Today, we are going to stay for a while in the interior of Krakow St. Mary’s Basilica, one of the most beautiful temples in the city. The Basilica is located at the Main Market Square. As a professional city guides we had many opportunities to speak with tourists from Poland and abroad, and believe us, everyone was charmed by the beauty of the main church of the Krakow city. So let’s find out what is hidden inside these Gothic walls!
Brief history of the parish temple
This stunning basilica dominates over the Main Market Square for centuries. Do You know how many? Its consecration took place in 1320, the same year when Ladislaus the Short, Polish prince from the Piast dynasty was crowned in the Wawel Catherdal (now You can see – the year 1320 is a very important date in Krakow and Polish history!).
If You read our article about the Underground Museum under the Main Market Square, then You should know very well that this area was settled long time before the St. Mary’s church was built. First Romanesque temple was destroyed and surrounding houses were burnt during the Tatar invasion in 1242. After the Krakow location at the German Law in 1257, new markets and streets of today’s Old Town were delineated with the St. Mary’s church as the city parish temple. Its construction started at the end of the 13th century, and despite the consecration, lasted for more than hundred years, until in the middle of the 15th century temple gained its present appearance with two unequal towers (higher has a specific, polygonal helmet).
In the late Baroque era Gothic elements of the church interior were exchanged for modern ones (18th-century altars, paintings and sculpture), the crown on the tower helmet has appeared as well as the entrance porch. After next hundred years, in the second half of 19th century, local architects and historians started some conservation activities in the church. They tried to preserve Gothic details, Renaissance tabernacle and choir stalls and many early modern epitaphs from family chapels. Meanwhile, walls of the temple were covered with wonderful Neo-Gothic frescos designed by Jan Matejko (in participation with Stanislaus Wyspianski and Jan Mehoffer). During sightseeing, You should pay attention to this artistic diversity, because it is a real journey through centuries!
Extraordinary masterpiece and the extraordinary story of the Nuremberg woodcarver
Of course, visiting Krakow St Mary’s Church usually culminates in front of a giant Gothic altarpiece by Veit Stoss, one of the finest wooden altars in the world. How did it happen that it was founded in Krakow? Veit Stoss came to the city from Nuremberg with his wife Barbara in 1477. He was less than 30 years old when he took a commission for the main altar in St. Mary’s church. The altar become the work of his life. Stoss spent next nineteen years in Krakow, working over royal and episcopal orders. In the city parish church You can see also the crucifix carved by Stoss. Figure of the crucified Christ presents features so typical for Stoss’s workshop – an amazing combination of naturalism, expression and mysticism. Besides the mentioned Assumption of Holy Virgin altar, his second most famous masterpiece is probably extremely touching royal tomb of King Casimir IV Jagiellon in Wawel Cathedral. Stoss settled in Kracow so deep that his son was named Stanislaus, after the saint patron of Polish kingdom! Unfortunately in the last decade of the 15th century this respectable and well-known woodcarver had to flee to Nuremberg, because he got into some trouble. Stoss lend a large sum of money to some guy without any receipt and after some time he was unable to withdraw it, so in an act of desperation he forged IOU in front on the city council and …. was exposed. Moreover, in the Middle Ages, this kind of fraud was very heavy punished – by death or burning eyes. Stoss managed to avoid these, but the city executioner burned on his both cheeks a stigma with red-hot iron.
The great altar of the Assumption of Holy Virgin Mary is a pentaptych – an altarpiece composed of 5 parts – the central one and two pairs of wings. It astonishes with extremely precise details with more than 200 carved figures. We can admire the altar only from a short distance, without realizing its actual size (the most impressive figures in the middle part are high at over 2.7 m!). It seems that during creating particular scenes shown in the altar Stoss was inspired by the appearance of Krakow burghers, people he had seen on the street, students and beggars, or perhaps employees of his workshop. Did you know that after some analysis of anatomical forms depicted in the altar, historians started research on the vulnerability of Krakow inhabitants to various diseases, like gangrene, leprosy and even syphilis?
On the accuracy of carved figures influenced mainly soft, lime wood, which the altar is made of. Its central part shows the scene of the Dormition of the Mother of God. After closing the altar cabinet we can see a twelve scenes from the life of Mary and Jesus, with the fantastic Tree of Jesse in the predella (altar’s base). The final scene of the Coronation of the Virgin Mary accompanied by St. Stanislaus and St. Adalbertus takes place at the top of the altar. It is really worth contemplating and admiring. Eh … visiting Krakow St. Mary’s Church is a truly unique experience!
Visiting Krakow St. Mary’s Church – some practical information
You can be accessed free of charge through the main entrance (by the Baroque porch) for prayer only. Using this option, you will not have the chance to reach the choir and see the main Gothic altar of Veit Stoss. To approach it You must purchase a ticket at the office on the right side of basilica (just cross the Square of St. Mary’s with famous fountain). Reduced ticket price is 5 zł (discount entitled to schoolchildren, students and pensioners), and the normal entrance costs 10 zł. We have no doubt that visiting St. Mary’s church is worth every penny! The temple is open on weekdays from 11.30 to 18.00 but the grand opening of the altar takes place at 11.50. If you want to see all the scenes carved by Stoss, come just before this time and stay till 12.00. On holidays and Sundays, the church is open to visitors from 14 to evening Mass, which is at 18.
During the tourist season (April-October), on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, from 9.10 to 17.40, visiting Krakow St. Mary’s Church can be extended by the entrance to the tower. Tickets (18/10 zł) can be purchased at the mentioned box office at St. Mary’s Square. The satisfaction of overcoming such a number of steps is really nice and the view of Krakow Old Town is stunning!
Visiting St. Mary’s Church with a guide is also an important point of many of our routes, including the most popular – the Royal Route. You want to hear more amazing stories about St. Mary’s Basilica? Join us then!