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St Mary's Basillica (Krakow, Poland)

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14th century church in Krakow, Poland.

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      06.11.2011 16:01
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      A very fine church

      The silhouette of St Mary's Church dominates the main market square of Krakow and remains a recognisable landmark on the horizon even out in the hills around the city. As you face the church the left hand tower is topped with a thinner, eight sided upper storey (1400-08) and a late Gothic peak. The shorter right hand tower's crown was finished much later, in 1548. The church's mix of red brick and pale limestone is typical of Gothic structures in Krakow and the ornate, intricate interiors include Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque elements.

      Parallel to the Cathedral's role on Wawel Hill as the church of the Royal Court, St Mary's Church was the primary church of the burghers. The small square around the church was their graveyard and against the outside walls still stand many funerary chapels and plaques dedicated to rich merchant families. This was also a place of public justice: citizens who broke the law could find themselves in the iron shackles by the south door (half way between the main entrance and the one marked 'for tourists').

      The full dedication of the church is the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but it is always known to the people of Krakow as Kosciol Mariacki (the Marian Church). There are several smaller shrines to Mary in her various aspects inside the church. The most important is a copy of the Black Madonna. The original is in Czestochowa - ornamented with a papal crown.

      To enter the church you have to pass through a porch, baroque in style, added to the rest of the building in the 1750s. At first it seems very dark until you quickly adjust your eyes to the illuminated rays coming from the stained glass windows. I love stained glass and have over the years made several attempts to create pieces of work myself, always in the Art Nouveau style. Here, above the organ loft I came across some fine examples of Art Nouveau windows designed by Stanislaw Wyspianski and Jozef Mehoffer. They really stand out and are much prettier than the glass windows on the opposite side of the church in the chancel which date back to the 14th century.

      The crowning glory of St Mary's Church is the altar screen carved by the Nuremburg sculptor known as Wit Stwosz in Poland and as Veit Stoss in Germany. The very same sculptor kept a workshop in Krakow in the years 1477-92, where he and his colleagues produced many of fine examples of late Gothic sculpture that you can find throughout Europe.

      The altarpiece is rather stunning as are the dark, mysterious wall paintings behind the altar forming a perfect backdrop for the church's masterpiece. Poland's famous artist Jan Matejko painted these walls and I think they really blend in well with the medieval mystery of the church. The altarpiece itself is essentially a huge cabinet in three pieces, which can be opened or closed. The frame is oak, but the sculptures are plane wood, a tree closely associated with the Virgin Mary. When open, the wings reveal six joys in the life of Mary. When closed they display 12 sorrows. The central scene is the Assumption. Mary is shown fainting away into the arms of John while, above their heads, her figure is repeated as she is taken up into heaven. Finally, above the frame of the screen, she is once again, being crowned in Heaven, flanked by two Saints - Adalbert and Stanislaw.

      This surely is a magnificent piece of work and contains about 200 human figures, each in a dynamic, almost voluptuous pose with eyes rolling and hands gesturing as swirls of golden fabrics billow in unseen winds. Spanish artist and sculptor, Pablo Picasso, saw this masterpiece in 1948 and apparently was astounded by its beauty and was supposed to have exclaimed that he saw the creation as the eighth wonder of the world.

      I think Pablo might have been exaggerating just a tiny bit there but he was known for his melodrama. However, I do love the altarpiece and St Mary's Church is somewhere I have visited much more than once, always in summer though. It would be nice to go at Xmas and see the magnificence of the church when the square is lit with twinkling lights and snow is on the ground.

      The altar isn't open all the time which is a shame but if you do wish to visit when in Krakow then it is opened every day except Sundays and religious holidays at twelve noon.

      Also, a special treat to look out for is the famous trumpet fan-fare which is played from the left-hand tower every hour. Historically, the outburst of sound warned the city of impeding attacks and even today the fan- fare is played on Polish radio every day at noon.

      *You can find this article published on several other sites*

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