It’s Poland’s Westminster Cathedral, the absolute focal point of the country’s religious history, crowning place of kings and queens and architectural overseer of the famous Cracovian gothic skyline.
Wawel Cathedral sits in the heart of the royal palace and castle complex that dominates the hill of the same name, on the south side of Kraków’s old town. It’s a magnificent, perhaps the most magnificent, example of medieval Polish cathedral architecture, imbued inside with the rich artistic flair of Renaissance Europe. A palimpsest of Catholic iconography through Polish history and something of a nationalistic sepulchre of the modern age, if there was any building that could be said to sum up the story of Polish Christianity-cum-identity, this is it.
Before the structure of today’s cathedral was itself finished as early as 1346, there is evidence that smaller Romanesque Christian churches adorned the site on top of the Wawel hill from as early as perhaps the 9th century. However, with Krakow’s rise to power, and the concomitance of religious and political focus after the Christianisation of Poland, the site atop the city’s most important hill, quickly gained momentum.
The structure seen today is a product of almost 800 years of various construction projects that have extended and adorned the original building – a triple aisled basilica in the style of gothic medievalism. The various domed chapels, capped with a variety of bronze coloured roofs, are the result of building projects patronised by various bishops from the 15th onwards that changed the outer façade of the building for good.
Looking inside, there are probably few overtly medieval buildings that can lay claim to such a fluctuating appearance across the centuries. Many art historians hail the Royal Basilica (the Wawel Cathedral’s official name) as the finest manifestation of the Italian Renaissance outside of Southern Europe, and it’s from this period that the elaborate marble altar coverings and much of the ceiling adornments date.
What’s particularly important about the Wawel Cathedral is its role in the history of Kraków, and indeed Poland as a whole. In the years of partition, when the Polish state was effectively disbanded, the Cathedral lost much of its foreign patrons, but the building’s long standing role in the saga of Poland’s rise and fall before the 19th century had already become the stuff of legend, and it quickly became an icon of national survival and religious identity in the face of outside power (whether imperial Russia, or Communism).
Moreover, the building has become a mausoleum for many of the central figures in the Polish historical narrative. Buried in the vaults below the church are a whole host of Polish kings and queens, along with a number of other national treasures that have undergone something of an apotheosis in the national psyche of the Poles. Adam Mickiewicz, for example, is the poet that is said to have nurtured Polish identity just as it was being cast aside by the partitions of foreign invaders; he’s now the most venerated bard of the national literary cannon, and a veritable icon of national restoration.
The Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus on the Wawel Hill, is a building that perhaps deserves its somewhat elongated and flashy name. Elaborate and inspiring, this melange of artistic endeavour, that seems to paint the narrative of Polish history to the wandering visitor, is one of Kraków’s absolute must-sees.