St. Mary's Basilica

Rynek Główny 5, Kraków

The first mention of St. Mary's Basilica comes from 1222. It was a Romanesque church, around which a parish was established for the developing community of the city. That building was destroyed by Tatar raids. The second church was erected in stages over centuries, starting in 1288. The final construction was shaped at the end of the 14th century, in the form of a brick Gothic basilica with one nave and three aisles of the so-called Kraków type, with a characteristic prolonged and many-sidedly terminated chancel. Between 1423 and 1446, six chapels were added between the buttresses of the aisles, funded by the families of wealthy burghers, and two church-porches. At the beginning of the 15th century, an octagonal storey of the highest tower (called the hejnał tower) was built and topped with a late-Gothic spire designed by Maciej Heringk in 1478. In 1666, a golden crown was added. The spire of the lower tower comes from the 16th century. The church, which is the city's main parish church, was covered by a patronage of wealthy bourgeois families, which funded a significant part of the 16th and 17th century furnishings, such as stalls, tombstones and shrines. In mid-16th century, on the right of the nave an elaborate late-Renaissance ciborium (architectonic altar cover) was raised, made of marble and alabaster, designed by Giovanni Maria Padovano. In mid-18th century, the church's archpriest was the energetic Jacek Łopacki, who initiated heavy Baroquification of the interior. Its effects were removed during conservation in the years 1887-1892 to restore the church's fullest possible Gothic image (e.g. 14th century walls and vaults in the chancel and aisles were revealed and restored). Meanwhile, a starry polychromy was added to the vaulting and walls with floral patterns and guild symbols made by Jan Matejko and his disciples: Józef Mehoffer and Stanisław Wyspiański. The latter two were novice artists at the time. They also created the stained glass in the western window.

 High altar

The most valuable monument of St. Mary's Basilica is its high altar, the most prominent and best preserved work of late-Gothic sculpture in this part of Europe. When the vault of the chancel collapsed in the first half of the 15th century, the previous altar was completely destroyed. The local aldermen decided to order a new altarpiece that would be magnificent and worthy of the contemporary capital of Poland; Veit Stoss was entrusted to do the job. The master moved to Kraków and was handsomely remunerated for his work, receiving at least the amount of the annual city budget. The altar was created between 1477 and 1489. The eighteen enormous bas-reliefs carved on the moveable panels of the altarpiece depict the most important events from the life of Mary and Jesus. The central, immovable part of the pentaptych features a realistically presented scene of the death of Mary Mother of Jesus accompanied by the Twelve Apostles. Above the scene we can see the Assumption and the coping depicts the Coronation of Mary by the Holy Trinity assisted by the patron saints of Poland, St. Adalbert and St. Stanislaus. Stoss made the structure measuring 11 metres in width and 13 metres in height from oak wood that was already 500 years old whnen the altarpiece was created (which means that today it is 1000 years old!). The polychrome and gold-plated statues of abnormal size (2.8 metres) were carved out in lime. On the eve of World War II the altarpiece was dismounted and shipped to Sandomierz. Unfortunately, someone informed the invaders of the place of its storage and the altarpiece was transported deep into the Reich. Found in Nuremberg by Karol Estreicher – oh, the irony! – it was shipped back to Kraków immediately after the war. After restoration, it was returned to its rightful place in 1957. It is worth adding that Stoss is also credited with the creation of the downright crude and dramatic stone crucifix that decorates the southern aisle (ca. 1490). The chancel and the high altar are discretely lit by the light coming from three mediaeval stained glasses preserved in the central windows of the chancel (1470s). They consist of around one hundred twenty parts depicting the scenes from the Old and New Testament. The bugle call called hejnał, which is played from the higher tower of the church (81 metres) every hour, is inextricably linked both to the church itself and the whole Kraków. The call used to be played by firefighters who supervised the city from above. It was supposed to tell time and warn against fire or hostile raids. One of the legends says that one time a firefighter started to play the bugle to alarm the people when he saw Tatar hordes approaching Kraków. He managed to warn the city of the attack, although his throat was pierced by an arrow before he finished the call. This is why hejnał always ends abruptly at the same note it was ended when played by the courageous firefighter. Although quite beautiful and imaginative, the legend is relatively recent, as it appeared only in the 1920s. The second lower (69 metres) tower has a unique set of five bells, of which the oldest called Semi-Sigismund Bell, was cast in 1438. According to a legend, it was carried to the top of the tower by a strongman, Stanisław Ciołek (son of the Mazowieckie Voivode), without any assistance.

Date: 2013-06-06 Show ticket
News author: Weronika Dulowska
News Publisher: Portal główny EN
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