St Mary’s Basilica in Cracow is probably known all over the world for its magnificent late gothic carved main altarpiece – a masterpiece by Veit Stoss, completed in 1477-1489. It has been restored lately and the restoration project was granted European Heritage Award / Europa Nostra Award 2023.
Meanwhile, in the same church there is another artwork by Veit Stoss: the so called Slacker Crucifix in one of the side altars, by the eastern wall of the southern aisle. It is absolutely amazing sculpture, albeit probably less known.
The figure of Christ is over 2.5 m heigh, and made of local Pinczow limestone, not of wood, which is rather surprising. It is possible that it was originally meant to be placed outside. The donor of this artwork was Henryk Slacker and the sculpture is dated to the early 1490s (or ca. 1490, or a bit earlier than that). Initially the stone sculpture was not polychromed, and it was painted later according to the donor’s will.
Henryk Slacker, son of Sebastian, came from a German city Reutlingen, and in 1479 he became a citizen of Cracow. He married here, and also his brother Erhard settled in Cracow some time later. Erhard’s sons became Henryk’s heirs, as he did not have children of his own. The nephews inherited quite a lot, as Henryk was a rich man – he was a merchant and a mint-master. In 1495, when the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Alexander Jagiellon, established the first grand-ducal mint in Lithuania, Henryk Slacker was given the job of setting the enterprise. In 1501 Alexander Jagiellon became the king of Poland, and Henryk Slacker took over running the mint in Cracow, set in nowadays Hetman’s House by the Main Market Square. Duke and later king Alexander many times borrowed money from Henryk Slacker.
Henryk Slacker died in June 1504, and in his will he reserved money for painting the sculpted stone crucifix that he funded earlier, as well as assisting figures of St John and Virgin Mary, and for walling up a window behind the altar where the whole group was placed by that time. The figures of Mary and John did not survive – we don’t know who and when made them, or how they looked. Perhaps originally the stone crucifix was supposed to be placed on the church graveyard, but later for some reason ended up inside the Basilica. If the figures of Virgin Mary and St John were added after 1496, when Stoss went back to Nuremberg, someone else must have created them. The order to wall up the window also suggests that the crucifix was placed in the new space around that time – a space that needed to be re-arranged. Eventually the crucifix ended up in a late-baroque altarpiece.
Slacker Crucifix presents an exceptional artistic value – it is an absolutely amazing depiction of a male body, with carefully carved anatomical details. Except for… the belly button! It is unlikely that Stoss just forgot about the belly button – he rather decided to show Christ here as the New Adam (who was not born, so he perhaps did not have belly button). It was popular in the late Middle Ages to present Christ as New Adam and Virgin Mary as New Eve. A nice example of that is a miniature from the Hours of Catherine de Clèves (after 1434, The Morgan Library and Museum in New York, M.917 i M.975 – I previously wrote about this manuscript HERE and HERE).
Slacker Crucifix is exceptionally expressive: Christ’s body is tensed, he does not hang down on the cross (as in earlier depictions). This new kind of composition was broadly repeated by all the local followers of Veit Stoss. A characteristic angular swirling fold of the Christ’s loincloth is very dynamic; in fact, there used to be another by the other hip of Christ, but that fold broke off and got lost.
The figure of Christ sculpted by Stoss is also very theatrical – one may say it is a work of art that interacts with the viewer. Pierced side of Jesus and his head hanging down indicate that this is a depiction of dead Christ. A huge crown of thorns casts a shadow on his face, so from the distance we can’t see that his eyes are cracked open. While we approach the altar and watch the sculpture in a changing angle, it seems that Christ is slowly opening his eyes to look at us.
Probably because of that, as well as due to open mouth, some legends grew around the Slacker Crucifix. Firstly, in the 17th c. guidebook of Cracow churches (by Piotr Hiacynt Pruszcz, entitled “Stołecznego Miasta Krakowa Koscioły y Kleynoty…”, 1647) we will find an information that even though the sculpture is made of stone, it once turned out to feel warm and soft as a real human body, when it was touched by a painter who was hired to renovate it. Secondly (and here is why open mouth matters), later 18th-century edition of the same book (revised and extended, entitled „Kleynoty Stołecznego Miasta Krakowa, Albo Koscioły y co w nich iest widzenia godnego y znacznego…”) provides another legend; apparently this figure of Christ once talked to a 15th-century priest from this church, scolding him for neglecting everyday Psalter singing. The priest in question was blessed Świętosław Milczący (i.e. “the Silent”, who in fact has not been officially recognised as blessed or saint yet), who chose to remain speechless as a form of mortification of his flesh. Apparently that should not had been extended on his prayer duties, though. The problem with this legend is a timeline: it makes sense only if we accept early dating of the Slacker Crucifix (before 1490), as Świętosław died in 1489.„Talking” crucifixes were sort of specialty of the late-medieval Cracow. There is a 14th-century crucifix in Cracow Cathedral that talked to Queen Jadwiga od Anjou; there are further 15th-century crucifixes in Dominican church (that one talked to Stanisław Kokoszka), St Marc’s Church (which talked to Michał Giedroyć), and St Barbara’s Church (which talked to miss Barbara Lang). In the 17th century aforementioned Crucifix of Queen Jadwiga was still accompanied by a pair of gothic altar-wings that featured four scenes of crucifixes talking to pious female saints: St Briget of Sweden, St Hedwig of Silesia, the queen Jadwiga of Anjou and St Kinga of Poland. Interestingly, the latter two were included in the altarpiece even though their official canonisation took place centuries later. Alas, nowadays the Crucifix of Queen Jadwiga (painted black in the 19th century) is placed in an 18th century altarpiece – the gothic altar-wings are lost.
It was a popular motif in legends related to the figures of Christ – especially to crucifixes – that a sculpture miraculously “came to life”. On this subject I can also recommend you my older posts on Volto Santo that was supposed to give his shoe to a poor musician (available HERE) and on a possibly Cracow version of that sculpture (available HERE). Also, in the Franciscan’s Church in Cracow there used to be a crucifix that allegedly once caught a thief by his hair.
Late gothic depictions of crucified Christ – dramatic, expressive, dynamic – were so appealing that it was often believed that they could suddenly come to life. Slacker Crucifix has been widely admired for centuries – thanks to superb Stoss’ craftsmanship – by anyone who gets to turn their sight from the main altarpiece of St Mary’s Basilica and take a look around to find out what treasures are stored in the side aisles. Remember go there and discover it yourself if you ever visit Cracow.