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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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."
Painted panel altars emerged in Italy during the 13th century. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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. In Italy, during the Renaissance, free-standing groups of sculpture also began to feature as altarpieces. 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.
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. Outbursts of iconoclasm locally led to the destruction of many altarpieces. As an example, during the burning of the Antwerp Cathedral in the course of the Reformation in 1533, more than fifty altarpieces were destroyed. 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.
Canvas painting started to replace other types of altarpieces during the mid-16th century and onwards. 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. 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). 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
The Barbadori Altarpiece is a painting by Filippo Lippi, dated to 1438 and housed in the Louvre Museum of Paris.Baronci Altarpiece
The Baronci Altarpiece was a painting by the Italian High Renaissance artist Raphael. His first recorded commission, it was made for Andrea Baronci's chapel in the church of Sant'Agostino in Città di Castello, near Urbino. The altarpiece was seriously damaged during an earthquake in 1789, and since 1849 fragments of the original painting have been part of different collections.Cadaver Tomb of René of Chalon
The Cadaver Tomb of René of Chalon (French: Transi de René de Chalon, also known as the Memorial to the Heart of René de Chalon or The Skeleton) is a late Gothic period funerary monument, known as a transi, in the church of Saint-Étienne at Bar-le-Duc, in northeastern France. It consists of an altarpiece and a limestone statue of a putrefied and skinless corpse which stands upright and extends his left hand outwards. Completed sometime between 1544 and 1557, the majority of its construction is attributed to the French sculptor Ligier Richier. Other elements, including the coat of arms and funeral drapery, were added in the 16th and 18th centuries respectively.
The tomb dates from a period of societal anxiety over death, as plague, war and religious conflicts ravaged Europe. It was commissioned as the resting place of René of Chalon, Prince of Orange, son-in-law of Duke Antoine of Lorraine. René was killed aged 25 at the siege of St. Dizier on 15 July 1544, from a wound sustained the previous day. Richier presents him as an écorché, with his skin and muscles decayed, leaving him reduced to a skeleton. This apparently fulfilled his deathbed wish that his tomb depict his body as it would be three years after his death. His left arm is raised as if gesturing towards heaven. Supposedly, at one time his heart was held in a reliquary placed in the hand of the figure's raised arm. Unusually for contemporaneous objects of this type, his skeleton is standing, making it a "living corpse", an innovation that was to become highly influential. The tomb effigy is positioned above the carved marble and limestone altarpiece.
Designated a Monument historique on 18 June 1898, the tomb was moved for safekeeping to the Panthéon in Paris during the First World War, before being returned to Bar-le-Duc in 1920. Both the statue and altarpiece underwent extensive restoration between 1998 and 2003. Replicas of the statue are in the Musée Barrois in Bar-le-Duc and the Palais de Chaillot, Paris.Certosina
Certosina is a decorative art technique used widely in the Italian Renaissance period. Similar to marquetry, it uses small pieces of wood, bone, metal, or mother-of-pearl to create inlaid geometric patterns on wood. The term comes from Certosa Church in Pavia, where the technique was used in ornamenting an altarpiece.Cervara Altarpiece
The Cervara Altarpiece or Cervara Polyptych was an oil-on-oak-panel altarpiece painted by the Flemish painter Gerard David early in the 16th century for the high altar of Cervara Abbey in Liguria, Italy.Crucifixion (Mantegna)
The Crucifixion is a panel in the central part of the predella (see image below) of a large altarpiece painted by Andrea Mantegna between 1457 and 1459 for the high altar of San Zeno, Verona (Italy). It was commissioned by Gregorio Correr, the abbot of that monastery.Crucifixion with the Virgin Mary, St John and St Mary Magdalene
Crucifixion with the Virgin Mary, St John and St Mary Magdalene is a painting by Anthony van Dyck. He produced it in 1617-19 as the high altarpiece for the Jesuit church in Bergues near Dunkirk, during his time as an assistant to Peter Paul Rubens - for a long time the painting was even attributed to Rubens. It was paid to Rubens in 1621 and seems to have been sold around 1746. It was bought by Louis XV of France in Antwerp in 1749 to be the high altarpiece of Saint-Louis de Versailles at the Palace of Versailles. It is now in the Louvre.Ghent Altarpiece
The Ghent Altarpiece (or the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Dutch: Het Lam Gods) 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.
The panels are organised in two vertical registers, each with double sets of foldable wings containing inner and outer panel paintings. The upper register of the inner panels form the central Deësis of Christ the King, Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. They are immediately flanked in the next panels by angels playing music and, on the far outermost panels, the naked figures of Adam and Eve. The four lower-register panels are divided into two pairs; sculptural grisaille paintings of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, and on the two outer panels, donor portraits of Joost Vijdt and his wife Lysbette Borluut. The central panel of the lower register shows a gathering of saints, sinners, clergy and soldiers attendant at an adoration of the Lamb of God. There are several groupings of figures, overseen by the dove of the Holy Spirit. The altarpiece is one of the most renowned and important artworks in European history.
Art historians generally agree that the overall structure was designed by Hubert during or before the mid 1420s, and that the panels were painted by his younger brother Jan between 1430 and 1432. However while generations of art historians have attempted to attribute specific passage to either brother, no convincing separation has been established. The altarpiece was commissioned by the merchant and Ghent mayor Jodocus Vijd and his wife Lysbette as part of a larger project for the Saint Bavo Cathedral chapel. The altarpiece's installation was officially celebrated on 6 May 1432. It was much later moved for security reasons to the principal cathedral chapel, where it remains.
Indebted to the International Gothic as well as Byzantine and Romanic traditions, the altarpiece represented a significant advancement in western art, in which the idealisation of the medieval tradition gives way to an exacting observation of nature and human representation. A now lost inscription on the frame stated that Hubert van Eyck maior quo nemo repertus (greater than anyone) started the altarpiece, but that Jan van Eyck—calling himself arte secundus (second best in the art)—completed it in 1432. The original, very ornate carved outer frame and surround, presumably harmonizing with the painted tracery, was destroyed during the Reformation; it may have included clockwork mechanisms for moving the shutters and even playing music.Gozzi Altarpiece
The Gozzi Altarpiece is an oil painting by the Italian Renaissance master Titian, dating from 1520. It is located in the Pinacoteca civica Francesco Podesti in Ancona, central Italy.Ildefonso Altarpiece
The Ildefonso Altarpiece is a triptych painting by Peter Paul Rubens, dating to between 1630 and 1631. It is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna.
It is named after the central panel, which shows Saint Ildefonsus's vision of the Virgin Mary, in which she gave him a casula. On the side panels are Isabella Clara Eugenia and Albert VII, regents of the Spanish Netherlands, with their patron saints Albert and Elisabeth of Hungary. Albert had founded the Ildefonso Brotherhood in the church of Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg in Brussels, to encourage loyalty to the Habsburg dynasty - the altarpiece was commissioned for the Brotherhood by his widow shortly after his death.Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints (Raphael)
The Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints (Young Baptist and Saints Peter, Catherine, Lucy, and Paul), also known as the Colonna Altarpiece, is a painting by the Italian High Renaissance artist Raphael, c. 1504. It is housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City. It is the only altarpiece by Raphael in the United States.
The collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art also contains a painting of the Agony in the Garden from the predella of the altarpiece. Other panels from the predella can be found in the collections of the National Gallery, London, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in Boston, and Dulwich Picture Gallery, in London. A preparatory drawing by Raphael for the composition of the agony in the garden is in the collection of the Morgan Library New York.
The pieces of the predella were separated from the altarpiece and sold to Queen Christina of Sweden, from where they reached the Orleans Collection, while the main panels themselves were eventually sold to the aristocratic Colonna family in Rome, from whom the altarpiece takes its name. The Altarpiece was the last Raphael altar in private hands when J.P. Morgan purchased it in the early 20th century for a record price.Oddi Altarpiece (Raphael)
The Oddi Altarpiece is an altarpiece of the Coronation of the Virgin painted in 1502-1504 by the Italian Renaissance master Raphael for the altar of the Oddi family chapel in the church of San Francesco al Prato in Perugia, Italy, now in the Vatican Pinacoteca. The altarpiece was commissioned for the Oddi family chapel in San Francesco al Prato in Perugia, was taken to Paris in 1797 (for the Musée Napoleon) and with 1815 brought back to Italy, not to Perugia but to the Vatican Pinacoteca.Orsini Altarpiece
The Orsini Altarpiece, Orsini Polyptych or Passion Polyptych is a painting produced at an unknown location by Simone Martini for private devotion by a cardinal of the Orsini family. Its precise date is still under discussion. It was taken to France very early in its lifespan and formed a major influence on late medieval French artists. It is now split between the Louvre, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp and the Gemäldegalerie.
On the back of the Louvre panel (Christ Bearing the Cross) is the coat of arms of the Louvre. It shows the man who commissioned the painting dressed as a cardinal at the foot of the cross. Some art historians see him as a portrait of the Roman cardinal Napoleone Orsini, who owned a fragment of the True Cross, which may explain the choice of subject. Under this hypothesis, he commissioned it before leaving Rome for the papal court in Avignon or in Avignon itself, where Martini followed Orsini.
It was probably in the Champmol Charterhouse, near Dijon, by the end of the 14th century. It was still there in the prior's chambers in 1791, when it was sold and split up. The four panels in Antwerp (Crucifixion, Descent from the Cross, The Archangel Gabriel and Virgin of the Annunciation) were sold in Dijon in 1822 and acquired for the collection of Florent van Ertborn, mayor of Antwerp - they were originally two panels, with Gabriel and Virgin on the reverse of the other two panels, before they were later sawn off. The Louvre panel (Christ Bearing the Cross) was bought from a man named L. Saint-Denis in 1834 by Louis Philippe I. The Berlin panel (Entombment) was bought from the Paris art dealer Émile Pacully in 1901
A predella is the platform or step on which an altar stands (*predel or *pretel, Langobardic for "a low wooden platform that serves as a basis in a piece of furniture"). In painting, the predella is the painting or sculpture along the frame at the bottom of an altarpiece. In later Christian medieval and Renaissance altarpieces, where the main panel consisted of a scene with large static figures, it was normal to include a predella below with a number of small-scale narrative paintings depicting events from the life of the dedicatee, whether the Life of Christ, the Life of the Virgin or a saint. Typically there would be three to five small scenes, in a horizontal format.
They are significant in art history, as the artist had more freedom from iconographic conventions than in the main panel; they could only be seen from close up. As the main panels themselves became more dramatic, during Mannerism, predellas were no longer painted, and they are rare by the middle of the 16th century. Predella scenes are now often separated from the rest of the altarpiece in museums.
Examples of predellas include:
Duccio – the predella of his Maestà – one of the earliest predellas.
Lorenzo Monaco – Incidents in the Life of Saint Benedict (c. 1407–1409)
Luca Signorelli – The Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1496)
Andrea Mantegna – San Zeno Altarpiece (1459)
Stanley Spencer – Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere, Hants.Pre-Raphealite, Dante Rossetti, revisited the predella in his second Beata Beatrix (1871-1872).Reredos
A reredos ( REER-dos, REER-ih-, RERR-ih-) is a large altarpiece, a screen, or decoration placed behind the altar in a church. It often includes religious images.Retable
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.
According to the Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus Online, "A 'retable' is distinct from a 'reredos'; while the reredos typically rises from ground level behind the altar, the retable is smaller, standing either on the back of the altar itself or on a pedestal behind it. Many altars have both a reredos and a retable." This distinction is not always upheld in common use, and the terms are often confused or used as synonyms. In several foreign languages, such as French (also using 'retable'), the usage is different, usually equating the word with the English 'reredos' or 'altarpiece', and this often leads to confusion, and incorrect usage in translated texts. The Medieval Latin retrotabulum (modernized retabulum) was applied to an architectural feature set up at the back of an altar, and generally taking the form of a screen framing a picture, carved or sculptured work in wood or stone, or mosaic, or of a movable feature such as the Pala d'Oro in St Mark's Basilica, Venice, of gold, jewels and enamels. The non-English word "retable" therefore often refers to what should in English be called a reredos. The situation is further complicated by the frequent modern addition of free-standing altars in front of the old integrated altar, to allow the celebrant to face the congregation, or be closer to it.
Dossal' is another term that may overlap with both retable and reredos; today it usually means an altarpiece painting rising at the back of the altar to which it is attached, or a cloth usually hanging on the wall directly behind the altar.
The cognate Spanish term, retablo, refers also to a reredos or retrotabulum, although in the specific context of Mexican folk art it may refer to any two-dimensional depiction (usually a framed painting) of a saint or other Christian religious figure, as contrasted with a bulto, a three-dimensional statue of same.
The retable may hold the altar cross, mostly in Protestant churches, as well as candles, flowers and other things.Sandro Botticelli
Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (c. 1445 – May 17, 1510), known as Sandro Botticelli (Italian: [ˈsandro bottiˈtʃɛlli]), was an Italian painter of the Early Renaissance. He belonged to the Florentine School under the patronage of Lorenzo de' Medici, a movement that Giorgio Vasari would characterize less than a hundred years later in his Vita of Botticelli as a "golden age". Botticelli's posthumous reputation suffered until the late 19th century; since then, his work has been seen to represent the linear grace of Early Renaissance painting.
As well as the small number of mythological subjects which are his best known works today, he painted a wide range of religious subjects and also some portraits. He and his workshop were especially known for their Madonna and Childs, many in the round tondo shape. Botticelli's best-known works are The Birth of Venus and Primavera, both in the Uffizi in Florence. He lived all his life in the same neighbourhood of Florence, with the only significant time he spent elsewhere probably being the months he spent painting in Pisa in 1474 and the Sistine Chapel in Rome from 1481 to 1482.Only one of his paintings is dated, though others can be dated from other records with varying degrees of certainty, and the development of his style traced with confidence. He was an independent master for all the 1470s, growing in mastery and reputation, and the 1480s were his most successful decade, when all his large mythological paintings were done, and many of his best Madonnas. By the 1490s his style became more personal and to some extent mannered, and he could be seen as moving in a direction opposite to that of Leonardo da Vinci (seven years his junior) and a new generation of painters creating the High Renaissance style as Botticelli returned in some ways to the Gothic style.
He has been described as "an outsider in the mainstream of Italian painting", who had a limited interest in many of the developments most associated with Quattrocento painting, such as the realistic depiction of human anatomy, perspective, and landscape, and the use of direct borrowings from classical art. His training enabled him to represent all these aspects of painting, without adopting or contributing to their development.Sant'Agostino Altarpiece
The Sant'Agostino Altarpiece is a painting by Perugino, produced in two stages between around 1502 and 1512 and then around 1513 to 1523. The altarpiece's 28, 29 or 30 panels were split up during the Napoleonic suppression of religious houses - most of its panels are now in the Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria in Perugia. It is notable as the painter's last masterwork before he moved into his late phase producing more provincial commissions.
It was commissioned by the monks of Sant'Agostino church in Perugia. The first phase included the artist's peak years and the crisis from 1508 onwards which distanced him from the major artistic centres of Italy. The second phase included the end of those crisis years and after 1520 his final years. The work is often used as a base-line for dating other works from his late period.
The main panel shows the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan by John the Baptist, with the Holy Spirit descending in a gilded nimbus, angels assisting, saints around the scene and the heads of seraphim above. All the panels were held in a frame by Mattia da Reggio, making the altarpiece double-sided. They were placed in the frame as the artist completed them, working up from the predella at the base, the columns, the main panels, an entablature, a cymatium and finally the works flanking the central panel.Triptych
A triptych ( TRIP-tik; from the Greek adjective τρίπτυχον "triptukhon" ("three-fold"), from tri, i.e., "three" and ptysso, i.e., "to fold" or ptyx, i.e., "fold") is a work of art (usually a panel painting) 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.
Despite its connection to an art format, the term is sometimes used more generally to connote anything with three parts, particularly if they are integrated into a single unit.
of the faithful