Yesterday, I began this series of posts with a word of explanation about the purpose of the trip itself. I won’t repeat all that, but just remind the reader that we were seeing historical sites in Krakow, London and L.A. which served to show us the importance of the soul in any leadership worth remembering. It was fitting, therefore, that we began with a visit to the most famous church building in Poland.
But first … dinner — quite a sensory experience. Our jet-lagged bodies dined on a feast of Polish food (I lost count after the fifth course came to our table) at a restaurant in a ancient medieval building on the market square of “Old Town” Kraków.
Then, the highlight of the evening came when we entered St. Mary’s Basilica (Kościół Mariacki), also known as “Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven.” Here is a nighttime picture of the outside of the Basilica (click on the pictures to enlarge).
Because I watched the “Rick Steves’ Europe” episode on Kraków, I knew the basic facts about the structure: brick, Gothic architecture, built (and rebuilt) in the 13th and 14th centuries, heavily influenced Polish-American Roman Catholic architecture in St. Louis and Chicago, etc
The structure itself is impressive, but the real reason for the widespread fame of this church is the immense wooden altarpiece, carved by 16th century German artist Veit Stoss (c. 1450-1533). Scholars call his style “late Gothic Baroque,” which is to say there is an overlap of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance styles in his work.
Since I visited at night, I was unable to get a fully illuminated view of the interior. Hence, here is a daytime photo I found on Flicker. The altarpiece is directly ahead, in the center of this photo:
The altarpiece took 12 years to construct and is the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world. I don’t need Wikipedia to tell me this altarpiece is a “national treasure of Poland” because our tour guide said as much numerous times, with some bit of tears in his eyes!
Yes, I know that most of us reading here are Protestant and, as such, do not believe in the Roman Catholic system of worship with its high altar and emphasis on visual elements. Further, even the visual depiction of our Lord Jesus Christ may be offensive to some our readers, given the second commandment. I’ll leave that discussion aside, however, and simply point out the grandeur of the altarpiece itself. Though I’m not ashamed to be called Protestant (and even Puritan), I found myself overwhelmed by the Christology depicted in the panels — so much so that I went back and revisited the basilica later in the week when we had some free time. I prayed and sang hymns quietly to myself as I contemplated the advent, life, work, death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Yes, the devotion to Mary runs throughout the entire basilica, but certainly, the worship of Jesus Christ stands out as the chief implication of the imagery.
Here then, are my photos of the altarpiece (click on photo to enlarge):
With our stomachs full of Polish food and our hearts full of the splendor of the altarpiece, we went back to the hotel. With any luck, we’d sleep well and wake up with bodies calibrated to Krakow time. We’d need the rest, for the next day would be our journey to Auschwitz. But I will save that for tomorrow’s post.
Scott Lamb serves as the Executive Director of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and as the President of Reformation Press Publishers.