Churches of Kraków

In February 2008, a university excursion brought me to Kraków (as well as Berlin, Leipzig, Wrocław and Prague) to visit churches. We had spent a whole semester going through different ideas how a church service should be conducted and how the architecture of a church interplayed with the service. Stereotypically, there are remarkable differences between denominations. In traditional Catholicism the service was to be celebrated by the clergy and the parish was merely allowed to have a distant look at the whole proceeding. Still today, many churches have the altar far removed from the seating area and often several steps up. Commonly, the altar was combined with a giant altarpiece, forcing the priest to show his back to the communion while at the altar. A low wall, made of stone or wood, often separates the altar area from the rest of the church.

Orthodox churches are even more extreme with parts of the service taking place behind the closed doors or curtains of the iconostasis, the faithful can hear but not even see what is taking place. Protestant thought offered the idea of a service being held together by all parties concerned, the minister, the churchgoers and the holy ghost. The altar comes closer to the people and it comes down to the same level or only raised a bit. The traditionally long churches get wider as the idea of the church as a lecture hall, where everyone should be able to see and hear the minister equally well, takes hold. The small but nonetheless amazing Waldkirche in Planegg near Munich is in some ways the culmination of this idea.

Octagonal Design with the Altar in the Middle, Waldkirche, Planegg near Munich.
Octagonal Design with the Altar in the Middle. Waldkirche, Planegg near Munich.

The church resembles a boxing ring more than a traditional church. Shaped like an octagon, the altar is right in the middle and the benches rise to each side. The religious ceremony takes place right in the middle.

In real life the differences between catholic and protestant churches are recognizable but not as stark as in theory. Some catholic churches are surprisingly modern, some Protestant ones surprisingly traditional. It is also interesting to see how things have and are changing. Over decades and centuries, churches are adapted to the current needs, steps are added or (more likely) taken out, traditional altars often remain in the back but new ones, and these are the ones being used in the ritual, are added closer to the congregation. Old pulpits are often raised high, forcing the faithful to look up but are they being used? More often than not, a second pulpit or a simple microphone is standing somewhere else.

In Kraków we visited churches, four or five a day and usually with a guide or art historian to give us explanations. We concentrated on churches built between 1890 and 1930 so we only paid a cursory visit to the famous St. Mary’s Basilica, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, before heading out of the centre to see the real stuff. It was an interesting and insightful excursion, made even better by the good company I had in my fellow students. See for yourself the wealth of amazing church buildings Kraków has to offer.