Conservation of the Veit Stoss Altarpiece with Europa Nostra Award 2023!
Carved between 1477 and 1489 by an artist who came from Nuremberg, the altarpiece is widely regarded as a Gothic masterpiece. Its meticulous conservation, based on in-depth research, was carried out in situ for more than 1,000 days and involved a team of top specialists from Poland and abroad.
Professor Jacek Purchla, Vice President of Europa Nostra, emphasises not only the special place of Veit Stoss’s masterpiece in the history of European art, but the fact that the Prize jury recognised the international dimension of the spectacular conservation operation carried out in Krakow. “All too rarely today our Polish concern for cultural heritage and the professionalism of our conservators are recognised abroad. This year’s award is therefore not only a great honour for St Mary’s Parish, but also an opportunity for Poland to share our good practices in caring for the treasures of European heritage with the international community. It is the mission of Europa Nostra to promote such extraordinary works as the Krakow Altarpiece and its spectacular restoration.”
The winners will be honoured at the European Heritage Awards ceremony to be held on 28 September at the Palazzo del Cinema in Venice. This prestigious event will be honoured by the presence of Cecilia Bartoli, President of Europa Nostra. The Vice-President of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas, is also scheduled to attend this important event. During the ceremony, the Grand Prix winners and the winner of the Audience Award will be announced, selected from this year’s laureates. They will each receive €10,000. The ceremony will be the highlight of the European Cultural Heritage Summit 2023, organised by Europa Nostra with the support of the European Commission, from 27-30 September in Venice, the world heritage city.
The public can vote online for the winner of the Audience Award 2023 (also worth €10,000).
THE ALTAR OF VEIT STOSS IN THE ST. MARY’S BASILICA IN KRAKOW
In 1978, the historical centre of Krakow, together with St. Mary’s Basilica, was one of the first places to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The treasure of St Mary’s Basilica is the Gothic altar of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, sculpted by Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz) between 1477 and 1489. An extraordinary conservation project for the altar, undertaken in situ, restored it to its original state in 2021 and revealed the beauty of the Nuremberg master.
The project was co-financed by the Social Committee for the Restoration of Krakow Monuments (SKOZK), the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the City Hall of Krakow and the Parish of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The St Mary’s altarpiece, which took 12 years to create, is today the largest surviving late Gothic cabinet retable. Its original dimensions were 18 metres high and 11 metres wide. The protagonist of the altar is Mary, the patron saint of the church. The figures in the middle, almost 3 metres high, are characterised by realism, the dynamism of the body system and the expressiveness with which the draperies are depicted. The models used by Veit Stoss were the inhabitants of medieval Krakow – depicted in a naturalistic manner with various disabilities and defects. The altarpiece is a complex theological lecture, a masterpiece of sculptural art and a documentation of the epoch in which it was created. To this day, it remains a source of knowledge about the culture, customs and history of the city, a key to understanding its inhabitants, their imaginations and their religiosity.
In 2012, concerns were raised about the state of preservation of the altarpiece and a commission was appointed to assess it. The opinion was that the condition of the altarpiece was ‘stable but at risk’. The preservation of this priceless heritage required a programme of research, conservation and preventive measures.
Given the stature of the building and the uninterrupted liturgy being celebrated, the altar could not be taken out of its current mode of operation. For more than 1,000 days since 2015, work has been carried out in a working studio at the back of the altar, organised within the basilica. Scaffolding was erected in front of the altar and visitors to the shrine were able to watch what the conservators were doing. More than 200 figures and several thousand separate woodcarving elements passed through their hands.
The conservation carried out by experts from the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow covered the full spectrum of available techniques. The wood of the altarpiece structure was consolidated, any defects were repaired in accordance with respect for the original technologies used. The later repainting of the polychrome was removed, and the arrangement of individual elements such as angels, gloria and micro-architecture on the body and predella was corrected. As a result of the work, the original Gothic complexion of the figures and framing was uncovered, which now brings viewers closer to the master’s original intentions. Research and analysis was also used to develop fire prevention and evacuation guidelines.
An important element of the project was the extensive international consultations involving experts in the conservation of Gothic sculpture from Poland and Europe, who exchanged knowledge and ideas, resulting in many new discoveries.
“The restoration of this magnificent altarpiece is an exceptional and unique achievement. The meticulous conservation of the Veit Stoss Altarpiece in St. Mary’s Basilica, based on thorough searches, was carried out by professionals who showed great respect and sensitivity for the original work. The project brought together people from different countries, reflecting the international significance of the site and the need to work together in preserving European heritage,” – the Prize Jury pointed out. “At the same time, being one of the largest Gothic altars in the world, it is an achievement of impressive scale.”
ABOUT THE EUROPA NOSTRA AWARDS
The European Heritage Awards / Europa Nostra Awards were established by the European Commission in 2002 and have since been coordinated by Europa Nostra. For 21 years, the Prizes have been a key tool for recognising and promoting the multiple values of cultural and natural heritage for European society, economy and environment.
The Awards accentuate and promote heritage excellence and best practice in Europe, encourage cross-border knowledge exchange and bring heritage stakeholders together in networks. The Awards have brought significant benefits to the winners, such as increased (inter)national visibility, additional funding and increased visitor numbers. In addition, the Awards foster an increased concern for our shared heritage among European citizens. Additional facts and figures about the Awards can be found on the Awards website.
The full list of the 2023 Award realisations is available here.
KRAKÓW IN EUROPA NOSTRA
Krakow plays an important role in Europa Nostra. The capital of the Małopolska region has been home to the Europa Nostra Heritage Hub – the organisation’s regional centre for Central and Eastern Europe – since 2022. The Hub was established in 2022 as a result of an agreement signed by Krakow Mayor Jacek Majchrowski and Europa Nostra’s Executive President, Professor Hermann Parzinger.
You can read more about Krakow’s activities in international heritage organisations here.