Altarpiece

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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 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]

Sculpture Branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions

Sculpture is the branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions. It is one of the plastic arts. Durable sculptural processes originally used carving and modelling, in stone, metal, ceramics, wood and other materials but, since Modernism, there has been an almost complete freedom of materials and process. A wide variety of materials may be worked by removal such as carving, assembled by welding or modelling, or molded or cast.

Relief Sculptural technique

Relief is a sculptural technique where the sculpted elements remain attached to a solid background of the same material. The term relief is from the Latin verb relevo, to raise. To create a sculpture in relief is to give the impression that the sculpted material has been raised above the background plane. What is actually performed when a relief is cut in from a flat surface of stone or wood is a lowering of the field, leaving the unsculpted parts seemingly raised. The technique involves considerable chiselling away of the background, which is a time-consuming exercise. On the other hand, a relief saves forming the rear of a subject, and is less fragile and more securely fixed than a sculpture in the round, especially one of a standing figure where the ankles are a potential weak point, especially in stone. In other materials such as metal, clay, plaster stucco, ceramics or papier-mâché the form can be just added to or raised up from the background, and monumental bronze reliefs are made by casting.

Altar structure upon which offerings such as sacrifices are made for religious purposes

An altar is a structure upon which offerings such as sacrifices are made for religious purposes. Altars are found at shrines, temples, churches and other places of worship. They are used particularly in Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto and Taoism. Judaism used such a structure until the destruction of the Second Temple. Many historical faiths also made use of them, including Roman, Greek and Norse religion.

Contents

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.

History

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]

Pala dOro

Pala d’Oro is the high altar retable of the Basilica di San Marco in Venice. It is universally recognized as one of the most refined and accomplished works of Byzantine enamel, with both front and rear sides decorated.

Venice Comune in Veneto, Italy

Venice is a city in northeastern Italy and the capital of the Veneto region.

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 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]

Byzantine art Art of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire

Byzantine art refers to the body of Christian Greek artistic products of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, as well as the nations and states that inherited culturally from the empire. Though the empire itself emerged from the decline of Rome and lasted until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the start date of the Byzantine period is rather clearer in art history than in political history, if still imprecise. Many Eastern Orthodox states in Eastern Europe, as well as to some degree the Muslim states of the eastern Mediterranean, preserved many aspects of the empire's culture and art for centuries afterward.

Icon religious work of art, generally a panel painting, in Eastern Christianity

An icon is a religious work of art, most commonly a painting, in the cultures of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, the Roman Catholic, and certain Eastern Catholic churches. The most common subjects include Christ, Mary, saints and angels. Though especially associated with "portrait" style images concentrating on one or two main figures, the term also covers most religious images in a variety of artistic media produced by Eastern Christianity, including narrative scenes.

Vigoroso da Siena Italian painter and illuminator

Vigoroso da Siena was an Italian painter, known to be active 1270-1280. He was naturalized to Siena, Tuscany. A contemporary of Cimabue, his only documented work is a polyptych at the Galleria Nazionale of Perugia dated 1291.

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]

Gothic architecture style of architecture

Gothic architecture is a style that flourished in Europe during the High and Late Middle Ages. It evolved from Romanesque architecture and was succeeded by Renaissance architecture. Originating in 12th-century France, it was widely used, especially for cathedrals and churches, until the 16th century.

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]

Scandinavia Region in Northern Europe

Scandinavia is a region in Northern Europe, with strong historical, cultural, and linguistic ties. The term Scandinavia in local usage covers the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The majority national languages of these three, belong to the Scandinavian dialect continuum, and are mutually intelligible North Germanic languages. In English usage, Scandinavia also refers to the Scandinavian Peninsula, or to the broader region including Finland and Iceland, which is always known locally as the Nordic countries.

Baltic region geographic region

The terms Baltic region, Baltic Rim countries, and the Baltic Sea countries refer to slightly different combinations of countries in the general area surrounding the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe.

Eastern Europe eastern part of the European continent

Eastern Europe is the eastern part of the European continent. There is no consensus on the precise area it covers, partly because the term has a wide range of geopolitical, geographical, cultural, and socioeconomic connotations. There are "almost as many definitions of Eastern Europe as there are scholars of the region". A related United Nations paper adds that "every assessment of spatial identities is essentially a social and cultural construct".

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. Rothenburg BW 16.JPG
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 polyptych of Saint Augustine, 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

Related Research Articles

Diptych two-part polyptych

A diptych is any object with two flat plates attached at a hinge. For example, the standard notebook and school exercise book of the ancient world was a diptych consisting of a pair of such plates that contained a recessed space filled with wax. Writing was accomplished by scratching the wax surface with a stylus. When the notes were no longer needed, the wax could be slightly heated and then smoothed to allow reuse. Ordinary versions had wooden frames, but more luxurious diptychs were crafted with more expensive materials.

Architecture of cathedrals and great churches

The architecture of cathedrals, basilicas and abbey churches is characterised by the buildings' large scale and follows one of several branching traditions of form, function and style that all ultimately derive from the Early Christian architectural traditions established in the Constantinian period.

<i>Ghent Altarpiece</i> polyptych by Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck

The Ghent Altarpiece is a very large and complex 15th-century polyptych altarpiece in St Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium. It was begun c. the mid-1420s and completed before 1432, and is attributed to the Early Netherlandish painters and brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. The altarpiece is considered a masterpiece of European art and one of the world's treasures.

Triptych three-part polyptych

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.

Polyptych painted or carved work consisting of 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; pentaptych five; hexaptych six; heptaptych seven; and octaptych eight parts.

Reredos altarpiece, or a screen or decoration behind the altar in a church

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

Gothic art 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 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.

Rood screen partition between the chancel and nave found in medieval church architecture

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Retable appendages placed on the mensa of an altar in a Christian church

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 painting is often referred to as an altarpiece.

Romanesque art artistic style of Europe from approximately 1000 AD to the 13th century

Romanesque art is the art of Europe from approximately 1000 AD to the rise of the Gothic style in the 12th century, or later, depending on region. The preceding period is known as the Pre-Romanesque period. The term was invented by 19th-century art historians, especially for Romanesque architecture, which retained many basic features of Roman architectural style – most notably round-headed arches, but also barrel vaults, apses, and acanthus-leaf decoration – but had also developed many very different characteristics. In Southern France, Spain and Italy there was an architectural continuity with the Late Antique, but the Romanesque style was the first style to spread across the whole of Catholic Europe, from Sicily to Scandinavia. Romanesque art was also greatly influenced by Byzantine art, especially in painting, and by the anti-classical energy of the decoration of the Insular art of the British Isles. From these elements was forged a highly innovative and coherent style.

Michael Pacher Austrian painter

Michael Pacher was a painter and sculptor from Tyrol active during the second half of the fifteenth century. He was one of the earliest artists to introduce the principles of Renaissance painting into Germany. Pacher was a comprehensive artist with a broad range of sculpting, painting, and architecture skills producing works of complex wood and stone. He painted structures for altarpieces on a scale unparalleled in North European art.

Bernat Martorell Catalan painter

Bernat Martorell was the leading painter of Barcelona, in modern-day Spain. He is considered to be the most important artist of the International Gothic style in Catalonia. Martorell painted retable panels and manuscript illuminations, and carved sculptures and also provided designs for embroideries.

<i>Poor Mans Bible</i>

The term Poor Man's Bible has come into use in modern times to describe works of art within churches and cathedrals which either individually or collectively have been created to illustrate the teachings of the Bible for a largely illiterate population. These artworks may take the form of carvings, paintings, mosaics or stained glass windows. In some churches a single artwork, such as a stained glass window has the role of Poor Man's Bible while in others, the entire church is decorated with a complex biblical narrative that unites in a single scheme.

Nicolau Nasoni Italian architect

Nicolau Nasoni was an Italian artist and architect mostly active in Portugal.

Catholic art

Catholic art is art related to the Catholic Church. This includes visual art (iconography), sculpture, decorative arts, applied arts, and architecture. In a broader sense, also Catholic music may be included. Expressions of art may or may not attempt to illustrate, supplement and portray in tangible form Catholic teaching. Catholic art has played a leading role in the history and development of Western art since at least the 4th century. The principal subject matter of Catholic art has been the life and times of Jesus Christ, along with people associated with him, including his disciples, the saints, and motives from the Catholic Bible.

Altar in the Catholic Church structure upon which the Eucharist is celebrated in a Catholic church

In a Catholic church, the altar is the structure upon which the Eucharist is celebrated.

Gilded woodcarving in Portugal

Gilded woodcarving in Portugal is, along with tile, one of the country's most original and rich artistic expressions. It is usually used in the interior decoration of churches and cathedrals and of noble halls in palaces and large public buildings. An impressive collection of altarpieces are found in Portuguese churches. Originating in the Gothic era, Portuguese gilded woodcarving assumed a nationalist character during the 17th century and reached its height in the reign of King D. João V. In the 19th century it lost its originality and began to disappear with the end of the revival era.

Jacques de Baerze Flemish sculptor

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.

<i>Crucifixion Diptych</i> (van der Weyden) painting by Rogier van der Weyden

Crucifixion Diptych — also known as Philadelphia Diptych, Calvary Diptych, Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St. John, or The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning — is a diptych by the Early Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden, completed c. 1460, today in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The panels are noted for their technical skill, visceral impact and for possessing a physicality and directness unusual for Netherlandish art of the time. The Philadelphia Museum of Art describes work as the "greatest Old Master painting in the Museum."

Winged altarpiece form of altarpiece

A winged altarpiece or winged retable is a special form of altarpiece, common in Central Europe, in which the fixed shrine or corpus can be enclosed by two (triptych), four (pentaptych) or more (polyptych) movable wings. 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". Because the winged altar can display different scenes on weekdays, Sundays or holidays, based on the motifs and type of decoration, it is also called a liturgical altar. An altarpiece is often mounted on the altar shrine, but more usually it has a carving. Above the retable may be found the crowning or superstructure, pinnacles and flowers of the cross. Relics can be housed below it, in a reliquary in the predella lying on the altar stone.

References

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  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 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.
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  9. 1 2 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)
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