Magnificent St. Mary’s
So, you’re planning to visit Poland this Summer. You expect to spend two weeks touring our Fatherland and you’ve heard that Krakow is a history laden city — but you wanted to brush up on your Polish history so that you could more fully appreciate your observations.
Well, all I can do in this column is give you an inkling of the magnitude of historical culture ever present in Poland — Krakow notwithstanding.
Let us take one famed cathedral in Krakow — St. Mary’s. Within its walls, for the past five centuries, there has stood a magnificent altar, a masterpiece of wood carving. That altar is the highest in all of Europe, rising 42 1/2 feet in height and 36 feet in width. It is the work of genius sculptor, Wit Stwosz, representing twelve episodes from the life of Our Lady. After five centuries, the altar still retains its full original beauty and is the finest wood carving example of 15th century art, not only in Europe but also, most certainly, in the whole world.
The altar consists of three sections with the center panel being stationary and swinging panels on each side. The three sections are populated with about 200 figures, each animated with an individual distinct expression.
Every statue is regarded as an unusual composition of architecture. As a result, that altar is not only an expression of religious inspiration but also a tribute to the knowledge and expertise of the creator. In the main panel, three subjects are portrayed: The last sleep of May in the arms of the Apostles, the Assumption of Mary, and the Coronation of Mary.
The side wings depict scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Arrangement is according to the holy days in chronological order so that the altar can function with the liturgical calendar. The altar is made entirely of oak while the statues are made of lindenwood.
Wit Stwosz began work on the altar in 1477 and after twelve years, in August of 1489, it was completed. Up until 1939, the altar remained in its original position. But during World War II, it was dismantled and moved to Germany where improper handling resulted in damage to many fragments and to the coating of paint. It was not until 1946 that the masterpiece was restored to its original home in St. Mary’s Church.
Although there have been many studies made of the altar and its life-like statues, only a legend remains of the man who put his skill into this work of art. A colorful legend describes the scene at the unveiling of the altar. . . .
“When the royal retinue entered the Church, the command was given to cut the ropes holding the veil. With a roar, the veil fell to the ground. Those present were enchanted with emotion. There was complete silence in the whole Church until the King, deeply moved, spoke to Wit Stwosz who stood next to the altar. . . . ‘Let Almighty God keep you in health for hundreds of years to come, and for the greatness of this deed and your skill our future generations will thank you.’ Here the King took off his royal chain with a gold medallion and proudly presented it to the astonished Wit Stwosz.”
And, yet, this is not the most famous landmark of the renowned St. Mary’s Cathedral. Rather it has received its fame from the story of the “Trumpeter and the Broken Note.” From the paved street lined with medieval structures, the visitor can see the bugler high up in the left tower of St. Mary’s. Every hour of the day and night throughout the entire year, a trumpeter plays the opening notes of the hejnal facing, in turn, north, south, east, and then west. The playing of the hejnal is a beautiful Polish tradition.
In the year 124, the Tartars invaded Krakow and encamped in the present market place. All the inhabitants fled to the Wawel for protection except the trumpeter, who had taken an oath to remain at the post even during times of great danger. (The present day trumpeters take precisely the same oath.) Sacred to his duty, the trumpeter blew the opening notes of the hejnal, warning the people of the enemy’s presence. As he reached a certain note, a Turkish arrow struck him in the throat and he fell dead. Ever since, the trumpeters of Krakow, to commemorate this shining example of fortitude, service and duty, blow the same aria, stopping suddenly on the broken note.
The story of the Trumpeter did have a marvelous sequel in 1943, over 700 years later, when a Polish historian had been taken prisoner in Russia and was on his way to Palestine with other soldiers when they had to stop for the night in Samarkand.
They were approached by a priest from a nearby Mosque who was very excited. He asked them if they were Lechistan, if they believed in God and if they had trumpeters among them.
After the affirmative replies, he asked for a great favor — that they come to the market place the following evening and play in front of the Mosque before the grave of their King. They were all descendants of the Tartars. Asked what they should play, they were told the hejnal. The following evening after playing the hejnal three times in front of practically all the towns people, the whole city went into a frenzy.
It seems that this playing removed a curse that fell upon Samarkand seven centuries earlier when the Lech Trumpeter was shot. The people were defeated in battle and enslaved. An old prophet said the curse would never be removed unless Trumpeters from Lechistan would play the same tune before the grave of their King. The prophesy was thus fulfilled and Samarkand entered a new era of freedom and peace.
As you can see, my dear readers, I’ve just touched the surface of the history and culture that engulfs Poland. If one Cathedral can generate such an interesting background, think of all of Poland!
By all means, go to Poland! It will be an unforgettable experience!!
. . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .