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Site last updated
26 June, 2013
Altarpieces
Having completed a triptych altarpiece within the last month or so, and displayed it publicly for the first time just this weekend, I probably shouldn't be, but I am somewhat surprised that most people have never heard of a triptych (altarpiece or otherwise) and are really handy with the proverbial "blank stare" when I mention the term. Even two categories of people, artists and the clergy, whom one would think ought to have some idea what I'm talking about, often don't. When I default into my "teaching mode" they quickly come up with the "I knew that" response (in fact if not in words), and the conversation moves on from there. It's a little humorous as well as dismaying. I guess I hadn't realised how "antique" altarpieces were.

Speaking of altarpieces, perhaps the "granddaddy of them all," (or for the feminists) "mother of all altarpieces," was painted by Rogier van der Weyden, a nine-panel polyptych in which he chose as his subject The Last Judgement. Painted between 1444 and 1448, it is rivalled only by Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece (1432) and Matthias Grünewald 's Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-15). The first two are polyptychs, the latter, slightly larger than the others, is a triptych. Of the three, van der Weyden's style and subject seems the most dramatic and spiritually expressive. The "Isenheim" is three totally separate scenes, each exceedingly beautiful in its own way, but lacking any form or intention toward unity. The "Ghent" is the more complex of the three, the upper part depicting a series of full-length portrait images while the lower part is made up of five panels embracing a single religious festival. Perhaps borrowing from this concept, van der Weyden's seventeen-foot-long masterpiece, as the name suggests, depicts a single, unified theme, its nine separate panels united by a golden cloud tying the composition together into a whole.

In terms of art, when we think of Last Judgements, only one image presents itself--Michelangelo's magnificent Sistine Chapel wall behind the altar (not technically an altarpiece but a fresco mural). Michelangelo's vision was horrific. Van der Weyden's is elegant. A hundred years older than Michelangelo's, it appears to have had no influence, and very likely, Michelangelo was unaware of it. But in many ways, it is superior to Michelangelo's. The central panel is unique because it has two centres of interest, Christ, above, balances precariously on what appears for all the world to be a rainbow, while below his spherical footstool, the archangel, Gabriel, finesses a scales, weighing in the balance, the souls of the nude, mortal figures populating the lower, earthly realms; with the damned shrinking away to hell in the far left panel while an angel leads the saved into heavenly ecstasy in the far right panel. A midlevel golden cloud supports a host of full-length portraits of sundry saints and seraphim observing the spectacle. Though truly an altarpiece, the painting does not reside in a church, but in a hospital, which, in deference to the sick and dying who might pray before it, would explain its somewhat less than horrendous depiction of this ultimate trial.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
28 July 1999

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