Saint Mary’s Basilica is the most significant church in Krakow except the Wawel Cathedral. The church had been under the care of wealthy townsmen families for centuries, and today it is one of the most exceptional examples of sacral architecture in Poland.
The Basilica of Saint Mary is located in the north-eastern corner of the Main Market Square. It is positioned diagonally in relation to the axis of the square, which means that the first Romanesque church was built in this place before the foundation of Krakow in 1257. The present three-nave Gothic-style basilica was built at the end of the 14th century. Since chapels were added to the side aisles in the 15th century, the main form of the church has not changed much. Renovation works in the following centuries were mainly focused on the interiors. In the 18th century, under the supervision of Francesco Placidi, Baroque design was introduced to the Basilica. Yet only a century later, the interiors were re-designed in the Neo-Gothic style. Some famous artists were engaged in the process, like Jan Matejko, who painted superb polychrome murals, and Stanisław Wyspiański and Józef Mehoffer, who designed decorative stained-glass windows.
On the outside, the most characteristic features of Saint Mary’s Basilica are its two towers of unequal height. Legend has it that the towers were built by two brothers. Both of them wanted to make their structure more imposing and beautiful. The rivalry led to the older brother killing the younger one, and then – due to pangs of conscience – himself. Today, the knife that was used as the murder weapon is still displayed in one of the Cloth Hall arcades. Every hour on the hour, St. Mary’s Trumpet Call (hejnał mariacki) is played live from the top of the taller tower, in each of the four cardinal directions. The call always breaks off mid-stream, which is explained by another Krakow legend: In the Middle Ages, during one the Tatar attacks, a watchman keeping watch in the tower played the trumpet call in order to warn the townspeople about the approaching enemy. One of the invaders noticed the watchman and shot him dead with an arrow. Although this legend was made up by the Polish Americans in the 1930s, the citizens of Krakow found it appealing and still continue to tell the story.
The true treasure of Saint Mary’s Basilica is the Altarpiece by Veit Stoss – the largest Gothic altarpiece of this kind in Europe. The fixed center part depicts the Dormition of the Mother of God in the presence of the Apostles as well as the Assumption, while the two moving panels show scenes from the life of Christ and Mary. The top part presents the Coronation of Mary by the Holy Trinity. The whole altar is made from oak wood that is presently over a 1000 years old, and all the figures were sculpted remarkably realistically.