The famed Gothic altar of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, carved by Wit Stwosz between 1477 and 1489, is seen at St. Mary's Basilica in Kraków, Poland. The Historic Center of Kraków with the Mariacki Basilica (St. Mary's) was recognized as one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1978 for its outstanding heritage value. OSV News photo/Pawel Gasior, courtesy St. Mary's Basilica

Medieval altar masterpiece of Kraków, Poland, receives European 'Oscar of Culture'

By  Paulina Guzik, OSV News
  • July 13, 2023

KRAKÓW, Poland -- The European Commission and Europa Nostra foundation has honored Poland's medieval altarpiece for outstanding conservation. The Wit Stwosz (Veit Stoss) altar is widely regarded as a Gothic masterpiece. Its meticulous conservation, based on in-depth research, was carried out for more than 1,000 days and involved a team of top specialists from Poland and abroad.

"The altar of Veit Stoss, part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, with 200 sculptures and thousands of woodcarving details adorns St. Mary's Basilica and continues to impress with the artistry of the workshop of its master," Father Dariusz Ras, archpriest of St. Mary's Basilica, told OSV News.

St. Mary's is known as Mariacki Church (for its Polish name) and stands in the heart of Kraków's main square in southern Poland. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future St. John Paul II, was archbishop of Kraków from 1964 to 1978, when he was elected pope.

The European Commission and Europa Nostra foundation announced the winners of the European Heritage Awards/Europa Nostra Awards 2023 in mid-June.

Thirty outstanding heritage achievements from 21 countries have been awarded Europe's top honor in the field. The Wit Stwosz altarpiece, which was among this year's conservation winners, was carved between 1477 and 1489 by Wit Stwosz, an artist from Nuremberg, Germany. (His name in German is Veit Stoss.)

The jury that selected the winning art pieces was composed of heritage experts from across Europe. Applications were submitted by organizations and individuals from 35 European countries.

Cecilia Bartoli, the world-renowned opera singer and president of Europa Nostra, said in a press statement that the winning pieces "are inspiring examples which truly contribute to building a more beautiful, sustainable and inclusive Europe. Their success stories demonstrate how adversity can be overcome through pooling expertise, dedication, creativity and innovation."

The winning "30" included places such as Steam Engine Brewery in Lobec, Czech Republic, Royal Gardens of Venice in Italy and Deba Bridge in Gipuzkoa, Spain, but also other church art pieces such as Mudéjar Ceilings of the Cathedral of Funchal -- the capital city of Portugal's Madeira archipelago -- and ruins of the Monastery of San Pedro de Eslonza in Gradefes in Spain, which all went through extensive conservation works.

The winners will be celebrated at the European Heritage Awards Ceremony Sept. 28 in Palazzo del Cinema in Venice. The winners will receive $10,800 each. The ceremony will be a highlight of the Sept. 27-30 European Cultural Heritage Summit, organized by Europa Nostra with the support of the European Commission.

The Historic Center of Kraków with St. Mary's Basilica was recognized as one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1978 for its outstanding heritage value. St. Mary's Basilica is particularly famous for its Gothic altar of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, carved by Stwosz between 1477 and 1489.

"It is a priceless monument and an all-time living heritage -- not only of Kraków, not only of Poland, but of Europe and the world," Father Ras told OSV News. "As its stewards, we have the privilege and duty to nurture it, which justifies the decision to embark on a very complex project of maintenance between 2015 and 2021.”

The altarpiece originally stood at 60 feet high and 36 feet wide, and its figures are based on residents of medieval Krakow, who sat as models for the artist. "It is therefore an interesting source of knowledge on the culture, customs, and history of the city at the time," the press statement announcing the award said. Today the altar is 42.6 feet high and 36 feet wide.

In 2012, concerns were raised about the condition of the altarpiece, and a commission was established to assess its stability. It concluded that the altarpiece was "stable, yet threatened." To preserve the "priceless piece of heritage," a program of research, conservation and preventive measures was required.

In 2015, in order to keep the altarpiece in place in the basilica, a workshop was established behind the altar where conservators would continue their work for over 1,000 days. Special scaffolding was built in front of the altar, allowing visitors to watch the conservators at work. The team worked on over 200 figures, with the largest weighing 550 pounds and exceeding 9.8 feet in height, as well as thousands of individual sculpted elements.

"The award granted to us, which is the European 'Oscar of Culture,' is an honor for the entire parish, for the conservators and for all the institutions and individuals who contributed to the restoration of the altarpiece," Father Ras said.

The project was co-financed by the Committee for the Restoration of Kraków Heritage, the Polish Ministry of Culture and Cultural Heritage in Poland, the municipality of Kraków and St. Mary's Parish.

The conservation was carried out by the experts from the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. The structural wood was consolidated, cracks were filled and the original fillers were maintained. Remnants of repainting from a later period were removed, and the arrangements of figures and microarchitecture on the corpus were amended.

Research and analysis also served in developing guidelines for fire prevention and emergency evacuation.

"It is a source of pride for us that we can be, so to speak, a model for Europe in caring for national heritage -- the heritage of our homeland, the heritage of Europe and the heritage of the world," Father Ras said.

Extensive international consultations were an essential part of the project, involving experts in Gothic sculpture conservation from Poland and Europe, who exchanged knowledge and ideas, in turn yielding many new discoveries.

"The restoration of this magnificent altarpiece is a unique and exceptional achievement. The meticulous conservation of the Wit Stwosz Altarpiece in St. Mary's Basilica, based on thorough research, was carried out by professionals who demonstrated great respect and sensitivity towards the original work," the awards' jury said in commending the work.

"The project brought together people from different countries, reflecting the international importance of the site and the need for cooperation in preserving European heritage," it added. "At the same time, it is an achievement on an impressive scale, being one of the largest Gothic altars in the world."

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