Wawel Hill have been a place of human settlement since early prehistoric times (which is described in chronicles and other historic sources). Its defensive qualities (limestone hill surrounded by wetlands and Vistula river) made the place very attractive. In the early Middle Ages, Krakow was a very important and recognizable burg in Central Europe. There were more than 30 Romanesque religious buildings in the city – most of them were located on Wawel Hill. The year 1000 was a unique moment in the history of the city, which became the seat of a local bishop. Today, we want to invite You for visiting Wawel Cathedral!
Brief history of the Krakow cathedral church
If you want to learn more about the Romanesque Wawel Hill, choose necessarily the permanent exhibition Wawel Lost in the Wawel Royal Castle. There are presented some relicts of 10th-century rotunda dedicated to St. Felix and St. Adauctus. Undoubtedly these early medieval buildings were associated with the patronage of local bishops and dukes (the oldest objects comes from the period when Krakow was under the rule of the Bohemian Přemyslid dynasty. Did you know that next to the Cathedral stood once a great Romanesque church dedicated to St. Gereon? It was probably a special temple for prince, his family and the court.
Before we will begin exploring the Wawel Cathedral we should learn something about its history. Today’s temple is the third one in this place. The oldest Romanesque cathedral was probably built shortly after the establishment of the bishopric in the year 1000, but we do not know more about it. Construction of the second temple was initiated by Prince Ladislaus Herman from the Piast dynasty. Why did he decided to rebuild the previous one? It is unknown. Perhaps the church, like many other medieval objects, suffered serious damage from fire, riots or even earthquake. But maybe the prince just wanted to erect a bigger, spectacular temple, more suitable for the duchy capital? Consecration of the new cathedral took place in 1142. This building can be seen only on the oldest seal of the Cathedral Council. Beyond preserved remains of Romanesque walls, the most important reclict of the second church is the crypt of St. Leonard located under the ground floor of today’s cathedral. In ancient times crypts were very significant in religious architecture, because they contained relics of saint patrons and martyrs. Usually there were two of crypts, one under the east choir and the second opposite it, situated under pedestals, with a pair of stairs. Both the altar and the entrance to the church were therefore above the vault, and above the ground floor level, in a kind of “recessed” aisles. Magnificent building of the second cathedral was destroyed by fire at the beginning of the 14th century. Its reconstruction was initiated by prince Ladislaus the Short and finished by his son, Casimir the Great in 1364. This is a Gothic church we can visit today!
It is worth remembering that Ladislaus the Short was the first Polish ruler crowned in Krakow. Since this celebration (1321), Cathedral became the site of royal coronations and burials. Successive rulers and bishops enriched the church with new artistic foundations – chapels, tombstones and splendid equipment. You can see here famous sarcophagi of Polish kings: Casimir IV Jagiellon by Veit Stoss and Jan Olbracht made by Francesco Fiorentino, the first Renaissance artist in Poland. Next to it in 20’s of the 16th century Bartolomeo Berrecci built and decorated a true pearl of Antic Revival in Transalpine Europe – Sigismund Chapel. So it is obvious that visiting the Wawel Cathedral is an amazing artistic and spiritual experience!
Visiting Wawel Cathedral – practical information
Firstly, You have to decide, if you are going to take a full, ticketed version of sightseeing or just free access to the interior. What exactly can you see with the ticket? We explain already.
Anyone can enter the cathedral and see the confession of St. Stanislaus, medieval tombs of Polish kings, and few chapels from distance, but with a ticket – purchased at the box office located in front of the church – you have an access to the crypts with burials of Polish kings from early modern era, poets and writers from Romantic era, and tombs of Marshal Joseph Pilsudski and President Lech Kaczynski. Moreover, chapels in ambulatory are wide open (Holy Cross Chapel, Chapel of St. Trinity and chapels of Vasa and Potocki families). Finally you may climb the tower where hangs a powerful Sigismund bell and few smaller ones. The same ticket is also valid in the Cathedral Museum where is presented a copy of the St. Maurice spear offered by emperor Otto III to Piast prince Boleslaw the Brave during the Congress in Gniezno in the year 1000. What does ‘a copy’ mean in this case? Otto gave to Boleslaus a duplicate of the sacred spear. In the museum You can see an original emperor’s gift. We have no doubt that the tour of the Wawel Cathedral without the above-mentioned points is incomplete, which is why we strongly encourage you to choose ticketed option.
Tickets to the Wawel Cathedral costs 12 zł per adult ticket and 7 zł per reduced. Visiting hours depends of weather season. In the spring-summer time (from April to October), visiting the temple is possible from 9.00 to 17.00 on weekdays and on Sundays from 12.30 to 5 PM. In the autumn-winter season (the other months of the year) visiting time is shortened by one hour (to 4 PM). Remember also the fact that the museum is closed on Sundays and holidays.
If you want to know the most interesting mysteries of Wawel Cathedral, go there with our guide! Visiting Wawel Cathedral is one of the key points of many of our routes, primarily Wawel Hill and the Royal Route but also the Paths of John Paul II, and Krakow in a nutshell!
Visiting Wawel Cathedral – obligatory objects at the first visit
The first thing we notice while passing the medieval doors are huge whale bones, which local inhabitans found in the Middle Ages and passed to one of Krakow bishops. Inside the Cathedral our eyes immediately focus on the Confession of St. Stanislaus. In the early Christian period, term confession was used to describe the altar under which mortal remains of a saint martyr were deoartured. In this case, under the magnificent Baroque altar topped with dazzling canopy lies the coffin-shape reliquary of St. Stanislaus. The Confession is situated exactly over the crypt of Krakow bishops. Remains of the most important Polish martyr and saint was prepared and put into the vault after his canonization in 1254. Baroque confession in the cathedral was built by the great Italian architect Giovanni Trevano who worked at the court of Polish king John III Vasa. Trevano is also the author of the facade of the church of SS. Peter and Paul in Grodzka St. While standing in front of the Confession, it is important to realize that we are in the place that has a special meaning in the spiritual life of Polish people for centuries. How do you think, where the banner of a Grand Master after the Grunwald victory over the Teutonic Knights was presented? Right here!
Walking through the interior of the Cathedral, look at the royal tombs in the form of a sarcophagus, carved and sculpted with figures of lying rulers. Most of them are unique pieces of art. See the tombstones of the Piast monarchs – Ladislaus the Short and Casimir the Great. However, the most impressive and outstanding are tombs of Jagiellonia dynasty members – Ladislaus Jagiello (Donatello itself was suspected of carving the sarcophagus and the figure of the king, although we must admit that most art historians do not see sufficient evidence to support this thesis) and Casimir IV carved by Veit Stoss, author of the famous wooden altar in St. Mary’s Basilica! The last tombstone is located in the Holy Cross Chapel whose walls are covered with magnificent Ruthenian frescos.
On the left hand side of the chancel, You can see the Gothic, 14th-century black crucifix in front of which Polish Medieval Queen Hedviga had to pray.
Well, it is worth knowing that Renaissance in Poland starts on the Wawel Hill. The tombstone of king Jan Olbracht by Fancesco Florentino made it look like a triumphal arch was the first Reneissance masterpiece in this region of Europe. Visiting Wawel Cathedral take a look through the lattice into the Sigismund chapel designed by Bartolomeo Berecci. Its architecture and Renaissance decor is breathtaking – chapel is set on a square plan and covered by dome with plenty of sculptures made of stucco.
When you will go down to the crypt to see the rest tombs of Polish monarchs and other important figures of our national history pay close attention to the first room. You are standing in the crypt of St. Leonard, which formerly belonged to the second Wawel Cathedral founded by prince Ladislaus Herman. At the end, You will probably choose the bell tower where since 1521 hangs Sigismund Bell. It beats during the most important feasts and holidays, but also in moments of historic importance for Krakow and Poland. Let us only warn you that the very steep stairs leads to the top of the tower leads, so you should be prepared for a bit of climbing.
We could write much more about Wawel Cathedral wonders (this is only a merely prelude). If you really want to get to know the secrets of the Metropolitan Cathedral, visit it with our guide!