The Cathedral of Wawel is the great national Catholic shrine of Poland and one of the most important and historic Catholic churches in Northeastern Europe. During the years of the Kingdom of Poland it was the country’s royal cathedral, with most of Poland’s kings coronated here and a large number buried here. Its most famous burial is Stanislaus the Martyr, Poland’s first saint. The cathedral also achieved fame in the 20th century as the home church of Karol Jozef Wojtyla, also known as Pope John Paul II, who gave his first mass here in 1946 (the pontiff almost chose Wawel Cathedral to be the site of his burial). The Cathedral of Wawel is part of the Historic Center of Krakow UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the mid-11th century, Christianity was still a relatively recent phenomenon in Eastern Europe. The Catholic Church, which had barely been introduced to Poland a century earlier, was still in competition with the Eastern Church as well as pagan religious practices. During this turbulent period, many of Poland’s church leaders were educated elsewhere. It was for this reason, in part, that the Church made little headway expanding into Poland during the early Middle Ages.
Stanislaus, born into well-off aristocratic family, was encouraged at an early age to enter service with the Church. Like most of his contemporaries, he had to travel beyond Poland for his education. According to tradition, he likely went to France or somewhere else in Western Europe. However, a few years after his return to Poland, he received ordination as Bishop of Krakow, possibly the first native-born Pole to receive this honor.
It was during Stanislaus’ tenure as bishop that the Catholic Church began to make true headway into Poland. Under his guidance, and with the assistance of King Boleslaw II, new churches and monasteries were established throughout the country. He organized new bishoprics, and helped the Polish crown achieve recognition from the Church. According to tradition, Stanislaus was also involved in the miraculous, temporary resurrection of a man named Peter so that the man could bear witness in a court case.
Stanislaus had a fruitful working relationship with the king, until a falling out took place between them in 1079. The details are sketchy, but the brief version is that Stanislaus had Boleslaw excommunicated. In retaliation, the king killed the bishop with his own hands. This threw the country into revolt, and Boleslaw was forced to flee to Hungary. The beloved Stanislaus became a national hero overnight, and not surprisingly went on to become Poland’s first home-grown saint. He was entombed in Wawel Cathedral, which has been the country’s most important national shrine ever since.
Wawel Cathedral is one of the most historic Catholic churches in Eastern Europe. It is a strangely beautiful building, although if ever a church were to be described as having a mish-mash of styles, this would arguably be it. The main building is a simple, white gothic structure dating from the 14th century. Two belltowers, architecturally at utter variance with each other and with the church, sort-of flank one end. One of the towers is built of white brick half-way up and crowned with red brick; the other is crowned with a towering, baroque belfry. The domes which crown the chapels along the side vary in size, shape and decoration, not to mention color (copper-green on some, gold-leaf on others).
The interior is considerably more harmonious, if perhaps less memorable than the flamboyant exterior. The impressive white nave is flanked by numerous chapels, which house the remains of sixteen Polish kings, and a dozen other notables. The relic of Stanislaus is kept in a great silver sarcophagus beneath the church’s black marble altar.
Wawel Cathedral is part of the Wawel Castle complex on the south side of Krakow, approximately 260 miles south of Warsaw. It is open Mondays through Saturdays 9:00am-6:00pm, Sundays 12:30pm-6:00pm (later hours in the Summer). Admission is zt12.00. Web: www.katedra-wawelska.pl (official website)
The city of Krakow is home to more Catholic churches than just about any other city in Eastern Europe. Perhaps the most interesting is the Church of St. Stanislaus at Skalka, said to stand on the site where Stanislaus was murdered by the king. The fortress-like Church of St. Andrew is the city’s oldest and the only one to survive the Mongol onslaught. St. Mary’s Basilica is a restoration of the famous church where the Trumpeter of Krakow tried to sound his desparate warning that the Mongols were attacking.