Brick Gothic is a specific style of Gothic architecture common in Northwest and Central Europe in the regions in and around the Baltic Sea, which do not have resources of standing rock, but in many places a lot of glacial boulders. The buildings are built using bricks. Buildings classified as Brick Gothic are found in Belgium, Germany, Lithuania, Estonia, Kaliningrad and Finland; as the use of baked red brick arrived in Northwestern and Central Europe in the 12th century, the oldest such buildings are classified as the Brick Romanesque. In the 16th century, Brick Gothic was superseded by Brick Renaissance architecture. Brick Gothic is characterised by the lack of figural architectural sculpture, widespread in other styles of Gothic architecture. Typical for the Baltic Sea region is the creative subdivision and structuring of walls, using built ornaments and the colour contrast between red bricks, glazed bricks and white lime plaster; these characteristics are neither omnipresent nor exclusive.
Many of the old town centres dominated by Brick Gothic, as well as some individual structures, have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. The real extent and the real variety of this brick architecture has to be distinguished from the view of late 19th and early 20th century the years around the end of World War I, when it was politically instrumentalized. Indeed, about a quarter of medieval Gothic brick architecture is standing in the Netherlands, in Flanders and in French Flanders; some dominant buildings are combinations of stone. But the criterion "no stone at all" looks like a trick to exclude them; the towers of St Mary church in Lübeck, the top Brick Gothic church of the Baltic Sea region, have corners of granite ashlar. Many village churches in northern Germany and Poland have Brick Gothic design, but most of their walls are formed by boulders. Different from other styles, the definition of Brick Gothic is based on the material, by a more strict definition, a geographical limitation.
In addition, there are more remote regions with brick buildings bearing characteristics of this architectural style further south and west—these include Bavaria, western Ukraine and Belarus, along with the southern tip of Norway. In the course of the medieval German eastward expansion, Slavic areas east of the Elbe were settled by traders and colonists from the overpopulated Northwest of Germany in the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1158, Henry the Lion founded; this violent colonisation was accompanied by the Christianisation of the Slavs and the foundation of dioceses at Ratzeburg, Cammin and elsewhere. The newly founded cities soon joined the Hanseatic League and formed the "Wendic Circle", with its centre at Lübeck, the "Gotland-Livland Circle", with its main centre at Tallinn; the affluent trading cities of the Hansa were characterised by religious and profane representative architecture, such as council or parish churches, town halls, Bürgerhäuser, i.e. the private dwellings of rich traders, or city gates.
In rural areas, the monastic architecture of monks' orders had a major influence on the development of brick architecture through the Cistercians and Premonstratensians. Between Prussia and Estonia, the Teutonic Knights secured their rule by erecting numerous Ordensburgen, most of which were brick-built. In the regions along the southern coast of the Baltic Sea, the use of brick arrived at the same time as the art of masonry, but in Denmark Jutland, in the Frisian regions, in present-day Netherlands and in the Lower Rhine region, a lot of high-quality medieval stone buildings had been built, before the first medieval brick was burnt, there. These regions developed a density of Gothic brick architecture as high as in the regions near the southern coast of the Baltic Sea; as well, the central and southern regions of Poland had some important early stone buildings the famous round churches. A lot of these buildings, time by time were displaced by brick in Gothic style. In Flanders, the Netherlands, the lower Rhine region, Lesser Poland and Upper Silesia, Brick Gothic buildings may have, but not must have, some elements of ashley.
In the Netherlands it was tufa, in Denmark old squared granite and new limestone. On the other hand, in many regions supposed to be classical for Brick Gothic, boulders were cheaper than brick, therefore a lot of buildings were erected by boulders and only decorated by brick, throughout the age of Gothic architecture. Brick architecture became prevalent in the 12th century, still within the Romanesque architecture period. Wooden architecture had long dominated in northern Germany but was inadequate for the construction of monumental structures. Throughout the area of Brick Gothic, half-timbered architecture remained typical for smaller buildings in rural areas, well into modern times; the techniques of building and decorating in bricks were imported from Lombardy. Some decorative forms of Lombard architecture were adopted. In the areas dominated by the Welfs, the use of brick to replace natural stone began with cathedrals and parish churches at Oldenburg, Ratzeburg, Lübeck. Henry the Lion laid the foundation stone of the Cathedral in 1173.
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