St Catherine of Alexandria Church at Kosciól sw. Kazimierz, Kraków is an Augustinian and Polish national treasure that has maintained an Augustinian presence, albeit with interruptions, for six centuries.Image (below): Casmirvs (left) in a 1493 drawing from Hartmann Schedel's book, Nuremberg Chronicle (view facing west). The district of Kazimierz in Kraków is defined by the old shores of an island in the Vistula river. The northern branch of the river (Stara Wisla - Old Vistula) was filled late in the 19th century, connecting Kazimierz with Kraków proper.
In 1978 UNESCO recognized Kraków a as one of the most important World Heritage sites. The metropolitan city of Kraków, a former capital of Poland, is known as the city of churches. The abundance of spectacular churches, monasteries and convents has earned Kraków the reputation as the "Northern Rome" in previous centuries. As far back as 1596 one of the Pope’s legation to Kraków, Giovanni Paolo Mocante, commented: “If there was no Rome, Kraków would be Rome”. This is due to its number and diversity of churches, most of which are noteworthy for their architecture and internal decorations representative of all the artistic eras. Kraków now has over 120 churches, of which over sixty were built in the twentieth century.
On 27 March 1335, King Casimir III of Poland (known as Casimir the Great - Kazimierz Wielki) declared the two western settlements of Kraków to be a new city named "Casimiria" (later “Kazimierz”) after himself. Shortly thereafter, in 1340, Bawól was also added, making the new city’s boundaries the same as the island in the Vistula upon which these three settlements were located. The King settled the newly-built central section of Kazimierz primarily with burghers, and set aside a plot of land for the Augustinians next to the market place. The Jewish community in Kraków had lived undisturbed alongside their Christian neighbours under the protective King Casimir III.
King Casimir III introduced to Kraków the Order of St Augustine, who began construction of the Church of St Catherine and St Margaret, as it was officially called. One tradition has it that this magnificent church was the consequence of a “curse” (more technically, probably a king-sized ecclesiastical penance for his debauchery) that Bishop Bodzanta had issued against King Casimir. News of the curse was allegedly taken to the King by a curate of the Cathedral, Father Marcin Baryczka. In an outburst of anger, the king had the messenger drowned, a deed for which the church of St Catherine and St Margaret was to be an expiation.
Whatever actually happened, it is certain that the conflict between the king and the bishop had much deeper roots, and touched the delicate matter of the relationship between the monarchy and the church. The mission sent by the King to Pope Clement VI in 1350 resulted in the lifting of the curse, in return for paying for the building of a number of major churches, of which St Catherine’s Church in Kraków was one. St Catherine's has exceptionally fine acoustics, not excelled by any other house of worship in Kraków, and right up to the present time is very popular as a venue for classical music concerts due to its acoustics.
One of the most monumental churches in the city, and possibly the one that has best retained its original Gothic shape, St Catherine's Church was founded probably in 1363 and completed thirty-five years later. The original plans were changed for reasons that are no longer known. As a result, the church is almost thirteen metres shorter than was originally planned, the facade has never been completed nor the two towers erected.
In 1443, the vaulting of the chancel gave way during an earthquake. Because the earthquake caused no other serious damage locally, the quality of work of the church’s masons has to be suspect. This catastrophe was the beginning of a series of unfortunate events for St Catherine’s Church in the following centuries, i.e., a devastating flood in 1534 and a fire in 1556. During the Swedish invasion, the church and monastery were turned into a field hospital, munitions storehouse, and stables. There was another earthquake in Kraków in 1786, and again it was only the Church of St Catherine that suffered.
In 1796, following the Third Partitioning of Poland, the Austrians strove to close the church permanently by turning it into a military warehouse and arsenal. The Augustinians retrieved the church eighteen years later but the town authorities decided to demolish it, because of appalling physical condition. Fortunately, this never happened; the Augustinian Order acquired funds for the restoration of the church, which began in the mid-19th century and has continued – although with interruptions – to this day. Now it is one of the best and purest examples of French Gothic architecture in Poland.
When, weakened by the earthquakes, the vaulting of the nave collapsed for the last time in 1826 the church was threatened with demolition. Yet the Augustinian Order acquired funds for the restoration of the church, which began in the mid-19th century and has continued – although with interruptions – to this day. Despite all of the adversities caused to the church by flood, earthquakes, fire and vandalism, St Catherine’s Church has maintained its noble Gothic character. The austere interior is embellished with the late Renaissance tomb of Spytek Jordan (1518-1568) and the magnificent three-storey Baroque high altar of 1634.
The high altar contains the painting of “The Mystical Marriage of St Catherine” by Andrea Venesta. Numerous poems and paintings of the Mystical Marriage of St Catherine of Alexandria were produced by various artists during the late medieval period.
Catherine of Alexandria was one of the best-loved martyrs, especially after the Crusades to the Holy Land. For six centuries she was a very popular focus of religious devotion in a list of the “fourteen most helpful saints in heaven.” The painting of by Andrea Venesta is not among the most famous renditions of The Mystical Marriage of St Catherine. As well, there is in the Renaissance nave (ca. 1580) the allegorical painting "Circle of Death," and other Gothic paintings. The cloisters of the adjoining Augustinian monastery contain recently restored frescos.
On the south of church to the south is a porch with crow-stepped portal ends, rich tracery, and stone decorations. The chapel of St Monica, whose vaults are supported on an octagonal pillar, serves as a chapel for the Augustinian Sisters from the convent of the Order on the other side of Skaleczna Street. The covered elevated walkway that connects it to the church is a characteristic feature of the neighbourhood. Adjacent to the north is the spacious monastery whose cloisters contain quite well preserved Gothic murals (a rarity!), a Chapel with the image of Our Lady of Consolation painted on a wall, and the baroque Chapel of Isaiah Boner O.S.A., an early Polish Augustinian known as “the Blessed.”
The contemporary situation of the Order of St Augustine with the Church of St Catherine is thus: in the political situation in Poland after World War II, the Order did not recover ownership of the church until 19th November 1984, and canonical possession of the adjacent monastery and parish until 15th February 1989. Although in possession of the entire monastery, the Order uses an area containing thirty-five rooms for the local Augustinian community, and allows another wing of the building to be used by various institutions.
The nearby convent of Augustinian Sisters (mentioned in the caption above) is the Convent of Our Lady of Good Counsel. The Sisters are members of a Polish congregation founded in 1583 by Fr Szmon Mniszek O.S.A.. Thirty sisters live in this convent, and the congregation has additional convents at other places in Poland.For a brief overview of the Augustinian history in Poland, click here.Photo GalleryFor the Augnet gallery on the Augustinian history of Krakow (Poland), click here.
St Catherine’s Church, Krakow, Poland. Ten large photos by Jerzy W. http://www.flickr.com/photos/jerzyw/sets/72157620644229844/with/366556143
Cracow Gothic of St Catherine's Church. Fifteen excellent large photos, and text in English. http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/ShowUserReviews-g274772-d4956102-r180070283-St_Katherine_of_Alexandria_Church-Krakow_Lesser_Poland_Province_Southern_Poland.html
St Catherine’s Church, Krakow, Poland. Other sets of photos.http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=st+catherine%27s+church+krakow&w=all&s=int&referer_searched=1
St Catherine’s and St Margaret’s Church, Krakow, Poland. Text (in English) and photographs. http://cracow.travel/guide-to-krakow/let-s-visit/kazimierz/action,get,id,2055,t,St-Catherine-and-St-Margaret-s-Church.html
Polish Augustinian Province. Official website. http://www.augustianie.pl AN4260