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]

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 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

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 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 the Third Reich. [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. 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

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

See also

Related Research Articles

Triptych three-part panel painting

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; octaptych eight parts; enneaptych nine; and decaptych has ten parts.

Reredos 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.

Early Netherlandish painting Work of artists active in the Low Countries during the 15th- and 16th-century Northern Renaissance

Early Netherlandish painting is the work of artists, sometimes known as the Flemish Primitives, active in the Burgundian and Habsburg Netherlands during the 15th- and 16th-century Northern Renaissance, especially in the flourishing 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. 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, although 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.

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.

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.

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

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<i>Poor Mans Bible</i> works of art within churches and cathedrals

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.

Bartolomé Bermejo was a Spanish painter who adopted Flemish painting techniques and conventions. Born in Cordoba, he is known for his work in the Kingdom of Aragon, including what is now Cataluña and the Kingdom of Valencia. His real name was Bartolomé de Cárdenas: the name Bermejo, which means auburn in Spanish, possibly relates to his hair colour. Bermejo may relate also to his name, Cardenas; Cardeno means purplish.

Master of the Morrison Triptych

The Master of the Morrison Triptych is the name given to an unknown Early Netherlandish painter active in Antwerp around 1500-1510. He is named for the Morrison Triptych, now in Toledo, Ohio, which is described below.

Catholic art

Catholic art is art produced by or for members of the Catholic Church. This includes visual art (iconography), sculpture, decorative arts, applied arts, and architecture. In a broader sense, Catholic music may be included as well. 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.

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.

Champmol Carthusian monastery located in Côte-dOr, in France

The Chartreuse de Champmol, formally the Chartreuse de la Sainte-Trinité de Champmol, was a Carthusian monastery on the outskirts of Dijon, which is now in France, but in the 15th century was the capital of the Duchy of Burgundy. The monastery was founded in 1383 by Duke Philip the Bold to provide a dynastic burial place for the Valois Dukes of Burgundy, and operated until it was dissolved in 1791, during the French Revolution. Called "the grandest project in a reign renowned for extravagance", it was lavishly enriched with works of art, and the dispersed remnants of its collection remain key to the understanding of the art of the period.

<i>Fiesole Altarpiece</i> painting by Fra Angelico and Lorenzo di Credi

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.

Annunciation in Christian art art subject

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<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.

Kefermarkt Altarpiece

The Kefermarkt Altarpiece is an altarpiece made between 1490 and 1497 by an unidentified artist sometimes referred to as the Master of the Kefermarkt Altarpiece. The altarpiece is considered one of the main works of late Gothic art in the German-speaking part of Europe. The altar is today a popular tourist attraction in Kefermarkt close to Freistadt in Austria. It is considered one of the three great altarpieces from the late 15th century of the German sprachraum together with the Pacher Altarpiece in St. Wolfgang im Salzkammergut (Austria) and the Veit Stoss altarpiece in Kraków (Poland). It is the main altarpiece of Church of St. Wolfgang in Kefermarkt.

References

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