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Hanseatic Brick Gothic Architecture (Bachsteingothik)

Those who follow the European Route of Brick Gothic and visit the medieval city centre or villages will not only admire the impressive historical monuments of past ages but also feel the ubiquitous influence of the Hanseatic league, being once so powerful. Additionally, traces of Vikings or the Knights of an Order as well as the later Reformation do leave their mark on the region. The route entrances by its richness of churches and their peaks rising up to the sky, impressive town halls, decorated town gates or city walls marking former boarders. At the same time, the uniqueness of the glacially formed countryside and again and again the Baltic Sea with its steep coasts, crooked pine trees and endless beaches are revealed to the traveller. Despite all differences, diverse cultures from seven countries, joined to a history rich in tradition, can be experienced on the route.

Minster in Bad Doberan

St. Mary's Church in Gdańsk, the biggest brick church in the world

Archcathedral Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, Poznań

Holstentor in Lübeck - background left St. Mary, right St.Peter

Brick Gothic (German: Backsteingotik) is a reduced style of Gothic architecture common in Northern Europe, especially in Northern Germany and the regions around the Baltic Sea without natural rock resources. The buildings are built more or less using only bricks. Brick Gothic buildings therefore are to be found in the Baltic countries Denmark, Finland, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Russia and Sweden. Brick Gothic architecture of the Iberian Peninsula is different in nature; it is discussed under Mudéjar Gothic.

The use of baked red brick in Northern Europe began during the 12th century, so the oldest such buildings belong to the Brick Romanesque. In the 16th century, Brick Gothic was superseded by Brick Renaissance architecture.

Brick Gothic is characterised on the one hand by the lack of figural architectural sculpture, widespread in other styles of Gothic architecture, but impossible to achieve on the basis of brick, and on the other by its creative subdivision and structuring of walls, using built ornaments and the colour contrast between red bricks, glazed bricks and white lime plaster.

Many of the old town centres dominated by Brick Gothic, as well as some individual structures, have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.


Stralsund: City Hall and Church of St. Nicholas at Stralsund

Brick architecture is primarily found in areas that lack sufficient natural supplies of building stone. This is the case across the Northern European Lowlands. Since the German part of that region (the Northern German Plain, except Westphalia and the Rhineland) is largely concurrent with the area influenced by the Hanseatic League, Brick Gothic has become a symbol of that powerful alliance of cities. Along with the Low German Language, it forms a major defining element of the Northern German cultural area, especially in regard to late city foundations and the areas of colonisation north and east of the Elbe. In the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period, that cultural area extended throughout the southern part of the Baltic region and had a major influence on Scandinavia. The southernmost Brick Gothic structure (in Germany) is the Bergkirche (mountain church) of Altenburg in Thuringia. Other national or regional identifications have also occurred. For example, buildings of the Brick Gothic style in Poland are sometimes described as belonging to Polish Gothic (although the vast majority of Gothic buildings within the modern borders of Poland are brick-built, the term also encompasses non-brick Gothic structures, such as the Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, which is mostly stone-built).

Example of a Brick Gothic interior, Storkyrkan, Stockholm

In the northwest, especially along Weser and Elbe, sandstone from the mountains of Central Germany could be transported with relative ease. This resulted in a synthesis of the sombre styles from east of the Elbe with the architectural traditions of the Rhineland. Here, bricks were mainly used for wall areas, while sandstone was employed for plastic detail. Since the brck has no aethetic function per se in this style, most of the northwest German structures are not part of Brick Gothic proper.

The lack of available stone did not necessarily lead to the development of distinctive brick architecture. For example, some areas in Southern Germany, such as Upper Bavaria or Upper Swabia also lacked building materials, but did not create typical brick-based styles. Instead, brick cores were clad with stone ashlar, and architectural sculpture of worked stone added. Examples include St. Martin's Church at Landshut and the Frauenkirche of Munich.

Historical Conditions

Marienkirche at Lübeck

Heiligen-Geist Hospital in Lübeck

In the course of the medieval German eastward expansion, Slavic areas east of the Elbe were settled by traders and colonists from the overpopulated Northwest of Germany in the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1158, Henry the Lion founded Lübeck, in 1160 he conquered the Slavic principality of Schwerin. This, partially violent colonisation was accompanied by the christianisation of the Slavs and the foundation of dioceses at Ratzeburg, Schwerin, Cammin, Brandenburg and elsewhere.

The newly founded cities soon joined the Hanseatic League and formed the "Wendic Circle", with its centre at Lübeck, and the "Gotland-Livland Circle" with its main centre at Talinn (Reval). The affluent trading cities of the Hansa were characterised especially by religious and profane representative architecture, such as council or parish churches, town halls, Bürgerhäuser, i.e. the private dwellings of rich traders, or city gates. In rural areas, the monastic architecture of monks' oders had a major influence on the development of brick architecture, especially through the Cistercians and Premonstratensians. Between Prussia and Estonia, the Teutonic Knights secured their rule by erecting numerous Ordensburgen (castles), most of which were also brick-built.


Lehnin Abbey, detail

Brick architecture became prevalent in the 12th century, still within the Romanesque period. Wooden architecture had dominated in northern Germany for a long time, but was inadequate for the erection of monumental structures. Throughout the area of Brick Gothic, half-timbered architecture remained typical for smaller buildings, especially in rural areas, well into modern times.

The use of brick as a replacement for natural stone began in the areas dominated by the Welfs, with cathedrals and parish churches at Oldenburg (Holstein), Segeberg, Ratzeburg and Lübeck, where Henry the Lion paid the foundation stone of the Cathedral in 1173.

In the Margraviate of Brandenburg the lack of natural stone and the distance to the Baltic Sea (which, like the rivers, could be used for transporting heavy loads) made the need for alternative materials even more pressing. Brick architecture here started with the Cathedral of Brandenburg, begun in 1165 under Albert the Bear. Jerichow Abbey plays a key role regarding Brandenburg Brick Gothic.

Characteristics of Brick Gothic

St. Mary's in Greifswald

Romanesque brick architecture remained closely connected with contemporary stone architecture and simply translated the latter's style and repretoire into the new material. In contrast, Brick Gothic developed its own typical style, characterised by the reduction in available materials: the buildings were often bulky and of monumental size, but rather simple as regards their external appearance, lacking the delicacy of areas further south. Nonetheless, they are strongly influenced by the Cathedrals of France and by the gothique tournaisien or Schelde Gothic of the County of Flanders.

Later, techniques that led to a more elaborate structuring of the churches became prevalent: recessed wall areas were often painted with lime plaster, creating a marked contrast to the darker brick-built areas. Furthermore, special shaped bricks were produced to facilitate the imitation of architectural sculpture.

Brick as the basic material
Since the bricks used were made of clay, available in copious quantities in the Northern German Plain, they quickly became the normal replacement for building stone.

The so-called monastic format became the standard for bricks used in representative buildings. Its bricks measure circa 28 x 15 x 9 cm to 30 x 14 x 10 cm, with interstices of about 1.5 cm. In contrast to hewn-stone Gothic, the bricks and shaped bricks were not produced locally by lodges (Bauhütten), but by specialised enterprises off-site.

Brick wall in "Gothic bonding" "gotischer Verband"

Glazed brick

Shaped brick

Black-glazed shaped brick

19th century Neogothic

Schinkel's Friedrichswerder Church (1831)

In the 19th century, the Neogothic style, led to a revival of Brick Gothic. Important architects of this style include Friedrich August Stüler in Berlin and Simon Loschen in Bremen. Although the style became popular especially from the 1860s onwards, one of the best known examples, Karl Friedrich Schinkel's Friedrichswerder Church at Berlin was completed in 1831. 19th-century Brick Gothic "Revival" churches can be found all over Northern Germany, Scandinavia and parts of Poland.

Northern German Heimatschutz
Since the early 20 century, the Northern German Heimatschutz ("homeland protection"), a regional architectural style common especially in Schleswig-Holstein, has revived the use of brick architecture, oriented on traditional examples but free of Neogothic ornament. Villas and Single-family detached homes in that style dominate up to the present.