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St Mary's Church
Rynek Główny 5
(opening of the altar 11:50am)
Sun and holidays 2-6pm
(altar open all day)
regular PLN 10
discount PLN 5
The first mentions of St Mary’s Church date back to 1222. It was then a Romanesque church functioning as the parish for the developing urban community. After the edifice was destroyed by Tartar raids, the second church was built in stages from 1288 lasting over the next few centuries, so that the church had not received its final form until the end of the 14th century. It is a Gothic brick basilica with three aisles in the so-called Kraków style, with the characteristic elongated and polygonally enclosed chancel. In 1423-1446, six chapels and two porches, founded by the families of rich burghers, were added between the buttresses of the aisles. Early in the 15th century, the taller tower – known as The Bugle Tower – received an octagonal extension, and in 1478: a late-Gothic spire by Maciej Heringk. The gilded crown was added in 1666. The spire of the lower tower dates back to the late 16th century.
Being the main parish church of the town, St Mary’s received donations from rich burgher families. It was thanks to their efforts and funds that most of the 16th and 17th-century furnishing, including the stalls, tomb slabs, and chapels were constructed. In middle-16th century, the late Renaissance ciborium (a freestanding decorative altar canopy) was built of marble and alabaster by Giovanni Maria Padovano on the right-hand side of the entrance to the chancel.
In the mid-18th century, the energetic Father Jacek Łopacki, the Archpresbyter of the Parish Church, began the far-going baroquisation of the interior. Its changes were removed during the conservation works carried out in 1887-1892, which aimed at returning St Mary’s to its Gothic appearance to the greatest degree possible: this included the uncovering and reconstruction of the 14th-century appearance of the walls and ceilings in the nave and aisles. At the same time, the star-strewn paintings decorating the vaulting and the walls received their plant motifs and the devices of the guilds painted by Jan Matejko together with his disciples: Józef Mehoffer and Stanisław Wyspiański. The latter two, at the time beginner artists, were also the designers of the stained-glass western window.
Yet the most precious of all the historic heritage in St Mary’s is the high altar: the most well known and best preserved work of late Gothic sculpture in this part of Europe. When the roof and ceiling of the chancel collapsed in the first half of the 15th century, the old altar was destroyed. The aldermen of the city decided to commission a new one – magnificent and worthy of the royal capital city – from the Nuremberg sculptor, Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz). The master moved to Kraków and received a generous reward, worth at least the equivalent of the annual budget of the city.
Works on the altar continued from 1477 to 1489. In the 18 huge bas-reliefs on the movable wings of the altar, Master Stwosz depicted the most important scenes from the life of Mary and Christ. The central, fixed part of the pentaptych (the corpus) contains a realistically portrayed scene of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary surrounded by 12 Apostles, with the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin above, and the Coronation of Mary by the Holy Trinity assisted by the patron saints of Poland – St Adalbert and St Stanislaus – in the crowning of the altar. Stoss made this 11 m (36 ft) wide and 13 m (43 ft) tall structure from oaken wood that was already 500 years old in his days. (Which means that today it is 1000 years old!) The master sculptor decided to chisel the larger-than-life, 2.8 metres-high (9 ft) painted and gilded figures in lime (linden) wood.
On the eve of the outbreak of the second world war, the altar was disassembled and transported by the Vistula River to Sandomierz. Alas! Someone must have betrayed its hiding place to the occupant, and the altar was transported deep into the Third Reich. Discovered by Karol Estreicher – ironically in Nuremberg – it was returned to Kraków just after the war. After painstaking conservation, it returned to its due place in 1957. Worth quoting here is the fact that the very severe and dramatic stone crucifix situated in the southern aisle of St Mary’s from around 1490 is also attributed to Master Stoss.
The chancel and the main altar receive discrete lighting from three mediaeval (1370s) stained glass windows in the centre of the chancel. They consist of approximately 120 scenes from the Old and New Testament.
The bugle call played hourly from the taller (81 m / 266 ft) tower of St Mary’s has strong associations with both the church and Kraków. The signal, today played by firefighters and previously by watchmen on duty, used to mark the time and was to serve as a warning in case of fire or enemy attack. There is a legend connected to the watchman, who – seeing the approaching Tartar hordes – began to sound the alarm. He managed to warn the city and rally its defences, even though his throat was pierced by a well-aimed barbarian arrow before he managed to finish the tune. This is why the bugle call breaks in mid-note, at the same point at which the hero stopped playing it. Although very beautiful and providing great food for imagination, the legend is fairly recent, as it had not been known before the 1920s.
The other, lower tower is the home to a unique set of five bells, of which the oldest, Pół-Zygmunt was cast in 1438. According to tradition, it was carried up into the tower without any assistance by the strongman Stanisław Ciołek, son of the Voivode of Mazowsze.
The taller tower of the St Mary’s Church is open for visitors in the spring and summer season (from 9 April in 2015). See more details here...
New on Kraków Travel: go on a virtual tour of St Mary’s Church, that allows to visit all corners of the church and see its famous high altar in details.
St Mary’s Church consists of a long chancel, three aisles and… a myriad of details! Most of which – let’s admit – we don’t notice or recall…
So, whether you are before of already after a visit to St Mary’s Church, whatever it is you feel: curiosity, lack of details in your memory or yearning to see again the famous high altar by Veit Stoss or the star-strewn paintings decorating the vaulting, visit the church on a virtual tour with high resolution photos, which allow you to visit all corners of the church and see it in details.
Jurek Pajor, the author of the project, won in a prestigious competition for panoramic photographers in 2012. The winning photo – a panorama of St Mary’s Basilica main aisle – was one of the 1600 photos in the competition.
Virtual tour of St Mary’s Church: www.pajorama.eu/wirtualnymariacki/mariacki.html#/Fasada/
High altar by Veit Stoss: www.pajorama.eu/wirtualnymariacki/mariacki.html#/Oltarz_Wita_twosza_otwarty/
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