Friday, June 14, 2019

Stacking Up Altarpieces

Comparative size of Cranach's
Wittenberg Altarpiece
Copyright © Edward Riojas

Although it’s been years since I worked in the editorial department of a newspaper, I still occasionally get the urge to graphically explain something or tinker with data. Yes, I can be a geek.

This geek doesn’t get out much, and I have a hunch some readers don’t, either. I thought it might be interesting to see how some famous altarpieces stack up against each other – this, without obtaining a visa or boarding a plane.

Not all altarpieces are large affairs. One of my personal faves, the Mérode Altarpiece – also known as “The Annunciation Triptych,” is just a tiny thing. It was probably made for domestic use as a private altar. There is an abundance of such pieces, especially within the early Church, which points to piety emanating from the church and entering the home.

The Isenheim Altarpiece is larger, but is still not huge. It was intended for a small chapel of an institution that cared for patients suffering from rather unpleasant skin diseases.

The Ghent Altarpiece, featured in the film, “The Monuments Men,” is only slightly taller, although it is packed with ridiculously-gorgeous detail. This detail makes it seem much larger when viewed out of context.

Cranach’s Wittenberg Altarpiece should be quite familiar to Lutherans. It contains confessional imagery that includes many movers and shakers from the Reformation, and individual panels from it have been reproduced as prints.

A quick hop, skip, and a jump to Austria will allow a view of what may arguably be the tallest Gothic altarpiece. Rising 44 feet above the altar, the Kefermarkt Altarpiece is filled with sculpted figures and delicate wooden tracery.

The largest Gothic altarpiece in the world is claimed by St. Mary’s Basilica of Kraków, Poland. The Veit Stoss Altarpiece is massive – taking 12 years to create. Each 12 foot-high figure it contains was sculpted from an individual linden log. While it is considered a Polish national treasure, the altarpiece bears the name of its German sculptor.

The altarpiece shared the same fate as the Ghent Altarpiece, being plundered by German occupying forces. Its disassembled components were hidden in the basement of the Nuremberg castle, where they survived heavy bombing during the war. After the war, it went through extensive restoration before finally being returned to its home in 1957.

Comparative size, from left, of Mérode, Isenheim, Ghent, Wittenberg, Kefermarkt, and Veit Stoss altarpieces.

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