DETAIL from The Last Supper, by Master Pavol of Levoča.
photo: Courtesy of Vladimír Wolf
Born around 1480, he is thought to have come to Levoča (today in Slovakia's north-east) from the German Wittenberg, the Polish Krakow or even northern Italy. But because his surname is unknown, his origins cannot be retraced with certainty.
Master Pavol is most famous for the St. Jacob's altar in the St. Jacob's Church (kostol Svätého Jakuba) on Levoča's main square. It is a masterpiece of gothic art, and at 18.6 meters tall, it is the tallest wooden altar in the world. Its most striking feature is the depiction of The Last Supper on the altar's lower quadrant.
The altar is celebrated not just for its monumental size and the fact it was carved by hand, but also for the minute details in the carving which illustrate Master Pavol's devotion to his work.
"It is said that Master Pavol created his sculptures and their facial expressions based on real people," says František Balún, head of the cultural department at the Košice region state office. "The Madonna on the altar in the Levoča church is believed to be the portrait of his beloved."
Master Pavol's works can be found not only in Levoča's immediate surroundings, but also in Bardejov, Prešov and Banská Bystrica; even sculptors in southern Poland were influenced by his style. One of Master Pavol's altars is preserved in the St. George Church in Spišská Sobota, which is listed on the Unesco world cultural heritage site.
Few documents mapping Master Pavol's life have been preserved, with many originals being damaged by a fire in Levoča's town archives in 1550. His life and work have thus become the subject of many legends which have been recorded by historians and passed down by inhabitants of the region.
For Balún, who played the character of Master Pavol in an opera produced for Slovak television, the carving genius is one of the most fascinating figures in Slovakia's cultural heritage. When filming a scene in which he was to kneel and pray in front of Master Pavol's Madonna carving, Balún says, she looked so realistic that he expected the sculpture to move.
Despite people's awe today for Master Pavol's works, the carver's unique talents never made him wealthy. If the Master had any consolation, historian Ivan Chalupecký writes in his book Work of Master Pavol, it is in the fact "he revealed his artistic and technical genius, and restorers cannot stop marvelling at the pedantry of his work".
His artistry can be seen in Levoča, in the original in the St. Jacob's Church, or as facsimile in the Spiš Museum (Spišské múzeum) on Námestie Majstra Pavla. The museum is open daily 9:00-17:00. Admission: Sk10-20, audio-guides in English and German available. Tel: 053/4512-786.