Krakows Gothic Masterpiece
Krakow is blessed with masterworks by the greatest sculptor of the Gothic art, Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz).
He lived and worked in Krakow for 19 years, and he sacrificed twelve of them (1477 to 1489) to carve in wood his best work ever: three-story-high altarpiece in the basilica of the Virgin Mary's at Krakow’s central Grand Square.
The 13 metres high and 11 metres wide Veit Stoss' magnum opus is the largest Gothic sculpture in the world. It consists of 200 fine limewood sculptures treated with color and gold foil. The central part, with huge lifelike statues of the saints, depicts dramatically the Virgin Mary's Quietus among the Apostles. Looking upwards one sees the Ascension of Our Lady and Lord. And at the top there is the Madonna’s Heavenly Coronation by the Trinity. The wings are covered with relief scenes from the life of the Holy Family. At the base of the altarpiece one finds the family tree of the Virgin Mary's.
A few weeks prior to the breakout of the Second World War and the German occupation of Poland, the Poles took the altar apart and stored its main statues in crates dispersed across the country. The crates were located by a Nazi unit called the Sonderkommando Paulsen, plundered and transported to the Third Reich, likely to Berlin. The panels were also found and sent to Germany. They were put in the basement of the Nuremberg Castle. At the castle, Polish prisoners sent messages to members of the Polish resistance that the revered altar was at there. The altar survived the war in spite of heavy bombardment of Nuremberg and was returned to Poland in 1946, where it underwent major restoration. It was put back at St. Mary's Basilica in 1957. Veit Stoss born a Nuremberger, met the Nazis' definition of "Aryan", and the German administration considered his altarpiece to be German property.
The altar was restored several times in its history, not only after the end of World War II. For the first time, it was renovated before 1600, then in 1866–1870, 1932–1933, 1946–1949 and finally, in 1999. St. John Cantius in Chicago, a historic church in the 'Polish Cathedral' style contains a detailed copy of this masterpiece. This one-third scale copy is the largest and most detailed work of its kind, and was commissioned in 2003 as a tribute to the Galician immigrants who founded the parish in 1893.
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