09 November 2016

Church and state come together in Kraków
in the castle and cathedral on Wawel Hill

Wawel Royal Castle crowns Wawel Hill and is at the heart of the old and historic city in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

For centuries, Kraków was the capital of Poland and the country’s largest city. Although the royal court moved to Warsaw in 1609, Kraków remained the Polish capital for centuries, and this city retains the atmosphere of a European capital.

I spent the afternoon yesterday [8 November 2016] on Wawel Hill in the heart of the old town of Kraków, visiting Kraków Cathedral and Wawel Castle. The Wawel Royal Castle and the Wawel Hill are regarded as the most historically and culturally important site in Poland. For centuries, this was the official residence of the kings of Poland and the symbol of Polish nationality.

The Swiatowid below the castle represents the pre-Christian and Celtic origins of Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Below the castle, the Swiatowid is a four-faced idol that represents the pre-Christian and Celtic origins of the city, and the name Gallicia used for the surrounding area and favoured by the Austrians when they occupied Kraków may be yet another hint at the early Celtic presence in this area.

In ancient times, Wawel Hill was inhabited by the Vistulan people. But the legendary founder of Kraków is said to have been King Krak who lived in the early eighth century, and the story of the mythical dragon, slain by the shepherd boy who then married the king’s daughter, survives to this day.

Wawel Castle was built by King Casimir III the Great (1333-1370), and is a rambling complex built around a central courtyard.

King Wladyslaw II added the tower now known as the Hen’s Foot (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The castle was rebuilt by Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania, who became King of Poland as Wladyslaw II in 1386. He also added the tower now known as the Hen’s Foot and the Danish Tower.

Other structures built on the hill and added to the castle at this time include accommodation for the clergy, royal clerks and craftsmen, as well as defensive walls and towers.

In the early 16th century, King Sigismund I ‘the Old’ and his wife brought in the best Polish and foreign artists, including Italian architects and sculptors, and German decorators, to refurbish the castle and turn it into a splendid Renaissance palace.

However, large parts of the castle were destroyed by fire in 1595. King Sigismund III Vasa rebuilt the damaged part of the castle, but in 1609 he moved the Polish capital to Warsaw, and Wawel began to fall on hard times. The Swedish invasions in 1655-1657 and 1702 contributed further to the decline of the castle.

When the Prussian army occupied Wawel Hill in 1794, the Polish royal insignia were stolen and most of them were never recovered.

After the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, the Austrian Empire occupied this part of Poland, and Wawel. They demolished many parts of the castle, but they also rebuilt other parts as well and built new walls.

Later, in the second half of the 19th century, the Austrians redesigned the castle walls making them a part of a stronghold. But in 1905, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria ordered Austrian troops to leave Wawel.

Restoration works began immediately, with the claims that the Rotunda of Virgin Mary and other relics of the past had been rediscovered. The renovations of the Wawel Hill were financed by public subscriptions.

After World War I, the authorities of a newly independent Poland decreed that Wawel Castle was a representative building of the Polish state and was to be used by the Governor and later by the President. Although Warsaw was the capital of Poland, Wawel Castle became the official residence of the President of Poland.

After World War II, Wawel Castle became a national museum. The castle is now an important art museums, with an impressive collection of Italian Renaissance paintings, prints, sculpture, textiles, tapestries collection, gold, arms and armour, ceramics, and furniture.

The Crown Treasury in the Gothic rooms was used from the 15th century to store the Polish coronation insignia and Crown Jewels. It now displays surviving objects from the former Treasury, including emorabilia of Polish monarchs, the coronation sword and the ceremonial hat and sword given to King John III Sobieski by the Pope after the Battle of Vienna.

Kraków Cathedral stands within the castle fortifications on Wawel Hill (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Kraków Cathedral, which stands within the walls of the castle, is officially known as the Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus. The cathedral is more than 900 years old.

In the past, this Gothic cathedral was the place for the coronation of Polish kings as well as the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Kraków, and today it is still revered as the Polish national sanctuary.

This is the third cathedral built on this site. The first cathedral was built on this site in the 11th century, but was destroyed soon after. The second cathedral was built in the 12th century, but was destroyed by fire in 1305. Bishop Nanker began building the present cathedral in the 14th century.

The bones of an ‘ancient creature’ hang above the main entrance to the cathedral. Legend says that should it fall the catastrophe will mark the beginning of the end of the world.

The bones of an ‘ancient creature’ hang above the main entrance to the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The cathedral has a nave with aisles, transepts with aisles, a choir with double aisles, and an apse with an ambulatory and radiating chapels.

The main altar in the cathedral dates from 1650. It was set there by Bishop Piotr Gembicki and is the work of Giovanni Battista Gisleni. The painting above the altar of ‘Christ Crucified’ is by Marcin Blechowski, and also dates from the 17th century.

In front of the main altar, a tall canopy of black marble supported by four pillars stands above the silver coffin of Saint Stanislaus, the patron saint of Poland. It dates from 1669-1671 and replaces an earlier shrine stolen by the Swedes in 1655.

From the 14th century, Wawel Cathedral was the main location for the burial of Polish monarchs. Over time, it has been extended and altered as kings and rulers added their burial chapels and chapels for their family members.

Sigismund’s Chapel, or Zygmunt Chapel, is a square-based chapel with a golden dome that houses the tomb of its founder, King Sigismund I ‘the Old,’ and the tombs of his children, King Sigismund II Augustus and Princess Anna Jagiellonka.

Beneath the cathedral , the crypt holds the tombs of Polish kings, heroes, generals, poets and revolutionaries, from Jan III Sobieski and his wife Maria Kazimiera to Władysław Sikorski, Prime Minister of the Polish Government-in-Exile during World War II.

Pope John Paul II presided at his first Mass after his ordination to the priesthood in the crypt of the cathedral 70 years ago on 2 November 1946, and here he was ordained Auxiliary Bishop of Kraków on 28 September 1958.

He once considered being buried there too, but was buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Instead, one of the side chapels on the south side of the cathedral has been rededicated in his name.

A statue of Pope John Paul II faces the main entrance to Kraków Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)