The altar of the Dormition of the Mother of God in St. Mary’s Basilica is one of the greatest late Gothic European masterpieces.
The main altar of St. Mary’s Church in Kraków is decorated with an altarpiece by Veit Stoss, which is called simply the Altar of Veit Stoss, the Altar of Dormition of the Mother of God, or St. Mary’s Altar.
The work on the Altar of Veit Stoss continued from 1477 until 1489. The altar is made of three types of wood. The structure is made of hard oak, the background is made of lighter but equally as strong larch, while the figures are sculpted in soft and flexible linden.
The retable of St. Mary’s Altar is a pentaptych, which means that it has five wings. It is composed of the centre part with sculptures, a pair of opening internal wings, and a pair of fixed external wings. Both pairs of wings are decorated with reliefs. The structure is completed with a relief predella set on the altar top and openwork finial with solid sculpture. The iconographic programme was developed by a theologian and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Her role in Salvation.
The predella presents the Tree of Jesse, which is a depiction in art of the ancestors of Christ. There is a monumental group of sculptures above, inside the altar’s receptacle, which presents the Dormition of the Mother of God surrounded by apostles. The Assumption is presented above it. The finial of the retable presents the Coronation of the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth.
The reliefs on the wings present scenes from the lives of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.
The wings of the open altar present scenes of the joy of the Mother of God:
– Adoration of the Magi
– Descent of the Holy Spirit
The wings of the closed altar present twelve scenes.
On the left fixed wing:
– The meeting of Joachim and Anne
– The Birth of Mary
– Presentation of the Virgin Mary at the Temple
On the opening wings:
– Presentation of Jesus Christ at the Temple
– Twelve-year-old Jesus teaching at the temple
– The Taking of Christ
– Descent from the Cross
– The Entombment of Christ
On the right fixed wing:
– The appearance of resurrected Christ to Mary Magdalene
– The Three Marys at the Tomb
– Descent of Christ into hell
The altar was formerly opened only during major Church holidays and the faithful could see only the wings of the closed altar on other days.