The most important house of worship in Poland, whose imposing interior symbolically testifies to the continuity of the historical memory of generations of Poles. The last resting place of Polish kings, national heroes, eminent poets, and the patron saint of Poland – Bishop Stanislaus. For centuries, the venue of coronations.
The history of the place dates back to 1000 AD, when Kraków was established as a bishop’s seat and the first cathedral began to be built. It has survived to our times in a handful of relics. More remnants of the second church from the 11th/12th century have been retained, and include the crypt of St Leonard supported on eight columns, and the bottom sections of the Tower of Silver Bells.
The current, third incarnation of the cathedral dates back to the 14th century and has the form of a Gothic basilica. In time it was surrounded by a ring of captivating chapels in different styles, gradually added over the centuries.
The main entrance to the cathedral from the western side leads between two Gothic chapels. Suspended on chains over the flight of the stairs are bones of a whale and a woolly rhinoceros (as such curios were believed to provide magic protection against evil). The main door from the 14th century was clad in iron sheets and had the initial of King Casimir the Great emblazoned on it.
The central place inside the cathedral is taken by the 17th-century canopy of St Stanislaus, bishop and patron saint of Poland, who lost his life in the 11th century in the wake of a conflict with King Boleslaus the Bold (Bolesław Śmiały). The silver reliquary with the relics of the saint, decorated with scenes from his life and supported by four angels, was placed below a gilded dome. Another altar worth seeking out among the plethora of others in the cathedral is the one in the eastern branch of the ambulatory surrounding the chancel. It contains the Black Crucifix famous for imparting Divine Grace, in front of which St Queen Jadwiga prayed as the tradition has it. Close to the figure of the Crucified, you can spot a copy of the stirrup of Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, a votive offering of King John (Jan) III Sobieski after his victory at Vienna in 1683.
Separating the nave from the aisles are the sarcophagi of Polish monarchs with the sculpted figures of the deceased: Ladislaus the Elbow-High (Władysław Łokietek (d. 1333, the oldest royal tomb in the cathedral), Casimir the Great (Kazimierz Wielki, d. 1370), and Ladislaus (Władysław) Jagiełło (d. 1434). The two tombs added as late as the 20th century – of St Queen Jadwiga (d. 1399) and King Ladislaus of Varna (Władysław Warneńczyk (d. 1444) – follow their style. The grave of the latter, however, contains no mortal remains of the monarch, who died fighting the Turks at Varna, and his body was never found. Exhibited next to the sarcophagus of Queen Jadwiga are fragments of the wooden insignia she was buried with. Before her death, the saint bequeathed all her jewels as a gift to the Academy of Kraków (today: the Jagiellonian University). The donation included a golden Gothic sceptre, which remains the symbol of the University.
Of the nineteen chapels surrounding the cathedral, some are certainly worth a much closer look. The most famous of them, the Sigismund Chapel under its golden dome, is the most exquisite work of the renaissance in Poland (completed in 1533). Known as “the pearl of the renaissance north of the Alps”, it was built by Italian builders and architects directed by Bartolomeo Berrecci. It is distinguished by the lavishly ornamented interior following perfect symmetry. The tombstones are of the last kings from the Jagiellonian dynasty: Sigismund (Zygmunt) I the Old (founder of the chapel, d. 1548, a product of Berrecci’s studio) and his son Sigismund II Augustus (Zygmunt II August, d. 1572, designed by Santi Gucci). Its neighbour is the Vasa Chapel, imitating its architectural shape, yet with baroque decor.
Another exceptional work of art is the Chapel of the Holy Cross, built as mausoleum of King Casimir the Jagiellon (d. 1492) and his wife, Elizabeth of Austria. Its walls are covered by Gothic polychrome murals by Ruthenian painters: a form of decoration to be found nowhere else in Kraków. Yet the most precious element in the chapel is the tomb of the king: the figure of the monarch sculpted in veined marble by Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz) is one of the most exquisite examples of stone sculpture of the late Middle Ages. Elizabeth, co-founder of the chapel, known as the mother of kings (four sons of the couple were crowned rulers, and – thanks to the marriages of the seven daughters of the royal couple – all European ruling dynasties are their relatives on the distaff side) received a far less grand commemoration: her grave is but a brass slab mounted on the floor.
The remaining royal tombs are in crypts built in the 16th century, and later connected with the relics of the Romanesque cathedral under the current one. Visiting this section of the cathedral complex begins in the Crypt of St Leonard, where the ashes of the national heroes Prince Józef Poniatowsk and Tadeusz Kościuszko were deposited. The last ceremonial burial took place here in 1993, when the body of General Władysław Sikorski was brought from the United Kingdom.
To visit the royal crypts you need to buy a ticket, which also admits you to the Sigismund Tower and the Cathedral Museum.
There is a separate entrance leading to the crypt under the Tower of Silver Bells, the last resting place of Marshal Józef Piłsudski, and President of the Republic of Poland Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria, buried here in 2010. Another section of the Wawel necropolis is the Crypt of the Poets, which you descend to from the northern (left) aisle of the cathedral. The two sarcophagi contain the mortal remains of the poets Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki; the urns contain earth from the grave of Słowacki’s mother, Salomea, and the last of the great Polish Romantic poets – Cyprian Kamil Norwid. Admission to these crypts is free.
Scaling the Sigismund Tower, which commands a marvellous view of the area, could be the crowning event of your visit to the cathedral. On its uppermost floor, you can admire Poland’s most famous bell, named after its founder, King Sigismund I the Old. From its casting in the 16th century, Sigismund was the largest bell in Poland, with a diameter of 2.5 m (8 ft), height of 2 m (6.5 ft), and weight of 11 metric tons. It was only dethroned in 2000 by the 19-ton bell of the sanctuary in Licheń. It can be heard ringing on the most important holidays, church festivities, and moments of profound significance for the nation. In the past it also used to announce the birth of royal progeny and tolled farewell to the monarchs setting out on their last journey. It also accompanied the funerals of the great Poles buried in Wawel. Legend has it that we owe its deep, velvety voice to a coil of silver strings. They were dropped into a cauldron full of molten metals, which were to be used for casting the bell, by Walenty Bekwark (Bakfark), the famous lute player of the Royal Court.
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