There are a lot of old and interesting sites in Krakow, which was spared bomb damage in the World Wars, but St. Mary’s Basilica is a special place. Second only to the Wawel Cathedral — which is considered Poland’s National Cathedral — St Mary’s is one of the city’s most important churches. It’s situated on the city’s large central Market Square which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The exterior of the building is impressive, both by day and at night.
A church has been on this site of St. Mary’s for over 800 years, but the current building was constructed in Gothic style on the burned ruins of the prior Romanesque church, that church having been destroyed in 1241. This church was consecrated in 1320 and under construction for much of the 14th century.
The church’s towers were completed in the 15th century. The taller of the two towers measures 82 m tall and is known as the Bugle Tower. For centuries the Bugle tower was used as a watchtower for the city and to this day the city’s famous hourly bugle call is played from here. The shorter tower measures 69 m tall and houses the church’s bells.
While the church was not damaged by bombs during the second World War, its art was plundered by the Nazis and not all of it has been recovered.
The altarpiece was crafted between 1477 and 1489 by a German artist, Veit Stoss. It is magnificent — one of the finest I’ve ever seen, showing key points in the Virgin Mary’s life, the centerpiece being her Dormition — the moment of her death as she collapses and is captured by the apostles, and her ascent to heaven. The framework of the altarpiece is made of oak and the beautifully carved figures are made of linden.
Some features of St. Mary’s Basilica
The Altarpiece: Seeing the magnificent wood altarpiece is the highlight of a visit to St. Mary’s. The altarpiece measures 14 meters high and 11 meters wide.
The side panels of the altar show more scenes from Mary’s life, as you can see above, like the Annunciation and Nativity. The emotion of some of the altar’s figures is rare for Gothic times. The altar is currently being restored (expected to be completed in 2020).
The Nave and Blue-starred ceiling:
You enter the church from a side door, into the nave, and you’ll be impressed by the height of the ceiling and by it’s blue starry-sky appearance.
Choir stalls were added on both sides of the presbytery in the 16th century, with backboards containing images from the lives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary added in the 17th century.
A number of side altars can be explored, many quite lovely, one with a photo of local hero, Pope John Paul II.
If you visit:
You’ll have to pay a small admission (unless you enter just to pray, which is free although pews for prayer are near the rear of the church and you won’t be able to study the altarpiece for there). Tickets are available for purchase in a building across the street from the cathedral, and you’ll enter in a side entrance. I’m sure you’ll find it well worth the cost. Separate admission is available to climb the church towers, but as it was raining heavily when we visited, I didn’t see the point in it. The church is closed to visitors during worship services Sunday morning, so plan accordingly. Most days it is open 11:30 am until 18:00 pm.
The church also hosts concerts and I think it would be a terrific venue for it. Check the schedule when you visit.
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