The Wit Stwosz Altar is one of the greatest works of art that Krakow can boast of. It is a masterpiece of Gothic sculpture, a work that attracts tourists from all over the world. We invite you for a walk with a professional guide.
The Altarpiece by Veit Stoss – restoration works completed
A particularly important cause that prompts us that prompts us to visit Krakow and rediscover the Altar made by Veit Stoss (Vit Stwosz) is the completion of the five-year-long research and conservation work that began in September 2015. Conservation was preceded by an extremely detailed inventory of the altar using the 3D laser scanning method, as a result of which it regained its glow and colors that could be admired by the inhabitants of medieval Krakow.
The conservators tried to reach the original colors of the figures and the background in the individual sections of the work.
The conservation works were undertaken by the Intercollegiate Institute of Conservation and Restoration of Works of Art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and Krakow, and the cost amounted to over PLN 13,720,000. The works were co-financed by the National Fund for the Revalorization of Krakow Monuments, the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the parish of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the city budget, which supported the work with the amount of PLN 1,150,000. Interestingly, during the last restoration works, the figure of St. James, the date 1486, which indicates that it is possible that the figures on the altar by Wit Stoss were completed earlier than official sources indicate (i.e. before 1489, when the altar was consecrated).
Let us add that in its more than five-hundred-year history, the altar has already undergone six restorations (in the 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, 1930s, and 1940s). The last one was the seventh.
With a licensed guide from the Krakkos company, you can go to the grand opening of the Altar, which takes place from Monday to Saturday at 11.50am. This is a unique event during which you will have the opportunity to see each part of this unique masterpiece of woodcarving and painting and at the same time the largest Gothic altar in Europe (the altar is 13 meters high and 11 meters wide. The total area of the decorative part is 866.52 m2). Although it is considered a unique or priceless work, we know its value at the end of the 15th century, when it was made. It was exactly 2,808 florins, which is the equivalent of a few tenement houses or Krakow’s annual budget. Let us note that the altar was to be a collective monument to the inhabitants of Kraków. Wit Stoss presented the anatomical details of the portrayed people with great precision. Such faithful reproduction of reality was characteristic of the art of the second half of the 15th century.
Interestingly, in the 1930s, Franciszek Walter, a lecturer at the Jagiellonian University, a recognized dermatologist and venereologist, pointed out that in many characters from the Altar, skin lesions are clearly reproduced, resulting from diseases that the models (residents of Krakow) suffered from. Among the skin changes that Walter noticed were, for example, senile wart, rosacea, varicose veins of the lower extremities. He was also interested in two characters with possible symptoms of congenital syphilis.
History of the Altar – Wit Stwosz’s life work
Wit Stwosz used two types of wood: linden and oak. Interestingly, there are about 200 figures in the altar in total, the largest of which are about 280 cm.
The altar is considered to be Wit Stwosz’s life’s work, as the artist devoted 12 years of his life to making this masterpiece. The monument dates back to the 15th century, but the trunks from which the tallest figures were cut came from approx. 500-year-old trees. This means that today wood is about 1000 years old.
The altar shows two spheres: the sacred (heavenly) and the profane (earthly), and is also an illustration of a medieval hymn to the Mother of God, it shows the most important events in her life. Let us remind you that the full invocation of St. Mary’s Basilica is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is in the central part of the altar that there is such a scene.
Visiting the famous Altar with a professional guide from Krakkos, you will learn about the history of St. Mary’s Basilica, see other works in the various chapels of this temple, hear both legends and numerous stories about one of the most important churches in Poland. You will learn, among other things, which building in this place is the current temple, why in the 18th century the Altar of Veit Stoss was removed, and also what happened to the many stained glass windows that were in the temple windows. With Krakkos you will also learn about many interesting details outside the temple – you will see various plaques in the wall of the church, chapels adjacent to it, you will learn what martens were used for, as well as what the sculptural decorations on the highest parts of the church wall depict (under the roof !) and where is the bell for the dying.
The altar in the presbytery is not the only work in St. Mary’s Basilica by Wit Stwosz. Entering the temple through the side entrance (from the south side), on the right side we will see the 18th century Altar of the Holy Cross, and in it a beautiful, monumental work by Wit Stwosz – an extremely realistic stone crucifix (often called the Slacker crucifix from the royal mint master Henryk Slacker, who founded the work .
A guide will tell you the most interesting legends related to St. Mary’s Basilica.
You will see, among other things, the chapel of Our Lady of Częstochowa located in the lower part of the belfry tower. In the altar there is a copy of the image of Our Lady of Częstochowa. Let us add that this chapel was visited many times by the Holy Father John Paul II.
The guide will also pay attention to the late Gothic baptismal font located in the western porch (entering the main entrance, from the Main Square), to the Baroque organ on the polychrome designed by Jan Matejko and made by his students Stanisław Wyspiański and Józef Mehoffer.
From April to October you will also be able to enter the bugle-call tower with a professional guide to admire the beautiful panorama of the city, and to see where the bugle call is played every hour.
Finally, let’s add that with us you can also see other works made by the master from Nuremberg. For example, in the Wawel cathedral in the Świętokrzyska chapel, the sarcophagus of Kazimierz Jagiellończyk or the epitaph of Kallimach located in the presbytery of the church of St. Trinity (at the convent of the Dominican Fathers). With a licensed guide, you will also see works created in the circle of the Nuremberg master or attributed to him. Among them, it is worth mentioning, among others, the sculptures located in the Ogrojcowa Chapel at the entrance to the church of St. Barbara or the sculpture of St. Anna Samotrzec from the church of Fr. Bernardines.
We invite you to visit!