A Netherlandish Carved Altarpiece.

The oak altarpiece of about 1510 from Brussels in the Royal Ontario Museum is attributed to the Borman workshop. Similar to other altarpieces of the time, the corpus assumes the form of an inverted “T”. In the central compartment, there is a representation of the Nativity / the Adoration of the Shepherd. The left compartment features Presentation in the Temple, at the moment of Christ’s circumcision. On the right, we see an image of the Adoration of the Magi. Above the central scene, there is a Coronation of the Virgin. In the bottom compartment contains two prophets holding scrolls of the Holy Scriptures. The retable’s possible placement on the high altar, where the Eucharist is celebrated, explains the limitation of its subject matters. The carved altarpiece functions as an illustration of the central themes of the Mass, and aid for meditation and a suitable backdrop for the moment of consecration. The examination of the original position and appearance of the reredos provides insight to the ritual practice of the Mass, the religious sentiments and the creative process of the early sixteenth century.

The attention to details, the exotic garments and the twisting poses associate the piece with Jan Borman and his workshop in Brussels. The ROM retable is full of rich surface details. The exquisitely carved figure of the kneeling king in the foreground of the Adoration of the Magi has curvy hair, which the carver describes in fine details. The soldier standing near him whose back is toward the viewer shows the diamond-patterns of his garment. The clothing of the characters also demonstrates an interest in exoticism1. The hats of the three kings are very elaborately decorated with an impression of foreignness. The hat of the oldest king is placed in the central foreground as if the carver is eager to display his ability to realize such wonderful details to the viewer. A few figures in the foregrounds turn their back to us, which is a distinct element of Jan Borman the Elder2. The shepherd on the right of the Nativity twists his body exaggeratedly with his back to us turning to his right to acknowledge the Child. He also gestures to the Baby in the centre with his left hand. The figure standing in the front on the extreme right of the Presentation duplicates the posture of the shepherd. Most of the figures in the foreground are sculpted in the round and on an individual block of wood, which demonstrate the characteristics of the Brussels workshops.

According to the images in contemporary paintings and pages from books of hours, carved altarpiece is usually placed behind the high altar. The most frequently quoted source of the location of the wooden reredos is Rogier van der Weyden’s painted altarpiece Seven Sacraments 3. In the background of the central panel, a priest is shown in front of a sculpted retable, at the moment of consecration. The piece is located about two bays away from the very east end of the church. The building might be a pilgrimage church that has multiple chapels in the choir. People are shown walking around and behind the high altar. However, it is clear that the reredos is placed on the altar, upon which Mass is celebrated. Also, in a miniature depicting Philip the Good at Mass, a carved retable in an inverted “T” shape is in front of the priest who is conducting a service. Two arches which suggest the space of two bays are shown behind the curtains that confine the space where the Mass takes place. The reredos also seems to have been installed on the high altar, which is placed right in front of the east end. The piece in ROM might have possibly been installed on an altar in a similar position.

Retables appear to be closely connected with the ritual of the Mass, which commemorates the birth, the life and the death of Jesus Christ. Netherlandish carved altarpieces from Brussels and Antwerp usually consist of narratives from the Infancy of Christ, the Passion and the Life of the Virgin – the major themes of the Mass4. The narrative elements of the altarpiece prove further that the reredos plays an important role in the liturgical ceremony. The oak retable in ROM has a cycle of narratives that can be associated with the Incarnation of Christ, which is the central mystery of the Christian faith and is a typical subject for Netherlandish sculpted reredos. The Nativity is depicted in the central compartment of the ROM altarpiece. The scene of Jesus’s birth is emphasized by its central position and a higher elevation than the two scenes flanking it. In the moment of consecration, the priest would lift up the wafer facing the centre of the altarpiece as it is shown in the background of van den Weyden’s Seven Sacraments . The Child lying on the ground is located on the axis, a position approximately coincides with where the wafer may be upon the altar. The congregation would definitely relate the wafer to the Saviour who is represented in the form of flesh in the altarpiece. The wafer, which is transformed into the real flesh of Jesus when consecrated, is juxtaposed with the form of the Child in the altarpiece. The retable gives a visual account of what is said in the Mass therefore it is suitable to be the backdrop to the celebration of the Eucharist5.
The shape of the case of the retable also bares close relation to the consecration of the Host. The altarpiece in ROM assumes the form of an inverted “T” with an elevated centre. It is also seen in The Nordingra Passion altarpiece from Brussels , the reredos in Seven Sacraments , and the one in Philip the Good at Mass. The inverted “T” shape seems to be the typical form for the body of the Netherlandish carved reredos according to the surviving pieces. The elevation of the central section imitates the priest’s movement of consecration, when he lifts up the Host. In the early sixteenth century, the climax of the Mass is considered to be the Elevation of the Host instead of the reception of the mass, when the individual consume the wafer and drink the wine. The shape of the retable emphasizes the most dramatic moment of the ceremony visually.

The carved reredos might also function as a visual attraction that draws the congregation’s attention to the altar. The services are still said in Latin in early sixteenth century before the reform. The laity who does not know Latin would just sit through the ceremony not understanding what the priest is saying. Thus, having a visual companion that matches the content of the Mass help the lay congregation to concentrate on and to partake in the spiritual experience 7. Art’s chief function in the late medieval period is to educate and inform the illiterate people and to enrich their meditation. The retable in ROM depicts the story of Jesus’s birth in the manger, His circumcision, and the Adoration of the Magi. These narrative scenes help the viewer to concentrate on the idea that God became flesh and provide many details for meditation. Moreover, the scenes of adoration of the Virgin, the shepherds, and the Magi invite the spectators to do the same – to worship the Christ.
The carved altarpiece might very possibly have been gilded in gold and polychromed, though no trace of the original paint can to be found in the piece any more now8. Polychromy is referred to as an indispensable part of Netherlandish sculpted retables in the contracts between artists and their patrons. The unpainted altarpieces are considered as “rough” and “bare”, in other words, unfinished9. The piece in ROM is very likely one of the many wooden retables sold in the Pand market in Antwerp, where art works and other luxurious objects are displayed from 1460 to 1560. It is probably painted as it is in the case of the other uncommissioned ones that are made between 1400-1550. A polychromed piece is much more desirable than an unpainted one to the churchgoers in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, when the late medieval taste still prevails. The overall appearance of gold with primary colours such as red, blue, and white, makes altarpieces appear precious like jewels10. Abbot Suger, who is considered the patron of the first completely Gothic11 church, claims that beautiful and multicoloured gems can direct one’s meditation to the Divine and to the higher realms.

Almost simultaneous with the development of altarpieces, private devotion becomes very popular in northern Europe, especially among the laity. Growing numbers of small devotional images in the forms of diptyches, triptychs and multitychs, and the popularity of books of hours indicate a strong desire to confront God directly. The main purpose of artworks in this period of time is to aid the viewer in his meditation that he may experience the Divine. Therefore, a gilded and painted altarpiece with brilliant colours, which suggests a sense of preciousness, is helpful in leading the congregation who sit facing the retable to contemplate God.

Futhermore, to have the retable gilded using gold leaves marks the holiness of the altar, upon which the ritual of the Eucharist is performed. Gold is suggested to be a material that symbolizes God. In Song of Songs, the Shulamite describes her Beloved, who stands for the Lord: “His head is like the finest gold”. Furthermore, the retable being gilded in gold makes it appear in harmony with the other objects that are on the altar during the Mass, such as chalices, candlesticks, monstrance, which are made in gold also.

The standardisation of iconography, subject and the overall arrangement of the figures suggest that the retable in ROM as well as many surviving Netherlandish carved altarpieces are made for the open market without commissions. With a few exceptions, all Brabantine carved reredos of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries have an elevated centre, a similarity that is impossible to be overlooked14. Moreover, the subject matter restricts to only Infancy, Passion or the Life of the Virgin. The ROM retable shows the combination of the Infancy and the Life of the Virgin cycles. A Brussels altarpiece of 1510-15 depicting the Life of the Virgin has many similarities with the ROM piece. In both works, the Virgin sits on a throne in the middle; she is holding the Child, facing the viewer frontally. On her left kneels the oldest king; on her right another king dressed in exotic clothing. In the foreground, almost at the same spot lies the hat of the oldest king. However, there are obvious variations: the king on the right hand side of the virgin appears fatter in the Life of the Virgin Altarpiece than the one in the ROM retable; there are more characters in the ROM piece than the other one. These differences might be the result of the styles of individual carvers, but the overall design of the two scenes is very similar. These two retable might even come from the same workshop.

In the early sixteenth century, carved altarpieces become luxury goods rapidly produced by ateliers in Brussels and Antwerp. To quicken the process of making wood retables, chores are divided among many sculptors, joiners, and painters15. At less two different sculptors participate in the creative process of the ROM reredos. One artist carves the four angels standing around the Virgin in the Nativity. He might be responsible also for the two angels standing on the columns flanking the corpus and the Virgin and Child statueon top of the piece. The figures sculpted by him are elongated and their garments are in swaying movement. The other sculptor demonstrates more skills in carving details and the figures he makes are more rounded and their clothing has beautiful patterns. He might be in charge of carving the kings in the Adoration of the Magi. A third artist makes the shepherd standing at the right foreground; he might have come from Antwerp because of the twisting forms he applies to the figure. The repetition of the same design and the division of labour speed up the production of the retables, which are much sought after in the market in Antwerp. Furthermore, using patterns from model books can make the process easier. The group of Virgin worshipping the Child with four angels appears to be a direct quote from Hugo van der Goes’s famous Portinari Altarpiece, 1475. In both cases, the Virgin’s figure seems larger than others; the Child is lying on the ground and the angles are smaller than the human beings around them. The painting might be copied widely in the late fifteenth century and becomes one of the models in Borman’s shop.

The oak altarpiece in ROM might have served as a backdrop for the celebration of Mass, a visual explanation of the mystery of the Incarnation for the laity, and an aid for meditation. The development of the reredos is a result of a desire to confront God directly through contemplating beautiful objects. The ROM retable’s conventional subject matters, similar design to other contemporary piece and its very typical shape suggest that it might have been produced for the open market instead of on commission.

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