The Jagiellonian University Museum – Collegium Maius in Krakow

A centuries-old history

The Jagiellonian University Museum – Collegium Maius, the oldest University Museum in Poland, was formally opened in 1964, although it had previously existed in various forms and under various names.

The Krakow University is the oldest University in Poland and one of the oldest Universities in the world. Founded by King Casimir the Great in 1364, it initially consisted of three departments: liberal arts, medicine and law. Its official name was Universitatis Studii Generalis Cracoviensis. Soon after the king’s death in 1370, the University ceased its activities, but it was relaunched in 1400 thanks to the efforts of King Władysław Jagiełło and his wife, Jadwiga. As a result of Queen’s efforts with Pope Boniface IX (1389-1404), the Studium Generale in Krakow was extended to include the most important department of the medieval university, namely theology.

European Universities were made up of autonomous colleges, where lectures were held, and where professors lived and worked. In Krakow, the oldest and most important was the Royal College, which was established in honour of King Władysław Jagiełło. The Royal College, also known as Collegium Maius, was the headquarters of the University’s authorities. It was also where theology professors resided. The Collegium Maius housed lecture halls, a library, university treasury, archive and disciplinary cell.

The Collegium Maius gained a shape close to its current form in year 1540. It was built on a quadrangle plan, as a result of a combination of several tenement houses. Architecture of the building has been influenced by Czech, Italian and German structures. In particular, there are many similarities between the Collegium Maius and the Collegium Carolinum in Prague, from which many professors and architects came to Krakow.

Rector’s chain, 6th century, bestowed by Alexandra, Russian princess.
            Rector’s rings, 15th and 19th century
The birth of the collection between the 15th and 17th centuries

Soon after the re-establishment in 1400, donations started to come from professors and donors: scepters, insignia, rector’s rings and also legacies, jewels, chalices, pictures and scientific instruments. In 1507 the list of gifts began to be written down as an inventory, which could be considered as the beginning of the museum. All these objects were accumulated in chests in one place known as the Camera Raritatum which, since the end of the 15th century, was located between the stuba communis and the Assembly Hall.

Collegium Maius, The Assembly Hall

Among the valuables were the sceptres offered by Queen Jadwiga, Zbigniew Oleśnicki, Cardinal Frederick Jagiellon and Bishop Bernard Maciejowski. In the treasury, apart from valuables, the most important documents and the most precious scientific objects were stored, including astronomical, physical and chemical instruments, as well as a collection of solar clocks.

Collegium Maius, Collection of scientific instruments, 18th century

At the end of the 15th century, Professor Marcin Bylica, who served as an astrologist at the court of Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, bequeathed the academy high-value astronomical instruments and books that were brought to Krakow at a time when Nicolaus Copernicus studied here. The gifts included, among others, an astrolabe from 1054 originating in Córdoba, as well as a torquetum, celestial globe and Earth globe.

Collegium Maius, Arabic astrolabium from Cordoba, 1054

In the 17th century, Jan Brożek, professor of mathematics, bequeathed one of the most valuable exhibits in the University Museum – Globus Jagellonicus (early16th century). The treasury has been made available to the most distinguished visitors of the university, who usually offered gifts: silver, fabrics, books paintings. After the battle of Vienna in 1683, King John III Sobieski gave the Collegium Maius a Turkish carpet. Since the 16th century, a collection of portraits of professors has been collected. This tradition has been continued until today.

Restorations between the 19th and 20th centuries

In the 19th century, the Collegium Maius underwent major changes. The work started in 1839 and was not limited to improving its technical condition. The building had been rebuilt in the Gothic Revival style and transformed into a library. A few decades later, thanks to Professor Józef Łepkowski, the collections were separated from the library and became known as the Art and Archaeology Study. Łepkowski contributed enormously to the museum collections, which served both students and a wider public.

In 1946, Professor Karol Estreicher junior started his efforts to organise the University Museum in the empty and devastated Collegium Maius. His idea was to reconstruct the building, by removing the neo-Gothic style. Plasters were removed from the façades, and neo-Gothic decorations, such as window and portal frames, were removed. Using the preserved drawings and plans from before the neo-Gothic reconstruction, the former late-Gothic appearance was restored. These changes also involved creation of new forms and content, only resembling the original ones, for example, frames of two portals inside the Collegium Maius contain inscriptions realised in 1955 by Karol Estreicher for the Jagiellonian University.

The first inscription, ne cedat academia, says that the University never surrendered to the force; the second, plus ratio quam vis taken from the poem of the Roman poet Maximianus (ca. 490-560), is an apology of reason and opposition to all violence. At present, the two inscriptions are commonly perceived as eternal mottoes of the Krakow University. Estreicher brought to the Collegium Maius a number of elements of durable equipment from Krakow and the surrounding areas, among others, from manor houses and palaces that lost their owners after the nationalization of agricultural property. To reconstruct the former Collegium Maius, additional furniture, paintings, and sculptures were purchased or produced.

Collegium Maius, the Green Hall and The Pleyel piano on which Frederic Chopin played during his stay in Scotland in 1847. The piano contains the composer’s autograph

At present Collegium Maius is not only for visitors. It performs a representative function in the University’s life. Here, the most important guests are received, and professor’s meetings of the senate and lectures are held. Every year several exhibitions are organised, both historical and didactic for children, students and residents of Krakow.

Maria Gajek

Maria Natalia Gajek

She is an art historian and a museum researcher currently working at the Jagiellonian University Museum in Krakow. She is responsible for the Department of Prints and Drawings and the collection of the University historical memorabilia, also deals with the yearbook Opuscula Musealia published by the Jagiellonian University Museum since 1986. Author of numerous exhibitions and catalogues concerning universities’ colleges of medieval Europe, and modern and contemporary graphic art in Krakow.