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Collegium Maius and Jagiellonian University
The Jagiellonian University, established by King Casimir the Great (Kazimierz Wielki) in 1364 as the Kraków Academy, is Poland’s oldest university, and one of the most ancient houses of learning in this part of Europe (second only to Prague, 1348). Unfortunately, after the death of the King, the Academy fell into decline and ceased operation. It was only in the 1390s that the plenipotentiary of King Ladislaus Jagiełło and Queen Jadwiga – drawing upon, among other sources, the funds donated to the Academy in the Queen’s Testament – purchased a spacious brick house of the heir to the Rzeszotary estate, Szczepan Pęcherz, for the Academy. It stood in the contemporary Jewish district by the intersection of today’s Św. Anny and Jagiellońska streets. This was the beginning of the Collegium Maius – the Major College, being the first seat of the University refounded in 1400. The following decades necessitated the development of the house of learning as the numbers of both students and professors increased in the continuously developing university. The so-called Common Room (Stuba Communis) and the characteristic bay window on the first floor in ul. Jagiellońska date back to the first period of expansion around 1440. This is where professors used to gather for meals; today it is the venue of congresses and assemblies.
The blossoming of the university made it necessary to purchase property in the neighbourhood. Of great assistance and merit was the inestimable historian Jan Długosz who purchased the land and houses south of the oldest college and bestowed them on the Academy. Though it is a paradox, the question of expansion was solved by two major fires in this part of the city – in 1462 and 1492 – as the building required a thorough reconstruction in their wake. Its effects are visible to this day.
In 1507-1509 Master Craftsman Marek redeveloped the Assembly Hall, and added a crow-stepped gable, so characteristic of the architecture of Kraków and Małopolska of the time, to the oldest corner of the building. Soon, the construction of the library began on the southern side. The work to complete and furnish it was not finished until around 1540. The door leading to it is richly decorated and known as the Porta Aurea (Golden Gate). Built on the plan of the letter L, the library received vaulting that is rare in Kraków: lierne and stellar with narrow, brick ribbing.
Another product of the changes introduced at that time is the quadrangle supported, together with the surrounding gallery, on arcades of pointed arches built by the stonemason known as Master Jan (approx. 1493). The crystalline form of the gallery vaulting is a rarity that demands admiration.
Besides the elegant rooms and a library, the refurbished Collegium Maius housed the lectoria (rooms where lectures were held), while the upper stories were designated as professors’ quarters.
The academy attracted students to Kraków from all over Europe, boasting an especially high level of teaching in the mathematical sciences and astronomy. Nevertheless, the rejection of the ideas of the Reformation in the 16th century resulted in a crisis at the university, and in consequence in its slow decay until the 18th century; which disintegration also affected the buildings. Collegium Maius was largely abandoned and neglected, as it only housed the library. Luckily, there was no room to which the books could be transferred which most probably saved the building. The library remained here until 1940, when the entire collection was moved to the new headquarters in al. Mickiewicza.
Today, Collegium Maius houses the Museum of the Jagiellonian University. Crowds are attracted to its quadrangle to see the clock, whose attractions are not only the carillons it plays but also a procession of moving figures presenting people important in the history of the university. The procession of the figures is set in motion every day at 9am, 11am, 1pm, 3pm and 5pm.
The roll of eminent graduates of the Jagiellonian University includes the author of the heliocentric theory, the astronomer Nicolas Copernicus, and Karol Wojtyła, later Pope John Paul II.