Kraków – St Mary’s Church

History

    The construction of the gothic church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary began around 1290 on the foundations of an earlier romanesque church from the beginning of the 13th century and an even earlier wooden church. This explains its unbalanced orientation towards the market, because the first church was built before the city was located. The newly built temple was consecrated around 1320-1321, although work continued in the third decade of the fourteenth century. In the years 1355-1365, thanks to the foundation of the burgher Mikołaj Wierzynek, the present chancel was erected. Then, as a result of the rebuilding from the end of the 14th century, St. Mary’s church from the hall was transformed into a basilica, by raising the central nave and equip it with windows to illuminate the interior. In 1443, an earthquake occurred which caused the temple’s vault to collapse. Also in the fifteenth century side chapels were added, and the northern towers were raised to act as a watchtower. Almost two hundred years later, in 1666, a wreath of eight turrets was put on a helmet and a gilded crown was added. In the following centuries, St. Mary’s church did not undergo any major architectural changes. Only in the years 1750-1753 an unsuitable baroque porch was placed in front of the church.

Architecture

    St. Mary’s church is a three-nave basilica with a wide corpus, obtained thanks to a side aisle and later added chapels. The slender and towering chancel is three side ended, has narrow windows and is wrapped with buttresses. The church has an extensive architectural decoration: carefully made tripartite windows with traceries, plant friezes, richly decorated pinnacles on buttresses, sculptural corbels with representations of animals and people.
  
The front of the basilica is decorated with two towers of different heights, the tall one called Hejnalica is 81 meters high and was in the Middle Ages the property of the city. It is built on a square plan where, at the level of the ninth floor, it passes into an octagon, pierced with pointed recesses, containing two floors of windows. The octagonal elevation was built in the years 1400-1408 and probably was related to the elevation of the tower above other buildings in the city. A guard was on the top of the tower, hence a “hejnał” call was heard, that is, a signal of constant vigilance over the safety of the town. The tower is covered by a gothic helmet, made by master Matias Heringkan from 1478. It has a plan of an eight-armed star with an octagonal spire surrounded by a wreath of eight turrets. Each of them consists of two floors separated by a cornice, and all are topped with golden balls. The shape of the helmet is completely individual and it is difficult to find the source of its  idea. The lower 69-meter high tower is intended for the church belfry. Built on a square plan, it has a clearly marked floor divisions on the whole height by cornices and windows. At the entrance to the church, jougs is mounted, that is a rim of penitents which was formerly dressed on the heads of sinners. The jougs was mounted at such a height that the condemned one could neither erect nor kneel down.
    
The interior of the chancel is covered with a stellar vault, made by master Czipser in 1442. The central nave, 28 meters high, is covered with a rib vault. The most important monument of the church is the altar, or rather a retabulum made in the years 1477-1489 by the sculptor Wit Stwosz. This is one of the finest examples of medieval woodcarving in Europe.

Current state

    St. Mary’s church is one of the most important, next to the Wawel Cathedral, of the churches of Kraków and one of the most famous Polish monuments. The tour takes place every common day from 11.30 to 18.00, and on Sundays and holidays from 14.00 to 18.00. Tickets are available at the ticket office opposite the south aisle.

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bibliography:
Krasnowolski B., Leksykon zabytków architektury Małopolski, Warszawa 2013.
Walczak M., Kościoły gotyckie w Polsce, Kraków 2015.
Website krakow4u.pl, Kościół Wniebowzięcia Najświętszej Marii Panny (Mariacki).