St Mary’s Basilica, Krakow,(In Polish: Kościół Mariacki) is arguably the most important church in all of Poland. It’s without question one of the most iconic buildings on the skyline of Krakow’s central square.
For more than 700 years, the two mismatched towers of its frontal façade have shrouded the Sukiennice Cloth Hall. They cast a long shadow across the umbrella-shaded terraces, cafés, bars and restaurants of the Old Town. Today, they’re an ever-present reminder of this city’s former medieval might and deep, fervent religiosity.
St Mary’s Basilica architecture and the outside
Sit and sip a coffee in one of the umbrella-covered cafés just outside the entrance. That’s the perfect place to wonder at the magnificent Gothic architecture. You can spend your time mulling over the dark stories and brooding myths that ooze from every facet of the building.
Notice the two uneven towers that form the front. It’s a curious architectural anomaly said to be the product of a brotherly feud. Like so many of Krakow’s stories it inevitably ends gruesomely – think various combinations of murder, guilt-driven suicide and even bloody fratricide.
Be sure to wait until the turn of the hour, when the famous trumpeter of Krakow plays the hejnal call from atop the church’s northernmost spire. This is one of the best-known traditions in all of Poland. It commemorates the moment when a 13th century townsman was shot with an arrow through the neck by invading Tartars while raising the city to arms.
It’s this type of story that has given the Saint Mary Church its mythic reputation. Despite that some of them might be apocryphal in the extreme, they do serve to highlight the centuries of folklore and Polish tradition that continue to coalesce at the site.
Ruins and reconstruction of St Mary’s Basilica, Krakow
St Mary’s Basilica in Krakow started life as a small parish church, founded sometime by the city bishopric in the early 13th century. The devastating Mongol Invasions of the 1290s (the same ones that gave rise to the tradition of the hejnal trumpet call) wreaked havoc on the building. They necessitated a complete reconstruction in the early 14th century. The result was the beginnings of the church we see today.
Notice that the building sits diagonally off from the Market Square. This is because the reconstructions of the 14th century adhered to the original foundations of the building. That means they were set out before the city-wide blueprints brought in during the 1250s. This first part of today’s structure was subsequently elaborated on. The changes initially came under the patronage of King Casimir III the Great. Later they were thanks to the investment of wealthy local business owners and bishops.
Following the collapse of the church vaults in the middle of the 15th century (some say due to a freak earthquake), the architect Franciszek Wiechoń worked to add a collection of side chapels and shrines to the nave. At the same time, the taller of the two frontal towers was heightened to serve better as a watchtower.
By the end of the 16th century, most of the exterior reconstructions and extension projects had ended. That was largely due to the growth of the metropolitan area around it and a new focus from the Krakow bishopric on the interior work…
Inside the Saint Mary Church
Home to the great wooden altar of the German artist Veit Stoss and oodles of eye-popping art works besides, the interior of Krakow’s Saint Mary Church is alive with plumes of azure and gold paint that cast their way skywards into Gothic apses and alcoves. To put it another way, it’s stunning stuff!
The tryptic altarpiece is still one of the most pristine examples of 14th-century Germanic Gothicism. It is surely one of the national treasures of Poland. During the Second World War, the masterwork was plundered by Nazi invaders and transported to the Nuremberg Castle. Finally recovered in 1946, it’s return was thanks to the efforts of the Polish resistance forces and POWs.
Entry to the prayer rooms of the church is free of charge. For a closer look at the artworks inside, visitors can purchase tickets from the nearby kiosk. They are 10 PLN for adults 5 PLN for students.