When you arrive in Cracow, the first thing that you hear is a trumpet melody pouring out of the two looming towers in the distance. This song, played at every full hour, is one of the symbols of the city and is played in arguably the most famous building - the St. Mary's Basilica. Even though Cracow can boast with millions of great historical pieces of architecture, the basilica is probably the city's most beautiful church.
Nowadays, a mix of layers of forms, the lower basilica started emerging in the 13th century as a Roman church. As it was evolving through the years, the edifice changed drastically with contemporary fashions to eventually be turned back to a gothic style that is apparently noticeable today. The majority of the church was built in the 14th century. Since its beginnings, it was one of the most important churches for the city of Cracow (just after the Wawel Cathedral) and served as a place for consecrations and burials of the noble Poles. The uncommon westwerk of the basilica is decorated by two irregular towers. There is a legend that explains the reason for it, saying that the works of emerging the two pieces were ordered to two brothers. When one of them noticed that the other managed to build his tower much faster, out of jealousy, he killed the leader in building. Because of that fact, the southern tower was never finished and still remains much shorter than the other.
Impressive in its form, the St. Mary's Church blinks with multiple colours and shapes, with its richly decorated interior. While wandering through darkened spaces, you will have the chance to have a glimpse of the best examples of Polish sacral art. The particular attention should be paid to the wall painting and stain-glass windows. In the 19th century, the whole church underwent a big restoration program under the wings of the noblest Polish artists at the time: Jan Matejko, Józef Mehoffer and Stanisław Wyspiański. The group redesigned the wall paintings, giving them a modern touch and created the new windows for the presbytery and space over the organs. The whole ceiling was covered in golden stars that shine beautifully, reflecting the candlelight in the church.
One of the artworks in the St. Mary's Basilica deserves special attention as it represents the world-class medieval sculpture. The altarpiece carved by master Veit Stoss is the largest gothic sculpture of this kind in the world. The German sculptor worked in Cracow for 20 years, and it took him 12 years to finish (1477 - 1489) the work for the basilica. The magnificently carved figures are very detailed and represent the scenes of the life of St. Mary, the patron of the church. According to the Bible, she never died, but fell asleep and was taken to heaven, and this is the main scene represented in the central part. The depictions are very expressive and gripping in the way of presenting the story.
It is already a part of experiencing Cracow to hear the St. Mary's Trumpet Call ('Hejnał'). Broadcasted since 1838 on the national radio, it marks the midday for the whole country. You will notice that the ending of the melody is kind of broken. According to a late legend, during one of the Mongol invasions on the country, an arrow shot by the aggressor cut through the throat of the trumpet player who was informing the citizens about the danger. Thus, there is a very quick, abrupt finish. The real origins of the trumpet call are unknown; however, during medieval times, it was popular to signal the opening and closing of the city gates in this manner. As the melody is still played on four sides of the world (repeated four times), it reflects the entrances to the old city of Cracow.
The taller tower of the church served as an observation point for security in the city. It was especially important during the fire alarms that were signalled from there. Still today, the trumpet players are only the qualified firemen.
To get inside the church to pray, you can enter straight through the front door. This is a small space that only allows you to be in the frontal part of the nave. To enjoy the full glory of the building, you should buy a ticket that costs a little above two euros and lets you wander around the beautiful interior. With a special ticket, you can also access both of the towers to enjoy a magnificent view of the old town. The ticket office faces the southern side of the basilica.
St. Mary's Church is definitely the pearl of Cracow's Main Square and the most beautiful church in the city. You should not miss it during your visit as it is a truly magic experience.
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