Master Paul’s masterpiece
Originating in the 13th century, Levoča was settled and built up by German colonists and dislocated Slavic peasants. The town soon became prosperous thanks to its convenient location on key trade routes, eventually blossoming into the most important trading town in the Hungarian Kingdom. Levoča’s main exports were copper, iron, wax, leather, furs, corn, dried plums and wine. The imports included salt, textiles, fish and spices.
As Levoča grew in stature, it also grew in size and magnificence. Accomplished artists, architects and craftsmen were invited to the city to help make it shine; they created much of the stunning Old Town that remains today.
Decline, however, came in the 16th century, brought on by several factors. First was the ‘100 years war’ waged with the nearby town Kežmarok. As both towns jockeyed for regional prestige, bitter conflict between the two was constant, often erupting into bloody battles.
Another influence was the colonisation of the Americas, which shifted the focus of European trade to the newly settled shores of the Atlantic. What was more, a massive fire in 1550 gutted the city’s Gothic buildings and destroyed many of the town’s historical records. The city was then dogged by Turkish invasions and anti-Habsburg revolts during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The final blow came in 1871 when superstitious town leaders convinced planners of the new Košice-Bohumín railway line to bypass Levoča, feeling that trains were unnatural and evil. The line instead went south through Spišská Nová Ves, which flourished as the new regional capital. Levoča, just seven kilometres north, faded into near oblivion.
The Main Square (Námestie Majstra Pavla - Master Paul’s Square) is today a collection of charming burgher houses and magnificent churches unrivalled in Slovakia. The centrepiece is the 16th-century Old Town Hall, a stunning fusion of arches, columns, arcades, pillars and high-stepped gables. Inside is an exhibition documenting town history. Outside is the ‘Cage Of Shame’, where petty criminals were placed on display for locals to jeer at and spit on.
To the south of the Old Town Hall is the Evangelical Church, a domed building built in the early 19th century. The most striking structure on the square, however, is to the north of the town hall: St James’ Church.
The exterior has been renovated several times since it was first erected in the 14th century on the site of an older church from 1280. The most important addition to the structure came in the 19th century when the stately tower was built. The tower is today the signature feature of the Levoča skyline, although it is currently under cover as it undergoes repairs.
Inside is one of the more arresting sites in Europe: the St James altar. At 18.6 metres high, it is the tallest wooden altar in the world. It was carved completely by hand from 1507 to 1518 by Master Paul, the legendary craftsman after whom the city named its Main Square.
Master Paul is an intriguing and mysterious figure. More than anyone else, he is responsible for Levoča’s enduring charm. His wood-carvings today make the small town of 10,000 a popular tourist destination for travellers around the globe, and his works are found in other churches throughout the Spiš region and Poland.
But who was he? Thanks to the fire of 1550, nobody is really sure. All documents related to the skilled craftsman were destroyed in the blaze. Some sources say he began his career in Krakow, then worked in Sabinov and Banská Bystrica before heading to Levoča around 1500. But this is only guesswork.
The fact is, historians are unable to say when he was born or when he died, although they generally agree that it was sometime around 1470 and 1530 respectively. They don’t know where he was born, whether he was a native of Levoča or if he came by invitation. Historians do not even know Master Paul’s last name.
What is clear is that he was never rich or famous; his works were not celebrated until after his death. What is also known is that Master Paul set up his Levoča workshop in 1506. And that he immediately set about carving and chiselling what would later be revered as some of the finest wooden sculptures ever created.
- Chris Togneri
These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.
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