Friday, April 28, 2017

A Private Altarpiece

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Perhaps it’s because I recently finished a “smallish” altarpiece – a subject in itself for a future post – that I have altarpieces on my brain.

Some altarpieces, we all know, can be very grand affairs. There are examples that have more doors than a carnival funhouse. Some altarpieces loom stories above worshippers. There are those that have enough carving and painting and gilding to dazzle laity into the sublime.

Others, however, are relatively small and unassuming. Some were never intended for a general audience, a congregation, or, for that matter, anyone outside the family. If guests dropped by, chances are the modest doors would be politely, but suddenly, closed. In the art world, these might be labelled “portable altarpieces.” Often, a better term might be “private altarpieces.”
"Braque Triptych" opened. Rogier van der Weyden. c. 1452.
(The Louvre, Paris)

One fine example is the Braque Triptych. The diminutive piece by Rogier van der Weyden struggles to reach 17 inches tall by 54 inches wide. When opened.

When closed, it looks like a sad epitaph to a lost life, and that is what it most probably was. The Braque Triptych was likely commissioned by the widow of Jehan Braque of Tournai, a man who died too soon after marriage. His widow, Catherine de Brabant, carried her grief long after, even after re-marrying, and that grief is obvious on the blackened, exterior doors of the altarpiece.
"Braque Triptych" with doors closed.

But then the doors open. A richness of color, modeling, and symbolism appears that is seemingly possible only from the hands of such a Northern Renaissance master.

The busts of five figures fill the interior. St. John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene each fill a door. The center panel contains a central Christ, flanked by Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and St. John the Evangelist. Interestingly, I was familiar with the figure of Mary Magdalene long before seeing the entire piece.

One unique feature of the altarpiece is the use of small text that gently flows around the heads of the figures. The Scriptural snippets relate to each figure and add an informal flavor only evident when viewed in an intimate setting.

One might argue it shameful that so much effort was wasted on such an object of exclusivity. On the other hand, it is commendable that in days past the Christian home was considered a natural extension of the Church, complete with reverence, deep heartache, and a longing for the life to come.

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