in re-crystallisation of salts which caused the cement plaster to blister. The cladding of the walls and pillars with thick layers of plaster not only decreased the aesthetic value of the interior, but also lead to dampness of the lower parts of the walls at the flooring and locally visible disintegration of the bricks.

Scrafitto by Stanisław Szmuc

In 1963, a thorough regothicisation of the interior was carried out in order to recover the original aesthetics of the brick walls. The maintenance works were led by P. Pieńkowski from Cracow while the interior décor was entrusted to the art painter Stanisław Szmuc from Cracow. He was appreciated at that time and especially known from his numerous artistic works in sacral buildings. Szmuc was born in 1911 in Wysoka nearby Łańcut. He fought in September 1939 and was interned in Romania. As solider in conspiracy he helped in transferring people to Slovakia. After the war, Szmuc became a member of the Society of Friends of Fine Arts, first in Rzeszów and then in Cracow where, presumably, he became acquainted with bishop Franciszek Jop, ordinary of Opole. During the maintenance works carried out in the 1960s, attempts were made to remove all of the plaster and show the beauty of the Gothic walls in the temple's interior. However, because in some parts of the walls the brick was fairly corroded, it was decided to apply the plaster again and let Szmuc paint religious scenes on them in the then fashionable technique of scrafitto. Thus, the northern wall of the church bears the scene of the finding of the cross by Empress Helena. Three crosses placed in the cavalry scene represent the difficulty in establishing the authenticity of the cross of Christ. The solution to this problem was shown in the second strand of this scrafitto, that is the touching of a sick man with the cross to bring him back to health. The southern wall above the Piastowska chapel bears the scene of the Last Supper. Going in the direction of the choir, at the same height the artist presented the figure of St. Adalbert, St. Hedwig and the blessed Euphemia with the cross. The whole ends with St. Hyacinth with a statue of Mary and the blessed Ceslaus with the monstrance. S. Szmuc also designed the stained glass windows in the north and south aisles of the church. The work of S. Szmuc is highly valued in the contemporary art of the second half of the 20th century. Whatever the assessment of the decorative scrafitto in the Opole cathedral, this artwork has its historic value attributed to the recent history of the temple and the memory of the artist.


In the south part of the cathedral, the Piastowska chapel is situated, which was built at the turn of the 16th century. It is covered with a ribbed groin vault with a stone rib base and disc keystones. In the centre, the headstone of Jan II the Good was placed, who was the last of the Silesian branch of the Piast dynasty and who financed the construction of the former Collegiate Church of the Holy Cross, which is the present cathedral. At the opposite side of the church in relation to the Piastkowska Chapel, the Chapel of St. Hedwig is situated. It was built at the turn of the 16th century and has a two-span stellar vault with brick profiled ribs and two stone disc keystones with carved and painted surfaces. One of the keystones carries a golden monogram IHS surrounded with beams on a white background and the second one – a golden dove in a halo on a white background. In the chapel, the alter of St. Hedwig is situated, brought here in 1966 from the main aisle. The three figures placed on it represent St. Hedwig (in the centre), blessed Ceslaus (at the right hand side) and St. Hyacinth (at the left hand side). The next chapel – St. Anne's Chapel – is situated in the northern part of the church. It dates also from the turn of the 16th century and is topped with a barrel-groin vault with a Gothic arch barrel. The chapel can be entered through a semi-circular arcade with a Baroque, forged, golden grid filled with wavy lines and stylised leaves, signed with the date of 1635. The chapel is completely plastered, except for the underside of the arcade's arch. There is an altar with the painting by Franciszek Backer, representing St. Anne with Jesus Christ. The large sacristy in its present form dating from the second half of the 17th century, is topped with a mirror vault from 1653 with an oval ceiling in the centre and flat buttresses along the seams. It is the only room in the church with visible Baroque influences in its interior. The small sacristy is topped with two spans of a ribbed groin vault, placed laterally to the church's axis, with stone keystones and rib supports. The room is mostly plastered and whitewashed, except for the part with a brick bond exposed in the upper part of the north wall.

Out of respect for the past, let's take care of the future