The Gniezno and the Novgorod/Płock Doors and the Power of Scientific Reproduction

– Ewa Manikowska

The Gniezno and the Novgorod/Płock doors, both executed in the 12th century in Magdeburg, are well-preserved masterpieces of the Romanesque art of bronze casting. The Gniezno doors served as the entrance to one of the oldest Polish cathedrals, place of the 966 Christianization of Poland and of the 1025 crowning of the first Polish king, destination of Otto III’s pilgrimage undertaken in 1000 and burial place of Adalbert of Prague – presumably the first Polish martyr-saint. The western bronze entrance doors to Santa Sophia’s Church in Novgorod Veliky were originally cast for the Polish cathedral church in Płock. At an unknown date and in unknown circumstances the doors were moved to Novgorod.

In the long 19th century German scholars placed the Gniezno and the Novgorod/Płock doors together with other spectacular examples of the Magdeburg art of casting to prove the importance and reach of Germanic culture. At the same time, for Polish historians both doors (especially the one in Gniezno) attested to the existence of Polish national culture as well as to its antiquity and close affinity with the West. Finally, the Russian antiquarians following the local tradition, according to which the most precious and antique objects were associated with ancient Kievian Rus’ and its supposed Byzantine cultural provenance, defined the Novgorod doors as Chersonese doors (Korsunskiia vrata).

To forward these contradictory arguments on the provenance of the doors German, Polish, and Russian scholars and antiquarians in their research and publications benefited from the numerous nineteenth-century technological advances that allowed for the exact – hence suitable for a truly scientific analysis – reproduction of an image or an object.

This proved to be not only a very expensive venture, but also a challenge to execute well, giving the scale, location, and the quantity of figural and decorative details of the Romanesque doors.

The Novgorod/Plock doors were the first one to be reproduced and studied. In 1823, Friedrich von Adelung (1768–1843), the German historian and prominent figure of the St Petersburg scientific and cultural world, published a voluminous and erudite essay in German on this Romanesque monument, which he defined as a masterpiece of Germanic culture and an important testimony to the breadth of its reach in the East. To support his argument von Adelung enclosed engraved reproductions of the doors and a facsimile of its inscriptions, the first ever to appear in print.

The Gniezno doors became an object of antiquarian research only a few years later. In the 30s the Königliche Museum in Berlin (today Altes Museum) commissioned a condition survey, conservation works and a life-size plaster cast of the doors intended for an exhibition of Germanic art.

Cast courts were an important place of formulation and dissemination of the idea of Germanic culture, its antiquity, importance, and geographical reach. In 1879, a plaster cast of the Novgorod/Płock doors was commissioned for the Romanesque sculpture hall of the Germaniches Nationalmuseum in Nueremberg, where it was exhibited along with the casts of the Magdeburg doors from Hildesheim and Aachen.

In the 1850s, Joachim Lelewel (1786–1861), the foreground Polish romantic historian, embedded the Gniezno and Novgorod within the cultural and national narrative on the Polish past, creating a strong argument for the antiquity of Polish civilization and its parallel evolution with the West. His monumental, 20-volume study Polska, dzieje i rzeczy jej rozpatrzywane (Poland, her History and Affairs Surveyed, 1853–1876) included a chapter on both doors. The Novgorod doors were for the first time described with the name ‘Płockie’, in a clear reference to their presumed original setting, Płock. In the description of the Gniezno doors, it was argued that they were cast by Polish artisans. The chapter was accompanied by two full-page illustrations of both doors. Made by the author himself they formed an integral part of the study and were a key element of its argument. Lelewel did not refer to the originals as he never saw with his eyes either of the doors, but copied the existing reproductions. For the Novgorod’s doors, he used von Adelung’s illustrations from 1823, hence the same visual argument served to forward a completely different claim. Lelewel’s Gniezno doors illustration was a loose reinterpretation of a lithograph published in the early 40s by Atanazy Raczyński (1788–1874), a central figure of cultural and intellectual life in the lands of Greater Poland. Importantly, Raczyński was directly inspired by German research commissioned by the Königliche Museum in Berlin. An amateur engraver, Lelewel, often included reproductions of coins, maps, and monuments in his historical writings. Konstanty Żupański, the editor of his works, defined him as equally a historian, geographer, numismatic, and artist. Moreover, he argued that his illustrative argument was as important or even predominant over the written one.

Around 1859, Karol Beyer (1818–1877), the first professional Warsaw photographer and an established antiquarian, made several papier-mâché copies of the Gniezno doors with the aim of institutionalizing their national and cultural status. Replicas were sent to the foreground centres of Polish scientific and cultural life: the Ossoliński Library in Lviv, the Jagiellonian University Library in Krakow and the Warsaw School of Fine Arts. Placed in a transpartitional Polish academic and cultural milieu, Beyer’s life-size copies were an emblematic example of how the stateless nation divided by the borders of three empires strived to establish and define its culture patrimony. Importantly, the initiative preceded by over a decade the establishment of the first cast courts of Polish sculpture in the Cracow Museum of Science and Industry.

The first Russian reproduction of the Novgorod doors appeared in a lavish six-volume chromolithographic album commissioned by the tsar Nicholas I, Drevnosti rossiiskago gosudarstva (Antiquities of the Russian State, 1849–1853). The publication was issued in three language versions primarily to promote the idea of the superiority of the Old Rus’ material culture rooted in the Byzantine and Greek tradition over the medieval and renaissance patrimony of the West. At the same time, the album formed the first coherent scientific narrative on Russian culture and art addressed to the Western academic, cultural, and political world. Owning to von Adelung’s book, the Novgorod doors were among a few objects of Russian origins, which at the time were already known and discussed in the West. By means of well-executed scientific illustrations the Drevnosti rossiiskago gosudarstva contradicted the already widespread belief in the German cultural affiliation of the doors.

In contrast to a singular black and white engraving from von Adelung’s study, the Russian album reproduced the image of the doors several times and with varying degrees of attention (ranging from general views to details). The chromolithographic plates depicted not only the general outline of the doors, but also the bronze colour, structure, and finish. Reproduced next to other examples of Muscovite culture and labelled as the Chesonese doors, they provided a far more elaborate and convincing statement on the true origins of the Novgorod doors.

The chromolithography of the Gniezno doors appeared at around the same time in the Polish bilingual (Polish and French) chromolithographic album, Wzory sztuki średniowiecznej i z epoki odrodzenia po koniec XVII wieku w dawnej Polsce (The Designs of Medieval and Renaissance Art in Former Poland, 1853–1869). The album aimed to demonstrate the existence of the Polish material patrimony and its adherence to the highest Western models. Interestingly, in the essay which accompanied the plates, the process of reproduction of the Gniezno doors was explained in detail. A special gesso mould was commissioned in Gniezno and executed under the supervision of Karol Beyer. Subsequently, Beyer’s photograph of the mould served as a model for the chromolithographic reproductions. Thus, as it is argued in the essay, these plates surpassed in their documentary and scientific quality all the existing iconography (the Königlisches Museum gesso mould and the engravings in Raczyński’s and Lelewel’s books). As was in the Russian album’s case the illustrations formed the strongest argument for the national cultural affinity of the monument.

While a German counterpart to Wzory sztuki średniowiecznej and Drevnosti rossiiskago gosudarstva was never produced, half a century after the publication of the albums German scholars employed photography in the ongoing discussion on national culture, its identity, prestige, and superiority. The photographs of both doors (the Gniezno doors original and the Germanisches Museum replica of the Novgorod/Płock doors) were published in Georg Dehio’s and Gustav von Bezold’s album Die Denkmäler der deutschen Bildhauerkunst (The Monuments of German Sculpture, 1905). Furthermore, Adolf Goldschmidt’s and Richard Hamann’s monumental corpus of the German Romanesque bronze doors, Die Bronzetüren von Nowgorod und Gnesen, published in the 30s, shows that the visual academic discourse played an equally important role even in the time of professionalization and institutionalization of art historical discipline and the establishment of its transnational academic networks.

If one juxtaposes various reproductions of the Gniezno and Novgorod doors produced from the early 19th century onwards in the different national contexts, it is evident that together they form a rather coherent series. Thus, it is impossible to distinguish without the original context of the accompanying printed captions and descriptions, whether they were in fact conceived in Warsaw, Berlin or St Petersburg. Similar or even same reproductions could have illustrated exclusive arguments of Polish, German, and Russian scholars. Such peculiar imagined/illustrated visions of national past and culture – not only in Poland, Germany or Russia, but also in France or Italy – applied the same language formulas, sprang from universal discursive and representation practices, and followed similar social and cultural mechanisms. The quality of the illustration, the up-to-date technology of the reproductive print, inventiveness, and truthfulness built the authority of the reproduced work and gave weight to its historical interpretation.

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Primary sources & literature

Published academic illustrations of the Gniezno and the Novgorod/Płock doors

  • Friedrich von Adelung, Die Korssunschen Thuren in der Kathedralkirche zur Heil. Sophia in Nowogrod, Berlin 1823
  • Edward Raczyński, Wspomnienia Wielkopolski, Poznań 1842
  • Johann Berndt, ‘Uber die ehernen Thüren im Dom zu Gnesen’, Allgemaine Bauzeitung Wien 10(1845)
  • Feodor Solntsev, Drevnosti rossiiskago gosudarstva, Moscow 1849–1853
  • Joachim Lelewel, Drzwi kościelne płockie i gnieźnieńskie z lat 1133, 1155, Poznań 1857
  • Aleksander Przezdziecki, Edward Rastawiecki, Wzory sztuki średniowiecznej i z epoki odrodzenia po koniec XVII wieku w dawnej Polsce, vol. 3 (XII–XIV), Warsaw 1862
  • Ignacy Polkowski, Katedra Gnieźnieńska, Gniezno 1874
  • Julius Kohte, Verzeichnis der Kunstdenkmäler der Provinz Posen, Berlin 1897
  • Ludwig Kaemmerer, Paul Graef, Die wichtigsten Baudenkmäler der Provinz Posen, Berlin 1909
  • Georg Dehio and Gustav von Betzold, Die Denkmäler der deutschen Bildhauerkunst, Berlin 1905
  • Zabytki Wielkopolskie 2(1913)
  • Adolf Goldschmidt, Die Bronzetüren von Nowgorod und Gnesnen, Marburg 1932


  • Archiwa wizualne dziedzictwa kulturowego. Towarzystwo Opieki nad Zabytkami Przeszłości, Ewa Manikowska and Piotr Jamski eds, Warsaw 2014, 21–92
  • Kamila Kłudkiewicz, Nasze, czyli czyje? Wielkopolskie zabytki w oczach Polaków i Niemców w XIX i na przełomie XIX i XX wieku, in: Dobre i złe sąsiedztwa. Obce-nasze-inne, vol. 2: Sąsiedzi w historiografii, edukacji i kulturze, Teresa Maresz and Katarzyna Grysińska-Jarmuła eds, Bydgoszcz 2018, 201–215