Slovakia, Levoča, Spišský Hrad and the Associated Cultural Monuments
Spišský Hrad has one of the largest ensembles of 13th and 14th century military, political and religious buildings in eastern Europe, and its Romanesque and Gothic architecture has remained remarkably intact.
The extended site features the addition of the historic town-centre of Levoča founded in the 13th and 14th centuries within fortifications. Most of the site has been preserved and it includes the 14th century church of St James with its ten alters of the 15th and 16th centuries, a remarkable collection of polychrome works in the Late Gothic style, including an 18.6 metre high alterpiece by completed around 1510 by Master Paul.
The area forms a unique urban-architectural and natural landscape unit of high artistic and aesthetic value. The castle is a characteristic ensemble, representing cultural, social, and artistic developments, and is at the same time comparatively intact. The military, political, ecclesiastical, and social elements are closely linked with the surrounding landscape.
Spišský Hrad (castle) stands on a dramatic site, a hill rising out of the plain of western Slovakia. The earliest occupation on the site dates back to as early as the Neolithic period, and it was subsequently occupied in the Bronze Age. Construction of the present castle began in the early 12th century, but the original structure collapsed, having been built on a geological fault. The present castle was built in the first half of the 13th century as a defence against Tatar incursions from the east. The Romanesque palace was completed in 1249 and the keep in 1270. It is one of the largest castles in Eastern Europe and important for its Romanesque and Gothic elements, which make it comparable with contemporary castles in France and the British Isles rather than those of Central and Eastern Europe. It consists of the upper keep and its courtyard, two inner baileys with internal fortified access gates, the outer bailey, with the main entrance gate and remains of the garrison's quarters, and the large barbican area, now largely ruined. Excavations in front of the castle have revealed the remains of the earlier moated circular fort, a ritual building of the Pùchov culture, the foundations of the Captain's house, and the remains of a circular tower.
The town of Spišské Podhradie was founded as a settlement, at the base of the castle mound, which was already fortified at that time, but quickly it became independent of the castle. The first church, destroyed in a Tatar raid, was rebuilt in Romanesque style in 1258-73, probably by the same Italian masons who constructed the first castle. It was granted town privileges and became an important textile centre for its large Saxon community during the 15th century, when much of the town was reconstructed and fortified, but it fell into economic decline after the Reformation. The street pattern was laid out formally in the 14th century and extended in the 15th century. Following a fire, most of the houses were rebuilt in Renaissance style. The central point of the town is the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, surrounded by town houses. A number of stone two-storey houses still survive, embedded in the fabric of later (largely Renaissance) structures. The town square assumed its present form in the 15th century, round the church. A block of Baroque houses, along with the church and monastery of the Order of Brothers of Mercy, has closed the south-east side of the central square.
Spišskà Kapitula, a unique fortified ecclesiastical ensemble, began as a small fortified settlement overlooking Spišské Podhradie. The complex of buildings there is based on the Cathedral of St Martin, where building began in 1285 as a three-aisled Romanesque basilica with a chancel at the west end and a double spire. It owes its present form to successive remodellings and additions in the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. The Bishop's Palace is largely Baroque, with some excellent interior decorations, like many of the religious buildings in the group. The oval ground plan of the centre of the town is due to its having been fortified in the 14th century. The various religious buildings had defensive functions in this early period. New monastery buildings were erected when the provost's residence was rebuilt and the whole area fortified. The earlier central fortifications were removed in the 18th century. It was the site of the residence of the provost of the castle, in the no longer extant St Martin's monastery, and later became a capitulary. This was destroyed by Tatars, but the pilgrim's chapel, in rotunda form and dedicated to the Virgin, survived until the 18th century and the monastery until the 15th century.
Zehra is one of the earliest Slovak settlements in the region. In the later feudal period it formed part of the castle domain, with a manor in the village. The Church of the Holy Spirit was largely built after 1275: its medieval wall paintings are especially noteworthy.
Spišsky Hrad (castle) stands on a dramatic site, a hill rising out of the plain of western Slovakia. The earliest occupation on the site dates back to as early as the Neolithic period (5th millennium BC), and it was subsequently occupied in the Bronze Age and in the 1st century AD, when a fortified settlement was built there, serving as the political and administrative centre of the contemporary Púchov people. It was also fortified during the Great Moravian Period (9th century AD).
Construction of the present castle began in the early 12th century, but the original structure collapsed, having been built on a geological fault. The present castle was built in the first half of the 13th century, as a defence against Tatar incursions from the east. The Romanesque palace was completed in 1249 and the keep in 1270. Following severe damage from the armies of Matthias Cak in the early 14th century it was rebuilt in the Gothic style and extended by the addition of a large settlement with its own access gate. Additions were made in the 15th century, and major emergency repairs had to be carried out in the 17th and 18th centuries. It served as a garrison until 1780 when it was abandoned after a disastrous fire and left to subside into ruins.
The town of Spišske Podhradie was founded as a settlement in the 12th century, at the base of the castle mound, which was already fortified at that time, but it quickly became independent of the castle. The first church, destroyed in a Tatar raid, was rebuilt in Romanesque style in 1258-73, probably by the same Italian masons who constructed the first castle. It was granted town privileges in 1321 and became an important textile centre for its large Saxon community during the 15th century, when much of the town was reconstructed and fortified, but it fell into economic decline after the Reformation. The street pattern was laid out formally in the 14th century and extended in the 15th century. Following a fire in the 16th century most of the houses were rebuilt in Renaissance style.
Spišska Rapitula began as a small fortified settlement in the 12th century overlooking Spišske Podhradie, of which it now forms part. It was the site of the residence of the Provost of the castle, in the no longer extant St Martin's monastery, and later became a capitulary. This was destroyed in by Tatars in 1241-3, but the pilgrim's chapel, in rotunda form and dedicated to the Virgin, survived until the 18th century and the monastery until the 15th century. Building of the cathedral began in 1285 as a three-aisled Romanesque basilica with a chancel at the west end and a double spire. The Provost's residence was completed in 1281 and further religious buildings were added. Frequent raids by marauding Bulgars and others led to its being fortified in the 14th century. The cathedral was rebuilt in the later 14th century. In 1776 it became the residence of the Bishop and four years later a seminary was established. In 1819 the first teacher training centre in Hungary was founded there.
Zebra is one of the earliest Slovak settlements in the region. In the later feudal period it formed part of the castle domain, with a manor in the village. The Church of the Holy Spirit was largely built after 1275.
The site was an important military training ground during the Great Moravian period (9th century). The remains of various built structures in the present town indicate the presence of a community in the 11th and 12th centuries.
The development of the town of Levoča was linked with an early German colonisation, which increased considerably in the mid-13th century following the Mongol devastations of 1241. The town is mentioned for the first time in a document of 1249 for its frontier role.
A privilege was granted to the Saxons of the Spiš region by the King of Hungary, Stephen V, in 1271. Spiš and Levoča were the main centres of the Saxon presence; Levoča became the administrative capital by the Law of 1271 (Communitas Saxonum de Scepus). Since it was raised to the status of a Free City, all its inhabitants, whether Saxons or not, were given important undertakings: individual freedom, the right to freely exploit the land and the subsoil, personal property rights, etc. They also had the right to govern themselves. The Charter does not mention the right to fortify, but the construction of fortifications is attested by a document of 1319.
A second law, that of 1380 (Zipser Willkür), confirmed these prerogatives and extended them, especially with regard to religion. In exchange, attachment to the Kingdom of Hungary was reasserted and the duties and taxes due to the sovereign were revised.
A ‘Union of the twenty-four towns of Spiš' was created in the 14th century, forming a province of the Kingdom; however, the capital, Levoča, did not form part of that union but retained the status of an independent Royal town. At this period, it developed a rational urban planning layout inside the fortifications (see Description).
A pilgrimage developed at the start of the 14th century, between the town and the Mariánska Chapel, located on a nearby hill overlooking the town. The pilgrimage has taken place regularly up to the present day.
Located on a major inter-regional route between Poland, Silesia, Moravia, and Hungary, the region developed and prospered. Levoča became an important centre of trade at the end of the Middle Ages, a role that was facilitated by its Free City status, its rational town planning layout, and the presence inside its walls of numerous merchants and craftsmen. The Charter of 1321 conferred on the town a very advantageous bonded entrepôt status which enabled it to play the role of a staging town for European trade. Regular trade was carried out with Cracow, Wrocław, Debrecen, and more distantly with the Germanic territories, Austria, and the Balkans.
Guilds of craftsmen were present from the Middle Ages onwards, and there were more than thirty such guilds in the Renaissance period. Its tailors, tinsmiths, masons, stone masons, and button makers were highly reputed and participated in national and international trade.
In 1412, part of the province of Spiš was ceded to Poland, and Levoča lost a significant part of its administrative and legal role at the head of a district reduced to eleven towns. At the end of the 15th century Levoča lost its position as regional capital, which returned to the Castle of Spišsky Hrad; however the town retained its special status and was directly dependent on the King of Hungary. The Charters that he granted in 1419 and 1492 exempted the town's merchants from commercial duties and from toll charges throughout the Kingdom. Levoča remained an important town for trade, a staging post between different regions and cultures. The great merchant dynasties, such as the Thurzos and the Rholls, were present in Europe. Heavily involved in the mines of Slovakia, the Thurzos had at the end of the 15th century an agreement with the Fuggers of Augsburg for the control of copper in the Kingdom of Hungary. Conversely, several major Polish, Silesian, and Austrian trading houses had agencies in Levoča. The town was also the venue for large merchant fairs.
The 15th and 16th centuries were a period of reinforcement of the town's defensive system and of closer packing for its urban planning scheme, with the construction of many stone houses. The cadastral system made it compulsory to follow urban frontage lines and dimensions for the facades. The architectural elements of the Renaissance then took effect in the new buildings and in the many renovations, as the town suffered fires in 1550, 1561, and 1599. The reconstruction of the Town Hall and the creation of arcaded streets are representative of this period.
Bolstered by its economic and cultural power, and boasting renovated urban fortifications and a town planning scheme of high quality, Levoča continued to grow. It attracted in particular the nobles and religious institutions in charge of the administration of the District of Spiš, which in practice regained a proportion of its regional institutional power.
During the Renaissance in Central and Eastern Europe, Levoča played an important regional cultural role, particularly through a highly regarded municipal school in the early 15th century. Its many pupils went on to study at various European universities, particularly at Cracow. A library was built in 1517, a bookshop opened in 1557, and a printing house, the first in Slovakia, in 1625.
After the Counter-Reformation, Levoča simultaneously had a high school run by the Evangelicals and a Roman Catholic gymnasium. In the 16th century Levoča was the birthplace of Jan Henckel, a humanist of European renown; it was also home to other cultural and scientific luminaries; a pharmacy was established there. Several notable musicians were born or resided there, with particular connections with the Evangelical Church.
Levoča was a leading Central and East European centre for sculpture and painting which flourished in the Late Gothic period. Many artists converged on the rich merchant city. The apogee of this movement is represented by the works of Master Paul. Initially he made a series of altars for St Jacob's parish church (see Description); from 1530 onwards, he established a sculpture workshop at Levoča which became renowned.
Artistic traditions, particularly painting and sculpture, were maintained in the town in the 17th and 18th centuries. Levoča became a centre for Baroque art in Central Europe, its products being widely distributed in Slovakia and Hungary. The town was a centre for foreign artists from Sweden, Poland, and Bohemia, whilst its own artists were sent to St Petersburg and Vienna.
The town's commercial, cultural, and artistic activities continued in the 18th and 19th centuries. It had a regional scientific society, and a theatre opened its doors in 1827. However, several periods of economic stagnation caused a decline in the town's commercial position. It remained untouched by the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th century because it was not served by a railway. It then went into rapid decline, and this was not checked by its return to the role of regional capital of the Spiš Region in 1922, following the creation of Czechoslovakia.
From an urban planning viewpoint, the 18th century was notable for religious restorations in the Baroque style, while the fortification system suffered decay. At the start of the 19th century various public building works were undertaken: the Evangelical Church and the District Hall followed by the reconstruction of the bell tower of the parish church. Work was also carried out in the town: cobblestones were laid in the streets and public lighting was installed. Part of the fortifications was destroyed and replaced by barracks at the end of the century. In 1911, the Gymnazialny Church was rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style.
Interior restoration work was undertaken in the early 1950s on St Jacob's Church, on the works of Master Paul in particular. They were carried out by the Kotrba family group of craftsmen who specialised in painting, stone and, wood sculpture, polychromy, and gilding, and the family continued to monitor this work for several decades.
Other renovation work was, however, necessary - in 1989 on the St Nicholas altar and in 2003-2004 on the Nativity altar.