Today the Roman Catholic priest celebrating Mass stands on the far side of the altar, facing the congregation, in accordance with the prescription of the Second Vatican Council of 1963. In doing so he is adopting the position which was normal before the 13th century. On the modern altar an altarpiece is an impossibility: it would get in the way. It was the same in 1200. Much else has, however, changed since then. The altar is now, emphatically, a table, the mensa of the primitive Church, whereas in 1200 it was, and had long been, a solid structure more like a tomb chest. Its frontal or antependium was often as lavish in materials and in workmanship as a shrine or reliquary. Indeed, altars were a type of shrine or reliquary, for relics had to be kept in them and were often exhibited above them or in crypts beneath them – relics which might be merely a toe or a tooth but which were, not unusually, the mortal remains of a martyr.
When the celebrant began to stand on the near side of the altar, facing away from the congregation, as became orthodox in the second half of the 13th century, it meant that the far side of the altar could carry an altarpiece. The earliest ones tended to be low and rectangular in form. They competed in splendour with the frontals and then replaced them as the focus for ornament and imagery. In some cases the frontal itself was actually moved up onto the back of the altar. This was the case with the most famous frontal to have survived from the Middle Ages, the Pala d’Oro of embossed gold studded with gems, and adorned with enamels, in the Basilica of Saint Mark in Venice. Very few altarpieces like the Pala d’Oro have survived, but such works in precious metal, together with equally precious textiles, were the most highly-prized type of altarpiece. Panel paintings with backgrounds of gold leaf were intended as cheaper equivalents, and many of their most sophisticated features – the tooling of the gold with punches and incised lines, the patterns scratched through colour applied on top of the gold (sgrafitto), the building-up of the gesso beneath the gold into relief (pastiglia), the embedding of coloured glass – were designed to imitate the effect of embossed and tooled metal enriched with jewels, and the patterns of luxurious textiles.
The architectural divisions which had been a feature of the altar frontal – the tall arch around the central image, usually of God the Father, or Christ, or the Virgin enthroned, and the lower arches around the saints – had no need, once they were part of an altarpiece, to remain confined within a rectangular framework. They soon began to resemble the great sculptural ensembles found in Gothic architecture, especially in portals and tombs, where saints crowded, tier upon tier, narratives filled the spandrels and gables, and subordinate figures sprang up amidst the ornament of finials and crockets. Sometimes the larger throned figures painted on upright altarpieces vied with the monumental imagery of mural paintings and mosaics in the apse. An astonishing attempt was also made, notably in the Maesta, the great double-sided altarpiece made by Duccio for the Duomo of Siena, to cover the altarpiece with a series of narrative scenes like those on the walls of chapels or in the divisions of stained-glass windows.
Any general history of European painting from the 13th to the 15th century must concern itself chiefly with altarpieces and altarpieces must also play a central part in any history of Italian, French or Spanish art of the three centuries which followed. It is therefore surprising that, before the translation of Burckhardt’s essay, Das Altarbild, there was no book in English tracing the origins and early evolution of this art form, and describing its purpose. Burckhardt’s essay, which deals only with Italy, was written in 1893, when he was 75 years old, and is based on notes which he had long used in his lecture course at Basel University. Although some great photographic libraries were by then being assembled, it is unlikely that Burckhardt supplemented recollection of what he had seen in Italy with an investigation of what he might have missed. In any case, he was not in a position to chart the chronology of major developments or regional varieties with the authority which we would now expect – but then, he was not attempting the full survey that his essay has been made to resemble by the publishers.
Burckhardt’s account of the early phases of the altarpiece is highly suggestive, but although he of course mentions the most prestigious altarpieces of metalwork, he does not explore the relation between them and painted altarpieces. Nor does he explore the relation between altarpieces and other art forms, except to observe, parenthetically, that the clarity and grandeur of Italian altarpieces reflected the artists’ experience of mural decoration. Sculptural altarpieces he does examine, but hastily, as if to get them out of the way. They are treated separately, with hardly any reference to their influence on painted altarpieces or to those altarpieces in which sculpture and painting were combined.
Burckhardt didn’t say much about the devotional practices which determined the imagery of an altarpiece. When the eucharistic sacraments are placed on the altar they are directly in front of the plinth or predella of the altarpiece. That is why the centre of the predella is often painted with a small image of Christ on the Cross, or displaying his wounds, or supported in the tomb. In the 18th century the predella sometimes also incorporated a cupboard or tabernacle for the reservation of the sacrament (an arrangement common in Spain but also found in Italy) which made this type of decoration especially appropriate. More usually by then, however, the predella was employed for small narratives relating to the lives of the saints depicted above. In the Marches and North-Eastern Italy the eucharistic image was transferred to an upper portion of the altarpiece. This feature of the altarpieces of the 15th century is mentioned by Burckhardt but without reference to its significance.
More surprisingly, Burckhardt had little to say about the factors which determined the selection of saints for an altarpiece. He does mention that prominence was often given to a saint whose relic the altar contained although without specific examples. Also likely to be of importance was the saint to whom the church was dedicated, the founder and principal saints of the order who owned the church, the protectors of the city, the patrons of the confraternity or guild or family which commissioned the altarpiece and the name-saint of the individual donor. Had Burckhardt dwelt on the manner in which saints were selected, he would not have found it easy to reconcile the priorities which such a selection reveals with the view of ‘Renaissance Man’ which he presented in the famous opening of the second part of his masterpiece, The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (first published in 1860, now republished by Penguin in the admirable 1878 translation by S.G. Middlemore, without most of the original notes but with an introduction by Peter Burke). In this view the individualism of ‘Renaissance Man’ distinguished him from ‘Medieval Man’, who ‘was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family or corporation’. Yet altarpieces spell out clearly that such affiliations were no less strong in the 15th century than in the 13th, and in Italy no less than elsewhere in Europe.
The Renaissance altarpiece, and with it the very prestige of the art of painting in the Renaissance (and ever since), arose from a phenomenon which was surely Medieval in origin – the importance of the family burial chapel and of Masses for the dead. ‘In Italy, in 1300 or so, every head was buzzing with concern about the nature of Purgatory and so it was that everyone wanted to build chapels and, when they had built them, wanted to fill them with paintings of their patron saints so that these might intercede for them ... and there can be no doubt that it is to this notion, so absurd and bizarre, that we owe the existence of Raphael and Correggio.’ This observation, thrown out by Stendhal in his life of Rossini, deserves the attention of all students of the altarpiece. Most altarpieces, after all, do come from such private chapels and the saints depicted on them determine their character.
In a polyptych the saints are separated from the central image (usually of the Virgin and Child) by the architectural divisions of the frame. When the polyptych fell from favour – in Florence in advance of other Italian cities – such divisions often remained but were now represented within the picture space. Even when there was no such compartmentalisation the saints seldom showed any awareness of their neighbours. One of Burckhardt’s chief interests is the development of the sacra conversazione, the type of altarpiece in which the saints and the Virgin and Child communicate and even interact. The artists attracted by the possibility of narrative unity and of representing physical response and mute exchange between the saints and the Virgin and Child would have welcomed the innovation. It was slow to take on, however, perhaps because the worshippers’ needs discouraged it: they presumably prayed to the saints separately, as intercessors, and for this separate images were required. One agent of change was the presence within the painting of the donor kneeling, at prayer, towards the central image, thereby, again, introducing a narrative dimension. He kneels at the feet of his personal saint or saints, who watch his action and who are often depicted in the act of recommending him. One of the most disappointing aspects of Burckhardt’s essay is the brevity of the section on donor portraits. It can perhaps be explained by his decision to put this material into his separate essay on the Renaissance portrait.
Burckhardt’s essay, although inadequate as a survey, includes many original speculations. He notes how private devotional images, which at first merely imitated ecclesiastical altarpieces, often became intimate and charming in character and began to influence the larger works, so that the Virgin enthroned with her child in 15th-century Italian altarpieces is seldom invested with the majesty she formerly possessed. Historians of the Renaissance will be glad to have his essay available and will be grateful for Peter Humfrey’s scholarly introduction and notes. But the way the essay has been inflated with colourplates by a book designer who seems not to have read it is deplorable. Large details are illustrated of altarpieces which Burckhardt mentions in passing because of their general scheme – which is not illustrated. Yet when Burckhardt dwells on an altarpiece it often isn’t illustrated at all, especially when the artist is no longer as celebrated as he was in Burckhardt’s day: Bramantino, Bagnacavallo, Gaudenzio Ferrari, Luini – precisely those artists of whose works it would have been most valuable to be reminded.
The Altarpiece in the Renaissance consists of papers delivered at a conference held at the Warburg Institute and Birkbeck College in 1987. It includes studies of sculpture as well as painting and of altarpieces in the Netherlands, Germany and Spain as well as Italy. The most stimulating paper is one by Bernhard Decker which speculates on how anxiety about idolatry may have determined changes in form and style in the German altarpiece before it led to iconoclasm. He points out that reliquary sculpture – originally gold-plated wooden figures or busts containing relics – were less likely to ‘prompt acts of physical adoration, such as touching and kissing’ when incorporated into the architectural framework of an altarpiece than when they were portable and placed beside the altar during the Mass. Moreover, the painted shutters which, except on holy days, covered the sculpture on the altarpiece ensured that the power of these images was further controlled. The reaction away from coloured wooden sculpture, first found in the altarpiece carvings by Riemenschneider, may also, he suggests, be related to concern over the type of power such imagery possessed. So, too, perhaps was the stylistic conservatism or revivalism which some have discerned in German altarpiece sculpture in the late 15th century. Not all the papers are so full of ideas.
‘Even when the overall field of the altarpiece is expanded horizontally, ecclesiastical function requires the articulation of that field to focus in the central vertical.’ David Rosand continues to elaborate this platitude, finally arriving at an absurd hyperbole: ‘What we might call the iconic imperative of the altarpiece enforces that centrality of focus; the lateral forces of the field operate centripetally, with reference to the centre. Such visual dynamics naturally determine the relationship of the viewer/worshipper to the image. In viewing such a field, lateral scansion is rendered irrelevant except as a way towards the centre.’ This last statement entirely misses the point of the polyptych, which is designed to guarantee the importance – and encourage the separate consideration – of the lateral saints. Even the very untypical altarpiece by Domenico Veneziano which he uses to illustrate his claim that ‘all eyes are, literally, on the deity’ shows four saints of whom only one is looking at Christ.
An alternative strategy to that of obtaining respect by wearing a white coat and discussing ‘centripetal fields’ is to hint at non-existent profundities and to conjure colleagues to seek these out for themselves. ‘We should always be alert to the vitality of 15th-century altarpieces in dealing with basic human issues of sexuality and, in particular, marriage,’ Craig Harlison reminds us and then urges us to ponder how the appeal of artists might be distinguished ‘along gender lines’, throwing out the thought that ‘it is perhaps not accidental that Rogier van der Weyden was favoured in commissions given to women or particularly important for them; while for Jan Van Eyck’s surviving work we find only male patrons, and this despite the fact that Van Eyck’s imagery is largely devoted to the Virgin Mary. If he supposes that male patrons usually prefer pictures of men it is as well that he has not pursued this matter further himself.
A fascinating paper by Sylvia Ferino on Raphael’s altarpieces raises the question of how much it was possible for such paintings to be regarded chiefly as works of art. That, of course, is how we tend to see altarpieces today. When we do consider their devotional significance it tends to be in relation to the needs of a hypothetical general public. This, together with our lack of interest in relics and Purgatory, is one of the principal barriers to understanding the nature of the altarpiece in the Renaissance. Peter Humfrey, in an excellent paper on some of the rare cases before the Counter-Reformation when altarpieces were co-ordinated in appearance, reminds us that private enterprise – in art and worship – flourished in side chapels and side altars, where ‘it was normal for the lay patrons to be permitted to choose their dedication, in accordance with their own devotional interest.’
These ‘interests’ were a part of the bidding for favours in Purgatory – a private or at least family business, and a competitive one. The Counter-Reformation did much to change this and the last two papers in the book explain very well what came to be expected from the altarpiece – the first of them with special reference to El Greco, the second with reference to both Spain and Italy.
It is unfortunate that there was no paper about Spain before the Counter-Reformation, but it is a strength in this work as a whole that the papers range all over Europe and Italy. There is, for once, as much on Siena and Venice as there is on Florence. No studies, however good, of types of painting such as altarpieces or portraits are going to reduce the value of studies of regional schools. Painting in Renaissance Siena provides a judicious introduction to Siennese painting in the 15th century, contrasting it with Florence, but not in negative or in apologetic terms. It also serves as the catalogue of an exceptional loan exhibition held in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Frescos and large altarpieces, although discussed and illustrated here could not be included in the exhibition, which was mostly devoted to smaller domestic devotional pieces, narrative panels detached from altarpiece predellas and illuminated manuscripts.