Krakow 2000

By Monte, Richard | History Today, August 2000 | Go to article overview

Krakow 2000


Monte, Richard, History Today


THE POLISH CITY OF KRAKOW, with its royal castle and cathedral, its medieval university and market square, has always been a centre of political, religious, educational and commercial interest. This year, as one of the European Cities of Culture, this rich heritage has become the focus of a programme of festivities, which underline why this Polish city is one of Europe's cultural treasures.

The castle and cathedral, perched on a hill known as Wawel above the Vistula river, are the focus of `Wawel 1000-2000', which brings together a number of exhibitions tracing Wawel's history, and runs until the end of October. The ancient history and archaeology of the hill, where legend tells us that in the seventh century a wise prince named Krak or Krakus built a castle, and like many Polish monarchs, named the city after himself, is explored in `Wawel Lost'.

Unfortunately, he built the castle on the den of a fearful dragon, which helped itself to lambs, sheep and humans. Undeterred, the prince filled a sheep's hide with sulphur, set it alight and hurled it into the cave. The dragon ate the sheep and, with its stomach on fire, rushed to the Vistula to drink. The monster exploded in a spectacular fireworks display and the town was saved. The dragon became the symbol of the city.

`Artistic Culture of the Medieval Court and Cathedral' explores the medieval history of Wawel Hill. Portraits of Jagiellonian and Vasa kings, royal jewellery, the accoutrements of Queen Jadwiga, illuminated manuscripts from the medieval and Jagiellonian periods, Gothic panel paintings, and the gold rose presented to Queen Maria Jozefa by Pope Clement XII, are just some of the exhibits, collected around Europe, which emphasise the importance of Wawet, when the castle became the seat of Polish kings, and the bishopric of Krakow was established. Further aspects of Wawel as a religious centre are explored in `Krakow Cathedral -- Bishops', Royal, National', which includes the Spear of St Maurice, a symbol of the millennium of Christianity, and `The Treasures of the Archdiocese of Krakow', featuring a history of art in the Krakow see.

Krakow has been an important educational centre since the Middle Ages. The sixteenth century was a golden age, and Wawel became the centre of science and learning, attracting scholars from all over Europe. Only the transfer of the capital to Warsaw in 1596-1609 brought this age to a close, although Krakow, or more particularly Wawel, remained the scene of royal coronations and burials. Yet long before this period Krakow had established itself as a seat of learning. Scholars came to study at the Krakow Academy (now Jagiellonian University) which had been founded by King Kazimierz Wielki in 1364. It was the second university in central Europe after Prague, and Copernicus is reputed to have studied here in the 1490s, before he went on to develop his heliocentric theory of the Universe.

`Treasures of the Jagiellonian University' marks the 600th anniversary of the refunding of the Krakow Academy. It was founded in 1364, but the turning point in the institution's history came in 1400, when King Ladislaus Jagiellonian refunded and reformed the Academy, fulfilling the legacy of his wife Jadwiga, who wanted all her personal property to go towards this restoration. …

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