A Pilgrimage to Kraków’s Beautiful Basilica of Our Lady Assumed Into Heaven
The historic church in Poland is notable for its Marian connection.
Pardon me if I sound a bit chauvinistic, but it’s true: Kraków is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. And if you happen ever to visit it, you will undoubtedly find your way to the Main Market Square (Rynek Główny) in the center of town. Boarding that square is a dark red-brick Gothic church, the Kościół Mariacki (Marian Church), St. Mary’s Basilica.
If you sit on the Market Square toward the hour (a great place to rest and have a drink), you will hear the clock strike. Then, from the higher tower, a window will open and a trumpet will protrude. The trumpet will play his signal, the Hejnał Mariacki, which will cut off in mid-tune. It will be repeated to the four cardinal directions.
That signal has been played every hour on the hour since 1241, when the first trumpeter, sounding the alarm of the Mongol attack on Kraków, was cut short in his warning by an arrow shot through his instrument, piercing his neck.
The Mongol attack resulted in the burning of Kraków and the original Marian Church. A new church was built, starting in 1290, which has been successively embellished through the centuries. Today’s northern tower, the higher, is decorated with a helmet, a sign that it continued to serve as a watchtower for the city.
The Basilica of St. Mary’s Basilica is notable for its Marian connection. It’s not just that the church is dedicated to the patronage of Our Lady. It’s also known for the precious Marian art it contains, the Marian altarpiece of Wit Stwosz.
Wit Stwosz, a German who lived in Kraków, carved the altarpiece from 1477-89. The huge altarpiece (it measures 36 by 42 feet) over the main altar is a triptych, i.e., a centerpiece with two framed hinged pieces.
The centerpiece depicts the “Dormition of Mary,” her “falling asleep.”
Mary was truly human — in fact, more truly human than we are. Our experience of death is not what God created us for: “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living” (Wisdom 1:13). Our experience of death, as a breakup of whom we are, as disconnection and disintegration, is the result of our embrace of disconnection and disintegration through sin. Mary, “conceived without sin,” does not experience the end of her earthly life as we do, because she does not experience it as a sinner who is afraid: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, and because fear has to do with punishment, love is not yet perfect in one who is afraid” (1 John 4:18).
That is why the Church prefers to speak of Mary “falling asleep” as opposed to her “death” because the end of her earthly life was qualitatively different from ours, not just because God privileged her but because we damaged ourselves. In his definition of the dogma of the Assumption, Pope Pius XII is careful to write: “We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (Munificentissimus Deus, no. 44).
Mary is depicted on the Wit Stwosz altarpiece “falling asleep,” her hands showing her passing this world. Mary, “the queen, arrayed in gold,” is kneeling, clearly leaving this life. Around her, in grief, are the 12 Apostles. One supports her. Another holds her cloak. Another prays with a prayerbook. Directly above that scene, through a line of attendant angels, is Mary with her Son in heaven. Who else would have been the first person she saw in that world?
The side panels depict other Christological and Mariological mysteries, the “Joys of Mary.” (Please note I say “and” because these mysteries are not one or the other: they are one, in which Mary as Mother of God, had her unique share.) On the left, from the top down, we see the Annunciation, the Nativity and the Epiphany. On the right, in similar order, are the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Spirit. (The Descent of the Holy Spirit was 2021 Pentecost’s “Scripture and Art” commentary.)
The Wit Stwosz altarpiece was stolen by the German Nazis in 1941 and taken to Bavaria, only to be returned to Poland in the late 1950s. This 500-year-old iconographic gem underwent cleaning and restoration in 2021, so today’s visitors have a fresh appreciation of this devotional masterpiece.
Kraków is a city of great churches, many of which are just steps from St. Mary’s. Exit the church to your left, go past the U.S. consulate, and you’ll find the beautiful Dominican church and, a little further on, the Franciscan church. Across the square and you’ll be in St. Anne’s Church, the university parish where John Paul would preach as a priest. (St. John Cantius is buried there.) Leave St. Mary’s and go right to find your way to St. Thomas the Apostle, where now lie the remains of Sister Emmanuela Kalb (1899-1986), a Jewish convert to Christianity whose mystical experiences were recorded in her diary and who is now deemed a Servant of God. (The cathedral, on Wawel Hill, is a little further out.)
- poland as mary's land