Renovation of the Altar of Veit Stoss

HISTORY OF CONSERVATION

For centuries, as St. Mary’s archpresbyters have been taking care of one of the greatest works of Gothic art in Europe, they have been focusing on keeping the valuable sculpture of rare beauty in the Grand Altar from damage.

The main altar, a winged pentaptych created by Veit Stoss, was built between 1477 and 1489. Over time, the piece underwent frequent conservation and restoration to experience considerable changes and transformations, which included those made to the finial, and its current architectural form departs from the initial design. However, the altar has been able to preserve its main structure and iconographic premise to this day.

The altar has under­go­ne nume­ro­us cle­anups and repa­irs. The ear­liest evi­den­ce of its care is pro­vi­ded in a docu­ment from 1533, which tells us that it was taken care of by spe­cial­ly appo­in­ted wor­kers of the church.

As arti­stic trends chan­ged in the 18th cen­tu­ry, a con­cept was born to repla­ce the altar with a new Baro­que one, but this for­tu­na­te­ly did not come to pass.

Stoss’ pie­ce rega­ined its pro­mi­nen­ce in 1822, when the artist’s maste­ry asto­un­ded Ber¬tel Tho¬rvald¬sen, one of the gre­atest Euro­pe­an sculp­tors of his era. In 1832, arch­pres­by­ter Win¬centy Łań¬cucki took the first steps to con­se­rve the altar. Over the years 1866–1869, the altar under­went exten­si­ve con­se­rva­tion under the guidan­ce of Wła¬dy¬sław Łuszcz¬kie¬wi¬cz and Jan Matej­ko, which inc­lu­ded restruc­tu­ring of the archi­tec­tu­ral pin­nac­les of the finial and attempts to remo­ve the over­pa­in­ting from the ini­tial poly­chro­my and gil­ding, but making sure to pre­se­rve the altar’s histo­ri­cal natu­re.

The next con­se­rva­tions took pla­ce in the 20th cen­tu­ry, betwe­en 1932 and 1934, during the era of arch­pres­by­ter Dr Józef Kuli¬now¬ski. Under the guidan­ce of Pro­fes­sor Julian Maka¬re¬wi¬cz, the work inc­lu­ded attempts to unve­il the ini­tial poly­chro­mes and cor­rect the work from the 19th cen­tu­ry. The sculp­tu­ral form was also sub­ject to pre­ven­ti­ve con­se­rva­tion. The most recent major con­se­rva­tions were per­for­med betwe­en 1946 and 1950 by Pro­fes­sor Marian Słonec¬ki and were aimed main­ly at iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and repa­ir of the dama­ge cau­sed after the altar was seized by the Ger­mans in World War II. The long con­se­rva­tion pro­cess cove­red both the archi­tec­tu­ral struc­tu­re and the poly­chro­mo­us sculp­tu­ral ele­ments. The­re were two more attempts to cle­an up the struc­tu­re of the altar’s reta­ble and make minor adju­st­ments to the pre­vio­us poly­chro­me and gild fil­lings, one in 1986 under the guidan­ce of Alek¬san¬dra Bog¬da¬now¬ska and the other in 1999 under the guidan­ce of Pro­fes­sor Marian Pacio­rek.

In the 1990s, the crum­bling gil­dings were secu­red, holes were bored to deter­mi­ne the wood structure’s pre­se­rva­tion sta­te, and nume­ro­us poly­chro­me cavi­ties were fil­led.

CURRENT CONSERVATION PROJECT

The cur­rent con­se­rva­tion pro­ject is the result of a cam­pa­ign laun­ched in 2011–2012, when the Social Com­mit­tee for the Resto­ra­tion of Kraków’s Histo­ric Sites and Monu­ments (SKOZK) and St. Mary’s Basi­li­ca repre­sen­ted by mitred pre­la­te Dr Dariusz Raś ini­tia­ted esta­bli­sh­ment of the Con­se­rva­tion Com­mit­tee to eva­lu­ate the pre­se­rva­tion level of the Altar of Veit Stoss. Pro­fes­sor Wła­dy­sław Zalew­ski pre­si­ded over the com­mit­tee. Accor­ding to the report from this acti­vi­ty, the sta­te of the altar is “sta­ble” but “in dan­ger” with esca­la­ting dama­ge in some are­as. This report pro­vi­ded the foun­da­tion for the start of exten­si­ve rese­arch and con­se­rva­tion work on the altar.

In 2013, the Inte­ra­ca­de­mic Insti­tu­te of Con­se­rva­tion and Resto­ra­tion of Art took com­ple­te inven­to­ry of the altar thro­ugh 3D laser scan­ning and pre­pa­red the most recent measu­re­ment docu­men­ta­tion com­po­sed of ortho­pla­nes and vec­tor ima­ges.

At this time, the­re is ongo­ing work aiming to start con­ta­mi­na­tion and dust moni­to­ring and instal­la­tion of per­ma­nent microc­li­ma­te moni­tors, which was ini­tia­ted by the parish.
A three-sta­ge con­test was held for the rese­arch and con­se­rva­tion work, which was aimed to select the con­trac­tor capa­ble of per­for­ming this deman­ding pro­ject in a supe­rior man­ner. The con­test was won by the Inte­ra­ca­de­mic Insti­tu­te of Con­se­rva­tion and Resto­ra­tion of Art.

The flat fee for the exten­si­ve rese­arch, con­se­rva­tion, and addi­tio­nal acti­vi­ty (inc­lu­ding meetings atten­ded by inter­na­tio­nal experts, pre­pa­ra­tion of a pro­ject of inno­va­ti­ve pre­ven­tion, pro­tec­tion, and safe use of the altar, fire pre­ven­tion sys­tem, scaf­fol­ding design and instal­la­tion, pre­pa­ra­tion of mate­rials for mono­gra­phic stu­dy) will be PLN 13 720 687.90.

The con­se­rva­tion work was star­ted in Sep­tem­ber of 2015 and will like­ly con­ti­nue until Decem­ber of 2020.

The con­se­rva­tion work is con­duc­ted in a way allo­wing access to the altar for pur­po­ses of reli­gio­us cult and litur­gy and for touri­sts. As the work pro­gres­ses, the altar may be clo­sed to touri­sts for short periods of time, which will be anno­un­ced seve­ral mon­ths in advan­ce.

General dimensions of the altar

Height: 13 m
Width: 11 m
Total deco­ra­tion area: 866,52 m2
Total back area: 107,45 m2
Finial area: 67,37 m2

Contact

St. Mary’s Basilica’s art resto­rer
Kata­rzy­na Paku­ła
plac Mariac­ki 2, 31–042 Kra­ków
tel: +48 606 219 460

e-mail: katarzyna.​pakula@​mariacki.​com

The Inte­ra­ca­de­mic Insti­tu­te of Con­se­rva­tion and Resto­ra­tion of Art (MIK) is a rese­arch and deve­lop­ment enti­ty con­cen­tra­ting two facul­ties: Con­se­rva­tion and Resto­ra­tion of Art at the Aca­de­my of Fine Arts in Kra­ków and at the Aca­de­my of Fine Arts in War­saw. The Insti­tu­te is repre­sen­ted by Pro­fes­sor Ire­ne­usz Płu­ska and Dr Jaro­sław Ada­mo­wicz. Its work is per­for­med by art con­se­rva­tors, histo­rians, phy­si­ci­sts, che­mi­sts, engi­ne­ers, and other scien­ti­sts and experts of nume­ro­us scien­ce esta­bli­sh­ments, inc­lu­ding the afo­re­men­tio­ned Aca­de­my of Fine Arts, the Polish Aca­de­my of Scien­ces, the Jagiel­lo­nian Uni­ver­si­ty, the Kra­ków Uni­ver­si­ty of Tech­no­lo­gy, and the Mili­ta­ry Uni­ver­si­ty of Tech­no­lo­gy in War­saw. Experts from Poland and abro­ad will be invi­ted for con­sul­ta­tions. The cur­rent pro­gram, “Com­plex rese­arch and con­se­rva­tion of the Altar of Veit Stoss (1489)”, will see MIK per­form nume­ro­us tests and ana­ly­ses and full con­se­rva­tion of the Gre­at Altar of Veit Stoss. This is not the first job of this team asso­cia­ted with this struc­tu­re.

St. Mary’s Basi­li­ca. Kra­ków. Altar of Veit Stoss.  Struc­tu­re adap­ted for taking down the sculp­tu­res on altar finial. Pho­to by Paweł Gąsior.

St. Mary’s Basi­li­ca. Kra­ków. Altar of Veit Stoss. Altar finial from behind. Pho­to by Paweł Gąsior.

St. Mary’s Basi­li­ca. Kra­ków. Altar of Veit Stoss. Sculp­tu­res of the Coro­na­tion of Mary – finial. Pho­to by Paweł Gąsior.

St. Mary’s Basi­li­ca. Kra­ków. Altar of Veit Stoss. Frag­ment of finial sculp­tu­re, visi­ble dama­ge on the face of St. Sta­ni­slaus. Pho­to by Jaro­sław Ada­mo­wicz.

St. Mary’s Basi­li­ca. Kra­ków. Altar of Veit Stoss. Pio­tro­win, frag­ment of the St. Sta­ni­slaus sculp­tu­re. Pho­to by Jaro­sław Ada­mo­wicz.

St. Mary’s Basi­li­ca. Kra­ków. Altar of Veit Stoss. Dama­ged wood­ca­rving on the finial. Pho­to by Jaro­sław Ada­mo­wicz.

St. Mary’s Basi­li­ca. Kra­ków. Altar of Veit Stoss. Visi­ble dirt on the altar. Pho­to by Jaro­sław Ada­mo­wicz.


 Histo­ry of con­se­rva­tion

You can order higher reso­lu­tion ima­ges by e-mail: katarzyna.​pakula@​mariacki.​com