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St John's Cathedral (Warsaw, Poland)

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Location: St. John's stands immediately adjacent to Warsaw's Jesuit church, and is one of the oldest churches in the city and the main church of the Warsaw archdiocese / Locally: Katedra św. Jana

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      09.04.2011 16:27
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      A stunning cathedral with a lot of history

      Plac Zamkowy in Warsaw's Old Town might be the most photographed square in Warsaw but St John the Baptist Cathedral must be the most photographed church. It is very difficult to get a really good close up of the front of the church as it is situated on Swietojanska Street; a street that is very narrow and doesn't give you enough room to take a picture from a good angle. The Gothic facade is also very deceiving as it gives the impression of being a small church inside. This is not the case at all.

      Before I tell you what is inside I will give you a short run down on the history of the church/cathedral. You are able to trace this church back to the 13th century. Then it was a wooden chapel which was added to the castle that belonged to the Dukes of Mazovia. In the early part of the 15th century a new parish church was built in Gothic style and announced by the collegiate in 1798. This was the year that the church's status was changed and declared a cathedral. Later on in 1817, its status was changed to an arch-cathedral. Since then the church/cathedral has witnessed many conflicts and ceremonies; Polish-Teutonic conflict, the crowning of Stanislaus Leszcynski and Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski. Also, the ratification of the Constitution of 3rd May.

      As you can imagine the cathedral was very badly damaged during the bombing of Warsaw in 1939, but very near to total destruction came in 1944 at the time of the Warsaw Uprising. The battle between the rebels and the Germans was not a pretty one and fire throwers and grenades were used to destroy the cathedral as well as German tanks. They were actually driven inside and if you look at a wall inside the cathedral but at the back of the building on the side that is situated in Kanonia Street you will notice the caterpillar tracks of one of the tanks named Goliath.

      Now, it's a different story and the new remodelled cathedral which was designed by Jan Zachwatowicz is a superb piece of architecture and a beautiful building inside. When I entered the arched metal doors a few weeks ago there was a surreal silence in the main area of the church. This always worries me as I am not very good in big churches and often clumsy. I remember going into Notre Dame in Paris when a service was being held and knocked over a candle stick. I have never been so embarrassed in my life. So on entering this cathedral I was aware of my limbs and tried to keep them out of the way of beautiful icons and the like.

      The stained glass windows are very regal and the dominant colour being blue shone through into the church which is quite dark. It's very difficult which attraction to look at first but my eyes were drawn to the vaulted ceiling which gives the church height and then I didn't know whether to look at the tombs or crypts. My first choice was to have a peep at Boryczko's Chapel which is so grand and covered with star vaulting. The Holy Cross is well known from the 16th century and meant to cure miracles when bowed down in front of it. A rare feature is the figure of the crucified Jesus, which has real hair. Apparently, this statue was a gift from the wealthy tradesman Jurga Boryczko. There is also an epitaph board with a portrait of the chapel's founder, who died in 1643.

      Poland is a country that loves to commemorate its achievers and people of great importance and here in the cathedral are many crypts which are the eternal resting places for King Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, the writer, Henryk Sienkiewicz, the Prime Minister and talented pianist, Jan Ignacy Paderewski and Presidents Gabriel Narutowicz and Ignacy Mosciski. The remains of the last King of Poland, Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski only came to the cathedral in the1990s having been taken to the Ukraine in the 1930s.The reason for this is that there is a strong belief in Poland that kings bearing the name Stanislaus attract bad outsider influences. Whether this is true or not I really don't know. The return of his remains seem to have been a beneficial one and many historians believe that this return brought about the alliance with NATO which seems to have worked out well for Poland.

      An element of special interest for me was the tomb of the Marshal of the Diet, Stanislaw Malachowski. This is a beautiful monument and is very close to the main entrance. The monument is made of smooth white marble and designed by Danish sculptor Berthel Thorvaldsen. The delicate design is really spectacular and I wanted to touch the silkiness of the marble. I was unable to because the tomb is surrounded by a wooden barrier. The sculptor seems to have been able with his tools to create a sense of serenity and I felt that this person was definitely resting in an eternal place.

      Also, there is a fantastic painting which is only a copy but it is still stunning, of The Bow of the Three Magi which was painted by the Italian Renaissance artist from Florence, Domenico Ghirlandaio. A very busy and popular artist of his time who had a large team of apprentices working for him including Leonardo da Vinci amongst others. You may have come across Ghirlandaio's work in the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. The colours of the painting in the cathedral are rich and noble and he certainly has a way of making the colours work. Especially the way he uses the colour blue - he creates a sense of movement and rhythm. I find his character study is incredibly moving.

      So there you go. A wonderful cathedral, in the Old Town. There isn't an admission fee but there are boxes throughout the church for visitors to leave a contribution towards the upkeep of this magnificent building.

      To reach the cathedral take a tram (13,23,26) to the Old Town from Ratusz Arsenal.

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