Historic churches and monasteries in Małopolska will tell us a lot not only about the history and culture of the region, but also about the entire country. Thanks to them, we can visualise what architectural trends there were in the past and how much religion and faith meant to the people of the time. Monumental stone buildings and small climatic wooden churches – each of them has its own unique charm and catches the eye with its exquisite architecture. They are eagerly visited by tourists and pilgrims. These places were and still are an important element in building local identity and are a testimony of the country’s religiosity.
Kościół Mariacki (St. Mary’s Basilica), Krakow. A great work of art
When looking for a monument of Polish culture, history and faith, it is hard to find a more accurate example than the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Krakow , widely known as the kościoł Mariacki. One of the most beautiful monuments in the city is the beautiful late-Gothic Basilica, located in the Main Market Square in Krakow. Construction began in the 13th century and ended in 1320. St. Mary's Basilica did not remain in the same form as it was originally constructed, as it was rebuilt. The stained glass in three windows still remains from the original 14th century Basilica, among other things. The rest comes from the 19th century and was created by Stanisław Wyspiański and Józef Mehoffer. The painted decorations in the presbytery, designed by Jan Matejko, also come from this period. The main altar is the most famous part of the interior of St. Mary's. Made in the years 1477-1489 by the Nuremberg artist Wit Stwosz, it is one of the most outstanding works of late Gothic sculpture art in Europe. The altar was made out of three types of wood. The structure is made of hard oak, the background is made of lighter but equally strong larch, and the figures, which there are over 200 of, are carved in soft and flexible linden wood. The main scene of the Marian altar depicts the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by the apostles.
• The higher, northern tower of St. Mary's Basilica served as the municipal watchtower in the 15th century. From it, watchmen could see what was happening in the city and on its outskirts. It is called Hejnalica and is 82 meters high.
• In the middle of the 15th century, an earthquake that struck Krakow led to the collapse of the church's ceilings.
• The present Mariacki Square by the church is a former cemetery.
• The Hejnał Mariacki (bugle call) is played from a room in the tower at a height of 52 meters, called the Hejnalica. It was first played in 1838 and was the first public announcement of the exact time in Poland – twelve o'clock. The legend of the hejnał being stopped by a Tatar warrior's bow has no historical basis.
• It was in St. Mary's Bascilica that the wedding of Jadwiga Mikołajczyk with Lucjan Rydel took place, which became the basis for the Polish national drama – "Wesele" (Wedding) by Stanisław Wyspiański.
The Church of Saint Michael the Archangel, Dębno Podhalańskie. A larch symphony without a single nail
Among the almost 800 Polish wooden churches entered in the register of monuments, the churches found in southern Małopolska are some of the most unique. Their characteristic architecture, harmoniously integrated into the landscape, combines aesthetic and decorative features with the functional requirements of a harsh, sub-mountain climate – steep roofs, awnings and arcades. A perfect example of such a combination is the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel in Dębno in Podhale . The church, which is over 500 years old, is surrounded by a majestic old forest. The church in Dębno Podhalańskie was built of larch and fir wood, in which the nails were replaced with wooden pegs. It has been preserved, practically unchanged, since the Middle Ages. In 1601, only a low tower with a porch, topped with a pyramidal cupola, was added. The Church was entered onto the UNESCO list in 2003, and is one of the best-preserved Gothic wooden churches and at the same time one of the most famous Polish monuments in the country and abroad. It was the only wooden church to be nominated in the competition of the seven wonders of Poland. The Church also captivates with its decorations and interior features. On a sunny day, after entering the wooden church, you need a moment for your eyes to adjust to the darkness of the interior. Then, you will see a stunning Gothic-Renaissance polychrome from 1500. It was made using cardboard or leather templates. There are 77 floral, geometric, figural and animal motifs in 33 colours on the ceiling and walls. On the rood beam, there is the Church's oldest relic – a cross from 1380, which, according to legend, was brought by the waters of the Białka River. Speaking of legends, one of them says that the Church in Dębno Podhalańskie was built by robbers, next to the place where Saint Michael the Archangel appeared on an oak tree. When visiting the Church, it is worth paying attention to the knight's banner hanging in the display case. The legendary souvenir is a gift from King Jan III Sobieski. According to tradition, he left it here after Victory of Vienna in 1683.
• At the altar, there are famous cymbals from the 15th century – there are probably only five of them in the world. Unique, because of the sounds made against the laws of physics: the thickest and longest tile sounds high, the thinnest and shortest sounds low.
• This Gothic-Renaissance strip polychrome from 1500 is the oldest painting of this type in Europe.
• The scene of Janosik's wedding with Maryna from a well-known Polish series was filmed in the Church.
• The Church is located just a few hundred meters from the embankments of the Jezioro Czorsztyńskie (Czorsztyn Lake) and was originally to be flooded with its waters.
The Church of Saint Leonard, Lipnica Murowana. The ark that was not swept away by the flood
It is worth travelling to Lipnica Murowana not only to see the tallest Easter Palms in the country, but also to see the Church of St. Leonard. The Church dates back to the 15th century and is one of the oldest and most valuable wooden churches in Poland. However, according to local tradition, it dates from the year 1143 or 1203 – this date can be read on the north-eastern wall of the presbytery. In 2003, the Church was entered on the UNESCO list (Małopolska Trasa Światowego Dziedzictwa UNESCO (Małopolska UNESCO World Heritage Route)). The interior of the Church is decorated with paintings (polychrome) from various periods, from the end of the 15th to the beginning of the 18th century. The presbytery is decorated with the following scenes: the Crucifixion, the Last Supper and the Last Judgment, a nave of the scenes from the Passion and the Decalogue. Among the valuable decorations, we can find a rare feretron (a painting used in procession) with a bas-relief of the Holy Trinity and a music box that continues to play melodies to this day. Lipnica Murowana is also known throughout Poland for the tradition of making Easter palms and a competition for the tallest one. The largest ones measure even over 30 meters. Three people who were raised to the altars in the Catholic Church were also closely related to Lipnica Murowana. They were Saint Simon, Saint Ursula Ledóchowska and Blessed Maria Teresa Ledóchowska. To bring this extraordinary heritage of Lipnica closer to pilgrims and tourists, an extraordinary Centrum Pielgrzyma i Turysty (Pilgrim and Tourist Centre) was established in Lipnica Murowana. Here, we will learn about the history of the town presented in an attractive way, with the use of audio guides in as many as seven languages. Thanks to the use of the most modern of technologies – a hologram – you can get to know the most valuable monument in Lipnica – the Church of St. Leonard even better. You can project its individual elements in front of you, so they are almost close enough to touch. The Centre is a treasury of knowledge about Lipnica and its monuments, a meeting place for all generations, because it offers knowledge and information in an attractive, modern way. And at the end of your stay at the Centre, you can refresh yourself with a unique linden tea, (Polish: Lipnicka lipina), which has been on the List of Regional Products since 2014 (Get to know Małopolska behind the scenes).
• The church of Saint Leonard in Lipnica Murowana stands on the site of a pagan shingle, from which the so-called Światowid pillar, supporting the altar at the back, is said to originate.
• In the floor of the church there is a tombstone of the father of the blessed and saint Lechówski sisters – Antoni Ledóchowski, captain of the Austrian hussars and chamberlain of Emperor Franciszek Józef. Of his ten children, four chose the clergy.
• The church in Lipnica Murowana was almost destroyed in 1997 during the great flood. The rushing river flooded the foundations, threatening to take the church with it. It was tied down to the neighbouring trees with ropes and thus saved.
The Church of the Holy Hermits Andrzej Świerad and Benedykt Tropie. One of the oldest churches in Poland
One of Małopolska's historic and religious gems is the Church of Saint Hermits Andrzej Świerad and Benedict in Tropie. This place is connected with the beginnings of Christianity in Poland and one of the oldest churches in Poland was founded here. Its history dates back to 1045, when it was supposedly founded by King Kazimierz Odnowiciel. According to tradition, the church was built on the site of the hermitage of the Benedictine monk Saint Świerad, who lived here on the Dunajec River at the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries. This place is exceptionally picturesque – the Church stands on a lofty hill above the surface of the Jezioro Czchowskie (Lake Czchów). The church was rebuilt in the 14th and 16th centuries. The chancel walls, built of sandstone blocks, have survived from the original building. The sacristy adjoining the chancel from the north comes from the 13th century. The most valuable monument in the interior of the church are the preserved fragments of the Romanesque polychrome on the northern arch of the rainbow, probably depicting Saint Stephen, King of Hungary in a crown and with a sceptre in his hand. The ceiling of the nave is covered with a Rococo painting showing the Pentecost. The figures of the patrons of the church in Tropie are visible in the main altar: the saints are kneeling below the scene of the coronation of the Mother of God by the Holy Trinity. The Baroque stone baptismal font is also interesting, as it is built into the wall and closed with a wooden, Rococo casing with paintings related to baptism. Another attraction of the Church, although of a slightly different kind, is the way you can reach the Church of the Holy Hermits Świerad and Benedict. You have to cross the Dunajec River by ferry, from the marina on the national road No. 75 from Brzesko to Nowy Sącz, or choose a slightly longer route, without a ferry crossing, and enjoy the views while driving through Rożnów.
• The church was consecrated around 1073 by Saint Stanisław the Martyr.
• In the vicinity of the church, there is a grotto where Saint Świerad lived, and next to it there is an 18th-century brick chapel. There is also a spring, the water of which – according to beliefs – has healing powers. There are also remains of an old oak trunk in which, according to legend, Świerad found shelter. He is the first Polish saint to be canonised together with his student Saint Benedict in 1083.
• There are three reliquaries in the church: St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, with the bone of St. Świerad and of the Holy Cross.
The Church and monastery of the Holy Sepulchre in Miechów. A representation of the tomb of Jesus Christ
There are only two such places in the world. In Jerusalem and in Miechów . The Holy Sepulchre , which is located in the village of Małopolska, is an exact copy of the one in Jerusalem. The origin, history and development of the city of Miechów is inextricably linked with the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and more precisely with the Regular Knighthood Order of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Miechów was their seat for seven centuries. It all started in 1163, when Jaksa of the Griffin family brought monks from Jerusalem and founded a monastery. He was the first in Poland and the first in Europe to promote the cult of the Holy Sepulchre. It gained special significance after the conquest of Jerusalem by dissenters in 1187. At that time, crowds of pilgrims from all over the world then came to the Holy Sepulchre in Miechów. At the end of the 14th century, the monastery was expanded and the Church of the Tomb of Christ and Saint James the Younger was built. In the second half of the 18th century, after the great fire of the whole Miechów in 1745, it was thoroughly rebuilt in the late Baroque style. The interior has a beautiful late Baroque and Rococo style. The creator of the great altar with the resurrection scene was a Krakow woodcarver, Mikołaj, and the stucco, figural and ornamental decorations in the Rococo style were made by Wojciech Rojowski. The entire Church is adorned with exquisite works. It is also worth seeing the exhibition at the Muzeum Ziemi Miechowskiej (Miechów Regional Museum) , where you can admire the most valuable fabrics and liturgical vestments from the monastery treasury, as well as a gallery of portraits of the Holy Sepulchre and liturgical paraments. In 1998, Saint John Paul II gave the church the title of Minor Basilica to the Church.
• The Monastery of the Holy Sepulchre in Miechów was not only the oldest and most outstanding, but also the richest of all monasteries of this order in Europe.
• The Miechów copy of the Holy Sepulchre was built around 1530 in an east-west line, like the tomb in Jerusalem and corresponds to the biblical description: the mortuary bed is on the right side (can accommodate five people), has a small entrance (to look inside you need bend down in front of it), you can close it with a large stone. The internal dimensions are very similar or near identical to the Jerusalem original. There is also a copy of the Shroud of Turin in the church.
• There is an extensive system of underground corridors under the monastery.
Kalwaria Zebrzydowska Passion and Marian Sanctuary. On the paths of faith of John Paul II
The Sanctuary is picturesquely situated above the city, and is not only a Church and a Monastery, but also a complex of chapels and Churches on the Way of the Cross , and a landscape park. It all started at the beginning of the 17th century. According to the legend, one day, the voivode of Krakow, Mikołaj Zebrzydowski, saw three burning crosses on the Żar hill, rising to the sky. In this place, in 1602, he founded a church and entrusted it to the care of the Bernardine Order. Over time, thanks to the Zebrzydowski family, the complex began to expand. A Baroque Church was built with the miraculous image of Our Lady of Kalwaria. Next, the Bernardine Monastery was built. Both buildings were erected according to the design of the architect Jan Maria Bernardoni and the Flemish architect and goldsmith Paweł Baudarth. Almost all of the chapels on the Way of the Cross in Kalwaria, known as the Kalwaria roads, were also made by him, as well as the hermitage of the Pięć Braci Polaków (Five Polish Brothers) and the chapel of Saint Mary Magdalene. The model for their construction was Jesus’ Way of the Cross in Jerusalem. During Holy Week, the Passion Mysteries take place here, culminating on Good Friday, which attract thousands of pilgrims to the Sanctuary in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. In 1979, Saint John Paul II visited the Sanctuary , raising it to the rank of a Minor Basilica. The Pope travelled here when he was a child, and later as the Bishop of Krakow. This one of the most important Polish sanctuaries was entered on the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage List in 1999.
• It is a unique place in terms of religion and culture, visited by over 1.5 million pilgrims annually. The Passion and Marian Sanctuary in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska is one of the most important places of the Passion and Marian cult in Poland.
• John Paul II’s father, also named Karol, made a pilgrimage to Kalwaria in the most difficult moments of his life. With sons Edmund and Karol after the death of his wife Emilia and also with Karol also after the death of his older son Edmund in 1932.