The Renaissance was a cultural golden age with artistic activity flourishing across Europe. Today the movement is most often associated with Italy, the land where it began and also left the greatest legacy in building, sculpture and painting. While the Renaissance may have started in the Italian Peninsula, it soon radiated outward, influencing art and architecture as far afield as the eastern reaches of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in what is now western Ukraine. By the start of the 17th century, the Renaissance had given way to the Baroque movement in most of Europe. Yet it managed to live on in far eastern Europe, with this afterlife producing a true wonder of Renaissance architecture, the Boim Chapel in Lviv (in the 17th century the city was known by its Polish name of Lwow). Many art historians say that this is the finest work of Mannerism in Central and Eastern Europe. Though the chapel is all but unknown in the west, to those who have stood gazing at its sculptural elements, frescoes and richly decorated walls, it is an unforgettable masterpiece. The chapel was built due to patronage. The wealthy patron who commissioned it came from a nearby land that strangely enough, exerted little cultural influence on Lviv other than the magnificent chapel.
Commissioning Magnificence – Gyorgy Boim’s Gift
A strange oddity of Lviv’s history concerns the fact that there was very little Hungarian influence on the city’s cultural history. For many centuries, the Kingdom of Hungary’s border was only a couple of hundred kilometers to the south. During that time Lviv acted as a magnet for foreigners, with Jewish and Armenian traders, German and Greek merchants and Italian artisans moving to the city in order to ply their various trades. Each of these peoples emigrated from lands farther away than Hungary. One probable reason for a lack of Hungarian influence in Lviv was that the Hungarian Kingdom’s major trade routes centered on the distant Danube River basin. Conversely, Lviv was a trading nexus between the Baltic and Black Seas, both very far away from Hungary. Certainly Hungarians visited Lviv, but they did not leave much of a mark on the city, with one notable exception Gyorgy Boim.
Boim came to Lviv at the invitation of an ethnic Hungarian, one of the most famous Kings of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Stephen Bathory. Boim was from the Hungarian-German border area. He had become wealthy as a wine trader and financier. His monetary resources were so considerable that he acted as a money lender to the King. After arriving in Lviv, Boim acquired citizenship along with the post of burgomaster, chief magistrate of the city. He was one of the most powerful people in the city. As such, he commissioned a spectacular burial vault for his family, the Boim Chapel. At the time of its construction, the chapel stood in the surrounding yard of the Latin Cathedral, where a city cemetery was then located. Though that cemetery is now gone, the Chapel still occupies the same position today. The chapel’s construction took six years and was completed in 1615. Unfortunately, Gyorgy Boim died before the chapel was finished. It was up to his son Pawel – a doctor who would also serve as mayor of Lviv – to oversee completion. The finished product was one of the last great Renaissance works in Europe.
Stimulating Spirituality – The Boim Chapel: From The Outside In
The architect, Andrezj Bemer, modeled the chapel after the design of Sigismund’s Chapel at Wawel Cathedral in Krakow. Like other Renaissance works in Krakow done by Italian masters, the style employed for both the exterior and interior of the chapel lacks any sense of moderation. The sculptural elements are luxuriant in the extreme and bear one of Mannerism’s chief hallmarks, intellectual sophistication. Passion scenes carved in sandstone adorn the façade, along with statues of Apostles Peter and Paul tucked into niches. The building itself is in the shape of a square, topped by a dome with a cupola that holds a statue of a mourning Christ on the bench. This uniquely symbolic touch is one of many portrayed in the Chapel’s lavish design. Within the interior there is an image of the Last Supper where under the chair of the arch-traitor Judas is a grinning devil. A story relates that this may have been the reason the chapel was not sanctified for many years.
The chapel’s interior has many more decorative elements worth noting. Among these are elaborate sculptural works such as the four stone figures of prophets in the altar area. The interior of the chapel’s dome is configured with no less than 36 rectangular panels displaying holy figures with Christ, prophets, angels and saints all represented. The effect of all the images, carvings, stone and stucco work can be overwhelming. It is as though the craftsmen spent an excess of time, energy and imagination with the goal of fully assaulting the viewer’s spiritual senses. Gyorgy Boim willed that only three generations of the family could be buried in the chapel. Gyorgy along with thirteen other family members are buried inside. It is a shame that he never got to marvel at the completed chapel. What would he have made of it all? He would probably have been just as overwhelmed as visitors are today. Though the elder Boim never saw the finished product, his image, along with his Polish wife Jadwiga is represented. Mural portraits of both adorn the eastern exterior wall.
The Last Legacy – Written In Stone
For all their wealth and power, the Boim family’s presence in Lviv was short lived. By the mid-18th century, they had vanished from the city altogether. They left behind the first and only real lasting legacy bequeathed to the city by Hungarians. This legacy, in the form of the Boim Chapel held on. It escaped demolition at the hands of the Austrian authorities when they moved all cemeteries outside the city center after their takeover of Lviv in 1772. The chapel was left intact and in place. It had become a hallmark of the city’s architectural landscape, an aesthetic and spiritual tour de force, where an eternal faith was carved, sculpted and above all, written in stone.