St. Mary’s Basilica is a symbol of Krakow recognized worldwide. Together with the Wawel Cathedral, it is one of the two most important religious buildings in the city. Visited every year by thousands of tourists, architecture fans and believers, it is a must-see on the map of Krakow sightseeing. St. Mary’s Basilica is located on the Main Square, where its soaring towers stand out above other surrounding buildings. Every hour, the bugle call is played from one of the towers, and the sound of its bells echoes through the Old Town.
The History of St. Mary’s Basilica
Unfortunately, the specific date of the construction of St. Mary’s Church is unknown. The first historical references were made by the well-known Polish chronicler Jan Długosz and indicate that the temple was already in place in 1222. Since then, the building has been rebuilt numerous times. Not only the interior, but also the body of the basilica has undergone a number of modifications.
One of the most important undertakings was the erection of the presbytery, preserved to this day, in the years 1355–1365 and the lighting of the church interior commissioned in 1392–1397. At that time, builder Mikołaj Werner lowered the aisle walls and introduced large window openings filled with stained glass in the main walls (three of which have survived to this day). And so, the hall layout of the temple changed into a basilica. Another major reconstruction took place at the beginning of the 15th century, when two side chapels were added. At the same time, the northern tower was raised and adapted to serve as the city watchtower. In 1478, carpenter Maciej Heringk covered the tower with a so-called helmet, and in the 17th century a characteristic gilded crown was placed on the spire.
The end of the 15th century brought the basilica another work of art - the Great Altar by Veit Stoss, presently considered one of the most outstanding late Gothic sculptures.
In the 18th century, the basilica underwent a major renovation. It was to be modernized in line with the fashion prevailing at the time, today referred to as baroque style. Many furnishings were replaced, including 26 altars, benches, and paintings. The walls are decorated with polychrome by Andrzej Radwański.
At the end of the 18th century, due to the introduction of Austrian sanitary regulations, the church cemetery was closed. Presently, it houses the Mariacki Square.
The last major modifications took place in 1887–1891, when neo-Gothic elements were introduced into the interior under the direction of Tadeusz Stryjeński. The temple gained a new polychrome designed and produced by master Jan Matejko. Stanisław Wyspiański and Józef Mehoffer, who collaborated with him, created the stained glass windows in the presbytery and above the main organs.
From the beginning of the 1990s, there were restoration works which allowed the temple to regain its former glory.
How to visit St. Mary’s Basilica?
When sightseeing the stunning interiors of St. Mary’s Basilica, it is worth paying attention to a few important elements. A breathtaking impression is made by the stellar vault of the basilica, additionally covered with paintings, thanks to which it resembles a truly starry sky. The magical atmosphere is enhanced by the light flowing into the interior through the aforementioned colorful stained glass windows. A key element of the temple is undeniably the work of Veit Stoss. It took the master 12 years to carve this wooden altar. The 11 × 13-meter reredos is the largest Gothic retable in all of Europe.
The bas-reliefs portray well-known biblical scenes - from the Annunciation to Mary to the resurrection of Jesus. Their size and care for detail make them a world-class masterpiece, and a perfect representation of the late Gothic style.
Another eye-catching detail are St. Mary’s towers. It is noteworthy that the towers vary in height. The higher, 82-meter-high north tower is covered with a gothic dome which consists of eight small turrets and a spire with a characteristic crown symbolizing Mary as the Queen of Poland. The first crown was made in 1628. The one which you see today is not much younger – it dates from 1666. Every hour, the bugle call actually resounds from the North Tower.
The lower south tower is 69 meters high and has always served as a belfry. Like the taller one, it is covered with a dome. An interesting element is the Renaissance chapel of the Conversion of St. Paul, which is the work of the Italian master Bartłomiej Berecci. The chapel can be accessed through the balcony.
The uneven nature of the towers is explained by a legend of two brothers who were responsible for their completion. The older brother was to build the southern tower, and the younger - the northern one. Initially, works were progressing at an equal pace, but after some time the structure prepared by the older brother began to surpass the work of the younger one. The jealous younger brother did not want the older brother to gain recognition and murdered him. He finished his construction, and merely covered the work of his dead brother with a dome. However, with time, he was tormented by his conscience, and in a fit of despair, he pierced his heart with the same dagger with which he had killed his brother. After that, he threw himself from the top of the tower. In memory of these tragic events, the inhabitants of Krakow have hung a knife at the gate of the Cloth Hall, where it can be seen to this day.
In addition to the chapel in the south tower, there are also historic bells:
Knightly Półzygmunt (the half Sigismund)
The largest of the Marian bells, once the largest bell in Kraków. It has a diameter of 180 centimeters, and a weight of nearly 5 tons. The bell was funded for the basilica in the 15th century by Polish knights. Its timbre can be heard daily at 9.05pm and on Fridays at 3.04 pm.
Tenebrat bell was founded by King Władysław Jagiełło around 1388. It was probably a symbol of the conclusion of the Polish-Lithuanian Union (in 1385). After Jagiełło was baptized, he married Jadwiga, and in 1386 he was crowned King of Poland. Before the casting of “the half Sigismund”, Tenebrat was the largest bell in Krakow.
The remaining liturgical bells are not available to the public. Their names are Misjonał (from an unknown founder, dating from 1387), and Mieszczański. It is worth mentioning that the Mieszczański Bell was funded by Kraków burghers and cast around 1320, when the church was consecrated as well. It is therefore one of the oldest fully preserved Polish bells.
The youngest bell is the “Joseph of Nazareth” founded on the 700th anniversary of the church (it weighs 700 kilograms, which is a direct reference to the age of the temple). The bell rang for the first time on January 1, 2000, announcing the jubilee year.
The south entrance is intended for tourists, who can first and foremost visit the chancel and the front part of the nave of the basilica with chapels.
There is a dedicated prayer area for the faithful. It is accessed by the main entrance from the Main Square. Tourists are asked not to use this entrance.
Opening times of St. Mary’s Church
St. Mary’s Basilica prices
normal tickets: PLN 10
seniors over 65 years of age: PLN 8
students, youth and children: PLN 5
Mariacki Bulge Tower (north tower)
Entrance to the tower is from Floriańska Street. Eight people can enter the tower at the same time, two rounds per hour.
Available for children from 7 years of age – younger ones are not admitted for safety reasons. There are nearly 300 steps to climb the tower.
April to October (except church holidays):
Tuesday–Saturday: 9.10–17.30 (break 11.30–13.10)
November to March: closed for visitors.
normal tickets: PLN 15
discount tickets (children from 7 to 18 years old): PLN 10
St. Mary's Bell Tower (south tower)
The Półzygmunt and Tenebrat bells, as well as the Chapel of the Conversion of St. Paul are available. For safety reasons, the tower can only be accessed by people over the age of 18. Sightseeing possible for a group of up to 6 people.
from June 1 to October (except church holidays):
Tuesday–Friday: 10.00–14.00 (break at 12.00)
October till end of May: closed for visitors
Ticket price: PLN 15
Visiting possible after prior appointment at the service point at Plac Mariacki 7.
*Please note that the prices mentioned for St. Mary's Basilica are as of the date of this article and may have changed. It is recommended to check the official website for up-to-date information on prices and visiting conditions.
Interesting facts about St. Mary’s Church
-The basilica is partially embedded in the foundations of an old church that may have originated from the 10th–11th centuries.
-In 1442 or 1443, Krakow was hit by a strong earthquake which caused the vault of St. Mary’s Church to collapse.
-The bugle call is played every hour. Its melody reverberates to the four corners of the world. Each direction has a meaning: the south is a tribute to the king, the west - the mayor, the north - the visitors, and the east - the commander of the guard (formerly for the merchants).
-A bugler’s shift lasts 24 hours (then 48 hours off), during which he has no time for a nap - the guard must be ready to play the bugle call exactly every hour.
-A characteristic element of the Krakow bugle call is the sudden break of the melody. This tradition is related to the legend according to which, during the Tatar invasion of Krakow, the guard on the tower, seeing the enemy unit, immediately began to play the bugle call to warn the inhabitants of the threat. Unfortunately, he did not manage to complete the entire melody – he was hit by a Tatar arrow. Still, he managed to alert the Krakow inhabitants about the danger, which saved the city.
- There are 11 chapels in St Mary’s Church.
-The name St. Mary is a common term that refers to Marian churches - in the case of Krakow, the full name of the basilica is the Archpriestial Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
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