Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven (St Mary’s church) is a Brick Gothic church originally built in the early 13th century and rebuilt in the consecutive century, adjacent to the Main Square. Standing 80 metres tall, it is particularly famous for its wooden altarpiece carved by Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz).
On every hour, a trumpet signal – called the “Hejnał mariacki” – is played from the top of the taller of St Mary’s two towers. The plaintive tune breaks off in midstream, to commemorate the famous 13th-century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before the Mongol attack on the city. The noontime bugle call is heard across Poland and abroad broadcast live by the Polish national Radio 1 Station.
The church is familiar to many English-speaking readers from the 1929 book “The Trumpeter of Krakow” by Eric P. Kelly.
St Mary’s Basilica also served as an architectural model for many of the churches that were built by the Polish diaspora abroad, particularly those like St Michael’s and St John Cantius in Chicago, designed in the so-called Polish Cathedral style.
According to Jan Długosz, the first stone church on this site was founded around 1221, but it was destroyed by attacking Mongols. In the late 13th century, a new temple was mounted partially on the foundations of the old one. About 500 years later, the churchyard cemetery was closed down. This created the Mariacki Square.
Around 1443, a strong earthquake took place and caused the collapse of the temple’s ceiling. In the first half of the 15th century, side chapels were added. At that time the north tower was raised, designed to act as a watchtower. In 1478, the towers were covered with spires.
Thanks to the renovation of 1887-1891, the church acquired some neo-Gothic elements. The interior gained a new polychrome, designed by Jan Matejko. The stained glass windows in the chancel and above the organ were the works of Stanisław Wyspiański and Józef Mehoffer.
Since the early 1990s, comprehensive restoration works were carried out. The church regained its lustre and the last part of the restoration was the replacement of the roofing in 2003.
On 18 April 2010, St Mary’s Church hosted the funeral ceremony of the tragically deceased President Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria. Their coffins were buried in one of the crypts of the Wawel Cathedral.
The Altarpiece of Veit Stoss is the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world and a national treasure of Poland. The altarpiece, funded by the citizens of Krakow, was carved between 1477 and 1489 by the Bavarian sculptor Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz), who moved to the city at around that time and lived there for the next 20 years.
When the panels of the triptych are completely opened, the Veit Stoss Altarpiece is about 13 metres high and 11 metres wide. The 2.7-metre-high, realistically sculptured figures were carved out of a tree trunk of lime. Other parts of the altarpiece are made from oak wood, and the background is constructed of larch wood. When closed, the panels show 12 scenes of the life of Jesus and Mary.
The scene at the bottom of the altarpiece’s centre shows the death of Jesus’ mother, Mary, in the presence of the Twelve Apostles. The upper centre part illustrates the Assumption of the Madonna. At the very top, outside the main frame, the coronation of Mary is shown, flanked by figures of Saint Stanislaus and Saint Adalbert of Prague. The side panels show the six scenes of the Joys of Mary: the Annunciation, the Nativity scene, the Three Wise Men, the Resurrection of Christ, the Ascension of Christ and the Descent of the Holy Spirit.
When you stand on the outside of the basilica, you will definitely see some pigeons. They flock in front of St Mary’s Basilica in great numbers, fed breadcrumbs by tourists and locals alike. If you wonder where those birds come from, there is a legend explaining this.
At the time of feudal fragmentation of Poland, Krakow had its own princes. One of them, Henryk Probus, who ruled the city at the end of the 13th century, desired to unite all the duchies of the country and crown himself king. The problem was that he had no money to set off for Rome to gain the Pope’s approval. So he turned to an old witch for help. She transformed Henryk’s knights into pigeons, which immediately settled on the basilica and started picking out the pebbles. These turned into gold coins for Henryk to finance his journey. Unfortunately, he spent all the money on parties and feasts on the road to Rome. He never came back to Krakow, and his knights remain enchanted and still wait for his return.
As the story goes, in the beginning St Mary’s Basilica was towerless. However, during the reign of Bolesław the Chaste (1243-1279), it was decided that the church that stood in such an important place in Krakow needed towers. There is a compelling legend explaining how they were built and why they are uneven.
According to legend, the task of erecting the towers was given to two brothers. The elder started working on the southern tower, while the younger took up the northern one. In the beginning, they worked at an equal pace. But soon, they began to compete with one another and the construction of the southern tower sped up, which hurt the younger brother’s pride. He saw this as his failure and killed his brother out of envy. Then he finished the northern tower and put a dome on the southern one, at the height that the elder brother had reached. But soon, his conscience started pricking him and he regretted what he had done. On the day of the church’s consecration, he admitted to killing his sibling and jumped out of the tower’s window with the knife he used for the murder. That knife was later hung in one of Sukiennice’s gates to commemorate the events and to serve as a warning. It is there to this day.
Another version of the story says that some mysterious force completed the elder brother’s tower. Seeing this, the younger brother fell off the scaffolding in terror.
The most impressive and well known artwork of St Mary’s Basilica is Veit Stoss’s altar, carved in the 15th century. In 1867, during conservation works in St Mary’s Basilica, a dusty yellow bootee was found behind the altar. According to legend, it belonged to a peasant boy from a nearby village who loved carving and would engage in it every chance he had.
One day the boy was so absorbed in his hobby that he didn’t notice that the cow he was to graze trampled the corn on the priest’s field. Scared of the consequences, he fled to the forest. He wandered for a time, and finally he got to Krakow where a canon took him in. The canon recognised his talent and placed him in Veit Stoss’s care. The child impressed King Casimir Jagiellon himself, and as a sign of appreciation, the King gifted the boy with his dream yellow boots. Sadly, as it so often happens, misfortune struck. On the day that the altar was to be unveiled, right before the King’s visit, it was spotted that one of the figures lacked the crosier. The boy climbed up the altar to make up the missing piece… and one of his boots fell behind the altar. It had been lying there for 400 years. Author Antonina Domańska wrote a Young Adult novel about Veit Stoss’s young apprentice and his missing bootee and published it in 1913.
During the Mongol invasion of Poland in 1241, enemy warriors approached the city. A guard on the Basilica’s tower spotted them and immediately sounded the alarm by playing the Hejnał. The city gates were closed at once and the Tatars could not enter Krakow. However, the bugler was shot in the throat and didn’t complete the tune. That is why it now ends abruptly before completion.
The origin of the legend is unclear. A 1926 tourist guide rather vaguely claims that the death of a trumpeter is the reason for the sudden end of the tune, but doesn’t mention Tatars or arrows. Another possible piece of the puzzle is Ludwik Anczyc’s 1861 version of the Lajkonik legend which describes a Basilica’s guard spying the approaching Tatars and raising the alarm, but it does not mention arrows or the death of the guard.
The origin and author of the Hejnał tune are mysterious as well. The earliest written mention of it appears in civic pay records from 1392. The word “hejnał” comes from hajnal, the Hungarian word for dawn. These two facts fit well with an origin under King Louis I “the Hungarian” (who reigned in Poland 1370-1382) or his daughter Jadwiga, who was known as Jadwiga Queen of Poland (reigned 1384-1399). Bugle calls were used in many European cities to signal the opening and closing of city gates at dawn and dusk, respectively.
The four directions in which the bugle call is currently made corresponds roughly to the four main gates of Krakow before they were torn down in the 19th century. 16th-century sources mention other buglers on other towers, and it is possible that the “interrupted” tune was originally meant to allow a second trumpeter on a gate to signal the completion of the task of opening or closing. Bugle calls from the church’s tower were also used to warn of fires and other dangers in historical times.
Historical records show that the practice of playing the Hejnał was cancelled and then later reinstated several times in the past centuries. The Hejnał was at first played once a day, at noon. Today, the trumpeter plays live at all 24 hours in the day, although sleepy buglers are sometimes reported to have missed one of the early hours of the morning. Starting in 1927 and continuing till now, there is a live broadcast of the Hejnał from St Mary’s Basilica’s tower every day at noon on Polish national radio.
The Krakow Hejnał has become well-known throughout Poland and has been used as a symbol of the Polish nation as a whole. For instance, during World War II, on May 18, 1944, a bugler from the 2nd Polish Corps played the tune to announce Polish victory in the Battle of Monte Cassino. On June 11, 2000, the melody was recorded in the Guinness Book of Records, after it was played by almost 2,000 trumpeters from all over the world. Among them were military orchestras from Poland, the UK, Belgium and Spain, as well as civilians. The youngest of the buglers was barely eight years old and the oldest was 79.
Originally played by the town guard, since the 19th century the Hejnał has been performed by active members of the fire brigade, who use the church tower as a lookout post. Currently there are seven different buglers serving in rotation at the tower. The longest serving trumpeter was Adolf Śmietana who played the Hejnał for 36 years, starting in 1926. The Kołton family has played the Hejnał for three generations. In October 2004, Jan Kołton retired after 33 years of service at the tower. His father had been a Hejnał bugler for 35 years previously, and the tradition is currently continued by his son.