PrHIS altar, looted by the Nazis during the war, wag recovered in 1945, thanks to the order (then) of General Eisenhower, by the special Polish scientists' Committee headed by Professor Karol Estreicher from Polish Academy of Sciences and brought back to Cracov, but the Cornmunist Government ordered it to be kept in the National Museum (after much repair work had been done). Only after " Polish October" last year the Government agreed to return it to the church, where it was made (1477-1489). The work of assembling all the parts of the altar in the church took six months. Last August on the feast of the Assumption the altar was consecrated and the first Pontifical Mass was celebrated by the Archbishop of Cracov. All the carving is in wood painted in polychrome. The altar contains 23 scenes from the Evangelists and apocryphal writings. The work took 12 years of constant carving and assembling section by section in the church. 1 he height is 39 feet, width 33 feet; some of the statues are eight feet high.
THE altar is based on 15th cen • tury Polish Mariological Theology. The central part is the scene of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. and the scenes from apocryphal writings are
most probably chosen as the symbols of the Immaculate Conception.
The composition has four parts: predella, closed altar, open altar, the top. The predella is the " root" of all the scenes: it shows Jesse sleeping. From his side grows the genealogical tree of Our Lord. The closed altar shows four long perpendicular quarters, the two central ones being the wings of the door enclosing the central picture of the Assumption. The open doors cover both sides of the altar (first and fourth quarter) exposing to view the joyful and glorious scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. The closed altar shows the events accompanying her birth and childhood together with sorrowful scenes beginning with the first "sword " in her heart; then the prophecy of Simeon, and ending with Resurrection Sunday.
THE scenes go as follows. The • closed altar, first quarter,
contains scenes from apocry
phal writings : the angel announces to St. Joachim the birth of his daughter. Beside in the same frame is the meeting of St. Joachim and St. Anne under the "Golden Gate"; the birth of Virgin Mary; the offering of youthful Virgin Mary for the services of the Temple (St. Anne keeps in her hands the dove. symbol of the offering): beside is a very original scene from a Polish version of Apocrspha (called "Przemysl Meditations"): the young Virgin Mary praying in the Temple has a vision of Child Jesus on the altar. The second quarter (left wing of the door) shows the offering of the Child Jesus in the Temple; 12-year-old Jesus talking to the doctors in the Temple; the beginning of the Passion: apprehending of Christ in Gethsemane. On the third quarter (right wing of the door): the Crucifixion; the taking down from the Cross; the burial of Our Lord. On the fourth quarter (right side of the altar): Our Lord in Limbo: the women at the empty Tomb; Christ and Mary Magdalen in the Garden,
OPEN altar scenes, left wing: the Annunciation; the shepherds in the stable of Bethlehem; the Magi. On the right wing: the Resurrection; the Ascension; the the Ascent of the Holy Ghost with Our Lady in the centre among the Apostles. The central picture: the Assumption. Some of the Apostles are still seeing Our Lady on earth while the others are looking above to Our Lord taking His Blessed Mother to Heaven.
On the top is the coronation of Our Lady. At each side are figures of the first Polish saints, St. Wojoiech and St. Stanislaw. The sculptor of this altar, which made his fame. was Wit Stwosz (born about 1447 probably in Horeb, Germany) who became a citizen of Cracov, when he was entrusted by the City Council with this enormous work. The arts were then flowering in Poland and a lot of members of the guild of sculptors and painters had been working with Wit Stwosz (not to be confused with his brother, Matthias). Only 100 years ago Polish historians of art rediscovered his name in the archives of the City of Cracov, where the sum of 2.808 " florins" is given as the payment for the main sculptor.