Bidding for favours

Nicholas Penny

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.

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