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