WWII docs may decode St. Mary’s altar

Art historians in Poland are hoping to gain new knowledge about the famous St. Mary’s Church Veit Stoss Altar as documents about its World War II journey have been found in the U.S.Last week Agata Wolska, archivist for St. Mary’s Church on Rynek Glowny, discovered documentation of its wartime odyssey at the U.S. National Archives and at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.The Krakow altar, carved between 1477 and 1489, is the biggest Gothic altar in Europe and a symbol of Krakow. The 13-meter high (over 43 feet) and 11-meter wide (34 feet) alter was built in the form of a triptych and filled with more than 200 sculptures.Wolska’s discovery reveals the altar’s history between 1939, when it was taken to Germany by troops occupying Poland, and 1946, when the U.S. Army controlling Germany returned the Gothic masterpiece to Krakow.When the documents arrive in Krakow next week scholars hope to shed new light on the altar’s wartime history. They know that it was first taken to Berlin and then to Nuremberg during the war, but the details remain unclear.After the war, the altar was found in a terrible state in a basement in an old northern Bavarian town. It was broken into two separate blocks, wet and infested with insects. It wasn’t presented publicly until 1950 when its restoration was finally finished.The altar was carved by Veit Stoss, one of the best Gothic German sculptors. He came to Krakow from Nuremberg in 1477 and devoted the next 12 years of his life to carving the altar with other workers.His masterpiece gained him not only everlasting fame, but also made him rich. The city council paid almost 3,000 florins to have it in the Cathedral – a sum almost equal to their annual budget.Stoss was also granted citizenship and a tax-exempt privilege in Krakow. However after completing several other commissions, including the tomb of King Kazimierz IV, he returned to Nuremberg.There his fate changed. First he lost his fortune after lending it to a merchant who went bankrupt. Then he was found guilty of forgery and sentenced to be branded on both cheeks. He died in Nuremberg in 1533 and was buried at the Joannis Cemetery, where Albrecht Durer also lies buried. Nuremberg has been Krakow’s twin city since 1979.

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