The Wawel Cathedral is not only the most renowned royal necropolis in Poland but also a real National Pantheon. It is the burial site for kings, bishops of Krakow, and some of the most distinguished Poles.
The first cathedral was built on the Wawel Hill around the year 1000, during the reign of Bolesław the Brave, the first King of Poland. Another one was commissioned by his great-grandson Bolesław the Generous, and finished half a century later by Bolesław Wrymouth. This second cathedral burned down in 1305 – the only remaining part is the Romanesque St. Leonard’s Crypt. The building of the third, Gothic edifice was started in the times of king Władysław the Elbow-high, and finished when his son, Casimir III the Great, took over the throne. It was a three-nave basilica with a transept, a presbytery, an ambulatory, and three towers. Owing to generous donations from kings, magnates and bishops, the interior had been encompassed with chapels during the following centuries. Numerous rebuilding works and adaptations have significantly changed character of the building, which constitutes a fascinating mélange of architecture styles from the Romanesque to Art Nouveau. The current appearance of the church was chiefly shaped by the renovation carried out at the turn of the 19th and the 20th century under the supervision of Sławomir Odrzywolski, and then Zygmunt Hendel. Works of modernist art were introduced in the Cathedral as well as the tombstones of Queen Jadwiga and King Władysław of Varna.
The central place in the Cathedral is taken by a Baroque confession (canopy chapel) of Saint Stanislaus of Szczepanów, a martyred bishop of Krakow and the patron saint of Poland. For centuries, the silver reliquary coffin which contains the remains of the saint had been dubbed the “Altar of the Fatherland”, where kings would leave their most precious spoils of war as offerings (e.g. Władysław Jagiełło after the Battle of Grunwald in 1410 and John III Sobieski after the Battle of Vienna in1683). Around the confession, on both sides of the main nave, are the cenotaph of Władysław of Varna, the tombstone of Władysław Jagiełło, and statues of distinguished Krakow bishops: Jan Małachowski, Marcin Szyszkowski and Piotr Gembicki. At the end of the enormous presbytery, there is a Baroque altar along with the throne of its founder, bishop Gembicki, crowned with a canopy that was ordered for the coronation of king Augustus III. The western part of the presbytery houses the tombstone of Władysław the Elbow-high, while the eastern part – the tombstone of Casimir the Great, and the tombstone and royal tomb insignia of Saint Queen Jadwiga. The eastern outer wall of the presbytery is decorated with two monumental statues: of king Michael I and queen Eleonora Maria of Austria, and of king John III Sobieski and queen Marie Casimire. The Cathedral is encompassed with numerous chapels that – thanks to the donations from bishops, kings and magnate – were turned into magnificent mausoleums. The most recognizable of them include: The Renaissance Sigismund’s Chapel, the Baroque Vasa Chapel, the Holy Cross Chapel and the Chapel of SS Cosmas and Damian (known as the Bishop Zebrzydowski Chapel).
The crypts of the Wawel Cathedral are the burial place of many notable Poles. Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki are buried in the Crypt of the National Bards. Saint Leonard’s Crypt contains the sarcophagi of king John III Sobieski, queen Marie King Casimire, Michael I, Tadeusz Kościuszko, price Józef Poniatowski, and general Władysław Sikorski. Kings Stefan Batory, Władysław IV Vasa, Sigismund II Augustus, Augustus II the Strong, Sigismund III Vasa or John II Casimir Vasa were buried in other crypts.