Antique Roman - Catholic churches in Cracow, which has created unique character of "Little Rome" are presently 120 templar objects and convents in the Old Town. Over 30 churches, which did not survive, have also played an important part in the tradition history and religiousness of Cracow inhabitants. They represent architectural styles known from times of Christianity beginnings in Poland in 10th century - from Roman period, through gothic, baroque, classicism and others modern ones.
There is no other place in this part of Europe where one can find so many tombs of persons recognised by the Catholic Church as saints or blessed. For this reason, John Mucante, the master of ceremony in the delegation of the papal legate, Cardinal Gaetano, wrote in 1596:
"If there wasn't Rome, Cracow would be Rome". At present, seven saints, eight blessed persons, and a similar number of people believed to have been saints are buried in the churches of Cracow. The last twenty-five years have been a special time for Cracow in this respect - Pope John Paul II canonised or beatified eight persons whose life was related to Cracow, and whose tombs are in the Cracow churches.
When coming to the Royal City of Cracow, it is worth noting that the unusual character of the town is not only due to the ancient buildings registered in 1978 on the UNESCO First List of World Heritage. This certain genius loci is mainly the heritage of the people who once lived here. Some of their tombs are located in the sixteen beautiful Kraków churches, which make up the Route of Saints and encourage contemplation not only of the wonderful architecture of the city, but also of its spiritual history, manifested in the lives of saintly bishops, missionaries, kings and princes, and also visible in the lives of modest priests, nuns, and monks, as well as lay people.
Starting off from the foot of Wawel, walking along the Grodzka Street, in the dircetion of the Main Market Square (Royal Route), we shall soon see on our right:
St. Andrew's Church - the best preserved Romanesque work of architecture and one of the oldest buildings in Cracow. It was built at the end of 11th century. Sorrounded by the inaccessible marshes of the Vistula, it managed to survive the Tatar invasion of 1241. People who sought refuge in this church survived. The church belongs to the convent of St. Clare. The convent buildings of Poor Nuns look as if nothing has changed since the 19th century.
The Baroque interiors (decorations by Baltazar Fontana, paintings by Karol Dankwart and gilded altars) are in marked contrast to the cruder defensive façade of the church.
Just next to the St. Andrew´s Church is situated the massive Baoroque structure of St. Peter and Paul's Church. The impressive façade of this church is a piece of Rome at the foot of Wawel. A magnificent cupola which may be seen from many places in the city testifies that this Jesuit church has not changed its shape since the times of Sigismund III Waza. Giovanni Trevano supervised the construction of this church for 22 years. The work was completed in 1616, resulting in a church which resembles Il Gesú in Rome.
The entrance doorway is decorated by the sculptures of the 12 apostles. The statues, created by the Jesuit artist David Heel, almost three hundred years old, were destroyed by atmosperic pollution. They have been replaced by copies which look as if they have always been there ...
As we continue walking toward the Market Square, we reach All Saints Square. We move to vertical Gothic, beautifully exemplified in two churches. In the 13th century, in close neighbourhood, in the city centre - intending to serve people, setlled two Orders: Franciscans and Dominicans.
The rusty red massif of the Gothic Dominican Monastery, slender, with its façade adorned with stone elements, towers over the greenery of the Planty. The Dominicans from Bologna came to Cracow in 1223. The great prestige enjoyed by the order of St Dominic made the Church of the Holy Trinity into one of the grandest in Cracow. Both the church itself, and the monastery cloisters filled with countless number of tombs, and the set of burial chapels of the 16th and 17th centuries was second only to the Wawel Cathedral necropolis. The Great Fire of 1850 brought an end to the original splendour of the Dominican Church, damaging its architecture and almost completely destroying the furnishings. Its renovation in the 19th-century Neo-Gothic style has deprived the building of its monumental character. Lightly constructed annexes have blurred its original architectural purity and austerity.
The tombs of the monks, epitaphs, busts and inscribed tablets whisper to the brave visitor the mediaeval sentence: memento mori...
The Franciscans came to Cracow as early as 1237. Almost all of them had known St. Francis who died nine years earlier. Prince Boleslaw the Chaste built a church for them. He himself became a Franciscan, along with his wife Kinga, later canonised, and his sister Salomea, later beatified.
The Franciscan Church was one of the first brick constructions in Cracow. The Franciscan monastery has been built in stages beginning in the 14th century. In 1850 the church and monastery went up in flames of The Great Fire, the same fire which destroyed the interiors of the Dominicans. The reconstruction took several dozen years. But this unfortunate event gave occasion to another extraordinary meeting of styles: the interior was redecorated in Art Nouveau style by the famous Polish artist Stanis?aw Wyspian'ski. Wyspian'ski designed not only the murals that cover the interior of the church, but also the marvellous stained glass windows. Most famous is the huge 'Let it Be', which stands above the Western facade and shows God in the act of creation.
When entering the Main Market Square from Grodzka Street, we approach the tiny St. Adalbert's Church - one of the oldest churches and probably the smallest in Cracow. It has been in the very heart of the city since the 11th century. The legend says that the church was erected in a site, where Adalbert preached before his missionary expedition to Prussia. Present, Baroque look of the church is a result of modernization from 18th century. There is an Archeological Museum in its underground.
At the northeast corner of the Main Market Square is located St. Mary's Church. The massive structure and its distinctive unequal towers dominate the central square. There was a church built here in the 1220s, partly destroyed by the Tartar invasion of 1241. The present basilica was built on the remaining ruins. The taller tower, 81 metres high, is the greatest achievment of Polish Gothic architecture. It belongs to the city and serves as a watchtower. From its window, the hejna? (a bugle call) is played every hour and to all four quarters of the world. This tune tells the city that there is someone to watch over it. Legend has it that a Tartar arrow pierced the throat of the bugler as he was warning the inhabitants of Cracow of the Tatar raid. In commemoration of this event each bugle call breaks off suddenly at the point the watchman was hit.
Rich patricians and craftsmen built fine altars in the church. Not so much, if one jewel had not benn preserved. This jewel is the high altar by a great master of the Middle Ages, Wit Stwosz (Veit Stoss). The altar was stolen by the Nazis during World War II, but in 1947 it was returned to the church to which it belongs.
A fine door lead us to the interior of the church, where the monumental high altar by Wit Stwosz can be seen in the shady chancel. Wit Stwosz's altar is a polyptych, 13 metres high and 11 metres wide, one of the masterpieces of European madiaeval art. The altar was executed between 1477-1489. Carved in linden wood, painted and gilded, it depicts the Dormition of the Virgin Mary - the most impressive and strikingly beautiful centrepiece with life-sized figures. This scene, full of dramatic expression, illustrates a mediaeval legend which says that an engel came to announce the hour of the Holy Virgin's death. St. Mary is collapsing and is about to ascend to heaven. She is still on the earth, surrounded by the Apostles who came her to fulfil one of her three requests. The side wings illustrate eighteen scenes from the life of Jesus and St. Mary. The altar was normally opened only on major church holidays, its elaborate decoration thought best preserved for special occasions only. Nowadays, it is available for the public every day and it is opened at noon by one of the nuns serving the church.
Wit Stwosz left another masterpiece in the northern nave of the same church: an expressive stone crucifix. The great master was highly appreciated by local people. However, he was a man who easily lost his temper - his tendency to fiery outbursts was well documented in the city registers. He wasn´t Polish, but a fugitive from Nuremberg, where he was pursued for not paying his depts.
Leaving the church through the side door, we find ourselves on the charming little St. Mary's Square, where once the parish cementary existed. Close to its larger neighbour, we see the small brick St. Barbara's Church founded toward the end of the 14th century and owned by Jesuits. Right next to the main entrance, there is an adjoining chapel with a complex of stone sculptures representing Gethsemane, the garden in which Christ spent the vigil of his Passion. The church was rebuilt many times, but the present external form is still Gothic, while interior is Baroque.
The Church of St. Mary's originally served the German community of wealthy burgers while Polish people gathered in the smaller St. Barbara's. In the course of the Middle Ages, the two neighbouring temples switched their roles.
Our next step is is another outstanding church - the Piarist Church at the Pijarska Street. The best way to approach the church is from the Main Market Square by s'w. Jana Street, as this enables us to appreciate it fully. s'w. Jana Street with façade of the Piarist Church exactly on its axis creates the tunnel-like effect, as the church is situated at the end of the street.
The church original façade was designed by Italian architect Francesco Placidi and is based on the Il Gesú church in Rome.
We shall finish our tour by visiting a magnificent work of art - the St. Anne's Church. To reach it, we take a short walk along Planty ring to the s'w. Anny Street. The interior decoration of it church show the Baroque style at its best. There is no comparable and so stylistically uniform church in Cracow. The church replaced the older, Gothic structure, which was destroyed be fire. It took its present shape in the first years of 18th century. The sculptural decorations were commissioned from the fine Italian artist Baltazare Fontana.
Affiliated with Jagiellonian University, St. Anne's Church still serves the present school, as the official inaugurations of academic years take place there.