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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 Lamgods open.jpg
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 at the back of or 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]


Many altarpieces have been removed from their church settings, and often from their elaborate sculpted frameworks, and are displayed as more simply framed paintings in museums and elsewhere.


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 as well as Christian religious practice. It was considered a "significant development" because of its impact on 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 siena1291g iz tsistertsianskogo monatyria santa dzhuliia.jpg
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 was not uncommon to find frescoed or mural altarpieces in Italy; mural paintings behind the altar served 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]

In the early 14th century, the winged altarpiece emerged in Germany, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, the Baltic region and the Catholic parts of Eastern Europe. [5] [6] [8] By hinging the outer panels to the central panel and painting them on both sides, the subject 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 concept of salvation. [6]

Late Middle Ages and Renaissance

Rothenburg: The Altarpiece of the Holy Blood, by Tilman Riemenschneider (1501-1505). An example of an altarpiece with a central, sculpted section and relief wings. Rothenburg BW 16.JPG
Rothenburg: 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 biblical passages, sometimes at the expense of pictures. With time, Protestant though gave birth to the so-called pulpit altar (Kanzelaltar in German), in which the altarpiece and the pulpit were combined, making the altarpiece a literal abode for the Word of God. [9]

Later developments

The Middle Ages was the heyday of altarpieces, and beginning in the mid-16th century, canvas painting began replacing other altarpieces. [4]

While many altarpieces remain today, the majority have been lost. In 1520, there were 2,000 winged altarpieces in the Austrian state of Tyrol alone; scholars estimate that before World War II, there were around 3,000 altarpieces in the entire territory of Nazi Germany. [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 altarpieces during the 19th century (particularly in the United Kingdom). In the German-speaking part of Europe, there is only one altarpiece remaining that was made for the high altar of a cathedral (in the Chur Cathedral in Switzerland). [8] In the 18th century, altarpieces like 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

An altarpiece by Carl Timoleon von Neff at the Helsinki Cathedral Finland 1245 (4041651042).jpg
An altarpiece by Carl Timoleon von Neff at the Helsinki Cathedral

The usage and treatment of altarpieces were never formalised by the Catholic Church, and therefore their appearance can vary significantly. 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. 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 13th century, each panel was usually surmounted with a pinnacle, but during the Renaissance, single-panel pala altarpieces became the norm. In both cases, the supporting plinth ( 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.[ citation needed ]

Notable examples

A polyptych altarpiece, made by the workshop of the Lubeck master Hermen Rode in 1478-1481, at the High Altar of St. Nicholas Church in Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn Niguliste Museum Reredos 01.jpg
A polyptych altarpiece, made by the workshop of the Lübeck master Hermen Rode in 1478–1481, at the High Altar of St. Nicholas Church in Tallinn, Estonia.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Triptych</span> Artwork divided into three parts

A triptych is a work of art that is divided into three sections, or three carved panels that are hinged together and can be folded shut or displayed open. It is therefore a type of polyptych, the term for all multi-panel works. The middle panel is typically the largest and it is flanked by two smaller related works, although there are triptychs of equal-sized panels. The form can also be used for pendant jewelry.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Polyptych</span> Painting divided into multiple panels

A polyptych is a painting which is divided into sections, or panels. Specifically, a "diptych" is a two-part work of art; a "triptych" is a three-part work; a tetraptych or quadriptych has four parts, whereas a polyptych describes any work of art formed of more than one constitutive part.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Reredos</span> Altarpiece, or a screen or decoration behind the altar in a church

A reredos is a large altarpiece, a screen, or decoration placed behind the altar in a church. It often includes religious images.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Early Netherlandish painting</span> Work of artists active in the Low Countries during the 15th- and 16th-century Northern Renaissance

Early Netherlandish painting, traditionally known as the Flemish Primitives, refers to the work of artists active in the Burgundian and Habsburg Netherlands during the 15th- and 16th-century Northern Renaissance period. It flourished especially in the cities of Bruges, Ghent, Mechelen, Leuven, Tournai and Brussels, all in present-day Belgium. The period begins approximately with Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck in the 1420s and lasts at least until the death of Gerard David in 1523, although many scholars extend it to the start of the Dutch Revolt in 1566 or 1568–Max J. Friedländer's acclaimed surveys run through Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Early Netherlandish painting coincides with the Early and High Italian Renaissance, but the early period is seen as an independent artistic evolution, separate from the Renaissance humanism that characterised developments in Italy. Beginning in the 1490s, as increasing numbers of Netherlandish and other Northern painters traveled to Italy, Renaissance ideals and painting styles were incorporated into northern painting. As a result, Early Netherlandish painters are often categorised as belonging to both the Northern Renaissance and the Late or International Gothic.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gothic art</span> Style of Medieval art developed in Northern France

Gothic art was a style of medieval art that developed in Northern France out of Romanesque art in the 12th century AD, led by the concurrent development of Gothic architecture. It spread to all of Western Europe, and much of Northern, Southern and Central Europe, never quite effacing more classical styles in Italy. In the late 14th century, the sophisticated court style of International Gothic developed, which continued to evolve until the late 15th century. In many areas, especially Germany, Late Gothic art continued well into the 16th century, before being subsumed into Renaissance art. Primary media in the Gothic period included sculpture, panel painting, stained glass, fresco and illuminated manuscripts. The easily recognizable shifts in architecture from Romanesque to Gothic, and Gothic to Renaissance styles, are typically used to define the periods in art in all media, although in many ways figurative art developed at a different pace.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Retable</span>

A retable is a structure or element placed either on or immediately behind and above the altar or communion table of a church. At the minimum, it may be a simple shelf for candles behind an altar, but it can also be a large and elaborate structure. A retable which incorporates sculptures or paintings is often referred to as an altarpiece.

<i>Poor Mans Bible</i> Type of works of art

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nicolau Nasoni</span>

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Master of the Morrison Triptych</span>

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Catholic art</span> Art produced by or for members of the Catholic Church

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jacques de Baerze</span>

Jacques de Baerze was a Flemish sculptor in wood, two of whose major carved altarpieces survive in Dijon, now in France, then the capital of the Duchy of Burgundy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Champmol</span>

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<i>Perugia Altarpiece</i> Painting by Fra Angelico

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<i>Fiesole Altarpiece</i>

The Fiesole Altarpiece is a painting by the Italian early Renaissance master Fra Angelico, executed around 1424–1425. It is housed in the Convent of San Domenico, Fiesole, central Italy. The background was repainted by Lorenzo di Credi in 1501.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Annunciation in Christian art</span> Subject in art

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<i>Crucifixion Diptych</i> (van der Weyden)

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Winged altarpiece</span> Form of folding altarpiece

A winged altarpiece or winged retable is a special form of altarpiece, common in Northern and Central Europe, in which the central image, either a painting or relief sculpture can be hidden by hinged wings. It is called a triptych if there are two wings, a pentaptych if there are four, or a polyptych if there are four or more. The technical terms are derived from Ancient Greek: τρίς: trís or "triple"; πέντε: pénte or "five"; πολύς: polýs or "many"; and πτυχή: ptychē or "fold, layer".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kefermarkt altarpiece</span>

The Kefermarkt altarpiece is an altarpiece in Late Gothic style in the parish church in Kefermarkt, Upper Austria. It was commissioned by the knight Christoph von Zelking and is estimated as finished in 1497. The richly decorated wooden altarpiece depicts the saints Peter, Wolfgang and Christopher in its central section. The side panels depict scenes from the life of Mary, and the altarpiece also has an intricate superstructure and two side figures showing saints George and Florian. The identity of its maker is unknown, but at least two skilled sculptors appear to have created the main statuary of the altarpiece. Throughout the centuries, the altarpiece has been altered and lost its original paint and gilding. A major restoration was made in the 19th century under the leadership of writer Adalbert Stifter. The altarpiece has been described as "one of the greatest achievements in late-medieval sculpture in the German-speaking area."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Adriaen van Overbeke</span>

Adriaen van Overbeke, Adrian van Overbeck and Adriaen van Overbeke was a Flemish Renaissance painter in the style of Antwerp Mannerism. He operated a large workshop with an important output of altarpieces, which were mainly exported to Northern France, the Rhineland and Westphalia. His known works were predominantly polychromed wooden altarpieces with painted shutters, which were created through a collaboration between painters and sculptors.

<i>Miniature altarpiece</i> (WB.232)

The miniature altarpiece in the British Museum, London, is a very small portable Gothic boxwood miniature sculpture completed in 1511 by the Northern Netherlands master sometimes identified as Adam Dircksz, and members of his workshop. At 25.1 cm (9.9 in) high, it is built from a series of architectural layers or registers, which culminate at an upper triptych, whose center panel contains a minutely detailed and intricate Crucifixion scene filled with multitudes of figures in relief. Its outer wings show Christ Carrying the Cross on the left, and the Resurrection on the right.


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