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European „Oscar of Culture” for conservation of Wit Stwosz Altarpiece

European „Oscar of Culture” for conservation of Wit Stwosz Altarpiece

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.