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The Ghent Altarpiece (1432) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Considered one of the masterpieces of Northern Renaissance art, a complex polyptych panel painting, which lost its elaborate framework in the Reformation
The Ghent Altarpiece (1432) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Considered one of the masterpieces of Northern Renaissance art, a complex polyptych panel painting, which lost its elaborate framework in the Reformation

An altarpiece is an artwork such as a painting, sculpture or relief representing a religious subject made for placing behind the altar of a Christian church.[1][2][3] Though most commonly used for a single work of art such as a painting or sculpture, or a set of them, the word can also be used of the whole ensemble behind an altar, otherwise known as a reredos, including what is often an elaborate frame for the central image or images. Altarpieces were one of the most important products of Christian art especially from the late Middle Ages to the era of the Counter-Reformation.[4]

Large number of altarpieces are now removed from their church settings, and often their elaborate sculpted frameworks, and displayed as more simply framed paintings in museums and other places.

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  • ✪ Van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (1 of 2)
  • ✪ Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald (brief overview)
  • ✪ Life is in the Details: The Mérode Altarpiece | AmorSciendi
  • ✪ Workshop of Campin, Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece)
  • ✪ Van Eyck - Ghent Altarpiece


(music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy" Beth: We're going to have a look at the Ghent Altarpiece. Steven: It is absolutely breathtaking and it's really complicated. Beth: It is. It's made up of many, many panels. It's a polyptych and those panels are connected by hinges so they open and close. Steven: Which means that we see this set of paintings in two distinct ways. We either see it opened or closed. This is important because I think it would be closed much of the year and opened on peace days as a kind of revelation. Beth: This would have had an elaborate frame. Steven: There's some controversy about actually who painted it. This is generally ascribed to Jan Van Eyck. Some suggest that his brother Herbert may have [done] it. The frame was lost presumably during the iconoclasm, that is the attacks on Catholic art during the Reformation. Beth: And we also know that this painting is much coveted by the Nazis and was actually stored in a salt mine. We're lucky we still have it today. We have at the top some figures with scrolls and books. Those are prophets and sybils who predicted the coming of Christ, the coming of the Messiah. The moment that they predicted is actually unfolding right below them, and that is the scene of the Annunciation where the angel Gabriel is announcing to Mary that she is about to conceive Christ. Steven: Gabriel over on the left panel, Mary, three panels to the right, and then wonderfully empty space, not empty, in fact, this fabulous cityscape and then a kind of still life on the right middle panel, but nevertheless an unoccupied set of spaces that suggest the opportunity for Christ's arrival. Beth: And we have the usual trappings of the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel holds lilies, which are a symbol of Mary's purity, her seamlessness, her virginity. The angel Gabriel announces, and you can actually see words coming out of the angel's mouth in Latin; "Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou among women." Mary on the other side with the dove above her head which represents the Holy Spirit, and words coming out of her mouth. Her reply to the angel Gabriel coming out backwards, right to left instead of left to right, and upside down, "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord." Backwards makes sense, right, because she's speaking back to the angel. It's very interesting that the words are also upside down. Steven: It makes us question who she's speaking to, doesn't it? Beth: Perhaps to God who's looking from above. Steven: Everything in this set of panels is very concrete and absolutely physical, and yet those words, because they're gold, but also because they're not attached to anything physically represented, are wonderfully [effurial] and speak to God. Beth: There is that tension between the writing which is a very medieval thing to do. It reinforces the flatness of the image, and yet there's a tension between that and as you said, the physicality of everything else; a sense of space, the objects that are depicted are incredibly real as the light reflects on them, that cityscape that goes out into a distance where we can see figures, shadows, buildings, birds or that still life on the right where we see the sunlight from the windows beautifully reflected, attention to detail that is very unique to the northern Renaissance. Steven: These artists were miniaturists and that attention to detail comes through even on this large scale, but we don't want to say that this is the kind of naturalism or realism that we would have seen develop at this very time in Italy because it's not. We're seeing a kind of awkward [unintelligible] perspective and the figures themselves look as if they might bump their heads if they actually stood up in this room. Beth: This space seems to rush back and also, we're not seeing an attention to the reality of the human body that we would have seen in the Italian Renaissance. We have a kind of drapery that seems to have a life of its own with lots of angular folds. It almost seems to hide the body underneath. We should say that the altar piece is 11 and a half feet high. It's really large. It's made for a private chapel in Saint Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent that belonged to the patrons who we see below. Steven: So we have four figures or two figures and then two sculptures, but that in and of itself raises a really interesting visual trickery. We take the figures who are dressed in red as real people, and then the sculptures in the middle carved of stone, but of course, this is all paint. Beth: The figures who are represented as sculptures are the two Saint Johns. I think they had particular relevance for the chapel and for the family. It's also interesting to look at the patrons because there's that thing that you always see in the northern Renaissance which is this amazing ability to represent different textures because of course, the artist are using oil paint. So that fur on his collar really seems like fur and his skin really seems like skin of an old man. Steven: And of course, oil paint will have a profound impact on the sense of this painting, but especially when we open it up. (music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy"



Origins and early development

Altarpieces seem to have begun to be used during the 11th century, with the possible exception of a few earlier examples. The reasons and forces that led to the development of altarpieces are not generally agreed upon. The habit of placing decorated reliquaries of saints on or behind the altar, as well as the tradition of decorating the front of the altar with sculptures or textiles, preceded the first altarpieces.[5]

Many early altarpieces were relatively simple compositions in the form of a rectangular panel decorated with series of saints in rows, with a central more pronounced figure such as a depiction of Mary or Christ. An elaborate example of such an early altarpiece is the Pala d'Oro in Venice. The appearance and development of these first altarpieces marked an important turning point both in the history of Christian art and Christian religious practice.[5] As pointed out in the Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture, "The advent of the altarpiece marks a significant development not only in the history of the altar, but also in the nature and function of the Christian image. The autonomous image now assumed a legitimate position at the centre of Christian worship."[5]

The emergence of panel painting

Vigoroso da Siena's altarpiece from 1291, an example of an early painted panel altarpiece, with the individual parts framed by gables and sculptured elements
Vigoroso da Siena's altarpiece from 1291, an example of an early painted panel altarpiece, with the individual parts framed by gables and sculptured elements

Painted panel altars emerged in Italy during the 13th century.[6] In the 13th century, it is not uncommon to find frescoed or mural altarpieces in Italy: mural paintings behind the altar function as visual complements for the liturgy.[7] These altarpieces were influenced by Byzantine art, notably icons, which reached Western Europe in greater numbers following the conquest of Constantinople in 1204. During this time, altarpieces occasionally began to be decorated with an outer, sculptured or gabled structure with the purpose of providing a frame for individual parts of the altarpiece. Vigoroso da Siena's altarpiece from 1291 (pictured) display such an altarpiece. This treatment of the altarpiece would eventually pave the way for the emergence, in the 14th century, of the polyptych.[5]

The sculpted elements in the emerging polyptychs often took inspiration from contemporary Gothic architecture. In Italy, they were still typically executed in wood and painted, while in northern Europe altarpieces were often made of stone.[5]

The early 14th century saw the emergence, in Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, the Baltic region and the Catholic parts of Eastern Europe, of the winged altarpiece.[5][6][8] By hinging the outer panels to the central panel and painting them on both sides, the motif could be regulated by opening or closing the wings. The pictures could thus be changed depending on liturgical demands. The earliest often displayed sculptures on the inner panels, i.e. displayed when open, and paintings on the back of the wings, displayed when closed.[5][6] With the advent of winged altarpieces, a shift in imagery also occurred. Instead of being centred on a single holy figure, altarpieces began to portray more complex narratives linked to the Christian concept of salvation.[6]

Late Middle Ages and Renaissance

The Altarpiece of the Holy Blood, by Tilman Riemenschneider (1501–1505). An example of an altarpiece with a central, sculpted section and relief wings.
The Altarpiece of the Holy Blood, by Tilman Riemenschneider (1501–1505). An example of an altarpiece with a central, sculpted section and relief wings.

As the Middle Ages progressed, altarpieces began to be commissioned more frequently. In Northern Europe, initially Lübeck and later Antwerp would develop into veritable export centres for the production of altarpieces, exporting to Scandinavia, Spain and northern France.[8] By the 15th century, altarpieces were often commissioned not only by churches but also by individuals, families, guilds and confraternities. The 15th century saw the birth of Early Netherlandish painting in the Low Countries; henceforth panel painting would dominate altarpiece production in the area. In Germany, sculpted wooden altarpieces were instead generally preferred, while in England alabaster was used to a large extent. In England, as well as in France, stone retables enjoyed general popularity. In Italy both stone retables and wooden polyptychs were common, with individual painted panels and often (notably in Venice and Bologna) with complex framing in the form of architectural compositions. The 15th century also saw a development of the composition of Italian altarpieces where the polyptych was gradually abandoned in favour of single-panel, painted altarpieces.[5] In Italy, during the Renaissance, free-standing groups of sculpture also began to feature as altarpieces.[6] In Spain, altarpieces developed in a highly original fashion into often very large, architecturally influenced reredos, sometimes as tall as the church in which it was housed.[6]

In the north of Europe, the Protestant Reformation from the early 16th century onwards led to a swift decline in the number of altarpieces produced.[9] Outbursts of iconoclasm locally led to the destruction of many altarpieces.[10] As an example, during the burning of the Antwerp Cathedral in the course of the Reformation in 1533, more than fifty altarpieces were destroyed.[8] The Reformation in itself also promoted a new way of viewing religious art. Certain motifs, such as the Last Supper, were preferred before others. The Reformation regarded the Word of God – that is, the gospel – as central to Christendom, and Protestant altarpieces often displayed the actual words from the bible, sometimes at the expense of pictures. With time, Protestant though gave birth to the so-called pulpit altar, or Kanzelaltar in German, in which the altarpiece and the pulpit are combined, thus making the altarpiece quite literally the abode of the Word of God.[9]

Later developments

Canvas painting started to replace other types of altarpieces during the mid-16th century and onwards.[4] The Middle Ages was the heyday of the production and use of altarpieces. While many of these remain today, the majority have been lost. Scholars estimated that before World War II there were more than 3,000 altarpieces in the territory of the Third Reich; as a comparison, it has been calculated that in 1520 there were roughly 2,000 winged altarpieces only in the churches of the Austrian state of Tyrol.[8] Many were lost during the Reformation (in the north of Europe) or replaced with Baroque altarpieces during the Counter-Reformation (in the southern part of Europe), or else were discarded during the Enlightenment or replaced with Neo-Gothic ones during the 19th century. In the German-speaking part of Europe, only a single altarpiece made for the high altar of a cathedral has been preserved (in the Chur Cathedral, Switzerland).[8] In the eighteenth century altarpieces, such as Piero della Francesca's Saint Augustine Altarpiece, were often disassembled and seen as independent artworks. The different panels of the polyptych of St Augustine are thus today spread out among several different art museums.[11]

Types of altarpieces

The usage and treatment of altarpieces were never formalised by the Catholic Church, and therefore their appearance can vary significantly.[5] Occasionally, the demarcation between what constitutes the altarpiece and what constitutes other forms of decoration can be unclear.[5] Altarpieces can still broadly be divided into two types, the reredos, which signifies a large and often complex wooden or stone altarpiece, and the retable, an altarpiece with panels either painted or with reliefs.[4] Retables are placed directly on the altar or on a surface behind it; a reredos typically rises from the floor.[4]

Retable-type altarpieces are often made up of two or more separate panels created using a technique known as panel painting. The panels can also display reliefs or sculpture in the round, either polychrome or un-painted. It is then called a diptych, triptych or polyptych for two, three, and multiple panels respectively. In the thirteenth century each panel was usually surmounted with a pinnacle, but during the Renaissance, single panel, or pala, altarpieces became the norm. In both cases the supporting plinth, or predella often featured supplementary and related paintings.

If the altar stands free in the choir, both sides of the altarpiece can be covered with painting. The screen, retable or reredos are commonly decorated. Groups of statuary can also be placed on an altar.[5] A single church can furthermore house several altarpieces on side-altars in chapels. Sometimes the altarpiece is set on the altar itself and sometimes in front of it.

Much smaller private altarpieces, often portable, were made for wealthy individuals to use at home, often as folding diptychs or triptychs for safe transport. In the Middle Ages very small diptychs or triptychs carved in ivory or other materials were popular.

Notable examples

See also


  1. ^ "Altarpiece". Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent. Retrieved 20 July 2014.
  2. ^ "altarpiece". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 20 July 2014.
  3. ^ "altarpiece". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 20 July 2014.
  4. ^ a b c d Collins, Neil. "Altarpiece Art (c.1000-1700)". Retrieved 27 July 2014.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Hourihane (ed.), Colum (2012). The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture, Volume 1. Oxford University Press. pp. 44–48. ISBN 0-19-539536-0.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  6. ^ a b c d e f DeGreve, Daniel P. (2010). "Retro Tablum: The Origins and Role of the Altarpiece in the Liturgy" (PDF). Journal of the Institute for Sacred Architecture. Institute for Sacred Architecture (17): 12–18. Retrieved 25 July 2014.
  7. ^ Péter Bokody, "Mural Painting as a Medium: Technique, Representation and Liturgy," in Image and Christianity: Visual Media in the Middle Ages, ed. Péter Bokody (Pannonhalma: Pannonhalma Abbey, 2014), 136-151.
  8. ^ a b c d e Kahsnitz, Rainer (2006). Carved Splendor: late gothic altarpieces in Southern Germany, Austria, and South Tirol. Getty Publications. pp. 9–39. ISBN 978-0-89236-853-2.
  9. ^ a b Campbell, Gordon (ed.) (2009). The Grove Encyclopedia of Northern Renaissance Art. 1. Oxford University Press. pp. 32–33. ISBN 978-0-19-533466-1.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  10. ^ Chipps Smith, Jeffrey (2004). The Northern Renaissance. Phaidon Press. pp. 351–380. ISBN 978-0-7148-3867-0.
  11. ^ "Saint Michael completed 1469, Piero della Francesca". The National Gallery. Retrieved 27 July 2014.

External links

This page was last edited on 16 October 2019, at 21:43
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