Sacred buildings are an important part of Polish architectural monuments. Many of them have a history more than a thousand years long. It should be remembered that Poland was converted to Christ-ianity in 966 A.D., during the reign of its first historical ruler, Prince Mieszko I.
Everyone traveling in Poland is surprised by the richness and variety of the architectural forms, interior lay-out and decorations as well as the very good state of the monuments, which have been meticulously restored and conserved and which are protected by law.
For those coming to Poland for the first time, we would like to present five of the largest church buildings which, beneath the layers, tradition and cult that are also a part of them, are in themselves history. We are speaking of the cathedrals in Gniezno, Wroclaw, Cracow, Czestochowa, and Warsaw. The order in which they have been listed is not haphazard. It is in chronological order, based on the dates of laying the first foundations.
Gniezno, lying near Poznan, has at present only slightly more than 60 thousand inhabitants, but at the beginning of Polish national history it was the capital of the first Piastowski princes. It was here that in 1000 A.D. King Boleslaw Chrobry was the host to Emperor Otto III, who had made a pilgrimage to the Gniezno Cathedral where St. Wojciech was buried. In the same year, Gniezno became a metropolitan center and an archbishopric.
The foundations of the Cathedral in Gniezno were laid as early as in the year 966 A.D. By the end of the 10th century, a pre-Romanesque basilica was standing on the spot. After it had been destroyed and rebuilt countless times through the ages, after World War II it was reconstructed and conserved. To this day we find many Gothic architectural elements, such as sculptured decorations and valuable objects. For example! The silver coffin with relics of St. Wojciech, numerous headstones and religious pictures. Also, the famous Gniezno Doors which are Romanesque two-wing doors made of bronze around the year 1170 in a local bell-foundry. The doors are in-laid with a rich relief — 18 scenes from the life and martyrdom of St. Wojciech framed by symbolic floral and animal motifs.
Wroclaw, the construction of the cathedral was begun in the 13th century, during the reign of Prince Henryk I Brodaty. What is left of that period is a Gothic presbytery (1244-72). During World War II, 70 percent of the cathedral was destroyed by an explosion of ammunition gathered there by the Fascists. During the reconstruction, completed in 1951, the original character of the building was regained. The giant altar, which came from Lublin, is the work of the school of the famous sculptor Wit Stwosz. Behind the altar there are three artistically interesting oratories — the middle one, which is Gothic, is also called Mariacka (built in the years 1354-61), and the two on the sides, “Electoral” and St. Elizabeth’s, both counted among the most beautiful early-Gothic monuments in Central Europe.
Cracow, is a city that is of great importance in Poland’s history and culture. From the beginning of the 14th century for almost 350 years it was the capital of Poland and one of the largest cultural centers in Europe. On a lime hill overlooking the Vistula River that flows past the city we find a group of palaces named after its site — Wawel. Beside the Renaissance castle — for many years the headquarters of the Polish kings — stands a monumental three-aisled cathedral basilica.
It was raised in the years 1320-64, in place of a Romanesque structure from the 11th century. In the aisles of the cathedral we find the sarcophagi of the greatest Polish rulers — Wladyslaw Lokietek, Wladyslaw Jagiello and his wife Jadwiga, Kazimierz Jagiellonczyk, and Stefan Batory.
In the cathedral catacombs we find the tombs of the remaining Polish rulers as well as of those who contributed the most to Polish history and culture, among them: Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Prince Jozef Poniatowski, and the great Romantic poets Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Slowacki.
The famous Zygmuntowska chapel, named after the founder kings, the last of the Jagiellonian dynasty, Zygmunt the Elder and Zygmunt August, is adjacent to the Wawel cathedral. It was created in the 16th century by the architect and sculptor from Florence, Bartolomeo Berecci.
From the left aisle of the cathedral we can pass to the Zygmuntowska bell-tower where, among many bells of various sizes, there hangs the largest bell in Poland, the “Zygmunt” bell, formed in 1520 from coffers of Zygmunt the Elder.
It is worth mentioning that the present Pope, Pope John Paul II, before being appointed as the Head of the Catholic Church was the Bishop and Metropolitan in Cracow.
Czestochowa, a city famous for its Pauline monestary and basilica built on Jasna Gora’s hill of light at the end of the 14th century, is only an hours drive from Cracow. In the Jasnogorski church, with a tower that rises high above the city (105 meters high), we find a Gothic picture of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child. It is a painting revered in the Catholic world and an objective of numerous pilgrimages.
Jasna Gora had made a mark in Polish history — the monks and soldiers stationed there, with the local nobility, withstood the attacks of a couple of thousand-strong Swedish army (the so-called Swedish “deluge” in 1655).
Today the Jasnogorski architectural complex is unique in Europe. It is a sum total of the tastes of several epochs. Its numerous reconstructions were made only to add to or beautify the fortress and were never determined by any destruction of the buildings.
Warsaw, the Old Town suffered great damage during the Second World War. The barbarity of the Fascist occupant did not even spare the objects of the religious cult. As well as the historic buildings and churches, the Warsaw Cathedral was also layed in ruins. During the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, bloody battles were staged there; German tanks often drove through the sacred building.
With a great deal of hard work by Warsaw citizens and the whole nation, the Old Town was completely restored. The work on the building of the Cathedral was finished in 1956. The 14th century temple was reconstructed in the Gothic style with a new facade according to the plans of Jan Zachatowicz. Of the rich interior decorations, only a few survived — the Baroque “Baryczkow” chapel, the Renaissance headstone of the last Mazovian princes and the classical statue of the president of the Four-year Seym (1788-92), Stanislaw Malachowski.
The Warsaw Cathedral, as well as the whole Old Town and all of Warsaw, is not only a symbol of a city coming to life like the phoenix from the ashes but also of the esteem in which its citizens hold their culture and history.
. . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .