When it comes to looking at altarpieces, I consider myself a professional. I have so much experience, I could teach a class.
Hmmm, how about it? Let’s have a quick class, right this minute.
How to View a Famous Altarpiece by the Wife of Bath
- Show up early and buy a ticket to see your altarpiece. Wait at the entry door—you’ll want to be the first person in line.
- Stay right at that door, no matter what. Don’t think it’s okay to wander off for a second. See, told you—a giant group of tourists walking like ducklings behind a tour guide just showed up. And—oh dear—that must be an entire busload of rowdy children.
- When the guy comes to unlock the door and scan your ticket, rush over the spot directly in front of the altarpiece. There will be a row of chairs that everyone else will hurry towards. Chairs are for amateurs. You should remain standing.
- Now’s the time to get out any information you brought from home. If they are giving out a brochure go ahead and take that but refuse an audio tour. Audio tours are lame.
- Now wait for it……hopefully there will be a ceremonial opening of the altar wings because that’s so much fun. Ta da! The altarpiece is revealed in all its glory and you, my savvy friend, have the best view in the house.
This spring HOB waited at the door of St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow, tickets in hand, ready to see altarpiece by Viet Stoss. Naturally we were arguing: HOB always gets impatient and wants to walk away and come back just after opening time. I always insist on being first inside (and always win the argument). When the door was unlocked we rushed inside to a waiting area in front of the closed altarpiece. Did we sit down with rest of the crowd? Of course not—-we got as close as possible to the altar, standing directly in front of it. The opening ceremony was most satisfactory: a nun made an announcement in Polish while, with the accompaniment of triumphal music, she opened each wing of the altar with a metal hook.
Viet Stoss was a German artist, (you may recall we saw his work in Nuremberg), who was commissioned by the city of Krakow in 1477 to create this altar. It took ten years to complete and has been wowing altar lovers like me ever since.
By the way, we were supposed to have purchased a special pass to take photographs but didn’t know it, so I only took a couple of detail shots (below) before being stopped by a security guard. The two big-picture images are from Web Gallery of Art and Wikipedia.
I guess this means I should add another bullet to my altarpiece viewing class:
- Check to see if you need to purchase a photography/video pass when you’re buying your ticket or security will bust you and you won’t have decent photos for your blog.
The main scene of the altar is a dramatic representation of the death of the Virgin Mary. The side panels show scenes from the life of the Virgin.
Mary is depicted twice in the main panel: below she is dying while at prayer, surrounded by the apostles. Then, above the heads of the apostles, she rises to heaven by the side of Christ, accompanied by gilded-winged angels.
The composition must have been quite complicated for Viet Stoss, since he needs to show the apostles feeling sad about the death of Mary, but also to have them watching with wonder as she ascends to be crowned by God above. Stoss achieves a great deal of motion from the billowing draperies of Mary’s and the apostles’ robes. The golden rays (I like to call them the holy spaghetti) radiating from Mary as she ascends draw our eyes up.
As wonderful as the composition of this altar is, my favorite parts are the details of the apostles’ faces and hands. These are real people. This is real drama, I believe it. Viet Stoss started this altarpiece in a high Gothic era and ended up pushing it forward straight into the Renaissance. This is why art pilgrims have lined up to see it for more than 500 years and if you haven’t had the chance yet, I strongly encourage you. This majestic altarpiece, these faces, go.