Saint Mary’s Basilica
If you are at the Market Square at full hour, you will hear the famous trumpet melody, Hejnal Mariacki, played from the top of the famous Saint Mary’s Basilica to commemorate the 13th-century Tatar attack on Krakow. It is the only melody in the world played every hour for the past 600 years. You can enter the Basilica and see the awe-inspiring wooden altarpiece carved by Veit Stoss.
The construction of the Archpresbytery Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (as its full name sounds) began in the late 13th century on the foundations of an old Romanesque church, according to Jan Dlugosz - a prominent Polish historian and chronicler. Of course, the building has been changing over the years, the chapels were completed, and the towers were erected. The northern, higher tower of the church served as a watchtower, and in 1478 its top was decorated with a beautiful crown that has survived to this day. In 1489, a real sculptural masterpiece appeared in the sanctuary - the Veit Stoss Altar in the late Gothic style. It took 12 years to create this masterpiece. The elements in it are made of three types of wood: oak, linden, and larch. Back in the days, the altar was open only on major holidays. Now, however, everyone can see it in all its glory and take a look at all the scenes depicted on it, as well as numerous skillfully carved details.
Around 1750, the interior of the church was completely rebuilt by Italian architects in the late Baroque style. Many original decorations were lost, but the altars, paintings, benches were renewed, and the walls were beautifully painted by Andrzej Radwanski. Interestingly, until 1795, there was a cemetery near the church. It was liquidated, and parts of the tombstones were built into the walls of the basilica. Nowadays there is St. Mary’s (Mariacki) Square in the place of the former cemetery. Thus, the Church of the Virgin Mary is actually located on St. Mary's Square, and not the Market Square.
The church was restored in the 19th century, as art critics didn't approve of the new Baroque interior, which did not correspond to the original, Gothic style of the building. Authentic Gothic elements were revealed from under the plaster. The stone details were modeled on the least damaged elements that remained behind the main altar.
According to Jan Matejko’s project, neo-Gothic paintings were introduced into the interior. The main work was done by Stanisław Wyspiański and Józef Mehoffer - creators of stained glass windows in altars and over organs. The ceiling imitates the starry sky, the walls are decorated with drawings and motifs, heraldry, prayer texts, or angels playing musical instruments. This is a fascinating masterpiece that one can look at forever.
From the outside, the most interesting element of the Basilica of St. Mary is two towers of different heights. According to a legend, their construction was entrusted to two brothers, and each of them tried to make his tower the best and tallest. The competition not only led them to back down from the project, but also provoked the older brother to kill the younger one, and later to lay hands on himself, because of remorse. The instrument of murder was a knife, which still hangs in one of the vaults of Krakow Cloth Hall (Sukiennice), as a reminder of the fact that pride and envy destroy our human qualities.
Every hour, from the former watchtower, you can hear the sound of "Hejnal Mariacki" - a traditional melody played by a trumpeter. Each time the signal suddenly stops, which one could find strange, but this tradition derives from the famous Krakow legend. In medieval times, there were guards who were on the alert day and night to immediately report if a fire or attack by invaders took place in the city. Initially, the melody was played twice - at dawn and sunset, signaling the closure of the city gates. One day, when the city was attacked by the Tatars, the guard immediately started playing the trumpet to warn everyone about the danger, but the enemies hit him with an arrow. That is why Hejnal is also associated with sadness and anxiety. It has become, however, a symbol of Krakow, and now is played every day from the windows of the tower. Tourists can listen to this melody, and after the trumpeter stops playing, he waves at them from the window. It is believed that waving back at him brings good luck.
St. Mary’s Basilica is divided into two parts - for the ones who come to pray (or to a mass) and for tourists. Accordingly, the church has two entrances: one is free of charge - through it, you can go only to the back of the church. Another one is for visitors - in order to access the beautiful altar and amazing choirs, you need to pay the entrance fee.