by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Saints, kings, legends and a Da Vinci haunt Poland’s former capital


Coming across bones in a major cathedral like the one in Wawel, the historical hill in Krakow, is only natural. After all, holy relics are essential for shrines of significance and Wawel Cathedral is no exception. In it, interred in their sumptuous sarcophagi, lie the remains of Saint Stanislaus the Martyr and Saint Hedwig the Queen.

However, at the main entrance of the 14th Century Gothic cathedral hang bones which have nothing to do with piousness. Yellowed by the years and chained to the old wrought iron gates are the bones of a mammoth, a rhinoceros and a whale.

How they ended up in Wawel Cathedral is a mystery. The temptation is to imagine how one day a man appeared in Krakow and offered to sell to the citizens the remains of the infamous Wawel Dragon.

The Wawel Dragon appeared in history sources in the 12th Century. According to legend, it used to live in the caves under the Wawel Hill and devoured people until brave king Krak killed it. Its cave can still be visited.

  No one know how the bones of a rhinoceros, a whale and a mammoth ended at Wawel Cathedral's main gateNo one know how the bones of a rhinoceros, a whale and a mammoth ended at Wawel Cathedral's main gate

The story of the dragon and the mystery of the bones are but a drop in the ocean of stories about Wawel. The limestone hill overlooking the Vistula River has been inhabited since the beginning of the 1st Millennium AD, and became the centre of the Polish state in the 10th Century. In the 18th Century, the centre of power shifted, but Wawel and Krakow remained at the heart of Polish national identity.

As a result of this long history, every corner in Wawel has a story, a peculiarity or a special significance for the Poles, and sometimes these features overlap.

The equine statue of Tadeusz Kościuszko by the west entrance of Wawel Castle is a good example. It was placed there in the 1920s to honour the man who fought in the American Revolution and started a rebellion in his homeland when Russia, Prussia and Austria divided Poland between themselves. The monument did not survive – the Nazis destroyed it in 1940. The statue you see today is a replica, given as a present by the citizens of Dresden in the 1960s.

  The original monument of Tadeusz Kościuszko was made of decommissioned guns The original monument of Tadeusz Kościuszko was made of decommissioned guns

Speaking of art, nothing in Wawel can compete with a single, rather small painting, exhibited in a dark room at the royal palace.

Leonardo da Vinci painted the Lady with the Ermine, a portrait of the Duke of Milan’s mistress, in 1489-1490. The painting was bought by Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski at the end of the 18th Century and ended up in Krakow in 1882. The Nazis took it in 1939, but the painting was brought back to the city after the war.

The artistic qualities of the Lady with the Ermine are more exciting than its story. One of only four female portraits by Leonardo, the Lady with the Ermine has been hailed as a breakthrough in portrait painting and a rival to the Mona Lisa.

The royal palace at Wawel itself has a strong Italian connection. Built in the 16th Century by King Sigismund I, with its arcades and steep roof it is the perfect marriage between Italian Renaissance architecture and the peculiarities resulting from the northern climate. Used as the residence of the Polish president in the interwar period, the palace became a museum under Communism. Among its many exhibits, the remains of the 350 odd tapestries from the 17th Century are a must-see.

King Sigismund also built the gilt-domed Sigismund Chapel by the south nave of Wawel Cathedral. He, along with King Sigismund II and Queen Anna Jagiellon, are buried in it.

  The royal palace of Wawel combines Italian Renaissance with northern architectureThe royal palace of Wawel combines Italian Renaissance with northern architecture

Wawel Cathedral is the prime place for burials of Polish royals and figures of prominence, and walking around it is like a short lesson in Polish history.

The central nave is lined with the ornate sarcophagi of kings, queens and saints, and the chapels house more royal tombs. A special crypt is dedicated to venerated poets Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki. Spreading under the cathedral, St Leonard's Crypt is the final resting place of notables such as Jan III Sobieski, Tadeusz Kościuszko and Władysław Sikorski, who was the head of the Polish government in exile during the Second World War.

The Sigismund Bell was installed on the top of the Sigismund Tower, in the Wawel Cathedral, within a single day: 13 July 1521. It rings on major feasts and on important occasions, like the visits by the late Pope John Paul II

The Sigismund Bell was installed on the top of the Sigismund Tower, in the Wawel Cathedral, within a single day: 13 July 1521. It rings on major feasts and on important occasions, like the visits by the late Pope John Paul II

In April 2010, the remains of President Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria were also buried in the crypt, after they died in an airplane crash at Smolensk, in Russia. The decision sparked controversy, but the sarcophagus of President Kaczyński is never without wreaths and flowers.

There is one person, though, who was strongly connected with the cathedral, yet is not buried there. In 1945, a young priest, Karol Wojtyła, served his first mass in St Leonard's Crypt. Later, as Pope John Paul II, he would state that he wanted to be buried in Wawel Cathedral, but after his death in 2005, he was interred in St Peter's, in Rome.

Wawel Cathedral is not only about the underground experience. Take the wooden stairs leading all the way up to the Sigismund Tower (named after the king who built the palace and the chapel). There awaits the colossal Sigismund Bell, a monster weighting 12.6 tonnes. A group of 12 men is needed to ring it and, when they do, the sound is heard over a radius of 30 km. The Sigismund Bell was installed in 1521 and since then has only needed one repair – its clapper was replaced in 2000-2001.


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