History of the Basilica

The current temple dedicated to St. Florian is a Baroque building. However, the first church built here was a Romanesque structure and one of the oldest churches in Kraków and its surroundings. It is located in the former town of Kleparz, on the trade route running north.

The foundation of the church in 1184 by Prince Casimir II the Just and Gedko, Bishop of Kraków, was related to the relics of St. Florian being transported to Wawel from Italy. He was an early Christian martyr from the 4th century, recognized in the Middle Ages as a symbol of the steadfast Knight of Christ and patron of protection from fire. That important religious event was guided by the intention to make the saint a patron of Kraków and Poland. However, legend has it that the church was built due to a miraculous event when oxen pulling a cart stopped here and refused to move further. The church was consecrated in 1226 by Wincenty Kadłubek, Bishop of Kraków and a famous historian.

At the beginning, it was raised to the collegiate dignity by Prince Casimir II the Just, which meant that its direct patronage was exercised by princes, and then Polish kings. From 1401, under the privilege of King Władysław II Jagiełło, the collegiate church entered into the second partial patronage of the Kraków Academy. In 1578, it was transferred under its full patronage by King Stephen Báthory. The chapter of the collegiate church consisted of canons elected from among distinguished professors of the Faculty of Theology of the Kraków Academy. In this way, the close ties between the church and the academy over nearly 400 years of patronage resulted in many significant foundations for the alma mater collegiate, which was abolished in 1780 as a result of the reform of the Kraków Academy carried out by the Commission of National Education on the initiative of Hugo Kołłątaj.

The church’s history is also directly linked to the transformation of the independent trade settlement growing around it, which in 1366 was transformed by King Casimir the Great under a foundation privilege into an independent town – initially known as Florence, then Kleparz, and, since late 18th century, an administrative district of Kraków. For the inhabitants of Kleparz as a territory-related community, the church continuously served as the only parish church surrounded by a cemetery.

Moreover, the church located at the beginning of the historic route called the “Royal Road” (Via Regia), leading through the city to Wawel, served for centuries as the starting point of impressive state, national or religious processions. It was visited by distinguished guests: kings, bishops, deputies, or national heroes welcomed by the chapter and city councillors.

The history of the church is marked by numerous reconstructions and interior transformations caused by wars or fires.

The original Romanesque church was destroyed twice by the Tatars, in 1241 and 1259, and in 1306 during Władysław I the Short’s assault on Kraków occupied by the Czechs. Only a few architectural details have remained from the oldest Romanesque phase, along with the foundations of the walls discovered on the southern side of the church. In the 14th century, the church was rebuilt in the Gothic style as a three-aisle hall-type building. From 1422, there was a parish school by the church, operating under the care of the Kraków Academy, and from 1493 it had its own building on the south-western side, founded by Grzegorz of Lubraniec, vice-chancellor of the Crown, expanded in 1518 by Canon Maciej Miechowita, rector of the Academy. In 1473, on the northern side of the building, a chapel was built for the needs of the Brotherhood of the Poverty of Christ established in 1501 (later the Chapel of St. John Cantius), and in 1507-1519, a second similar Chapel of St. Anne was built on the southern side.

In 1528, the church was damaged during the great fire of Kleparz. According to local legend, it was saved from burning down completely thanks to the miraculous intervention of St. Florian himself. Since then, Kraków and Poland have seen a significant increase in the cult of St. Florian as the patron of protection against fire. Two Italian builders, Piotr Messo and Bernard of Logano, were employed in the reconstruction of the vault in 1567. In 1580 and 1587, the church was damaged by further fires. The appearance of the rebuilt and enlarged Gothic church – with its high bell tower, surrounded by a cemetery and clergy buildings – is commemorated in an engraved panorama of Kraków from 1603-1605 (in the work “Civitates orbis terrarum” by Jerzy Braun and Franciszek Hogenberg).

The building suffered the most serious damage during the Deluge, when it was burnt twice in 1655 and 1656. A general reconstruction of the temple in the Baroque style was undertaken in the years 1657-1684 thanks to the considerable financial support of the Bishop of Kraków Andrzej Trzebnicki, the Kraków Academy, and especially the provost Wojciech Papenkowic (from 1669), professor of theology and rector of the Kraków Academy, from Ujście Solne, whose epitaph is placed in the chancel above the portal to the sacristy. The new temple and seven altars were consecrated in 1686 by Mikołaj Oborski, the Bishop of Kraków.

The church in its new Baroque form, largely preserved to this day, was built on the plan of a three-aisle basilica with an elongated chancel of Gothic proportions, with matronea over the aisles and two side chapels at the eastern corners of the nave. On the outside, the church was distinguishable by its impressive two-tower façade. Moreover, the interior was richly decorated in the late Baroque and Rococo style, which was carried out in several stages from the 2nd half of the 17th century to the end of the 18th century. In 1755, the church was damaged once again in the fire of Kleparz, and then in 1768 during the fights of the Bar Confederates. In the years 1755-1779 under the provost Antoni Krząnowski, numerous works were carried out to restore and transform the church interior: two new chapels were added on the western façade dedicated to the Holy Cross and Our Lady of Sorrows, and side altars and many furnishings were constructed. The church was consecrated in 1779 by the Bishop of Kraków Franciszek Potkański.

In the 19th century, the temple underwent further necessary renovations and interior additions, which did not change its appearance significantly. The area around the church was also transformed at that time – in place of the eastern part of the former market square, a large, impressive Matejko Square with monumental public buildings was marked out, and the parish school building was demolished (1883), opening a picturesque perspective on the historic buildings of Kraków including the Barbakan and tower of St. Mary’s Church. In the years 1902-1914, a thorough, comprehensive restoration and modernization of the church was carried out according to the design of the architects Józef Kryłowski (architecture) and Franciszek Mączyński (interior design). The changes included the addition of two pairs of central chapels in the aisles, superstructure of towers on the façade, transforming the porch and the sacristy building, unifying the elevation, and introducing new decorative elements, for example, the stucco decoration of the vault of the nave and the presbytery by Jan Szczepkowski was recomposed in 1906, and later supplemented with paintings by Wacław Taranczewski in 1965. Since 1991, comprehensive renovation and conservation works have been carried out in the church. In 1999, the Church of St. Florian was raised by Pope John Paul II to the dignity of a minor basilica.

dr Małgorzata Reinhard-Chlanda