The Wawel Royal Cathedral is one of the most recognizable religious buildings in Poland. Its importance goes far beyond the realm of religion, because it is inextricably linked with the formation and perpetuation of the Polish state. Starting from king Władysław the Short, who reunified the lands of the former Polish Kingdom, all Polish kings were coronated here, with the exception of Stanisław Leszczynski and Stanisław August Poniatowski. Before the main altar of the cathedral were also held other important state ceremonies: royal weddings, baptisms and funerals.
Wawel Cathedral is also the burial site of Polish monarchs. Initially, they were buried in the burial chambers beneath the floor. The first, who came to rest at Wawel was king Władysław the Short. Starting with the death of King Casimir became established custom to bury kings in separate chapels built apart the Cathedral. The first chapel was founded Holy Cross Chapel decorated with Byzantine frescoes, with late Gothic tombstone of King Casimir carved by Veit Stoss considered to be the masterpiece.
Among the many chapels of the cathedral of Wawel deserves special attention chapel founded by King Sigismund I. Designed by the Italian master Bartolomeo Berrecci and made in the years 1519–1533 by Italian sculptors of the Renaissance is the pearl of architecture in Central Europe. But the king Sigismund I and his successors, along with members of the royal family are buried in the underground vaults of the cathedral. Most are there royal coffins and sarcophagus are true masterpieces of art casting, such as sarcophagus Sigismund Augustus, Stefan Batory and Sigismund III and gilded copper coffin Władyslaw IV and his wife Cecilia Renata.
Today's appearance of the Wawel Cathedral is the reflection of the turbulent history of the Polish state. Elements from different historical periods are made in different styles. A careful look at one of the most famous religious buildings in Poland enables initial diagnosis of change that occurred through centuries.
The origins of the cathedral date back to the eleventh century. The first cathedral church on Wawel Hill was probably built shortly after the establishment in l000, the bishopric of Kraków. Today's state of knowledge does not permit a convincing reconstruction of its shape. More is known about the Romanesque cathedral from the turn of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The origins of its construction combines with the reign of Prince Władysław Herman (1079–1102). The new church was consecrated in 1142. It was built of limestone and sandstone three-aisled basilica, probably with galleries over the aisles. From the east and west rose the rectangular choirs closed semicircular apses, and under them fit into the crypt. On the western side rose two square towers. To this day they remained significant parts of the building, especially the crypt of St. Leonard and the lower part of the south tower.
In contrast, preserved almost unchanged to the present day building was erected in stages from 1320 to 1346 (the chancel), and from 1346 to 1364 (aisle), during the reign of bishops Nanker, Jan Grot and Bodzanta. The church was consecrated on 28 of March 1364. Gothic cathedral church was given the shape of a three-aisled basilica with a transept (transverse nave) and a rectangular chancel.

Elaborated by Marek Walczak PhD, editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums, © all rights reserved

Photograph by Marek Antoniusz Święch, arch. MIK (2014),
Licencja Creative Commons

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

www.katedra-wawelska.pl/english

Wawel 3
31-001 Kraków


phone 12 429 95 16
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Opening hours

April  — October
Monday  — Saturday
9.00 — 17.00
Sunday
12.30 — 17.00
November  — March
Monday  — Saturday
9.00 — 16.00
Sunday
12.30 — 16.00

Ticket Prices

free admission
Objects

Queen Jadwiga’s tombstone

Carved in a single block of marble from Carrara and covered with a slightly smaller flat block with the figure of the queen lying with head directed towards the east. It is situated in the first arcade from the west in the southern wing of the ambulatory. An austere block tomb is supported by a base decorated with highly stylised lilies, a frize of square panels filled with heraldic eagles in the top part. The longer side (southern) is divided into seven panels, with the outer ones overlapping narrower sides.

Burial royal insignia (sceptre and orb) of St. queen Jadwiga

In the second bay, counting from the west, of the south transept, placed against a stone wall inside an arch, on an altar stone covered with brass plate, there is a metal, glazed case in the shape of a horizontal cuboid on tiny legs. On the top strip, there is an inscription saying: SERVAE DEI REGINAE HEDVIGIS EX TUMBA A. D. 1949; on the bottom strip: IUXTA VOTA ADAE STEPHANI CARDINALIS SAPIEHA CURA STANISLAI JASINSKI SCHOLASTICI ET PAROCHI SUMPTIBUS CULTORUM SERVAE DEI. On side strips, there are highly stylised leafy ornaments and on the joints of the strips, there are highly stylised lilies. Inside, there is a baculum–type sceptre made of gilded wood, thin and elongated. Its bottom part has a handle separated with a simple ring, in the top part, there is a polygonal plate topped with a finial composed of ragged leaves. The top and bottom ends feature rounded bumps. The orb is made of wood, gilded, globe-shaped, topped with a Greek cross. Unfortunately, Jadwiga’s crown did not survive. The insignia found in Jadwiga’s grave were in no way repaired. They were treated as relics and exhibited permanently next to her sarcophagus. In order to do so, a glass display cabinet was designed and made by a Kraków-based bronzesmith, Edmund Korosadowicz.

Ivory casket decorated with scenes from chanson de geste

The casket is cubical in shape and consist of six rectangular ivory plates bound together with metal nails and fittings. The top plate is fitted with hinges and serves as the lid. The front side is fitted with a rectangular lock decorated with an image of a tower and two persons: a woman with a large key in her hand and a man on his knees with his hands joined together. On the lid, there is a metal handle engraved in a diagonal checked pattern filled with simplified flowers. On the side plates, there are twelve figural scenes from medieval chance de geste, while on the lid, there are three court scenes. Narration in all of these images follows from the left to the right. The front side features the following images: Conversation of Alexander the Great with Aristotle, Phyllis and Aristotle, Thisbe and lion, Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, while the back side features: Lancelot fighting a lion, Lancelot crossing the Sword Bridge, Gauvain on the Dangerous Bed and Damsels freed by Gauvain. The left side features: Tristan and Iseult’s Meeting in the Garden, the Hunt of the Unicorn, while the right side features: Enyas’ fight with a savage and Old Porter Welcomes Galahad. The lead features a Knight Tournament in the centre, flanked by two scenes which together depict the motif of Siege of the Castle of Love. The Kraków casket is one of seven so called complex caskets, which can be found in world’s most important collections of medieval art.

Damask fabrics from the grave of St queen Jadwiga

Queen Jadwiga d’Anjou died on July 17th, 1399, several weeks after she gave birth to her daughter, Elizabeth Bonifacia (June 22nd), probably due to labour-related complications (puerperal fever). She was buried on July 19th together with the child, who had died several days earlier, in the chancel of the Wawel cathedral, to the north of the base on which the main altar is situated. The queen was buried in rich clothing of damask with sleeves trimmed with strips of thicker fabric with rhomboid pattern. Burial clothing is one of the most moving mementoes of the great saint. It is difficult to determine the original colour scheme of fabric that have undergone a permanent change as a result of 500 years spent in a dark and damp grave. Undoubtedly, they were extremely expensive and luxurious fabrics, reflecting very high standards of living at the court of Władysław Jagiełło and his wife Jadwiga in late 14th century. The first of these fabrics, clearly oriental in style, was probably made in Egypt in the 15th century. Patterns visible on the other two fabrics are closest to Spanish weaving manufactures from the 13th, 14th, and 15th century.

Alms pouch

A small pouch made of a long piece of fabric sewn in half, reinforced on the sides with a silk tape, with a binding in the top part and a hole for a string used to tighten and loosen the pouch. At the bottom, there are decorative elements (tassels) consisting of gold circles made of thread and long single tassels. The whole pouch is embroidered with split stitch, long and short stitch and fishbone stitch. On one side, there are four human figures among thin trees with palmate leaves resembling oak leaves. On the other side, the same young woman is being led up a hill by the old man. Although interpretation of the scenes on the alms pouch is not certain, it is most likely they depict episodes from the story of Tristan and Iseult. The tale of unhappy love of brave Tristan to beautiful Iseult, the wife of king Mark of Cornwall, was written down for the first time in the 12th century and has been reappearing since then in many countries and language versions. Scenes embroidered on the pouch, enrooted in the Arthurian tradition, depict the clash of a sophisticated world of courtly ways (young and beautiful lovers) with wild forces of nature (the old men). There are only several alms pouches with similar decorations preserved until now.

Rationale of Kraków bishops

The rationale consist of two wide ribbons that form the shoulder pieces, joined at the chest and at the back with large circular shields, to each of which, a pair of slightly narrower ribbons that go diagonally outwards is connected. All parts are covered with small pearls which serve as a background for decorations embroidered with gold thread. In the middle of each shield, inside four concentric circles, there is a standing figure of the Lamb of God with a halo round his head and a vexillum on a crossed flagpole. long the ribbons, separated by narrow strips, there are capitalised inscriptions.The ends of the hanging ribbons are sectioned with couples of strips and include shields with the emblems of the Kingdom of Poland (White Eagle) and the Kingdom of Hungary (Anjou). They are placed in such a way that whether you see the rationale from the front or the back, the Eagle is on the left and the Anjou coat of arms is on the right ribbon. All edges of the rationale are trimmed with a narrow stripe, while the edges of the ribbons are trimmed with long gold tassels. Threaded pearls decorating the rationale were fixed in strings to a linen base reinforced underneath with a thick stiffening. The lining was made of red damask. Several types of yellow thread was used for the embroidery: drawn cored wires – smooth, twisted into ropes, lamellae (plates) and the so called bullion. All stripes, letters, vignettes and the Lamb of God are embroidered on a relief base made of thread. Red-and-gold as well as blue-and-gold lamé was used for the background in the coats of arms.

Altar of queen Jadwiga’s miraculous crucifix

An altar made of black marble from Dębnik, situated in the south-eastern corner of the ambulatory in the Wawel cathedral. A huge five-axis structure with an expressive, recessed layout, supported by a high, two-storey base. External axes are slightly tilted towards the ambulatory, while the base on internal axes projects towards the ambulatory. In the bottom part, centrally, there is a separated altar stone in the shape of a horizontal rectangle with a niche, in which a bronze reliquary with the remains of queen Jadwiga is placed. Sides of the bases feature panels in the shape of vertical rectangles. Sides of the base feature frames in the shape of vertical rectangles filled with panel made of pink marble from Paczółtowice. Central part in the shape of vertical rectangle with a rectangular niche, topped with a semicircle, with rich-profiled framing. It is flanked by two columns on each side which support massive entablature that dominates the whole structure and strengthens the visual tilt side axes towards the ambulatory. Such a solution adds to the altar's character of a deep aedicula which forms a spectacular setting for the magnificent monument and relic – the miraculous crucifix. A realistic, detailed from all sides, yet unnatural in size figure of crucified Jesus is extremely dynamic and expressive. This result was achieved thanks to asymmetrical composition. The Saviour is hanging facing the right side, with knees pulled up in this direction and head lowered towards the right shoulder.

The tombstone of king Kazimierz IV Jagiellończyk

Kazimierz IV’s tomb is one of the most spectacular pieces of late gothic art. On the one hand, it clearly refers to a local tradition started by Władysław I Łokietek’s tombstone; on the other hand, it comprised of a number of unique iconographic solutions that exhibit erudition of local intellectual circles. The king lies on the top slab of the tomb, but his figure is presented in an utterly exceptional way. It is an extremely expressive and veristic image because the ruler was captured in agony. What is more, unlike the earlier royal tombs in Kraków, Kazimierz IV is dressed in a clergyman’s robe, which was used only for a coronation ceremony. The richly draped cope, clasped at the chest with a magnificent brooch, attracts special attention. It is a singular image with no analogical piece found so far. It is most often interpreted within the scope of patristics of the early Christian Church; the king’s physical death was juxtaposed with the birth of the soul to eternal life.

Marble plaque commemorating the burial site of queen Jadwiga

A plaque of black marble from Dębnik, situated to the north of the base of the main altar in the Wawel cathedral. The entire eastern part of the chancel is elevated above the floor level and forms a spacious platform for celebrations of liturgical ceremonies. In the middle of it and on the sides, there are three identical protrusions. In 1605, an Italian stonemason, Ambrogio Meazzi, was commissioned to dismantle the fence in front of St Erasmus altar (the ciborium was relocated to the Chapel of Our Lady) and move the tomb of Frederick Jagiellon, as well as to change the layout of stairs leading to the main altar.

The tombstone of king Jan I Olbracht

The tomb of Jan I Olbracht is a milestone piece not only for Kraków artistic circles but for the entire country. It was sculpted in the years 1502–1505 and consists of two parts executed by two different artists of different backgrounds, education and experience. From the local tradition of commemorating dead rulers derives the tomb sculpted in red stone from the Esztergom quarry, placed in a very deep niche carved into the western wall of a chapel. The tomb is decorated on the front side only (the sides are not exposed), while figural representations were replaced by a rectangular inscribed plaque. This simple and sophisticated solution clearly refers to the art of ancient Rome, in which inscription plaques were the basic element of commemoration of the deceased (Lat. tabulae ansatae). The long inscription was carved in the humanist capitals that had been created based on ancient Roman letterforms and is one of the first instances where such a font was used in Poland.

King Władysław’s III of Varna tombstone

The gravestone of Władysław III of Varna is shaped as a tomb, with the figure of the ruler dressed in full armour on the top slab. The giasant has a youthful face with idealised features and holds a bare sword against his chest – Szczerbiec – which serves the purpose of styling the King as an ideal Christian knight. The introduction of a particular object known to all Poles, in this case the coronation sword of polish kings, into the composition had been adopted a number of times in the culture of the 19th century, especially in Jan Matejko’s paintings. It served the purpose of making past events and figures more probable by linking them to particular items or works of art that were considered national relics. Such combinations were not always justified from a historical perspective, but they were used consciously, according to the rules of philosophy of history, which in the distant past allowed for an insight into God’s plans and some general principles governing the history of the country divided by the three partitioning powers.

The tombstone of king Władysław I the Short

The circumstances in which Władysław I Łokietek’s gravestone was founded remain unknown. The artistic form of the tomb was mentioned for the first time as late as in Annals of the Famous Kingdom of Poland by Jan Długosz : his body is buried in the cathedral church by the main altar, to the left, in a tomb of white marble adorned with sculptures and a canopy, in front of St. Władysław’s altar, which he, in his lifetime, ordered to be built and furnished. St. Władysław’s altar mentioned here was actually founded by Łokietek’s son – Kazimierz the Great – most likely soon after 1333.

The tombstone of king Kazimierz III the Great

Kazimierz III’s (Casimir the Great’s) tombstone was sculpted in red limestone from the Hungarian town of Esztergom, which has been traditionally called ‘marble’. It may be assumed that the type of material was consciously selected, since the colour red had been associated with power and reserved for rulers since the time of the Roman Empire. The king’s tomb was sculpted on three sides only. On the top slab, there is a gisant supporting his legs on a lion, which most often symbolised valour in medieval times and was frequently used to propagate royal virtues. Comparing the ruler to a lion is one of the most recurring topoi of medieval culture. The king was depicted as an old man with long hair and a beard styled in tight curls. Works on this subject mistakenly claim this depiction to be a realistic study of the king’s face. In fact it is an example of a physiognomic type typical of the Middle Ages, which aimed at presenting the ruler as a wise and strict old man modelled after depictions of great ancient sages, Old Testament prophets, apostles, and other venerable figures from the past. The king was portrayed in a leather tunic and a loose cloak, garments which were characteristic of court fashion in the 3rd quarter of the 14th century. Especially of note is the magnificent belt comprising elements shaped as fortified buildings. It may be assumed that it carries an eschatological message via reference to the Heavenly Jerusalem.

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