11 August 2021
St Mary’s Basilica has been Kraków’s most important church since the Middle Ages, and for over five hundred years the jewel in its crown has been the monumental altar made between 1477 and 1489 on commission of city councillors by the Nuremberg master sculptor Veit Stoss. The extraordinary artwork is Europe’s largest Gothic altarpiece, and it has been in place for centuries, unlike in other churches of the period when it was standard to replace old altars to fit the latest fashions.
The curators were keen to get as close to the original as possible; to restore the original, Gothic colours of the visages and costumes. “We are presenting everything that we can of the phenomenon of mediaeval art,” stresses Jarosław Adamowicz, professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków who led the conservation work. “If I were overwhelmed by anything, it was the inspiration of Stoss’ carving work; the inspiration of the absolute, boundless imagination of the creators of this retabulum.”
The monumental mediaeval oak construction is 13 metres tall and 11 metres across. The figures in the main scene depicting the Dormition of Mary, surrounded by apostles, are almost three metres tall. The two moving and two fixed wings of the altar are filled with scenes from the life of Mary and Jesus, featuring over two hundred figures carved into linden blocks. In the altar foundation, Stoss presents the Jesse Tree or the genealogy of Mary and Jesus, while the altar is crowned with the scene of the coronation of the Virgin Mary and patrons of Poland St Adalbert and St Stanislaus. The entire artwork is captivating with its beauty and realism. Stoss gives his figures visages of his contemporary Cracovians, presenting all details including hands twisted with a lifetime of work and rheumatism, balding scalps and veins showing through fine skin.
The conservation work of the main altar of St Mary’s Church has been closely tied with the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków for many years. Jan Matejko himself, as rector of the School of Fine Arts in the late 19th century, made a deal with the parish of the Basilica on artistic conservation on the interiors of the church. In 1932 and 1933, the team working on the conservation of the altarpiece included the academy’s rector Józef Mehoffer and Professor Konstanty Laszczka. Almost 150 years later, the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków continues to care for one of the most outstanding mediaeval artworks in our part of Europe. On the feast of the Assumption of Mary on 15 August, the church will hold a thanksgiving celebrating the conservation of the altar. (Dorota Dziunikowska)
The text published in the 2/2021 issue of the “Kraków Culture” quarterly.