Religious Life in Cracow. St Mary's Church

Cracow has been known for centuries as the Polish Rome because, like no other city in Poland, it has such a great number of churches, miraculous paintings, sanctuaries and holy men. Each period in the city's history was distinguished with its own kind of piety, expressed in art and architecture. Particularly, the medieval Gothic and the 17th century period of spiritual reflections and opulence in sacred art made their mark on the appearance of the city. It was then that the most formidable churches were built. It suffices to mention Wawel Cathedral, St Mary's Church on the Market Square, St Catherine's Church, and later the baroque churches of St Peter and Paul's and St Anne's. The 13th and 15th centuries are the ages of saints. The two centuries might be called Felix Saeculum because of the numerous saints and blessed living then in Cracow.

Among the most beautiful and formidable sacred buildings is the church dedicated to St Mary. It was founded at the beginning of the 13th century as the parish church of the town, taking nearly three centuries to complete. It is constructed as a basilica with two towers in the front. From the taller tower, 80 m in height, there is a panoramic view of the whole city, and from its top a guard plays an hourly bugle-call to show that there is someone watching over the city and to glorify Our Lady. The lower tower has bells, and since the 17th century in the chapel below there is a "cult" icon of the Mother of God, dating from the first half of the 17th century, a replica of the miraculous icon of the Black Madonna from Częstochowa. The original 14th century icon, has been the most venerated painting of the Mother of God in Poland. The church in Cracow has always had a particular significance. As the main parish church of the town it has been taken special care of by the town's burghers. The guilds founded chapels there, and wealthy patrician families had altars and tombs built.

The high main aisle of the church with its gothic vault leads to the presbytery ending with a large golden tryptych made at the end of the 15th century by a master sculptor from Nuremberg, Wit Stwosz, depicting scenes from the life of the Mother of God, with the central scene showing Her dormition in the presence of the Apostles. The walls of the presbytery are covered with the polychromy painted in the years 1889-1891 by Jan Matejko and show angels with the summons of the Loreto Litany, there are huge colourful stained-glass windows in the apse. It all contributes to the sublime, mystical atmosphere of the church.

In St Mary's Church, there are still held ceremonious services for various occasions, including patriotic feasts. One of the most famous is the annual procession round the Market Square during the octave of Corpus Christi.

In 1643 there was a church synod of the Cracovian diocese held in St Mary's Church. The synod was called by Bishop Piotr Gembicki (1585-1657). The engraving on the title page of the resolutions passed during the synod shows one of the sessions and preserves the view of the presbytery in the middle of the 17th century.

In the background, one can see the open tryptych by Wit Stwosz, and the no longer existing balconies on both sides of the presbytery, as well as two little gates in the altar-rail, separating the main altar from the interior of the church. It is the oldest preserved part of St Mary's Church.


A postcard from the beginning of the 20th c. showing a view of St Mary's Church (APKr, ref. no C III 72. Photo: RM)
A copperplate engraving on the title page of the printed resolutions passed during the diocese synod held in Cracow in 1643. The drawing shows the session of the synod in the presbytery of St Mary's Church (Private collection. Photo: RM)
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