Among this year’s winners honored with Europe’s highest honor — the European Heritage Award / Europa Nostra 2023 Award in the Conservation category was the Wit Stwosz Altarpiece at St. Mary’s Basilica in Kraków.
This year, 30 exceptional achievements in the field of heritage from a total of 21 countries were honored. St. Mary’s Parish was honored for its 2015–2021 restoration of a pearl in the church’s treasures — Wit Stwosz Altarpiece.
“The restoration of this magnificent altarpiece is a unique and exceptional achievement. The meticulous conservation of the Wit Stwosz Altarpiece in St. Mary’s Basilica, based on thorough research, was carried out by professionals who demonstrated great respect and sensitivity towards the original work. The project brought together people from different countries, reflecting the international importance of the site and the need for cooperation in preserving European heritage”, the Awards’ Jury commended. The Jury also highlighted the conservation of the Wit Stwosz Altarpiece as an achievement of impressive scale due to the fact that the altarpiece is one of the largest Gothic altars in the world.
The Rev. Inf. Dariusz Ras — archpriest of St. Mary’s Basilica — notes the great pride of St. Mary’s parish in receiving such a prestigious European award. „The altar of Wit Stwosz, part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its 200 sculptures and thousands of woodcarving details adorns St. Mary’s temple and continues to impress with the artistry of the workshop of master Wit Stwosz. It is a priceless monument and all time living heritage — not only of Kraków, not only of Poland, but of Europe and the world. The award granted to us, which is the European „Oscars of Culture,” is a distinction for the entire parish, for the conservators and for all the institutions and individuals who contributed to the restoration of the altarpiece. It is also an encouragement to continue our commitment to creating awareness of the importance of heritage at every level: local, national and international”.
Professor Jacek Purchla, vice-president of Europa Nostra, emphasizes not only the special place of Wit Stwosz’s masterpiece in the history of European art, but the fact that the Award Jury recognized the international dimension of the spectacular conservation carried out in Kraków. „Too rarely today our Polish concern for cultural heritage and the professionalism of our conservators are recognized abroad. This year’s award is therefore not only a great honor 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 Cracow Altarpiece and its spectacular restoration”.
The winners will be honored at the European Heritage Awards ceremony to be held on September 28 at the Palazzo del Cinema in Venice. At that time, the Grand Prix winner and the winner of the Audience Award will be announced, selected from this year’s winners. The public can vote online for the winner of the 2023 Audience Award, and we warmly encourage you to cast your votes for the conservation of the Wit Stwosz Altarpiece.
Wit Stwosz Altarpiece in St. Mary’s Basilica and its conservation
The Historic Centre of Kraków with St. Mary’s Basilica was recognised as one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1978 for its outstanding heritage value. St. Mary’s Basilica is particularly famous for its Gothic altar of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, carved by Wit Stwosz (Veit Stoss) between 1477 and 1489. A remarkable project to restore the altarpiece, undertaken in situ, has returned it to its former beauty.
The project was co-financed by the Civic Committee for the Restoration of Kraków Heritage (SKOZK), the Polish Ministry of Culture and Cultural Heritage in Poland, the Municipality of Kraków and St Mary’s Parish.
The altarpiece originally stood at 18m high and 11m wide and its figures are based on residents of medieval Kraków, who sat as models for the artist. It is therefore an interesting source of knowledge on the culture, customs, and history of the city at the time.
In 2012, concerns were raised about the condition of the altarpiece and a commission was established to assess its stability. It concluded that the altarpiece was “stable, yet threatened”. To preserve this priceless piece of heritage, a programme of research, conservation and preventive measures was required.
In 2015, in order to keep the altarpiece in place in the Basilica, a workshop was established behind the altar where conservators would continue their work for over 1000 days. Special scaffolding was built in front of the altar, allowing visitors to watch the conservators at work. The team worked on over 200 figures, with the largest weighing in at 250kg and exceeding 3m in height, as well as thousands of individual sculpted elements.
The conservation performed by the experts from the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków involved a full spectrum of scientific possibilities. The structural wood was consolidated, cracks were filled and the original fillers were respected. Remnants of repainting from a later period were removed, and the arrangements of figures and microarchitecture on the corpus and predella were amended. These works uncovered the original Gothic complexion of the figures and the framing, revealing the original intentions of the Nuremberg master. Research and analysis also served in developing guidelines for fire prevention and emergency evacuation.
Extensive international consultations were an essential part of the project, involving experts in Gothic sculpture conservation from Poland and Europe, who exchanged knowledge and ideas, in turn yielding many new discoveries.
Europa Nostra and Creative Europe
Europa Nostra is the European voice of civil society committed to safeguarding and promoting cultural and natural heritage. It is a pan-European federation of heritage NGOs, supported by a wide network of public bodies, private companies and individuals, covering over 40 countries. It is the largest and the most representative heritage network in Europe, maintaining close relations with the European Union, the Council of Europe, UNESCO and other international bodies. Founded in 1963, Europa Nostra celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.
Creative Europe is the EU programme that supports the cultural and creative sectors, enabling them to increase their contribution to Europe’s society, economy and living environment. With a budget of €2.4 billion for 2021–2027, it supports organisations in the fields of heritage, performing arts, fine arts, interdisciplinary arts, publishing, film, TV, music, and video games as well as tens of thousands of artists, cultural and audiovisual professionals.