More than any other building in Lviv, the Latin Cathedral (Archcathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary) reflects the city’s storied architectural and human history. A history of the Cathedral, just like any standard history of the city, has as one of its main focal points the Polish presence. Polish rule over the city began in the mid-14th century with the conquest of Lviv (Lwow in Polish) and the surrounding region by King Casimir III, also known as Casimir III the Great. He ordered the construction of the Latin Cathedral in 1350 to replace the wooden Gothic Church on the same spot that had recently burned to the ground. Casimir traveled to the city and placed the first stone. The new cathedral was to be constructed like its immediate predecessor in the Gothic style, but Casimir would not live to see it completed. For that matter, neither would most of its architects.
Six Centuries of Style – Reconstructions, Restorations & Re-imaginations
The first iteration of the Latin Cathedral had no less than six architects. Not that surprising, when one considers that it took 143 years to build and yet it was still not constructed as originally designed. Case in point, the Cathedral was supposed to have two bell towers, but only one was actually completed. When it was “finished”, the Cathedral sported such Gothic elements, as a standard three nave design, a pointed, vaulted ceiling and elongated lancet arches. These stylistic flourishes can still be seen today. Fascinatingly enough, they blend in with later architectural styles that left their own unique impression on the structure. The Cathedral was always a work in progress, undergoing a process of dynamic change that added flourishes from Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Secessionist styles. For instance, just to the left of the Cathedral’s main entrance stands the Kampian Chapel, a Renaissance era addition that displays magnificent examples of stone carving.
A sixteen year overhaul of the Latin Cathedral in Baroque style took place in the latter half of the 18th century. The last major restoration took almost forty years and was only completed in 1930. Among the many refurbishments, one of the more noticeable was the Cathedral’s stained glass windows. The greatest achievement of the many restorations and reconstructions of the Cathedral changes is how well they fit together. The Cathedral as it stands today is a textbook of integrated architectural harmony, with the sum much greater than any specific part. Whether or not this was what its many different architects had in mind, will always be open for debate. Then again, when it comes to the architectural intentions behind the Latin Cathedral, debate is a poor word to use. The Cathedral is more like a conversation, sculpted and stylized in stone, embellished by artistic imagination, enriched by the power of religious belief, extended across six and a half centuries.
Besieged On All Sides – The Turkish Menace
The Latin Cathedral’s history cannot be fully expressed without acknowledging the role human affairs had on it. Specifically, the cathedral has been touched by that reoccurring bane of Lviv’s existence, military warfare. No building in the old city center could have ever so lucky as to escape the many calamities that have pockmarked the city and its history. Especially one as centrally located as the Latin Cathedral. Tongues of flame and fusillades of fire have touched the Cathedral’s walls on several occasions. Ideological passions that burned just as fervently altered the course of the Cathedral’s history. Remnants of warfare still grace the Cathedral today in the form of cannonballs hanging on its eastern wall. A Latin inscription states, Ex obsidione turcica, translated that phrase means from the Turkish siege. Also noted, the date of 1672, 29th of September. This recalls a siege of the city by an enormous Turkish force. Accounts state that the enemy outnumbered the defenders of Lviv by 230 to 1. This number may have been exaggerated, but there is little doubt that the enemy enjoyed a vast numerical superiority in numbers.
To worsen matters, the Polish forces sent to defend the city fled when they learned the enemy’s size and strength. Wealthy nobles and merchants were not far behind. Fortunately, the city’s mayor stayed put and rallied approximately 1,000 citizens to stout resistance. The citizens held out despite a torrential bombardment of shot and shell. Another historical cannonball placed on the western wall of the Cathedral acts as physical testimony to the violence of artillery fire. A plaque relates that, “this 38-pound ball – shot from a gun – crashed through the eastern window, fell into the middle of the Cathedral behind the high altar, and without meeting any obstacle, came to a stop underneath the Crucifix in the Presbytery.” This was seen as a sign of divine providence. The siege was finally lifted after the citizens agreed to provide ten hostages until a large ransom could be paid. The payment was made over a seven year period and the hostages were freed.
The Heart of It All – Present As Past, Past As Present
On the eastern exterior wall of the cathedral yet another shell displays the remnant of a much more recent war, the siege of the city by Ukrainian forces during the Polish-Ukrainian War of 1918-1919. Once again the besieged were victorious, but darker forces were soon on the horizon in the form of the Soviet Red Army and communist apparatchiks. They would deal a mortal blow to 600 years of Polish life in the city through the forced population transfer of ethnic Poles in the immediate years following World War II. Oddly enough, the Latin Cathedral was one of only two Roman Catholic churches in the city that were kept open by the authorities during the years of Soviet rule. In 1991, the Cathedral was finally allowed complete freedom in its religious affairs once again. In a bit of poetic justice, Pope John Paul II, arch resister of communism, reactivated the diocese. Today the Cathedral gets as much attention from tourists as it does worshipers. It’s location on the main thoroughfare between Prospekt Svobody and Rynok Square, the two busiest tourist points in the city, ensures that much. The Latin Cathedral’s centrality to present day life in Lviv mirrors its historical role in the city. Through innumerable changes, architectural, spiritual and political, the Cathedral has managed to hold onto its rightfully earned place as one of the historical and religious epicenters of the city.