Monday, November 20, 2006

The Art of Illusion: Sixteenth-Century Netherlandish Altarpieces

The production of carved wooden altarpieces in the Netherlands can be historically traced as early as 1390, with the commission by Philip the Bold of two altarpieces designed by the Dendermonde carver Jacques Baerze. By the mid-fifteenth century Brussels had surfaced as the leading centre of production, and in 1454 a guild edict called for the application of craftsmen’s marks on altarpieces. Towards the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth century, carved altarpieces became an increasingly significant trade commodity in both Brussels and Antwerp. The operation of art markets, such as the Onser Liever Vrouwen Pand at the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp from 1460, indicates that in addition to commissioned sales, altarpieces were also sold pre-fabricated. Despite the evident popularity of the art form, however, few Netherlandish altarpieces survive today. During the iconoclastic riots of the 1560s, Calvinists destroyed representational statues and images of Catholic saints, the worship of which they deemed heretical.

In response to Calvinist claims of idolatry, many carved altarpieces or retables remained unpainted. The bare wood, thus, served as a reminder of the representational quality of the artefact, while the application of paint bestowed upon figural forms an illusive realistic property and the temptation of unlawful worship. Religious tensions aside, the rejection of polychrome cannot be viewed as entirely political. Aesthetically, the unpainted altarpiece clearly exhibits the sculptor’s artistic abilities. Guild regulations of 1454 permitted only the sale of unpolychromed works by carvers on the open market, and granted painters the exclusive right to sell the finished carved and painted altarpiece. Carvers were thus accorded a certain economic advantage by the Calvinist movement.

While flat painted retables of the period demonstrate realism achieved through linear perspective, the three dimensional aspect of the sculptural form creates an arguably more realistic representation, despite the lack of spatial depth and absence of colour. One such example from Brussels is presently on exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, in the Samuel European Galleries . The Late Gothic style carved oak retable, dated 1510-1515 AD, is attributed to the workshop of Jan Borman the Younger (recorded 1522), brother of Pasquier (recorded 1510-1536), and son of Jan the Elder (active c. 1479-1520). The work was purchased from Raphael Stora, New York, in 1937, after having belonged to the Martin Leroy Collection, in Paris, and the Solykoff Collection. The retable underwent extensive restoration during the nineteenth century, possibly by Francois Malfait after its 1844 acquisition by Prince Soltykoff, and may have originally had carved and/or painted wings.

The bottom central compartment depicts two Old Testament figures – possibly Isaiah and Jeremiah. Above is a Nativity scene with the Annunciation to the Shepherds in the background, with the Coronation of the Virgin in the upper compartment. To the left of the central compartment is a scene of the Circumcision, and to the right the Adoration of the Magi. Figures of angels and the Virgin and Child embellish the upper casement . Typically, altarpieces depict either the life of the Virgin or Christ; this particular retable is an example of a depiction of the early life of Christ. The compartments are laid out to construct a non-linear narrative – a simultaneous conception of time and space, which is believed, in Christianity, to correspond to God’s perception of the earthly realm . The single continuous horizon throughout creates a shallowness, which necessitates a pile-up of sculptural forms very close to the surface.

Stylistically, Late Gothic is characterized by delicate, skeletal architecture, which though rendered in wood, resembles metal tracery-work; often gilded in gold, it represents the ethereal architecture of Heaven. The angel figures above the casement rise up on spires, like Gothic tabernacles, while the compartment interiors resemble the nave and aisles of a Gothic cathedral. The upward Heavenly thrust of the central compartments creates the distinctive inverted T-shape of carved altarpieces . The low positioning of the figures within the interior space, and the high ornamented ceilings of the compartments, echo the verticality of the centrally stacked units and guide the viewer’s eye Heavenward. The cruciform resemblance and Gothic architectural vocabulary serve as symbolic reminders of the church.

The inverted T-shape creates a framed hierarchy, which Lynn F. Jacobs describes in “The Inverted ‘T’ Shape in Early Netherlandish Altarpieces: Studies in the Relation between Paining and Sculpture”:

The “T”-frame creates a clear, hierarchical structure, with
the central figures emphasized not simply by their centrality,
but through a larger scale or higher placement within the
elongated compartment. In the context of religious art, this
hierarchy established levels of sanctity; the “T”-shape thus
served as a substitute for the baldachins, cloths of honor,
and angels (with or without crowns), which were placed
above figures to emphasize their special sacredness.

The Nativity Scene located in the central compartment of the retable, assumes a position of sacred honour, and is crowned by the Coronation scene. Sculptural figures of the Virgin, Christ and angels further emphasize the religious significance of the scene and function on a performative level to guide the viewer’s meditation. The Adoration of the Magi scene represents the Eucharistic offering at the altar .

While sculptors demonstrated clearly defined preferences for the inverted T-shape and church setting, Netherlandish painters often favoured historical settings framed within rectangular panels. One reason for this preference by painters is the neutrality of the rectangular frame. Such a frame offers greater potential for trompe l’oeil realism through spatial depth . Exceptions to this generalization of course exist. An example of a painted inverted T-shaped altarpiece with an interior church setting is Rogier van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, dated 1445-50 (fig. ii) . The St. George Altarpiece, dated 1493 (fig. iii) by Jan Borman the Elder, on the other hand, is a carved wooden retable, which is rectangular in shape.

Both Rogier van der Weyden and Jan Borman the Elder were extremely influential in Brussels altarpiece production during the late fifteenth century to early sixteenth century . The shallow spatial field and curving S-forms of the bodies, as depicted by the figures in the Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, instill a sense of instability in the viewer . Nowhere is the S-curve more evident than in the swooning Virgin of Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition painting of 1435-38 (fig. iv) . While the interior view within the Seven Sacraments Altarpiece reveals an illusive sense of linear depth, this trait is unusual in the High Gothic style. The shallow planes of the Deposition scene, as well as the two carved retables demonstrate more aptly the emphasis on surface, typical of the Gothic style. The intricate realistic detail accorded to drapery folds is present in both the painting of Rogier van der Weyden, as well as in the carved works of both Jan Borman the Elder and Jan Borman the Younger. Figures twist away from and in some cases turn their backs to the viewer, in an expression of high emotion.

In Northern Renaissance Art: Paintings, Sculpture, The Graphic Arts From 1350-1575, James Snyder writes:

One of the features of Late Gothic piety was this preoccupation
with the personal identification of the worshipper with the
sufferings of Christ and Mary. In this respect, Mary’s imitation
of Christ in the Prado Deposition quickens the viewer’s
response to compassion for Christ. The theatrical nature of
such an act of empathy is obvious. Rogier’s figures are
on the stage before us, and nowhere can one find a more
powerful or moving drama enacted in Netherlandish art .

The Borman retables are laid out in such a manner that each compartment contains a separate scene-enactment. The potential for staged theatrics is thus arguably heightened in carved altarpieces, as the medium lends itself extraordinarily well to the dramatized stage. While Snyder argues that Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition painting represents the epitome of high drama, the Borman works surely contend for this title. The emphatic surface quality, and resulting closeness of the figures to the viewer’s space, significantly aid in heightening the viewer’s emotional involvement with the work.

An apparent rivalry existed between painters and carvers of altarpieces during the period. The St. George Altarpiece was produced for the Great Crossbowmen’s Guild, which had previously commissioned Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross for the chapel of Onse Lieve Vrouw van Ginderbuiten. In “Five Netherlandish Carved Altar-pieces in England and the Brussels School of Carving c. 1470-1520”, Kim W. Woods writes: “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Borman approached his work in the spirit of rivalry. He evolved a new sculptural style involving surface detail of a technical virtuosity to rival the achievements in paint of Robert Campin and Van Eyck up to 60 years earlier. ” It is with the same artistic fervour that Jan Borman the Younger approached his work, for stylistic resemblances between the Borman works are clearly evident. Though the application of paint to carved altarpieces may well have added to the illusion of realism attained by the artists, the unploychromed sculptural figures are far from unconvincing. The abundance of comparative judgments between painted and sculpted works in contemporary academic research reveal that the competitive trend in sixteenth century Netherlandish altarpiece production continues in present day.

Works Cited

Duke, Alastair. Reformation and Revolt in the Low Countries. London: The Hambledon Press, 1990.

Gelderblom, Arie-Jan, de Jong, Jan L., and van Vaeck, Marc., Ed. Intersections Yearbook for Early Modern Studies Volume 3 – 2003: The Low Countries as a Crossroads of Religious Beliefs. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2003.

Jacobs, Lynn F. Aspects of Netherlandish Carved Altarpieces: 1380-1530. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1986.

Jacobs, Lynn F. Early Netherlandish Carved Altarpieces, 1380-1550. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Jacobs, Lynn F. “The Inverted ‘T’ Shape in Early Netherlandish Altarpieces: Studies in the Relation between Painting and Sculpture.” Zeitschrift fü r Kunstgeseschichte. Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag GmbH Munchen, 54 Bd., H. 1. (1991), pp. 33-65.

Roberts, Ann M. “The Chronology and Political Significance of the Tomb of Mary of Burgundy.” The Art Bulletin. College Art Association, Vol. 71, No.3. (September 1989), pp. 376-400.

Snyder, James. Northern Renaissance Art: Paintings, Sculpture, The Graphic Arts From 1350-1575. Revised by Larry Silver and Henry Luttikhuizen. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc. 2005.

van Miegroet, Hans J. “Painting in Bruges at the Close of the Middle Ages: Studies in Society and Visual Culture; Early Netherlandish Carved Alterpieces 1380-1550: Medieval Tastes and Mass Marketing; Painting ad the Market in Early Modern Antwerp.” The Art Bulletin. College Art Association. Vol. 82, No. 3 (September 2000), pp. 582-585.

Woods, Kim W. “Five Netherlandish Carved Altar-Pieces in England and the Brussels School of Carving c. 1470-1520.” The Burlington Magazine. The Burlington Magazine Publications, Ltd. Vol. 138, No. 1125. (December 1996), pp. 788-800.


Royal Ontario Museum

*FAH331H1 Netherlandish Art in the Sixteenth-Century
Hannah Richardson
June 19, 2006


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