This regularly updated feature on Gothic churches and artwork in Slovakia includes information on the country's history and its modern Gothic Route.
While the architectural diversity of Slovakia is most visible through its castles, fewer tourists take note of Gothic art in the form of altars and table paintings that are among the richest in Europe.
Košice Region is the easternmost boundary of Gothic architecture. St Elizabeth’s Cathedral in Košice is Slovakia’s biggest church with a main altar as well as a stone portal that are among the most precious artworks dating from its era.
St Elizabeth’s Cathedral is not only a leading representative of Gothic architecture, but it is also representative of the division between the Catholic and Byzantine worlds that began during the Middle Ages. In short, everything east of Košice fell under Byzantine influence.
“The excellence of the preserved Gothic buildings in Slovakia is evident in the number of surviving works of art, winged altars, sculptures and the murals and architecture,” said art historian Peter Kresánek.
The German-speaking population brought with it mediaeval sacral constructions between the 12th and 15th centuries as they repopulated areas wiped out by the Tartar armies. They were predominantly farmers, craft people and miners who, according to Kresánek, brought with them their culture of building churches. Thriving mining and commerce brought more money to the Spiš and Gemer regions, and the locals were able to invite master builders. Later mining gradually declined, resulting in fewer investments in sacral buildings.
Following the Gothic Route
Gothic architecture in Slovakia
Slovakia offers tourists a unique way to visit some interesting Gothic monuments. The Gothic Route was the first themed trail created in Slovakia, linking the most important Gothic monuments in the regions of Spiš and Gemer. In order to follow the route and uncover many of Slovakia’s Gothic gems, visitors should keep their eyes peeled for the brown road signs marked Gotická cesta, and prepare for a long and varied journey. The Gothic Route is sub-divided into four somewhat cyclical circuits: Spiš-Pieniny, Spiš-Tatras, Spiš-Gemer and Gemer-Rimava. The route stretches from the Slovak-Polish border to the Slovak-Hungarian border, covering 276 kilometres of central and eastern Slovakia.
While the best known and most important sights are usually accessible, lesser known places can give visitors a sense of discovery and of revisiting the ancient past. Even the smallest churches in what are today neglected villages might have been regional centres of great importance and can boast astonishing mediaeval wall paintings, carvings or sculptures. The historical regions of Spiš and Gemer are both rich in cultural monuments, which experts connect with the arrival of colonists, mainly from Germany, in the 13th century. In those days, these regions were crossroads of businesses and crafts. The era’s economic prosperity was also reflected in architecture, painting, wood-carving, and other artistic pursuits. Although it sounds simplistic, it is said that many of these ancient features survived mainly because there was not enough money to replace the old features with new ones once the heyday had ended.
Gothic sites in Slovakia
Because of the richness of the whole route, it is difficult to pick out individual highlights. The wall paintings in Žehra and Dravce rank among the most significant Gothic paintings in Europe, and the Gothic sculptures by Master Paul of Levoča are also world renowned. The Spiš Castle, Zápolyas’ Chapel in Spišský Štvrtok, Spišská Kapitula in the Spiš region, and the church in Štítnik, as well as in Chyžné in the Gemer region, are also exceptional sights.
The interactive map on the Slovak-English website of the project offers a detailed list of the castle complexes, preserved historical town cores, museums and cathedrals, village churches, burgher and craftsman houses, as well as stone bridges.
It is unfortunate that the project has never been developed into a more sophisticated form because there is little in the way of assistance for tourists looking for places to eat and sleep along the route. Another disadvantage is that access can sometimes be difficult: sights and monuments are administered by different institutions, and only some of them still serve their original purposes as places of worship. As a consequence, some curious visitors may end up in front of the closed door of a village church, on which, if they are lucky enough, there is a telephone number of the keyholder, who may or may not appear to let them in.
It’s also worth remembering that not all of Slovakia’s significant Gothic monuments are on the Gothic Route. St Elizabeth’s Cathedral in Košice, the Basilica of St Aegidius in Bardejov, and St Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava are a must for any lover of Gothic architecture.
By Michaela Pastorová
Tours focusing on Slovak architecture, www.simplireisen.sk
Examples of Gothic architecture:
B Bratislava: St Martin’s Cathedral, www.dom.fara.sk; Franciscan Church, www.frantiskani.sk; Old Town Hall, muzeum.bratislava.sk
B Svätý Jur; Church of St George, svatyjur.fara.sk
W Šamorín: Church of the Reformed Church, samorin.sk
N Spišská Sobota: Church of St George, www.spsobota.szm.com
N Spišský Štvrtok: Zápolyas’ Chapel, www.gothicroute.sk
N Dravce: Church of St Elizabeth, www.gothicroute.sk (exterior views only)
N Levoča: Church of St James, www.chramsvjakuba.sk
N Spišské Podhradie: Spišská Kapitula, www.new.spisskepodhradie.sk; Spiš Castle, www.spisskyhrad.sk
N Žehra: Church of the Holy Spirit, obec-zehra.sk
N Smrečany: Purification of the Virgin Mary Church, www.apsida.sk
N Okoličné: Church of St Peter of Alcantara, www.farnostokolicne.sk
C Banská Bystrica: Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, bbmesto.fara.sk
C Hronský Beňadik: Church and monastery, slovakia.travel
C Banská Štiavnica: Church of St Catherine, www.banskastiavnica.sk
C Zvolen: Zvolen Castle, www.sng.sk
C Chyžné: Church of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, www.obecchyzne.sk
E Košice: St Elizabeth’s Cathedral, www.visitkosice.eu
E Štítnik: Evangelical Church, www.stitnik.ocu.sk
E Bardejov: Basilica of St Aegidius, www.bardejov.rimkat.sk; Old Town Hall, www.muzeumbardejov.sk
E Plešivec: Church of Reformed Church, www.apsida.sk (exterior views only)