The first cathedral on the Wawel Hill was created after the year 1000 during the reign of King Bolesław Chrobry in relation with the creation of the bishopric at the Gniezno Congress. It was a three-apse basilica dedicated to Saint Wenceslaus. At the end of the 11th century, at the initiative of prince Władysław Herman, it was rebuilt. Most or even a whole of the pre-romanesque edifice was demolished and obtained material was used to build a new St. Wenceslaus church, so-called Herman’s cathedral. The Consecration took place in 1142. The building was in the form of a three-nave basilica with two choirs, two towers and two crypts. In the 13th century chapel of St. Nicholas was added to it from the north and the chapels of St. Peter and Paul from the south. Herman’s cathedral burnt in 1305. To this day, the crypt of St. Leonard, the lower part of the Tower of Silver Bells, and the lowest part of the clock tower have survived.
The rebuilding of the cathedral in the Gothic style, began during the reign of King Władysław Łokietek by Bishop Nankier. After 1320, the lower parts of the walls of the chancel and some chapels were erected, but the upper fragments of the walls and vaults were for unknown reasons the work of another workshop, brought on the initiative of Bishop Grot after his return from Avignon in 1327. These workers knew the Cistercian-Burgundy building tradition, designs of the Strasbourg cathedral and church construction systems with side chapels between buttresses (Sedlec, Salem). This workshop, using various influences of distant buildings, completed the chancel until 1333, and in 1346 it was consecrated. The construction of the nave began similarly with the arrival of a new workshop after the return of Bishop Bodzanta from Avignon in 1348 and was completed by around 1359, in that same year the bishop dismissed the diocesan clergy from the fundraising for construction. In 1364, in the presence of King Casimir the Great, the Archbishop of Gniezno, Jarosław Bogoria Skotnicki solemnly consecrated the entire cathedral.
At the beginning of the 16th century, the renaissance Zygmunt’s Chapel was erected, which was a model for new chapels built in the place of earlier gothic ones. In 1655-1657 and again in 1702, the Swedish army destroyed the church and the monuments accumulated in it. Eighteenth-century repairs and reconstructions were already carried out in the baroque style. Also in the nineteenth century, the cathedral was repeatedly reworked in various parties. The main restaurant was made from social contributions in the years 1895-1910.
The romanesque Herman’s cathedral was made of limestone and sandstone. It was a basilica ended from the east and west by two apses. It had two crypts: the larger, western of St. Leonard and the smaller one with an unknown call, under the eastern choir. The main entrance was in the middle of the southern wall. On the western side of the facade there were two huge towers, and an atrium was built there. The crypt of St. Leonard is the best preserved to this day, it is 10 x 15 meters, hall, finished with an apse of 8 meters in diameter. It is divided into three aisles with eight pairs of columns, of which the western pair has a slightly larger diameter. Most likely, these columns supported the altar located on the upper level.
Gothic, brick reconstruction of the cathedral created a three-aisle basilica with a transept, chancel, ambulatory and crown of chapels around the nave. The chancel of the church is rectangular and surrounded by an ambulatory, whose vault was initially at the same height as the vault of the side aisles in the nave. The temple has preserved two towers, but they were rebuilt between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries using the romanesque ground floors (in the tower of Silver Bells, the Romanesque part has been preserved up to 12 meters). In the fifteenth century, the cathedral obtained the third tower by rebuilding the defensive tower that forms part of Wawel’s fortifications. This tower called Zygmunt’s Tower in the sixteenth century was raised and transformed into a belfry. One of the last medieval elements added to the cathedral was the treasury on the north side, it construction was begun in 1480. It received an aisleless layout and rich sculptural decoration.
The basic biphasic construction of the Gothic cathedral (first the chancel, then the nave), as well as the need to adapt it to the Romanesque remains, caused visible irregularities in the shape of the transept and the uneven width of the side aisles. Another characteristic solution of the Gothic Kraków cathedral was the use of a pillar-buttress construction system and contrasting in the presbytery of cross-rib vaults with an effective three-parts vault, established in the eastern side. It formed a kind of canopy above the altar, compensating for the lack of polygonal closing of the apse. The pillar-buttress system consisted of adding a buttress directly to the pillar of the inter-aisles and chancel walls.
Inside, cross-rib vaults were built, only in St. Mary’s chapel and in the already mentioned east bay of the presbytery were tripartite vaults (they are considered to be the first such vaults in Poland). The façades interior of the presbytery received a two-story form with low profiled arcades and a high upper storey. The arcade cornice was crossed in one plane with prominent wall-shafts tied into bundles. The recesses of the upper storey windows were pierced from the cornice to the tops of the arches of vaults, and glazed only in the upper part, from half the height. On both sides, they were also flanked with tall ogival panels with blind traceries. These characteristic division was repeated in the transept and in the the central nave, where the bundles of wall-shafts were erected along the pillars from the floor (in the presbytery they were mounted on hanging corbels).
The church was gradually surrounded by private chapels, funded by bishops and rich magnates. In its western part there are two magnificent chapels from the 15th century: the Holy Trinity and the Holy Cross, serving as mausoleums for King Kazimierz Jagiellończyk and Queen Zofia Holszańska. The interior of the chapel of Holy Cross was covered in paintings of Russian artists in the 15th century.
The cathedral of Saint Stanislaus and Wenceslas on the Wawel Hill occupies a unique position in the history of Poland and in the consciousness of the Polish Nation. It was a place of coronation of Polish kings and burials of rulers, chiefs, leaders and national bards. The cathedral’s treasury contains many antique liturgical utensils, regalia, jewels and historical memorabilia. For centuries, it has been a place of worship of Saint Stanisław, who is inseparably connected with the idea of a united and independent Polish State, valid both in the era of regional disintegration, during the partitions and during the communist regime.
Despite repeated rebuilding, its medieval, especially gothic, but also romanesque elements are easily discernible. The latter is the crypt of St. Leonard, the lower part of the Silver Bells Tower, and the lowest part of the Clock Tower. Among the Gothic elements from the outside the following have preserved: the eastern gable, relics of the chancel cornice with gargoyles and a balustrade, partially reconstructed gable elevations of the transept and the western facade of the church with a polygonal rosette.
The door of King Casimir the Great from the 14th century has preserved to this day and leads to the inside of the cathedral. In addition, in the cathedral you can see, among others the tombstones of Władysław Łokietek and Casimir the Great from the 14th century, and the tombstones of kings Kazimierz Jagiellończyk and Władysław Jagiełło from the 15th century.
Architektura gotycka w Polsce, red. T. Mroczko i M. Arszyński, Warszawa 1995.
Jarzewicz J., Kościoły romańskie w Polsce, Kraków 2014.
Krasnowolski B., Leksykon zabytków architektury Małopolski, Warszawa 2013.
Walczak M., Kościoły gotyckie w Polsce, Kraków 2015.
Węcławowicz T., Gotyckie bazyliki Krakowa, Kraków 1993.