15 November 2016

The spires and towers of 120 churches
make Kraków the ‘Northern Rome’

The splendid Gothic interior of Corpus Christi Church in Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter of Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

It was a busy week in Kraków last week, visiting the concentration camps in Auschwitz and Birkenau, the Salt Mines in Wieliczka and the Jewish Quarter in Kazimierz, where I visited at least seven synagogues and two Jewish cemeteries.

But I also spent some time in Kraków visiting the cathedral on the hill at Wawel and a number of churches throughout the city.

Kraków’s skyline is dominated by churches spires and towers, and there are so many churches, chapels, convents and monasteries throughout the city that in the past Kraków was sometimes called the ‘Northern Rome’. These churches bear witness to the splendour of Kraków, with their rich interiors and furnishings, and their art and treasures.

In Kraków alone, there are over 120 Roman Catholic places of worship, and over 40 churches in the historic area alone. There might have been even more, but for the fact that many churches were destroyed or dismantled in the 19th century. Over 60 of the surviving churches were built in the last century, and churches continue to be built in the former Polish capital.

The Wawel Cathedral on the Wawel Hill dates back to the 14th century includes the Sigismund Chapel, a masterpiece of Polish Renaissance architecture. I visited the cathedral last Tuesday [8 November 2016], but over during the week I visited only a fraction of the city’s Gothic and Baroque churches. Yet, the churches I visited introduced me to Kraków’s rich heritage in ecclesiastical architecture and church history.

Saint Mary’s with its twin towers became the main parish church of Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Saint Mary’s Basilica on the Main Square is one of the most famous sights of Kraków, and many visitors mistake it for the city’s cathedral. This church was built in the 14th century and has the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world.

Saint Mary’s, or the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was built in 14th and 15th centuries on the north-east corner of the Market Square, on the Marienplatz Square. For many centuries, this Gothic basilica was the main parish church of Kraków’s burghers.

The first brick church here was built in the Romanesque style by Bishop Iwo Odrowąż in 1221-1222 on the site of an earlier wooden church destroyed during the Mongol invasions.

An early Gothic church was built here is 1290-1300 on the foundations of those earlier churches, and was consecrated in 1320-1321. But building work on the church continued throughout the 14th century, and a new choir was built in 1355-1365.

In 1392-1397, Nicholas Werner improved the lighting of the church when he lowered the walls of the aisles, and introduced the large window openings.

A strong earthquake in 1443 brought down the roof of the church. The side chapels were added in the first half of the 15th century. Most of these were the work of Francis Wiechonia of Kleparz. Around this time, the north tower was heightened, and it was topped with a spire by Matthias Heringk in 1478, and its gilded crown was added in 1666.

In the late 15th century, Saint Mary’s was enriched with the High Altar, a late Gothic masterpiece carved by Veit Stoss in 1477-1489, and the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world.

In the 16th century, the Polish-speaking and German-speaking citizens of Kraków went to court in a dispute over the use of the church.

The choir stalls were made in 1585, and the Biblical scenes on panels decorating the stalls were added in 1635.

The interior was thoroughly redesigned in the 18th century in the late Baroque style by Francesco Placidi, who also added the late Baroque porch. The shape of the porch is modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The wooden door is decorated with carved heads of prophets, apostles and Polish saints.

The church has two towers. The Bugle Tower at 82 metres is the higher of these towers. It is nine storeys high, built on a square plan, with an octagonal, sharpened spire, surrounded by a ring of eight lower turrets. At the entrance to the tower, a large plaque cast in bronze depicts King Jan III Sobieski made in 1883 to mark the 200th anniversary of the siege of Vienna. A gilded crown was placed on the point of the spire in 1666. The bugle call is played from the tower on the hour, and broadcast at noon by Polish radio.

The second, lower tower, at a height of 69 meters, is the bell tower of the church. Built on a square plan, it includes a first-floor Renaissance chapel dedicated to the Conversion of Saint Paul. At the top of the tower, an elliptical dome stands on an octagonal drum and is topped with openwork lantern. In the corners are set four smaller domes on low, hexagonal bases.

The city closed the churchyard at the beginning of the 19th century, and this became Marienplatz Square. Comprehensive restoration work was carried out In the 1990s, and the roof was replaced in 2003.

Local legend says Saint Barbara’s was built with the bricks left over after Saint Mary’s was completed (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Nearby, Saint Barbara’s Church is a Gothic church with a Baroque interior on the east side of Saint Mary’s Square.

Local legend says it was built with the bricks left over when Saint Mary’s was completed. Saint Barbara’s actually dates from 1394-1399. In 1586, the Jesuits took responsibility for running this church.

The Church of Saint Adalbert or Saint Wojciech on the Market Square, stands like an small ecclesiastical oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle of tourists and traders. This is one of the oldest stone churches in Poland, with an almost 1,000-year history. Legend says Saint Adalbert preached on this spot before setting off on his missionary journey to convert the Prussians in 997. The church has a mixture of Gothic and Baroque styles, including a landmark Baroque dome.

The Baroque Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul has over-sized stone statues of the Apostles in front

From the Market Square, I walked down Grodzka Street to see the striking Baroque Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul with its over-sized stone statues of the 12 Apostles in front of the church. This church is modelled on the Jesuit church of Il Gesu in Rome and is considered the most magnificent early Baroque church in Central Europe.

The foundation stone was laid in 1596, and the statues of the 12 Apostles are copies of statues originally carved by David Heel in 1715-1722.

Saint Florian’s Church on Warszawska Street is a collegiate church and houses a mausoleum with the relics of Saint Florian, the patron saint of Poland.

I also stood outside the Baroque Church of Saint Bernard’s next to Wawel Hill, with the castle and the cathedral, although I did not enter it. This church has with many paintings, and it was from here that Giovanni di Capistrano, the former of the Franciscan Order, preached many anti-semitic sermons and roused up the people of the city against Kraków’s Jewish population.

The design of the Church of Missionaries was influenced by two Baroque churches in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Church of the Missionaries is a Baroque church dedicated to the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul [25 January] and was built in 1719-1728. Its design was influenced by two baroque churches in Rome, the Church of the Magi at the Collegio di Propaganda Fidei designed by Francesco Borromini and the Church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini.

Work on building the Gothic church of Corpus Christi began in 1340 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz, where I was staying, the Church of Corpus Christi dates back to mid-14th century. It was originally built on marshland and building work, which began in 1340, was completed by the early 15th century. The church has an impressive high altar built in 1634-1637.

There is no Anglican church in Kraków, but the city has Orthodox, Lutheran, Evangelical, Methodist and Baptist churches. There is a small Muslim community but they have no mosque.

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