In Kraków, on the bustling main market square stands an indomitable gothic brick edifice with incongruous towers. St. Mary’s church or – in the colloquial – the Mariacki church has been standing watch over the plaza since 1290. An ornate cap of a gilded crown was placed on the left tower during one of the church’s reincarnations. This tower is taller and grander than its shorter, plainer sister yet it produces a unique effect which is attractive yet curious.
This is a church that must be wandered through inside and out. There are little plazas with curious alcoves containing sculptures, plaques, arches and a beautiful little fountain. Inside, the interior walls are a theme of folksy mid-tone pastels which I have found very soothing and relaxing. The gothic ceiling is exquisitely painted in vibrant blue with gold stars depicting the heaven of Mary and her assumption.
The chancel area, in the center and to the sides of the sanctuary, is quite magnificent with dark carved wood stalls and ornate gold highlights. This area is a very soothing place to have a seat to think and become transfixed by the largest carved wood Gothic altarpiece in the world. This spectacular work, a triptych consisting of three hinged panels, was carved by a German artisan, Veit Stoss (that’s Wit Stwosz in Polish), around 1477. You’ll find it high above the altar standing at 13 m (42 ft.) high and 11 m (36 ft.) wide when completely open. The figures in the carving stand 12 ft. tall and are painted in gold and vibrant colors. Each character is carved from the trunk of a linden tree.
The Stoss altarpiece became even more famous when, during the Nazi occupation of WWII, the Germans stole it and shipped it to Germany. It was recovered in the Nuremberg Castle in Bavaria in 1946 by those ubiquitous Monument Men. There were Polish Monument Men who had initially formed the art-heist-detective group long before the Americans became involved but not one of them were depicted in the film of the same name. The Polish detectives were instrumental in the recovery of this piece.
The last renovation of the interior of the church was carried out in the 19th century when a neo-Gothic design was introduced. New murals were installed, painted and funded by the beloved national Polish artist, Jan Matejko. He was responsible for the beautiful starred ceilings. He collaborated with Polish artists, Stanislaw Wyspianski and Józef Mehoffer, who were stained glass masters.
St. Mary’s has been standing in the medieval square for so long that legends have grown around it like ivy in an old garden. It is a fact that the original church, founded in 1221, was destroyed by a Mongol invasion. The legends say that a trumpeter was playing a warning signal at the top of the church as the Mongol hoards threatened outside the walls of the city. It is told that the trumpeter was shot in the throat before he finished the entire warning call. Today a highlight of visiting the Market Square is the hourly performance of this same trumpet piece called the Hejnał. It is a plaintive flourish which breaks off abruptly at the point the arrow pierced the trumpeter’s throat. It is played every hour by a modern trumpeter from high in the tower of the church. People stop and listen and applaud at the end. The trumpeter waves to the crowds after his performance.
Another legend explains why the two towers are not equal in height. It is told that two brothers were hired to build the towers. The older brother’s tower was quickly completed. He was a fast worker as he strove to win the prize for ‘finished first” But the younger brother continued with his work in a more meticulous way. As construction progressed, it was obvious that his tower would be grander and taller. There was a jealous rage brewing in the older brother when, during an argument, he stabbed and killed his younger sibling and covered his crime by throwing the body in the Wisła River. The younger brother was thought to have abandoned his project. The unfinished tower was capped off with a cupola. The tower of the older brother was taller and grander by default. Consumed by guilt, the surviving brother, on the day of the consecration of the church, climbed to the top of his tower holding the knife he used to murder his brother. He publicly confessed to the crime and then he jumped. The knife that did the deed hangs in the gate of the Cloth Hall on the Main Square to this day.
The history, architecture, and legends are all important and interesting. However, it is the the ambiance and aura of the church interior that endures and enchants.
To visit, be aware that there are two entrances. The main church doors are for visitors who are coming to pray or light a candle. If you want to actually get up close to the altarpiece and walk through the chapels and nave, there is a ticket office across from the side entrance of the cathedral. Buy the admission ticket and then, to take photos, get the special pass for a few more złoty (Polish coins).
You can also make an appointment to visit the top of the tower but that is only for the healthy and nimble. Perhaps, you will have an opportunity to shake hands with the trumpeter.
There are seasonal organ concerts which are held in the evening in the ambient twilight. An organ concert in St. Mary’s Basilica is a soothing, haunting, mystical experience. So, throw away the valium if you are stressed because there is a natural valium to be absorbed inside the Mariacki church.
History of St Mary’s Basilica: http://mariacki.com/en/st-marys-basilica/st-marys-towers/
The Polish Monument Men and the Stoss altarpiece: https://culture.pl/en/article/polands-monuments-men-estreicher-lorentz-others
“Why Poland?” is a blog written and produced by Grace Nagiecka with photos by Gregory Spring. Kraków, Poland 2018.