Veit Stoss altarpiece
A masterpiece of the late Middle Ages, where the richness and originality of the formulas of the content programme of the “St Mary’s Altarpiece” is matched by the superb artistic form it was given. The Kraków retable is the earliest known work of Wit Stwosz (German: Veit Stoß), immediately mature, and never again unsurpassed in scale, expression and concept – a true opus magnum of the artist.
The St Mary’s altarpiece is a pentaptych, i.e. a five-winged altarpiece comprising a central part, i.e. an altar cabinet with full-figured figures, one pair of movable inner wings and another pair of fixed outer wings, all of which are in relief. The whole is completed by a relief-relief predella perched on the Gothic altar mensa and an openwork finial, set on the cupboard, filled with full-plastic sculpture.
The main scene of the altarpiece, located in the central cupboard, is the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. The sleeping Mary is surrounded by the apostles. The figure of the Virgin Mary and Saint James supporting her is carved from a single linden trunk, as are the figures of Christ, his mother and the two angels in the Assumption scene.
The open altarpiece on movable wings illustrates the six Joys of Mary: from the Annunciation to Pentecost. When the cabinet is closed, the bas-reliefs depict 12 scenes from the life of Mary and Jesus. The figures are depicted in the costumes of the period of the work’s creation (15th century), being now an excellent study of costuming. Domestic utensils and everyday vessels are also faithful copies of the originals. The upper quatrefoil on the right movable wing depicts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
There are twelve scenes on the wings of the closed altarpiece by Veit Stoss. In the left immovable wing: the Meeting of Joachim and Anne, the Birth of Mary, the Presentation of Mary in the Temple. In the movable wings: the Presentation of Jesus in the temple, the twelve-year-old Jesus teaching in the temple, the Capture of Jesus, the Crucifixion, the Removal from the cross, the Deposition in the tomb. On the right immovable wing: the Risen Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene, the Three Maries at the tomb, Christ in the Abyss.
In the past, the altarpiece was only opened during major church festivals, so on a daily basis the faithful could only see the wings of the closed altarpiece.