Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a historic Roman Catholic church located near the heart of Krakow. It is the city’s first Carmelite church, hence the name of the street on which it stands. In 1997, Pope John Paul II raised the temple to the status of a minor basilica.
According to legend, the first church on the site was founded in the 11th century by Duke Władysław I Herman after a vision led him to this spot northwest of the city walls, where he was cured of an illness. On the outside wall of the church, along Garbarska Street there’s a stone with a footprint carved into it, allegedly set by Queen Jadwiga herself.
Duke Władysław Herman suffered from a persistent, disfiguring disease, difficult to treat (possibly scurvy). In a dream, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him and ordered him to go outside the city, where violets grew on sand. The following day he found the place the Blessed Virgin had mentioned, and as she’d promised, the flowers, or, according to another version of the legend, the sand cured him. In gratitude, Duke Władysław founded a church on the site. A plaque placed in the chapel of Our Lady of Piasek (“piasek” is Polish for “sand”) informs that these events occurred in 1087.
Another story, one commemorated by an inscription on a church wall, relates to Queen Jadwiga. Legend has it that as the Queen was walking past the church that was being built, she noticed that one of the workers was very sad. She asked him why, and when she learnt that he had no money for a doctor for his seriously ill wife, she promised to help him. The Queen put her foot on a rock, undid the golden buckle from her boot and offered it to the stoneworker. When she left, the workers saw that her footprint remained in the stone, as if it had been made in soft clay. Together they hewed out the stone and carved the date of the event into it – the year 1390. After that, the stone was embedded in the wall of the temple. It is there to this day to honour the kind heart of Queen Jadwiga.
All legends aside, the first attested church was begun in 1395 on the initiative of Jadwiga of Poland and Władysław Jagiełło. Two years later, the church was handed over to the Carmelite Order who had been invited by the Polish monarchs from Prague.
The Gothic church was largely destroyed during the Swedish Deluge of the 17th century. It was rebuilt in the Baroque style and consecrated in 1679.
It was at this church on August 15, 1683 that Jan III Sobieski said his final prayers in Krakow before setting out for his victorious Battle of Vienna against the Ottoman Empire.
When the Confederacy of Bar seized control of the Old Town of Krakow in 1772, Russian troops used the church (just outside of the Old Town walls) as an artillery sighting platform, leading to considerable damage.
The Baroque façade of the church is based on the design of Il Gesù in Rome. On the southern wall of the church, there is an 18th-century sculpture representing Golgotha with a Crucifixion in the centre. The main altar depicts the Visitation of Saint Elizabeth by Virgin Mary, and is one of the largest examples of Baroque woodcarving in Krakow.
Among the many important works of art, the majestic choir stalls from the 17th and 18th centuries are of particular worth. Their cloisters are crowned with paintings from the mid 18th century, depicting the history of the church and the story of the miraculous icon of Our Lady of Piasek, which is the most famous work of art here. It can be found in a chapel on the south side of the nave.
The chapel is covered with a dome with a lantern, which is crowned by a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary with the Child, dated 1678. According to legend, the icon was miraculously completed when left unfinished by its original artist, probably one of the monks, in the 15th century. It survived unscathed even during the destruction of the majority of the walls around it by the Swedes during the Deluge. On the bicentenary of the Battle of Vienna, the icon was decorated with crowns designed by artist Jan Matejko, whose own wedding was held here in 1864. The coronation of the image was commemorated in 1883 with a plaque that was located on the façade.
The painting of Christ carrying the cross was brought here in the 1940s from Lviv.