The 14th-century Wawel Cathedral (Katedra Wawelska), located inside Wawel Castle in Krakow, is the spiritual center of the Polish state. The burial place of nearly all Polish kings and national heroes, it was also the cathedral of Pope John Paul II before he left for the Vatican.
History of Wawel Cathedral
Wawel Cathedral and Castle stand on Wawel Hill, a 15-acre rocky limestone outcropping on the banks of the Vistula River, dominating Old Town Krakow. The hill is a natural point for fortification on the otherwise flat Vistula Plain.
In the 8th century Wawel Hill was topped with a tribal stronghold; since the 10th century it has hosted a royal residence and the seat of the bishops of Kraków. From 1037, when Kraków became the capital of Poland, Polish kings were crowned and buried in Wawel Cathedral.
The present cathedral, the third to stand on this site, was begun in 1320 and completed in 1364. The original austere structure remains mostly unchanged today, save for some Renaissance and baroque chapels that now huddle up against it.
Father Karol Wojtyla, later to become Pope John Paul II, said his first Mass in the crypt of Wawel Cathedral on November 3, 1946. Seventeen years later, he took over the cathedral as Archbishop of Krakow. Fifteen years after that, he led the entire Roman Catholic world as Pope.
What to See at Wawel Cathedral
The dark interior of Wawel Cathedral contains no less than 18 chapels full of religious art. The most notable of these is the Kaplica Zygmuntowska (Sigismund Chapel), built 1517-33 by the Florentine architect Bartolomeo Berrecci. The chapel houses the tombs of King Sigismund, King Sigismund II Augustus and Anna Jagiellonka.
Easily identifiable on the exterior by its golden dome, the Sigismund Chapel is considered to be the finest Renaissance chapel north of the Alps. The sculptures, stuccos and paintings were designed by some of the most renowned artists of the age, including the architect Berrecci, Georg Pencz, Santi Gucci and Hermann Vischer.
Dominating the nave of the cathedral is the mausoleum of St. Stanislav, Poland's patron saint. The 11th-century Krakow bishop was murdered by King Boleslav II. The saint's silver coffin (circa 1670) is adorned with 12 relief scenes from his life and posthumous miracles. Marble tombs of four 17th-century Krakow prelates adjoin that of their predecessor.
Since 1037, Wawel Cathedral has been the burial place of Polish kings, even after the capital moved to Warsaw. The royal tombs of all but four of Poland's 45 rulers can be seen in the cathedral's side chapels and in the 12th-century St. Leonard's Crypt. King Kazimierz the Great's tomb is to the right of the main altar, made of red marble
From the 19th century, only great national heroes were honored by a burial in Wawel Cathedral. These include: Tadeusz Kosciuszko (buried 1817); the great romantic poets Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Slowacki (whose bodies were brought back from exile for burial here); and Marshal Józef Pilsudski, the hero of independent Poland between the two world wars (buried in the crypt in 1935).
The cathedral also has a treasury, archives, library, and museum. Among the displays in the library, which is one of the earliest in Poland, is the 12th-century Emmeram Gospel from Regensburg.
Another major attraction of the cathedral is a climb to the Sigismund Tower, reached through the sacristy and a wooden staircase. The tower holds the famous Sigismund Bell (Zygmunt Bell), commissioned in 1520 by King Sigismund the Old.
The great bell is one-third heavier and 350 years older than Big Ben in London. It is tolled only on solemn state and church occasions, including the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005.
Quick Facts on Wawel Cathedral
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- Frommer's Eastern Europe, 1st ed. (April 2007).
- Fodor's Poland, 1st. ed. (May 2007).
- Wawel Cathedral in Krakow - Krakow Info
- Photos of Wawel Cathedral - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Wawel Cathedral
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