Largest Gothic altar in the world at Kraków’s St Mary’s Basilica is finally revealed after five years painstaking renovation

Weighing 250kg, measuring 13-metres high and costing nearly 14 million PLN, the altarpiece took five years to restore. Kalbar/TFN

After five years of painstaking renovation using cutting-edge technology, the famous altar in Kraków’s St Mary’s Basilica has regained the shine and colours that would have stunned worshippers when it was completed at the end of the 15th century by master artist Wit Stwosz.

The world-renowned altarpiece is the largest Gothic altar in the world and one of Poland’s national treasures.

The restoration work started in 2015 and cost around 14 million zloty.

The trunks from which the tallest figures were carved came from 500-year-old trees, making them over 1,000 years old today.Kalbar/TFN

After World War II Stwosz's masterpiece was conserved only once, in the period 1946-50. Then it was only cleaned of dirt and basic conservation work was carried out.

The conservation work this time round was completed in December last year. However, the full effect only became visible on Friday last week after all the scaffolding had been taken down.

Father Dariusz Raś, provost of St. Mary’s Basilica, told TFN: “We can now see the altar as it was in the time of Wit Stwosz. It is a reason to feel joy.”

The altar, the full name of which is the Altar of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is widely regarded as one of the most outstanding works of Gothic art in Europe.Kalbar/TFN

The altarpiece is 13 metres high and holds more than 200 figures, with the biggest ones weighing up to 250 kg.

The five panels that make up the altarpiece cover a huge 866 square metres.

The trunks from which the tallest figures were carved came from 500-year-old trees, making them over 1,000 years old today.

The altar is centred around the figure of Mary. The main sculptural group shows the scene of the Dormition of Mary, which commemorates the ‘falling asleep’ or death of Mary before being taken up into heaven.Kalbar/TFN

On the panels on either side are 18 scenes from Mary's life, and at the base of the altar is the Tree of Jesse, which shows the genealogy of her family.Kalbar/TFN

Kalbar/TFN

The restoration was not without its surprises. In September 2019, conservators uncovered and read the date 1486, located on the side of the figure of the apostle, St. James, supporting the sleeping Mary.

The inscription stunned restorers as it predates the altarpiece's consecration by three years.

In the past, the altar was restored, which resulted in many changes to the colours and the arrangement of the figures. The work just completed restored its original appearance.

The altar was completed at the end of the 15th century by master artist Wit Stwosz who was invited to Kraków when the city’s elders decided they wanted a new, magnificent altar 30 years after the roof of St. Mary's Basilica collapsed.Public domain

The work was preceded by a series of examinations and analyses using state-of-the-art non-invasive methods, such as computer tomography and laser, which revealed many layers of paint that have built up over the last five centuries.

The work involved specialists from Poland and abroad, not only conservators, but also historians, art historians, physicists, and chemists.

The conservation was entrusted to the Intercollegiate Institute for the Conservation and Restoration of Works of Art of the Warsaw and Krakow Academies of Fine Arts.

The world-renowned altarpiece is the largest Gothic altar in the world and one of Poland’s national treasures.Kalbar/TFN

Professor Ireneusz Płuska from the institute told TFN: “We had to work like detectives to reveal each layer of the past and work out what was most valuable.”

“Few people know that Jan Matejko even painted over some of the figures,” he added.

The cost of over PLN 13,720,000 was co-financed by the National Fund for the Restoration of Krakow's Monuments, the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the parish of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the city of Krakow's budget.

Wit Stwosz was invited to Kraków when the city’s elders decided they wanted a new, magnificent altar 30 years after the roof of St. Mary's Basilica collapsed.

Father Dariusz Raś, provost of St. Mary’s Basilica, told TFN: “We can now see the altar as it was in the time of Wit Stwosz. It is a reason to feel joy.”Kalbar/TFN

The 20-year-old sculptor from Nuremberg, where he was known as Veit Stoss, spent a total of 12 years on the job, completing it in 1489, three years before Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas.

The city paid him 2,808 florins, an amount equal to the annual budget of Kraków. If today’s city authorities were to pay him the city’s annual budget, he would walk away with over PLN 7 billion.

Historians even suspect that this sum was only the last instalment.

The altar, whose full name is the Altar of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is widely regarded as one of the most outstanding works of Gothic art in Europe.

The conservation work this time round was completed in December last year. However, the full effect only became visible on Friday last week after all the scaffolding had been taken down.Kalbar/TFN

It is centred around the figure of Mary. The main sculptural group shows the scene of the Dormition of Mary, which commemorates the ‘falling asleep’ or death of Mary before being taken up into heaven.

On the panels on either side, Stwosz created 18 scenes from Mary's life, and at the base of the altar is the Tree of Jesse, which shows the genealogy of her family.

Stwosz gave the apostles the features of Krakow's townspeople. He went so far in this that their various disabilities, defects in appearance, deformed hands, swollen veins on their legs and traces of skin diseases are clearly visible.

In September 1939, Poles led by Jagiellonian University professor Karol Estreicher tried to protect the altar from destruction and theft by dismantling the figures and sailing them down the Vistula River to Sandomierz on barges.

Professor Płuska from the institute told TFN: “We had to work like detectives to reveal each layer of the past and work out what was most valuable.”Kalbar/TFN

The Germans soon found them after being tipped off and shipped the figures and the frames to the Third Reich on the order of Hans Frank, the Governor-General of that part of occupied Poland.

It was found by Professor Estreicher with the help of the Americans in Bavaria, hidden in the basement of the heavily bombed Nuremberg Castle, thanks to which the altar returned to Krakow by train in May 1946.

The altarpiece’s restoration will be given an official thanksgiving later this year on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on August 15, 532 years precisely after it was first consecrated in 1489.