Looted 15th century art considered ‘one of the most valuable items stolen’ returned after nearly 80 years
After 78 years, a 'lost' medieval altar painting that was taken from Gdańsk's St. Mary's Basilica during World War Two has arrived back in Poland.
After last-minute concerns over whether the valuable shipment would be able to cross the border from Germany due to the coronavirus pandemic, the painting was finally allowed into the country after strict sanitary criteria were agreed.
The ‘Pietas Domini’ gothic altar painting from 1435, known as the Throne of Grace, was repatriated after the Polish culture ministry brokered an agreement between the Evangelical Church of Germany and St. Mary's parish in Gdańsk.
The work of sacral art, which is one of the most valuable items on the Polish list of wartime lost art, hung in St. Mary's Basilica until May 1942, when Germans art conservators dismantled and transported it to a safe place for fear of air raids.
Before and during the war, St. Mary’s was a protestant church in the Free City of Gdańsk and later the Third Reich.
However, based on post-war international agreements, the contents of the church, the largest brick-built sacral building in Europe, became the property of the Polish state, including those that had been lost during the war.
The Polish culture ministry said in an earlier statement that, “the disappearance of the altar was the most severe loss from all the monuments from the 15th century belonging to St. Mary's Basilica in Gdańsk”.
The altar was considered lost for several decades after the war. However, it's central element turned up in 1999 in the inventory of the Berlin State Museums.
In 2015, the culture ministry started the process of regaining the lost painting.
After three years of talks, the German Evangelical Church decided to return the altar painting to St. Mary's Basilica in the spirit of ecumenical understanding between churches and reconciliation between nations.
According to the culture ministry, the return of the work of art “is an important event for Poland, and the return of lost artwork is a primary goal for the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.”
Two pieces of the original altar have returned to Gdansk. The main altar painting had been on display in the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin and the altar’s base had been on loan for 60 years to a church in the Moabit district of Berlin.
Historical sources suggest that German art conservators dismantled the altar as early as 1942 in fear of it being destroyed in an air raid.
However, when it became clear that the city would soon be in Soviet hands, it was taken deep into Germany.
The altar is being placed in quarantine in the basilica’s sacristy and will be moved to the Basilica when the renovation of the floor in the church is completed.
Krzysztof Owsiany, head of the conservation team in St. Mary's Basilica, said, “It is in a kind of quarantine. The idea is that the altar will gradually get used to the microclimate of the Basilica.
“These adaptations have to be done gradually, because the climate in the interior of the church varies due to the use of water during the renovation work.”