On the high altar by Veit Stoss, or how to transform a disaster into a huge success

8 July 2016

In 1442, disaster struck the most important of church in Kraków: the parish St Mary’s Church. The collapse of its ceiling destroyed the high altar. Nevertheless, it was thanks to that calamity that the largest, and – as people of Kraków eagerly claim – the most beautiful Gothic altar in Europe was created.

Its creator was Wit Stwosz (Veit Stoss) from Nuremberg who gained through his work riches, numerous clients, and undying fame. Let the numbers speak for themselves: for his work, the sculptor received 2808 florins – an amount equal to the annual budget of the city! It took 12 years to make the altar, from 1477 to 1489. Its oak construction is 13 m (43 ft) high and 11 m (36 ft) wide. It is filled with over 200 figures chiselled from lime tree blocks. The figures in the main scene – the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin – are each nearly 3 m (10 ft) high. Research has shown that the master sculptor used for his work 500-year-old wood. It is therefore around 1000 years old.

Another unusual feature of the high altar at St Mary’s is its realism. Stwosz awarded his figures with the features of his contemporaries – the people of Kraków, recreating all the detail, even if it was not entirely beautiful: palms deformed with work and rheumatism, thinning hair on their scalps, and veins visible under the skin. Besides these, he showed contemporary costumes, weapons, utensils, and furnishings. Stwosz’s faithfulness to this reality was so strong that his work provided the foundations for a monograph on dermatology devoted to skin diseases in mediaeval Kraków in the 1930s!

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