Kraków – “the Pope’s City”

By Anna Niedźwiedź

In front of the ‘pope’s window’ at the Bishops’ Palace, April 2005
Every year, on the first Thursday of December, a colorful procession passes through the Main Market Square in Kraków. At the foot of the Adam Mickiewicz monument, beautifully fashioned and decorated nativity scenes are displayed. They depict the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph surrounded by towers, spires and walls modeled on those of Kraków’s churches and other famous historical buildings. Among the shepherds and the Magi adoring the newborn child, Polish and Kraków heroes can be recognized. Tiny figures of peasants in Kraków costume dance in front of the crib, accompanied by legendary and mythical figures, as well as Polish kings, national heroes and poets of old.

This colorful tradition of constructing Kraków-themed nativity scenes dates back to the 19th century. To this day enthusiasts spend months building their sophisticated constructions and bring them to the Market Square at the beginning of December. The scenes mirror the symbolic dimension of the city of Kraków: the selection of the buildings and monuments for the backdrop to Christ’s Nativity is significant, as is the choice of the figures adoring the baby Christ in his Kraków home. In recent years the ranks of local saints and heroes have been swelled by the figure of the late pope, John Paul II, who has more and more frequently been granted a very prominent position. His white robes, depicted against the scenery of Kraków architecture, have found a place in the tradition of these Nativity scenes, symbolically representing the developing myth of Kraków as the “city of John Paul II.”

Stories about Kraków as “the pope’s city,” present in the internal life of the urban space throughout the pontificate of the late pope (1978–2005), developed rapidly at the moment of his death. This liminal moment revealed immense emotions and demonstrated the symbolic potential of urban space, spectacularly transforming the city into a “place of remembrance” unquestionably connected with the pope. On 2 April 2005, immediately after the news of the death of John Paul II was broadcast from the Vatican, all the major international news agencies dispatched live broadcasts from Kraków’s streets and squares. Although it was late at night, hundreds of inhabitants of “the pope’s city” – as it was dubbed – were gathering in front of the local Bishops’ Palace and elsewhere, lighting candles, praying and singing, many of them with tears in their eyes. I would argue that on the one hand residual mythological constructions attached to the popular vision of Kraków in Polish culture, and on the other the popular image of John Paul II as a national hero and contemporary Christian saint, brought about a unique development in the city’s symbolic landscape, manifested spontaneously in this emotional experience after the death of the pope. From that point onwards two powerful popular myths came together and became intertwined in the image of Kraków as “the pope’s city.”



“The historic capital” and “the cradle of sainthood”

Kraków – the second-largest Polish city today – is known among Poles first of all as their former historic capital. It is here that the important monuments, historical mementos and symbolic buildings are, as well as the graves of the Polish kings, queens and national heroes –not in Warsaw, which was severely damaged during the Second World War and then rebuilt as “a new socialist capital” for “a new socialist state.” Obligatory school trips and large numbers of private tourists visit Kraków every year, paying homage to the glorious past of the Polish nation and learning about its history through its historic monuments. In contemporary Polish public opinion Kraków holds a unique position among Polish cities and towns. It is seen as a special place, a “magical city” endowed with genius loci.
In front of the Bishops’ Palace, April 2005


Today’s popular opinion is based on deep historical roots. Kraków has been described as a special and unique city at least since the 15th century, when it gained unquestionable international recognition as a thriving financial and political center. However, even in later periods, when the city fell into decline, and the official seat of the royal court moved to Warsaw (1609), the importance of its symbolic dimension within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth remained stable. Until the demise of the First Polish Republic the most important symbolic state events, such as royal coronations and funerals, were held in the Kraków cathedral on Wawel Hill, and the royal and state insignia were stored there. From a formal legal point of view, Kraków retained many of the attributes of a capital city even after the relocation of the royal court.

The collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the partitions of Poland brought about the long disappearance of the Polish state (1795–1918). Paradoxically, during that time the symbolic dimension of Kraków as a special historical place important to the Polish people and nation was reinforced. During the period when official Polish statehood did not exist, the space of the city of Kraków was perceived by the Poles as a condensed symbolic manifestation of Polish history and national ideology. During the periods of partial political autonomy that the city enjoyed (in the years 1815–1846 and 1866–1918) it was possible to manifest Polishness within the urban space of Kraków much more easily than in other parts of partitioned Poland. At that time, recalling the tradition of the royal burials in Wawel cathedral, a new National Pantheon was created. Over the 19th century public funerals of national heroes, soldiers fighting for Polish independence, as well as famous Polish artists and poets were conducted within Kraków’s urban space. Poles living in other parts of partitioned Poland began to visit the city of Kraków as “national pilgrims” in search of monuments and symbols of the glorious past of what in their own times was the non-existent Polish state.

Stories about famous figures connected with Kraków featured not only kings, knights, poets and scholars but also an impressive group of Christian saints who made Kraków “the cradle of sainthood.” The oldest local saint is Stanislaus (Stanisław), a bishop of Kraków, who was killed by the Polish king in 1079. Although the historical and political context of Stanislaus’s death and his conflict with the king is not clear, the legend describes the bishop as the victim of a cruel ruler. Stanislaus’s canonization (1253) made him a patron saint of both the city of Kraków and all the Polish lands, merging his legend, from its beginnings, with a mythological vision of Poland and its history.

“You always have been and you always will stay in our hearts, Your Cracovians”, poster at the Market Square, April 2005
Bishop Stanislaus appears to have been the first of many “original Cracovian” saints. The 13th, 14th, and especially 15th centuries brought numerous saintly figures living in Kraków and usually buried in the city. The importance of the city as a Christian center connected with local saints was very strongly emphasized within the post-tridentine period. The Counter-Reformation in Poland saw a renewal of public rituals and pilgrimages. Kraków – with its stories about saints, their relics, and other memorabilia connected with people who were set up as examples and model figures for regular Catholics – became an attractive center of pilgrimage offering various loca sacra. In the 19th century – a very important time for enforcing the mythological and nationalist image of the city – this tradition was broadened through adoption of new national heroes into the vision of Kraków’s sacredness. In accordance with the vision of the city as a “reliquary on the bust of Poland,” relics of national heroes – “new jewels” – found their final resting-place next to Kraków’s saints, enforcing the religious and nationalist dimension of the city.



“City of my life”

Every time he visited Kraków, John Paul II emphasized and revealed his very emotional attitude towards the city. “My beloved Kraków,” “Kraków – my home city,” “My Kraków – the city of my life” – these quotations are eagerly and proudly recalled by many inhabitants. Karol Wojtyła was actually born not in Kraków but in the town of Wadowice, around 50 km south-west from Kraków, and only moved to the city at the age of 18 to become a student at Jagiellonian University, then during the Second World War a laborer in a quarry and a chemical plant, a cleric in a clandestine seminary, and finally a priest, bishop and archbishop of Kraków.

During his pontificate John Paul II visited the city of Kraków several times. Probably the most significant was his first visit in 1979, which demonstrated the very deep and vibrant relationship between the mythological past of Kraków’s urban space and the new pope, his image and his biography. The main celebrations in Kraków were connected with the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishop Stanislaus. Aside from its religious dimension, the celebration – conducted in communist Poland – evolved into a major political demonstration bringing the communist government into confrontation with the Catholic Church and its enthusiastic followers, who flocked in crowds to the open-air “pope’s Masses.” The visit of the pope, who celebrated a Mass on the site of the martyr’s death of St Stanislaus, brought up immediate associations with the political and social situation of the Poles and the conflict between the secular power, which was not accepted by society at large, and the ecclesiastical authorities, who were seen by society as the voice of freedom.

The image of Kraków as the “pope’s city” was present during all of John Paul II’s visits to Kraków. His constant manifestation of his very emotional relationship with the city, as well as the mutual response of the city’s inhabitants, who were proud of “their pope” created the image of Kraków as “the pope’s city.”

This image was popularized especially at the time of the pope’s death. The spontaneous public reaction – people started gathering in significant places bringing flowers, candles, images of the pope and flags of the Vatican, Poland or Kraków, praying, crying, singing or meditating – created meaningful space. The week after the pope’s death – spontaneously called “white week” – opened up both locals and visitors to the liminal phenomenon and unexpected experience of “communitas”. Even fans of two opposing soccer teams – usually infamous for their animosities – gathered united in front of the Bishops’ Palace and took part in an open-air Mass celebrated at one of the teams’ stadiums.

During “white week” emotions, myths and symbols mingled. The long-lasting tradition of burials of national heroes in Kraków was mirrored in rumors that the pope was allegedly to be buried not in the Vatican but in Poland – of course at Wawel Cathedral.

Probably the most meaningful “place of remembrance,” the one that attracted the biggest emotions and led to the creation of a new significant place on the mythological map of the urban space was “the pope’s window,” now dubbed “the most famous window in Kraków.” This is a window on the second floor of the Bishops’ Palace, where Wojtyła lived as archbishop of Kraków. But the fame of the window is connected with his visits to Kraków during his pontificate. Whenever John Paul II visited Kraków he stayed in the Bishops’ Palace. In the evenings, after the official part of his visit, people would linger outside the Bishops’ Palace waiting for his blessing. He used to appear in the second-floor window and talk, sing, joke and finally pray with the crowd, which applauded his spontaneous appearance. These unofficial meetings became a local Kraków tradition. After the end of the pope’s visit, the window in the Bishops’ Palace returned to normal. And aside from a monument to the pope, which was erected in the courtyard of the Bishops’ Palace, but was not visible from the street, nothing special appeared in that city space.

This changed dramatically in April 2005: a few days before the death of John Paul II people spontaneously started to gather and pray together in the evenings outside the palace and the window. During the night of his death crowds gathered for an all-night vigil and “the pope’s window,” as it increasingly became known, was decorated with white and yellow flowers (the Vatican colors) and a crucifix with a red stole – the symbol of the death and resurrection of Christ. Over the next few days crowds literally occupied the area around of the palace, bringing flowers and candles, and finally forcing the city officials to close off the whole street. All traffic and public transport was diverted for a week. The walls of the Bishops’ Palace were covered with posters, stickers, banners expressing love, gratitude, and remembrance of the deceased pope. Candles placed on the first-floor windowsills began to burn the walls and mark the pavement. Soon a barrier was put up to keep the crowd a few meters away from the building. But still people brought candles and lit them in a nearby park.

After the funeral of John Paul II the area around the Bishops’ Palace was finally cleared and traffic returned to its regular route. But “the pope’s window” remained the central “place of remembrance” connected with John Paul II. The window – seen as something very human, familiar, something recalling the idea of “home” – fits perfectly with the popular conception of John Paul II and his presence within the urban space of Kraków. The window leads a life of its own – a portrait of John Paul II is permanently displayed in it, with fresh flowers alongside it. But the most important aspect of its “life” goes on down in the street below the window. Every day individuals and tourist groups turn off the main route leading from the Market Square to Wawel Hill to stop in front of the Bishops’ Palace and take pictures of the “pope’s window.” Almost every day new candles and fresh flowers appear on the other side of the street, where there is the best view of the window. Various “anniversaries” connected with the pope – such as Wojtyła’s birthday, name-day, the anniversary of his election as pope, the anniversaries of his parents’ deaths, as well as the anniversary of his own death – are celebrated and signaled outside the window. At Christmas, Easter, and on All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days the number of candles, flowers and handmade greeting cards left beneath the window grows significantly. Even the window itself has begun to be treated as a sacred relic. When the windows in the Bishops’ Palace were renovated in 2006 people expressed concern at the possibility of the alteration or replacement of the “original pope’s window.” Church officials publicly assured Cracovians that after restoration the original frame would be replaced, but with extra glass protection, as “no-one in Kraków would dare to replace the old frame.”

The story about Kraków as “the pope’s city” is still open, still alive and still being written. The image of the pope and his myth has been used in the city’s official marketing strategy, and it also appears in the public discourse of the Catholic Church in post-communist Poland. Last but not least it is present in popular imagery and religiosity involving new places within the city and the popularization of Kraków-related aspects of the biography of Karol Wojtyła – Pope John Paul II. It seems that Kraków’s new name: “the pope’s city,” has been accepted as an element of local tradition. When asked in 2008 about the feelings he associates with the term “the pope’s city,” one young Cracovian answered that “there is nothing to emphasize in any special way […] It is something that is felt, it simply is the way it is.”



Dr. Niedźwiedź was visiting professor in the Skalny Center in Fall 2011 and taught a course on the history of Poland. She is associate professor at the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland. The text is based on an article published in Anthropology of East Europe Review. 27 (2): Fall 2009 and is available on-line: http://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/aeer/article/view/177.