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The town is located near the significant Great road (Via Magna) leading through the Spiš region from Saris to Levoča and to Poland and farther on to western Europe. It was developed as a fortified settlement on the hill opposite Spiš Castle. It is located above the settlement around the castle. In the neighborhood was a monastery, which is at present known as the archaeological site at Pažica. The specific character of the town was derived from its being a religious center of Spiš Priorate and the canons' cloister. Spišská Kapitula became the seat of the Bishop of Spiš to which the districts of Liptov and Orava belonged later.

The unusual urbanistic layout resulted from the fact that Spišská Kapitula is a religious town. From the beginning it was considered a locus credible and the members of the priory were endowed with special political and judicial functions by the Hungarian sovereigns. As a religious center, Spišská Kapitula performed a variety of services in culture and education as it was usual in the medieval society.

According to pottery obtained through archaeological excavations, the earliest settlement of this area may be dated back to 11th century. Closely connected with this settlement was a rotunda. This sacral building was built around 1273, when it was mentioned for the first time in a testament of prior Muther; it was referred to as a pilgrimage chapel of the Virgin Mary. The site of this first sacral building determined the location of all the edifices which were later built in Spišská Kapitula.

The existence of a fortified monastery at Pažica in 11th century (located west of today's Spišská Kapitula) can be seen as the reason for organizing a significant religious administrative center here. The monastery served as a religious center of Spiš in 12th century. The priory was established in 1198; the town of Spišská Kapitula developed soon thereafter.

Bishop's private chapel
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Bishop's residence
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In the 11th and 12th century, the St. Martin Monastery was founded by the road. In the 12th century it became the seat of abbey and in the early 13th century Spišská Kapitula evolved into the religious center of the whole Spis.

The first account of Spišská Kapitula dates back to 1209 and refers to the St. Mary's Convent and rotunda. However, both these structures perished in the following centuries.

Historical sources tell us about the disastrous Tartar assault in 1241-1243. Spišská Kapitula was plundered and completely razed to the ground. The extent of damage to the monastery was most likely the impulse to begin extensive building activity.

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In 1249 the Hungarian King allowed the prior to built a palace within the castle walls while he and the religious institution were stationed at the castle. Building activities continued in Spišská Kapitula and in 1275. The Romanesque St. Martin Cathedral consisting of a nave and two aisles and new northern tower as well as a nearby abbey palace was erected on the highest spot. The complex composed of the church, rotunda and palace were also fortified. The prior's palace was contemporary with the cathedral; when it was finished, Spišská Kapitula became the seat of the Prior of Spiš in 1281.

At that time only an earth road led from the settlement around the castle, intersected the then un-fortified Spišská Kapitula to connect the cathedral and the prior's palace. The urban structure of Spišská Kapitula developed when Prior Lukas (Lucas) established six new canons' houses in 1282 in addition to the four already existing ones.

The aforementioned rotunda known in 1273 as the Virgin Mary pilgrimage chapel was preserved until 18th century; the existence of St. Martin's Monastery in 14th and partially in 15th century was proved as well.

As the abbey grew, in the 14th and 15th century the number of rectors increased to ten and the palace became overcrowded. That is why the fortification on the eastern side was obliterated and a few rectories were built. The rectories were separate houses, each of them with its own yard. These formerly Gothic buildings were later converted into different architectural styles.

In the second half of the 15th century, a new sanctuary and a high tomb chapel of the Zápolsky family were added to the old cathedral. Its interior is decorated with a Romanesque statue of a sitting lion made of travertine known as Leo Albus, White Lion. 

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A mural dating from 1317 illustrates Charles Robert's coronation attended by the Spiš bishop Henrik, Spis castle custodian Frank and Estergom archbishop Thomas. In 1470- 90 the interior was decorated with 11Gothic altars, 5 of which can still be seen in the church. Tubular paintings on the altars are works of the pupils of the local painting school. Two Gothic altars dating from 1470-78 are particularly worth mentioning. One of them is adorned with a sculptural scene showing Coronation and the other St. Mary's death. 


Coronation of St. Mary

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St. Mary's death

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Two marble tombs dating to the late 15th century were envoys of the advancing new Renaissance style. During the 17th century, the whole settlement was fortified, with the western gateway being protected by a Gothic tower. Each rectory had one semicircular turret.

In 1647 during the Counter-Reformation the Jesuits built a monastery complex in the southern part of the town, most likely on the site of the former poorhouse. A year later, the Jesuits also established a Gymnasium in the wing of the building; the school lasted until 1671 when it was moved to Levoča.

The defensive walls encircling the whole urban unit were built in 1662-1665 and became the most extensive structure in the town.

Altar of The Three Kings
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The period of 1753-1776 was marked by an essential reconstruction of the prior's palace, which was enlarged. The facades were renovated, the new monumental Baroque stairway was installed, and also a Baroque chapel was added. The entire structure was covered with a gambrel shingle roof. In 1776 when Maria Theresa promoted the priorate to a diocese, the former prior's palace was transformed into the bishop's residence. After 1776 interiors of the palace were remodeled with the same creative energy as the exteriors. In 1810-1815 the former Jesuit monastery was rebuilt into a theological seminary and later into a teachers' training institution. Its facades were remodeled to the classical style. In the 18th century, the old abbey palace was reconstructed to meet the requirements of the new abbey. A Baroque garden and a clock tower were created as well. The rectories were also modified according to the contemporary style and the architectural evolution of Spišská Kapitula was thus concluded.

In 1950 Spišská Kapitula was declared an Urban Conservation Area.





Published in the Slovak Heritage Live newsletter Volume 3, No. 4, Winter 1995
Copyright © Vladimir Linder 1999 
3804 Yale Street, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada V5C 1P
The above article may not be copied, reproduced, republished, or redistributed by any means including electronic, without the express written permission of Vladimir Linder. All rights reserved.