The cold spell is breaking here in Krakow and the crowds are coming out of hibernation.  I joined them and headed for my favorite part of the city, Old Town, on this sun-kissed morning.  I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for but I figured that at the very least I could go back to Wawel Hill and see what I had missed on my other trips there.

I reached the long path that leads up the hill, which was now filled with living statues and men in archaic Polish soldier uniforms, and climbed to the top.  I headed to the Visitor’s Center to see what exhibits were open today.  I had seen them all before but I couldn’t resist going into the Royal Armory and Treasury one more time.  I strolled through rooms filled with swords, axes, shields, maces, serving platters, home altars, cannons, and many other objects made of precious metals and adorned with delicate jewels.  For more on this warehouse of wonderful wares see my post “King of the Hill.”

There was on thing on top of this historic hill that I had not really explored yet: The Wawel Cathedral.  After the Sunday mass was finished I joined about fifty other tourists at the cathedral’s main entrance.  Beside the massive door, which was not unusual as cathedrals go, was something that I had never seen.  There, hanging from chains attached to the stone arch, were enormous bones from what I later found out were prehistoric animals discovered near Wawel Hill.

The rusted chains and yellowing bones gave me the impression that this would be some sort of rustic, decomposing cathedral.  That was not the case.  I entered and had almost no idea where to begin.  Every inch of this church was packed with polish and shine.  I stood just inside the door and as I looked back I could hardly believe that on the other side of the granite and gold arches that rose to the cieling there were mastadon bones hanging on rusty chains.

From the walls of the nave flew bright red and white tapestries depicting Biblical stories.  Below one of them, on the left side, was the first of many memorials in the cathedral.  This one was a cenotaph of red marble, topped with a statue of a young man with a lion sleeping at his feet.  Then I found out just how young this king was.  In 1434, at the age of ten, Wladyslaw of Varna became King of Poland.  Before his teenage years were over he had been crowned the King of Hungary as well.  At the age of nineteen Wladyslaw launched a war against the Turks.  Less than one year later he was killed in the Battle of Varna on the shores of The Black Sea.  His body was never found and all that remains of him is this memorial in The Wawel Cathedral.

In the center, though, was a memorial that dwarfed that of the boy king.  It is known as The Reliquary of Saint Stanislaus. Stanislaus was the Bishop of Krakow from 1072 until 1079.  Near the end of his time in that position he challenged the reign of King Boleslaw Smialy on the grounds that he was an unjust ruler.  Boleslaw demonstrated his idea of justice by immediately having the future saint executed.  Now, when walking into the cathedral on top of Wawel Hill the gold coffin of Saint Stanislaus, decorated with an etching of the interior of the cathedral, hovers above a raised platform protected by two angels holding a sword and scepter.  As for King Boleslaw, he was later dethroned by his own soldiers and buried in an unmarked grave.

As I approached the high altar I was impressed by its relative simplicity.  There was a small wooden podium on red carpet.  Tapestries of trees and lakes hung from above the choir.  There were two thing, however, that stood out.  On the right side of the altar was a chair.  This was no ordinary chair, though.  It was upholstered with red velvet on the seat.  The arms were carved with angel faces for the priest to rest his hands on.  The back of the chair was primarily gold sculpted into stylized floral patterns.  Similar patterns of red and green detailed the back of this throne.

To the left of the high altar was a door that led to a hall which wound around the back of the altar and then ended up on the other side of it.  This hallway was closed off by high walls and numerous chapels devoted to kings and saints.  After seeing the sarcophagus of the king who started this necropolis of Polish royalty I was confronted with the stark figure of Christ on the cross.  The statue and the pillars that enclosed it were all made of black stone.  Only the capitals atop the pillars and a halo behind the head of Christ were made of gold.  This figure of the Christ was so striking that many people have said it spoke to them.  One person in particular meant it literally, though.  Saint Jadwiga, who was the Queen of Poland in the late 14th century, often prayed at the foot of this figure of Christ.  One day she claimed that the statue began talking to her.  The statue has now become know as Saint Jadwiga’s Cross and her relics have been placed at the statues feet.

I followed the hall until I was directly behind the altar.  On the wall were two arches, each containing a group of figures made of white stone.  They each contained two men sitting on the ground looking up in terror while next two them stand two women looking up in cool complacency.  Above them are angels and below them are skulls with crossbones.  I don’t know what the story behind these two scenes is and it not even marked on the tourist guide for the cathedral.  Aesthetically, though, this was one of my favorite pieces.

I followed the hall way back to the other side of the high altar.  Near the exit I saw candles surrounding the entrance to the final chapel and a group of women crying as they looked inside.  This was the chapel devoted to Pope John Paul II, or as he was known in his native Poland, Karol Józef Wojtyła.  I stood in front of the chapel for awhile and did not see a single person pass without going into it and saying a prayer.  He is clearly everyone’s favorite Pope here in Krakow, which is not surprising considering his rise in the church despite the many obstacles he faced during the Nazi invasion of Poland.  And, of course, he was the first non-Italian Pope in almost 500 years and the only Polish Pope to date.

I would have like to share a few photos with you but photography is not allowed in Wawel Cathedral.  I guess you will just have to come see it for yourself when you visit Poland.  It has been quite a great day full of adventure.  If I have time later I will tell you all about the rest of my day but for now I think the story ends here.  Until our next adventure…

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