The Małopolska route of Gothic art, or how Poland built its power

tall church towers on a vast square
Małopolska is a real land of Gothic art. St. Mary's Basilica with a gigantic altar from which figures seem to come to life in a moment, lofty castles, soaring interiors of churches, and traces of great rulers and anonymous creators. Gothic art appeared in Polish lands when Poland began to build the foundations for one of the greatest powers of Europe at that time, and the fate of royal dynasties in many countries of the world was decided in Kraków.

What Gothic art is, or the cathedral builders

  • In Western Europe, the Gothic style began around the mid-12th century and is divided into three periods: early (1144–1200), high (1200–1400) and late (1400–1500).
  • Its development was accompanied by relative stagnation after a century of the Crusades, the development of universities and a great economic impulse provided by cities that grew rich from trade.
  • Gothic works speak primarily about God and the spirituality of humans, which is noticed mainly in relation to faith. People wanted to get closer to God, which was symbolised, among other things, by the soaring buildings.
  • Brick was the main building material. The most representative buildings are the churches, which grow upwards, become unusually soaring, and the windows and doors have sharp arches. Their interiors are spacious, and the walls seem thin and fragile compared to the interiors. Gothic cathedrals still arouse the greatest admiration, and the term ‘cathedral builders’ is synonymous with excellent artistic work, often anonymous. Cross-ribbed vaults were used in the large halls of Gothic churches. An example of early Gothic is the Notre Dame Cathedral, built in 1182.
  • The principles governing architecture included planning of buildings on a cruciform plan, the disappearing hall system, the widespread basilica system (a temple with three naves, the main one of which is higher than the side naves and has windows placed above them), the use of pillars and ribs inside the building, windows, portals and other elements ending with sharp arches, tall, slender windows decorated with stained glass.
  • Secular buildings also became more beautiful, not only the palaces of the nobles but also buildings, as we would say today, for public use: town halls, cloth halls, city walls, towers, castles, universities, and barbicans.
  • Sculpture was used mainly to decorate architectural elements, but it became more expressive, often aimed at the contemporary understanding of beauty; the figures acquired movement and dynamics and were characterised by an increasing amount of detail.
  • Painting developed similarly. Biblical themes were still the main theme, but the figures depicted, especially the Virgin Mary, became naturalistic and was even subjected to ad hoc fashion.

Gothic art in Poland, i.e, Kraków and Małopolska, influenced Europe

A new architectural order and new art appeared in Poland, thanks mainly to the Cistercian order, called the builders of European civilisation. Their monasteries, scattered throughout the districts destroyed in the fighting, were not only an example of new architecture but also of a new understanding of the economy. This was the case in the Cistercian monasteries in Mogila  near Kraków and in Szczyrzyc. The emergence of the new style coincided with the highly successful reign of King Casimir, later called the Great, who commenced the unification of the country and with it a remarkable economic transformation. He regulated the law, introduced clear fiscal regulations, pursued a bold economic policy (salt mines in Wieliczka and Bochnia developed rapidly), and finally launched large-scale construction. During his reign, 80 castles and towns were fortified. Numerous brickyards were established throughout the country. The King, from his own income, also funded a new Church on Skałka, the Church of St. Andrew the Apostle in Lipnica Murowana, the no longer existing Palace in Łobzów (today a district of Kraków) and the Royal Palace in Niepołomice. However, his greatest achievement was founding the Kraków Academy in 1364. The Collegium Maius building, which houses the Jagiellonian University Museum, dates back to those times. Casimir III the Great was the last king of the Piast Dynasty. Still, he left his Jagiellon successors an economically strong state, which quickly became one of the greatest powers in Europe during the reign of the new dynasty. Casimir IV Jagiellon raised the state to an unprecedented military, economic and cultural level 150 years later, and the Renaissance era began during his time. It was Casimir IV Jagiellon who led to the union with Lithuania, creating the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, one of the most powerful states in Europe at that time. Between the reigns of Casimir the Great and Casimir IV Jagiellon, Kraków and Małopolska strengthened their position as the centre of the state. This is where most of the action took place and where the innovations of the new currents reached the fastest, this is where the new-style buildings were built. The most recognisable buildings in Kraków – St. Mary's Basilica with a fantastic altar, the Wawel Cathedral, Dominican monasteries and Franciscan monasteries, the Cloth Hall, the City Hall Tower or Florian's Gate – come from that time.

Great Gothic churches, i.e., the largest wooden altar in Europe

Due to the number of churches, Kraków is often called the second Rome. It must be remembered, however, that its builders were not only church authorities or religious orders, but were often the communities needed them as, in addition to their faith, they also determined their status. A large church building was the pride of the local community, which, at that time, was the powerful bourgeoisie. At that time, two temples testified to the position of the state – the Royal Cathedral on Wawel and for the bourgeoisie – the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Mary's Basilica. The rapid adoption of the Gothic style in Poland is evidenced by the fact that the Romanesque building that had occupied the site existed only for 70 years and was replaced at the end of the 13th century by a new one in the newer style. A Gothic structure was built over several dozen years; for example, the current presbytery was founded by Mikołaj Wierzynek (1355–65), a townsman known for his royal feasts, and the two towers were erected in the 1390s. In the early 14th century, the church received two additional floors, and in 1478 it was given its final shape. The crown on the taller tower probably also comes from that time. However, the shape is only a setting. St. Mary's Basilica hides true pearls of Gothic art, namely the main altar made in the years 1477–1489 by the Nuremberg master Veit Stoss. It is 18 metres high and 11 metres wide, and some of the figures reach three metres. Made of five-hundred-year-old linden wood, it consists of sixteen sections depicting scenes from the life of Jesus, the Mother of God, as well as St. Bishop Stanisław and St. Adalbert. The altar amazes with its woodcarving craftsmanship, the expression of the figures, and the refinement of the smallest details. One of the most outstanding works of Polish Gothic, it was funded by Kraków's townspeople and cost as much as the city's annual budget! It is also the largest Gothic wooden altar in Europe. Nevertheless it is not only the altar that is worth admiring. After entering the church, preferably at a time when there are few tourists and after absorbing the ample space of the nave, it is worth looking under the very ceiling of the temple and finding sculptures with strange, sometimes even frivolous themes, proving not only the enormous imagination but also the freedom of the creators. The stone figures here are also impressive with their realism and extraordinary expression. In addition to many other elements of the Gothic order, we also have medieval stained glass windows, visible behind the main altar. Although St. Mary's Basilica is mainly in the Gothic style, it should be remembered that, as in most religious buildings that are several hundred years old, we can also observe other architectural orders and artistic patterns. The beauty of the church is complemented with 19th-century polychromes made by three brilliant and ideologically different artists. Designed by Jan Matejko, they were applied to the walls by Stanisław Wyspiański and Józef Mehoffer.  Let's keep going.

Gothic religious buildings

Kraków. Dominican Church and Monastery at 12 Stolarska Street. The Church of the Holy Trinity in its current form was built around 1241, just after the Mongol invasion. The founder of the convent was St. Jacek, the first Polish Dominican friar. Although the church burned down during the great fire of 1850, its preserved interior delights with its Gothic shape.

Kraków. Franciscan Church and Monastery at 2 Franciszkańska Street. It took almost three hundred years to erect the structure dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, and its importance in Kraków is proven by the fact that Bolesław the Chaste and his sister, Blessed Salomea, were buried here. Its reconstruction in the Gothic style began around 1269 and was finished in the late 15th century. The main nave has a reconstructed ribbed vault. The Gothic structure and mostly Baroque furnishings are complemented by 19th-century polychromes by Stanisław Wyspiański.

Kraków. Wawel Royal Cathedral. The Wawel Cathedral is the most significant Polish temple, witnessing crucial events and the burial place of outstanding Poles. The current shape of the cathedral has a Gothic character. It was consecrated in 1364 in the presence of King Casimir the Great. The building has three naves surrounded by chapels added throughout history, and the central point is the tomb of St. Stanislaus. It is worth visiting the Cathedral Treasury, where you will find examples of medieval decorative art.

Let us now move to the neighbouring city founded in the 14th century. Kazimierz. The two cities were separated by the Vistula, which flowed along today's Dietla Street, and were connected by a bridge along Stradomska and Krakowska Streets. During the reign of Jan Olbracht, Kraków’s Jews were ordered to settle here, and this is how the history of the Polish-Jewish city began as the only one in the world where Corpus Christi Street (the name associated with the Catholic faith) is located next to Jakuba Street (the name of the Jewish patriarch).

Kraków Kazimierz. Augustinian Church and Monastery at 7–9 Augustiańska Street. The Church of Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret is one of the best-preserved examples of Gothic architecture in Poland. The reasons for this are tragic – the structure was plagued by floods, fires and earthquakes. It was used as a warehouse, a hospital and a student dormitory. It was even scheduled for demolition and was only brought back to life in 1993. Therefore, it retained its raw, Gothic interior, without the splendour of baroque decorations. This is what late medieval churches looked like. It is worth seeing the austere Gothic Chapel of St. Monica, cloister garths, and cloisters of the monastery. On the outside are the gargoyles, so famous in the Gothic architecture of Western cathedrals, called żygacze in Polish. This is a stone, intricately carved end of gutters, which were given shapes of fanciful creatures by old masters and often came to life in the imagination of creators of later centuries. And so, in the novel by one of the most famous horror writers, Graham Masterton, the resurrected mystical creatures that start attacking people come from the Church of St. Catherine.

Kraków Kazimierz. Church of Corpus Christ at 26 Corpus Christi Street. The church and monastery, built in 1405, is second only to St. Mary's Basilica in size. The temple, founded by Casimir the Great, was built for almost half a century, and its construction was completed by Władysław Jagiełło around 1405. It is a three-nave basilica and, thanks to its rich interior, one of the most frequently visited churches in Kraków. Baroque furnishings, especially one of the most beautiful boat-shaped pulpits, do not disguise the raw Gothic character.

Kraków Kazimierz. Old Synagogue at 24 Szeroka Street. The Szeroka Street synagogue is one of the oldest preserved synagogues in Poland and Europe. It is not entirely clear when it was created, and the presumed dates are the beginning or end of the 15th century! It is a typical Gothic building of this type and although it was destroyed in a fire in the mid-16th century, its original character was preserved during its reconstruction. For over 500 years it was the most important place in the Jewish world. Currently, there is a museum there – a branch of the Kraków Museum.

Where else Gothic churches worth seeing are:
•    Kraków. Church of St.Barbara and the Gethsemane Chapel at 9 Mały Rynek Street
•    Kraków. Church of St. Mark at 10 św. Marka Street
•    Kraków. Church of the Holy Cross at 23 Święta Krzyża Street
•    Kraków. Church of St. Gregory the Great, Ruszcza

Kraków surroundings
•    Niepołomice. Church of the Ten Thousand Martyrs
•    Myślenice. Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
•    Myślenice. Church of St. James
•    Raciborowice. Church of St. Margaret 
•    Sieciechowice.  Church of St. Andrew
•    Uniejów Parcela. Church of St. Vitus 
•    Więcławice Stare. Church of St. James

The Beskid Sądecki and the Beskid Niski Mountains
•    Biecz. Collegiate Church of Corpus Christi
•    Bobowa. Church of St. Sophia
•    Bobowa. Church of All Saint
•    Nowy Sącz. Collegiate Basilica of St. Margaret, 1 Kolegiacki Square
•    Nowy Sącz. Church of the Holy Spirit at 10 Piotra Skargi Street
•    Stary Sącz. The Poor Clares Monastery at 1 Św. Kingi Square
•    Stary Sącz. Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, 2 Adama Mickiewicza Street
•    Ujanowice. Church of St. Michael the Archangel
•    Zbyszyce. Church of St. Bartholomew the Apostle

Tarnów and surroundings
•    Bochnia. Basilica of St. Nicholas
•    Brzesko. Church of St. James the Apostle
•    Czchów. Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
•    Dębno. Church of St. Margaret
•    Gnojnik. Church of St. Martin the Bishop
•    Lipnica Murowana. Church of St. Andrew the Apostle
•    Radłów. Church of St. John the Baptist
•    Tarnów. Cathedral Basilica of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
•    Wojnicz. Church of St. Lawrence
•    Zborowice. Church of St. Mary Magdalene

The Pieniny Mountains and Spis
 Krościenko on the Dunajec River. Church of All Saints

•    Nowy Targ. Church of St. Catherine
•    Dębno Podhalańskie. Church of St. Michael the Archangel. A UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is unique on a global scale – a Gothic religious object, made entirely of wood. The current presbytery, nave and polychrome come from the 15th century, and it is known that an earlier house of worship stood here in the 13th century.

Oświęcim and its surroundings
 Auschwitz. Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
•    Zator Church of Sts Adalbert and George

The Beskid Mały and the Beskid Makowski
•    Lanckorona. Church of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
•    Sucha Beskidzka. Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (old)

The townspeople are getting rich, or where Nicolaus Copernicus went to school

The growing power of the last of the Piast Dynasty and Jagiellon Dynasty and the increasing role of the economy and trade led to the rapid development of cities and the enrichment of its inhabitants. Hence the increasing role of public utility facilities. We see this perfectly in Kraków. The Town Hall Tower, the Barbican, and the university's Collegium Maius have a Gothic character. However, the oldest Gothic building is an inconspicuous stone and brick tenement house at Święta Krzyża Street, right next to the Gothic church of the same name. It is not only a perfect example of Gothic urban architecture but also the oldest building in Kraków – it is 700 years old! Here we can see what houses looked like in medieval Kraków. We will see how the city defended itself in the Barbican, a military structure created outside the city walls to protect to protect the city gates against direct attack. The Kraków Barbican, with three-metre-thick walls, was built by King John Olbracht at the end of the 15th century, and it was intended to defend one of the city's eight gates and the only one that has survived to this day. The gate is even older and dates back to the turn of the 14th century. An equally interesting building is the Collegium Maius, which hosted students of the Kraków Academy since at least 1400, and then was the seat of the Jagiellonian Library. It is very likely that Nicolaus Copernicus studied there. Today, the Collegium is the seat of the History Museum of the Jagiellonian University.

Following the Gothic traces, you also need to go to the Kraków Museum – Rynek Underground, in the basement of the Main Market Square, at the entrance in the Cloth Hall. We can see here how the city square and its supermarket, i.e., the Cloth Hall developed, what the buildings looked like and how subsequent layers of civilisation grew. It is a multimedia facility where holograms show us around.

Other Gothic public buildings in Małopolska


Castles, or the great construction plan of Casimir the Great

The increase in the state's power also resulted in Casimir the Great's gigantic investments in defensive buildings. It was then that several dozen buildings were erected in Polish territory, mainly in Małopolska, whose task was to defend the capital of the country, i.e., Kraków. At that time, what was most feared was the Czech state, which still claimed the Polish throne and attacked Poland several times. Hence the Eagle's Nests – several castles in the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland. Here we can clearly see the philosophy behind this type of buildings, using natural rocky hills and having thick walls that the artillery of the day lacked the power to knock down. Under the rule of Casimir the Great, Wawelwas also militarily rebuilt, but the best example of a Gothic castle is the lofty building at today's Lake Czorsztyńskie, called the Wronin Castle. It was already standing by the 13th century, and during its expansion, a high tower called a ‘stołp’ was built here. The castles in Rytro and Czchów had the same towers.They were of a purely military nature and was where the castle’s defenders were supposed to make their last stand. During the reign of Casimir the Great, the Wronin Castle became one of the most critical objects in the state defence system, receiving solid defensive walls and additional security. It had a very turbulent history, and today it is a so-called permanent ruin. On the other side of Lake Czorsztyńskie there is an almost twin castle – Dunajec in Niedzica. Both castles stood watch over the border on the Polish and Hungarian sides of the river.

Other Gothic castles in Małopolska:


The Beautiful Virgin Mary from Krużlowa, or a symphony of linden wood

Gothic sculpture freed itself from architecture and was no longer just an element of cathedrals, a decoration of portals and tympanums. The characters then had authentic proportions, becoming more and more realistic and rich in gestures and facial expressions. Sculpture still served mainly to emphasise the greatness of God. Since the 14th century, elaborate tombstones of nobles and kings have appeared, which, apart from their religious significance, also had a political relevance, testifying to the greatness of the family and the state. Examples are the Wawel tombstones of Henryk Probus, Casimir the Great and Casimir IV Jagiellon.

The material is still stone, but linden wood – the same as Wit Stwosz created his masterpiece from – is particularly appreciated by master craftsmen. St. Mary's Basilica in Kraków. The one from which an unknown master created a masterpiece of Gothic sculpture in 1410, in the year of the Battle of Grunwald, is today called the Beautiful Virgin Mary from Krużlowa. It was a time of development of the Marian cult and a kind of mysticism manifested itself in the so-called beautiful style, which also included the Beautiful Virgin Mary. This is what the Beautiful Virgin Mary from Krużlowa is like – beautiful, almost elegant, slender and dynamic, half-turned, in beautiful court robes. Why from Krużlowa? The origin of the sculpture is unknown; it may have been intended for one of Kraków's churches, but ultimately it was found in a wooden church in Krużlowa near Grybów, dating back to 1520. Here, in the late 19th century, it was almost forgotten, but during a conservators' trip, a novice painter, Stanisław Wyspiański, noticed it, made a few sketches, and in 1899, the sculpture was transferred to the National Museum in Kraków. It is still there today. Equally beautiful and from the same aesthetic circle is the Beautiful Virgin Mary from Więcławice, dating from the turn of the15th century, which was originally located in the local church of St. James the Less, and is now in the Archdiocesan Museum in Kraków. This museum contains priceless Gothic sculptures and paintings from Małopolska churches, including a the oldest Gothic painting in Poland, dating from the mid-13th century – the so-called ‘Saints from Dębno Podhalańskie’. Among the sculptures worth paying attention to is the Adoration of the Magi from the 15th century and a collection of Gothic liturgical vestments.

To fully appreciate the craftsmanship of Gothic architecture, you need to visit the Bishop Erazm Ciołek Palace in Kraków, a branch of the National Museum. There are exhibitions devoted to the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque. This is a must see.

The Renaissance is coming

It is conventionally assumed that the Gothic style in Poland ended around 1500 when the Jagiellons sat on the Polish throne and created a tremendous Central European civilisation – lavish architecture, paintings, beautiful sculpture and fantastic literature. The culture of the Renaissance recognised humankind’s vast intellectual capabilities, and Kraków will become one of the most important cities in Europe.



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