Lonely Planet review
Overlooking the Rynek from the northeast is this striking brick church. Formally titled the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady, it’s better known in these parts as the Mariacki, or St Mary’s. The first church on this site was built in the 1220s and, typically for the period, was oriented eastward. Following its destruction during the Tatar raids, the construction of a mighty basilica began, using the foundations of the previous church.
The facade is dominated by two towers of different heights. The lower one, 69m high and topped by a Renaissance dome, serves as a bell tower and holds five bells, while the taller one, which is 81m high, has traditionally been the city’s property and functioned as a watchtower. It’s topped with a spire surrounded by turrets – a good example of medieval craftsmanship – and in 1666 was given a 350kg gilded crown that’s about 2.5m in diameter. The gilded ball higher up contains Kraków’s written history. It’s from this tower that the hejnał (bugle call) is sounded hourly. In summer you can climb the tower for excellent city views.
The main church entrance, through a Baroque porch added to the southwest facade in the 1750s, is used by worshippers and the faithful; tourists must enter through the side door to the southeast, which leads into the chancel. This is illuminated by the magnificent stained-glass windows dating from the late 14th century; the blue star vaulting of the nave is breathtaking. On the opposite side of the church, above the organ loft, is a fine Art Nouveau stained-glass window by Stanisław Wyspiański and Józef Mehoffer. The colourful wall paintings, designed by Jan Matejko, harmonise beautifully with the medieval architecture and are an appropriate background for the high altar, which is acclaimed as the greatest masterpiece of Gothic art in Poland and allegedly designated the eighth wonder of the world by Pablo Picasso.
The altarpiece is a pentaptych (an altarpiece consisting of a central panel and two pairs of side wings), intricately carved in lime wood, then painted and gilded. The main scene, visible when the pentaptych is open, represents the Dormition (or Assumption) of the Virgin surrounded by the Apostles. The outside has a dozen sections portraying scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin. The altarpiece is topped with the Coronation of the Virgin in Heaven and, on both sides, the statues of the patron saints of Poland, St Stanislaus and St Adalbert.
Measuring about 13m high and 11m wide, the pentaptych is the largest and most important piece of medieval art of its kind. It took a decade for its maker, Veit Stoss, to complete this monumental work before it was consecrated in 1489.
The pentaptych is opened daily at precisely 11.50am and closed at 6pm, except for Saturday when it’s left open for the Sunday morning Mass. The altarpiece apart, don’t miss the delicate crucifix on the Baroque altar in the head of the right-hand aisle, another work by Veit Stoss, and the still larger crucifix placed on the rood screen, attributed to pupils of the master.