The 900-hundred-year-old Royal Arch Cathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus on the Wawel Hill, also known as the Wawel Cathedral, is a Roman Catholic church and a national sanctuary that traditionally served as coronation site of the Polish monarchs.
The current Gothic cathedral is the third edifice on this site. The first one was constructed and destroyed in the 11th century; the second one, built in the 12th century, was destroyed by a fire in 1305. The construction of the current cathedral began in the 14th century on the orders of Bishop Nanker.
In 1000 the Krakow diocese was established, followed by the construction of a cathedral some 20 years later. Only minor fragments remain of the original and despite extensive archaeological work, it has proved impossible to reconstruct its exterior. There are inconsistencies in the dating of the destruction of the original cathedral. Some sources place it at the time of the invasion of Bretislaus I of Bohemia in the 1040s, while others point to a fire in the 1080s.
At the end of the 11th century construction work began on the second cathedral, called ‘Hermanowska’. It is probable that King Władysław I Herman was its benefactor. The cathedral was consecrated in 1142. Much more is known about this cathedral because its image is preserved on a chapter house seal from the 13th century and its remains are better preserved (the lower part of the Silver Bell Tower and the entire trinaval St Leonard’s Crypt supported by eight columns).
In 1305 or 1306 the cathedral was only partially destroyed by a fire, which made possible the coronation of Władysław I the Elbow-high in 1320. In the same year construction of a third cathedral began at the king’s behest. The key elements of this cathedral survive today. It was consecrated in 1364.
The Wawel Cathedral was the main burial site for Polish monarchs since the 14th century. As such, it has been significantly extended and altered over time as individual rulers have added multiple burial chapels.
The crypt beneath the Wawel Cathedral holds the tombs of Polish kings, national heroes, generals and revolutionaries, including rulers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth such as John III Sobieski and his consort Marie Casimire (Maria Kazimiera), the remains of Tadeusz Kościuszko – a leader of a Polish national insurrection and Brigadier General in the American Revolutionary War; the national bards: Adam Mickiewicz (laid to rest there in 1890) and Juliusz Słowacki (1927), as well as Władysław Sikorski – Prime Minister of the Polish Government in Exile and Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces, along with Marshal Józef Piłsudski – founder of the Second Polish Republic.
Pope John Paul II also considered being buried there at one point in time, while some of the people of Poland had hoped that, following ancient custom, his heart would be brought there and kept alongside the remains of the great Polish rulers.
Sigismund’s Chapel, adjoining the southern wall of the cathedral, is one of the most notable pieces of architecture in Krakow and the purest example of Renaissance architecture outside Italy. Financed by Sigismund I the Old, it was built in 1517-33 by Bartolommeo Berrecci, a Florentine Renaissance architect, who spent most of his career in Poland.
The Royal Sigismund Bell, the largest of the five ones hanging in the Sigismund Tower of the Wawel Cathedral, weighs almost 13 tonnes and requires 12 bell-ringers to swing it. It tolls on special occasions, mostly religious and national holidays, and is regarded as one of Poland’s national symbols.