Monumental and full of charm, beautifully preserved and withered by time, full of history and legend. Here are 15 exceptional churches of Poland, dating from the Middle Ages through to contemporary times
The Gniezno cathedral, the Mother of Polish Churches, stands on the Wzgórze Lecha (Hill of Lech). Evocative of French architecture, the shrine’s present shape was raised in the 14th century as the fourth structure on site. The first was built in the 9th century, the subsequent one – a century later. Built on the scheme of a cross by Duke Mieszko I, and serving as the tomb of his wife Dobrawa, the cathedral was also later rebuilt by Bolesław the Brave. It was here that the burial ceremony of Poland’s patron, St. Wojciech took place. The silver coffin with his relics is still kept in the cathedral to date.
Through renovations that followed a series of fires, the cathedral took on Baroque and classicist forms, to be later finally reconstructed in the Gothic spirit after World War II.
Its mighty towers stand high above the 85-metre walls and have Baroque tented roofs. The main nave and the side naves are surrounded by a wreath of 14 chapels, most of them Gothic. The porch by the southern tower houses one of Poland’s most precious relics of Romanesque art – the bronze, late 12th-century Gniezno Doors. The cathedral also contains many other valuable works of art and beautiful architectural details (such as the tombstone of Zbigniew Oleśnicki carved by Wit Stwosz).
The first coronation ceremonies of Polish kings were held at the Gniezno cathedral.
At the millennial anniversary of the Gniezno gathering, representatives from countries bound to the mission of St. Wojciech planted symbolic trees in the Valley of Reconciliation.
The cloister church in Sulejów
Sulejów is the best preserved Cistercian fortified abbey in Poland. Legend links the founding of the cloister with a hunt by Prince Kazimierz II Sprawiedliwy (the Just). While chasing after a stag, the prince got separated from his companions and as he was trying to find his way back to them he heard a voice from the sky ‘Raise a church in this place, and I will return you to your servants.’ The ruler promised to fulfil the will of God, and twelve lions led him back to his court.
The church of St. Thomas of Canterbury was raised with high-quality sandstone from the Szydłowice region in the first half of the 13th century. The three-nave transept basilica is build in a Romanesque and Gothic style. Its chapter house is covered over with a groin-rib vault, the four spans of which all lean on one column – one of the most daring constructions of its kind in Poland. Inside, there are five Baroque altars and a rococo main altar, raised in 1788 by Jan Millman. The wooden sculptures of lions surrounding are evocative of the church’s founding legend.
The small town of Pelplin in the Kociewie region hides one of the most monumental sites of Gothic architecture in Poland. The three-nave and one-span cathedral basilica of the Assumption of Blessed Virgin Mary was raised at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries, and its construction continued through to the 16th century.
Among the preserved elements of its original construction are the late-Gothic choirs (built between 1450-1462). The oak benches are decorated with figures (with a rare depiction of the Holy Spirit as a man) and ornate floral compositions. There are also the magnificent Baroque organs, as well as diamond, rib and star-vault ceilings, and an exceptional number of altars. The 23 of them are made of wood, marble and stucco. The most precious altar is the main one, raised in a mannerist style, gilded, and richly decorated with the paintings of Hermann Han. The five storeys of the church are 25 metres tall, making it the tallest church of its kind in this part of Europe.
The local Diocese Museum keeps numerous unique incunabula, among them one of the twenty copies of the Gutenberg Bible that exist in the world (and the only copy on Polish territory). Pilgrims are also attracted by the so-called pelplinki, a regional speciality – creamy caramel cookies with honey.
There could hardly be a more exemplary monument of Polish culture, history, and faith than Wawel cathedral. 37 coronation ceremonies took place here, beginning with the crowning of Władysław Łokietek in 1320. Almost all of Poland’s rulers have been buried at the cathedral. The crypts of the church also serve as burial sites for national heroes, among them Tadeusz Kościuszko and Józef Piłsudski, and a Bards’ Crypt houses the tombs of Adam Mickiewicz and Julisz Słowacki. There is also the grave of St. Stanislaw, whose cult is linked with the idea of a united and independent Polish State.
We know little about what the first cathedral church was raised in Wawel looked like. It was probably built shortly after the founding of the Kraków bishopric in the year 1000. After yet another Romanesque cathedral was raised at the turn of the 11th and 12th centuries, the crypt of St. Leonard remained as well as the lower part of the Silver Bells’ towers. The 14th century three-nave transept basilica we know today was rebuilt numerous times over the centuries.
Currently, there are 19 Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque chapels, with the prominent Zygmunt Chapel probably the most famous among them. The sound of a bell founded by King Zygmunt I the Old resonates from the cathedral during important state and church ceremonies. Tradition has it that the sound of the bell makes the clouds disperse and the sun appear. The decorative, cast-iron doors that lead into the cathedral date back to the epoch of the last Piast rulers.
St. Mary’s Basilica in Kraków
The second most important shrine in Poland’s former capital is the church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Its original building was raised before Kraków was officially endowed with city rights in 1257, and this explains its asymmetrical placement with respect to the axis of the Main Square. The original Romanesque building was destroyed during the Tatar invasions, and its traces are now preserved 2.6 metres underground.
The clay brick three-nave Gothic basilica of today was built in the late 14th century. Over the subsequent 100 years chapels were added onto the side naves, and later the work concentrated on renovating the interiors. Franciszek Placidi dared a brutal intervention into the Gothic original in the 18th century, but later the form was partially brought back to the preceding Gothic style. Among those who took on the task of this re-Gothicising the cathedral was the artist Jan Matejko (who painted the starry polychromic vault ceiling) and his students – Stanisław Wyspiański and Józef Mehoffer, who created separate stein-glass designs. St. Mary’s Basilica is associated first and foremost with Wit Stwosz, the creator of St. Mary’s Altar, one of the most prominent and best preserved works of late Gothic sculpture in this part of Europe.
Two towers of unequal height are another distinct element that captures attention. The tent-roofed hejnał (hymn) tower measures 81 metres together with its spire, while the bell tower is 69 metres high. According to legend, two brothers worked on the construction of the towers. One of them stabbed the other for fear of the other's tower becoming taller than his own. Filled with remorse, he took his own life soon afterwards. The murder weapon still hangs in one of the Sukiennice gates.
St. Mary’s Church in Gdańsk
The massive tower of the co-cathedral St. Mary’s church stretches up above the panorama of Gdańsk and the spacious surroundings. It is said to be the largest brick shrine in Europe. Capable of holding 25 thousand people, the cathedral would have once been able to host the entire population of the city – it was, in fact the case at the time when it was raised. Its completion took some 160 years (1343-1502). During the preceding era of the Pomeranian princes, a small wooden church stood in its location.
The basilica, also known as the Crown of Gdańsk, managed to keep its historic form in spite of a tumultuous history. Its iconography dates back to the 16th century, and its bright interiors are filled with pillars that support a star-vault, rib-vault and diamond-vault structured ceiling. The main altar of the church is made of oak in a late-Gothic style, and it was build in the years 1510-1517. A famous reconstructed 15th-century astronomic clock stands near the sacristy, and the interiors also boast a 19th-century replica of Hans Memling’s Last Judgement. A statue of the so-called Beautiful Gdańsk Madonna stands in the chapel of St. Anne. Legend has it that a young man carved it all in one night whilst he was locked up in a cell. The magnificent work of art bought him freedom, and it later turned out that he had in fact been imprisoned unjustly.
The post of local bandmaster at St. Mary’s church in Gdańsk was once a real honour, (and a very well-paid job), and the composer Johann Sebastian Bach himself is known to have once applied for it. A letter from 1730 has been preserved, in which Bach asks a friend to consider his chances at getting the job.
St. Anne’s Basilica in Kodnio
Holy Mary stands against the background of a rainbow aureola, holding the Baby Jesus in her left arm and bearing a sceptre in her right. This image, which portrays an original sculpture of the Madonna from Guadeloupe, was stored at the papal chapel. In 1631, Mikołaj Pius Sapieha, the grand ensign of Lithuania, was miraculously healed during a mass service conducted in the presence of this painting. Sapieha, the owner of Kodnio, showed his gratitude for divine mercy in a peculiar way – having failed to obtain the permission of Pope Urban VIII to take the painting, he simply stole it.
The painting was first hung in the castle chapel and later moved to the church of St. Anne in Kodnio, in the Podlasie region. Sapieha had the Kodnio church raised in 1629, modelled on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The shrine, whose construction took six years, was originally built in a late-Renaissance style, which today is covered over by a Baroque façade. Sapieha had himself buried under a nameless plaque of red granite in the church’s porch, in order for the feet of the faithful to step over his grave. The story of the miraculous painting inspired a novel by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, entitled Błogosławiona wina (editor's translation: Blessed Sin).
Churches of Peace in Jawor and Świdnica
They had to be situated far from the city walls, built with temporary materials (wood, clay, and straw), and they could not resemble traditional churches. Such were the conditions proclaimed by Ferdinand III Habsburg under which he allowed Silesian Lutherans to raise protestant churches. They were to symbolise religious tolerance, and crown the ending of the The Thirty Years’ War. And yet, two of the three churches (excluding the one in Głogów) still stand unmoved to this day, some 350 years later. In 2001, they were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The Churches of Peace in Jawor (1654-55) and in Świdnica (1656-57), 30km away from each other, are the largest sacral monuments in Europe raised in the timber-framing technique. Designed by the Wrocław-based architect Albrecht von Säbisch, they look very modest from the outside, while their Baroque interiors resemble theatres, with multi-storied matroneums. The interiors of the Jawor shrine are decorated with 180 paintings, depicting scenes from the Old and the New Testament, while those in Świdnica represent apocalyptic visions as well as a panorama of the surrounding towns.
Basilica in Święta Góra
Its founder – Adam Konarzewski – wanted the basilica to resemble the Kraków Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. After the founder’s death, his wife Zofia nee Opalińska continued his endeavour. She changed her project under the influence of a journey to Italy. The round basilica with a huge copula (17 metres in diameter, 50 metres in height) is a replica of the Venetian Santa Maria della Salute.
The cult of Holy Mary had been developing in Święta Góra since the 14th century, but the magnificent shrine was raised later, in the years 1675-1698, in accordance with the design by Italian architect Baldassare Longhena. Its interiors were given a Baroque and rococo style (with elements such as marble altars and polychromes in the dome depicting scenes from the life of St. Filip Neri). The main altar has a painting of Holy Mary with Child (the Świętogóra Spiritual Rose) and the side altar – a Gothic-renaissance sculpture of Mater Dolorous. During the period of the reformation, Anna Gostyńska ordered for the figure to be chopped up and burned, but neither axe nor fire were capable of touching it. The statue was tossed in a well. It was found a dozen years later, thanks to a bright hue that emerged above the well. The statue was once again placed inside the church.
The Łemko tserkva in Kwiatoń
The St. Paraskeva Greek Orthodox church in the lower Beskidy mountains is not only one of the most beautiful wooden shrines in Poland, but also a unique manifestation of the way in which Eastern and Western influences are intertwined in the country. It was created by the Greek Orthodox Łemko minority who had developed their own unique style of church construction. The church is said to have been founded in 1700. Its traditional, lengthy main body was enlarged by adding on a tower in 1743. The tower is modelled on those found in churches across the Małopolska region.
The wooden construction (made mostly of fir and also with spruce) has undergone a couple of renovations. The interior is now maintained in the tradition of the late Baroque. The presbytery and a decorative framing of the windows are separated from the main nave by the iconostasis painted by Michał Bogdańsi in 1904. Its wall paintings imitate marble columns and cornices.
Ever since the ‘Wisła’ resettlements action in 1947, the shrine has served Catholics. In 2013, it was added to the UNESCO heritage list.
‘A Silesian Jerusalem’ in Wambierzyce
Daniel von Osterberg, the owner of Wambierzyce, dreamt of a settlement that would resemble Jerusalem. Starting in 1683, he began to transform the small village in Lower Silesia into a pilgrimage destination. A special gateway leads to the main market square, there is the Siloe pond, Herod’s palace, and mountains called Golgota, Sinai, and Tabor. The surrounding hills are filled with Calvary chapels which form one of the largest complexes of the kind in Europe.
In 1715, the subsequent owner of the town, Count von Göetzen initiated the construction of the present-day basilica of the Visitation of Blessed Virgin Mary. Its size alludes to the dimensions of Salomon’s shrine in Jerusalem. The stairs leading up to its entry are monumental, with some 56 steps – 33 to symbolise the years of Christ’s life, 15 for Mary’s age before motherhood. Richly decorated, the two-storeyed façade also makes an impression at night, when it is illuminated with 1390 bulbs.
It's late Baroque interiors are decorated with paintings and sculptures. The preaching pulpit and a miraculous figure of Holy Mary deserve special attention, as well as the late 19th-century crib. Its 800 wooden figures were made by Longinus Wittig.
‘The Pearl of the Baroque’ in Krzeszowo
Monks of the Cistercian order came to Krzeszowo in the late 13th century. They created a precious economic, culture and scientific centre of the region – the famous European Cysterian Trail runs through Krzeszowo. The function of the main shrine was fulfilled by a church raised in the years 1728-35 with two huge towers, a building called the European Pearl of the Baroque.
A rich façade is divided into three spheres – the Earthly, the Marian, and the heavenly, the latter bearing numerous pillars and columns with figures of saints by the Prague sculptor Ferdinand Brokoff. The rococo interior is equally generously decorated, with frescos by Georg Wilhelm Neunhertz, pipe organs with more than 2600 pipes, and richly decorated choirs in the presbytery. But the main element that attracts pilgrims to Krzeszowo is the miraculous painting of Holy Mary the Merciful. The icon is dated by some back to the 13th century, and its legendary author, the ascetic Krzesz, is said to have painted it on the orders of and with the aid of angels.
St. Stanisław Kostka cathedral in Łódź
This neo-Gothic cathedral towers above the major Piotrowska Street in Łódź. Meant to resemble the Notre Dame cathedral of Chartres it is the work of the Wende i Zarske cooperative, whose project won against some 37 other concepts from across all of Europe. The design was later additionally adapted by Józef Dziekoński from Warsaw and Sławomir Odrzywolski from Kraków. The cathedral was raised with light yellow brick specially transported from Upper Silesia from 1901 through to 1912. Due to financial difficulties and the outbreak of the First World War, the 104-metre-high tower was completed in 1927.
The Łódź church is decorated with rosettes, and stained glass (the oldest ones produced in Saxony) and ogive-shaped windows. Beautiful altars were founded by the local factory owners (such as Heinzl), merchants, and workers, and so was the cathedral’s largest bell, monikered Zygmunt. Unfortunately it perished during the German occupation, during which the shrine served as a military magazine. After its liberation, it was restored but suffered subsequent damage in a 1971 fire. Pope John Paul II paid a visit to the cathedral during his fourth pilgrimage to Poland.
St. Roch’s church in Białystok
St. Roch’s church is a monument of gratitude for regaining state independence. It was designed by Oskar Sosnowski and raised between the years 1927-46. It combines the notion of Holy Mary as a Stalla Matutina with modern architectural solutions. This modernist and expressionist cathedral, raised on the plane of an octagon, is an original architectural rarity of an interwar Europe.
Its modest interior charms visitors with the diamond structure of the ceiling, as well as a stained glass window depicting the Holy Spirit and the Evangelists. Beyond the altar of Holy Mary of the Rosary (to the right) is the chapel of Holy Mary of Ostrobrama, with a copy of the renowned Vilnius painting. The shrine is located on top of a hill, surrounded by a wall with four small towers, typical for the architecture of Poland’s Northeastern Borderlands, and its semi-rounded gate resembles the Ostra Brama in Vilnius.
Basilica of Divine Mercy in Łagiewniki
The elliptic shape of the church makes it look like a ship, a refuge for those who trust in Divine Mercy like a contemporary Ark of the Covenant. It was raised between the years 1999-2002, and the design of Professor Witold Cęckiewicz of the Kraków School of Technology was personally approved by Pope John Paul II.
A cornerstone from Golgotha has been placed right at the entry to the shrine. A golden globe of the Earth can be seen behind the main altar, which also serves as a tabernacle. It is surrounded by a wind-smothered bush, meant to symbolise the tumultuous reality of our times (although some like to see in it the representation of the burning bush). Chapels distributed across a scheme of rays are situated in the lower part of the two-storey basilica and their interiors were made with donations from the Catholic Church institutions of various countries: Italy, Hungary, Germany, and Slovakia, as well as the Orthodox Church of Poland and Ukraine.
The Łagiewniki of Kraków have become the global capital of the cult of Divine Mercy, visited by more than a million pilgrims each year. The shrine is a part of the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy. Its other components include a new-Gothic cloister with the chapel of St. Joseph, with the miraculous painting of Jesus the Merciful and relics of sister Faustine, as well as a 77-metre high tower, where a panoramic view of Kraków can be marvelled at from a height of some 40 metres. With good visibility, one can even spot the Tatra mountain range.
Originally written in Polish, Feb 2016, translated by Paulina Schlosser