Devotional Altarpieces

A new approach to religious subject matter emerged in Northern Europe in the 15th century, in a region known as Flanders (also referred to as the Netherlands).  Here, painters discovered a new medium (oil painting) that enabled them to render the natural world with unprecedented clarity and detail.

The Burgundian Netherlands (map: National Gallery of Art)
The Burgundian Netherlands (map: National Gallery of Art)

As in Florence in the 14th century, a major impetus for this new style of painting was economic prosperity, and a shift in patronage from the church to private individuals. Antwerp and Bruges were thriving centers of banking and trade, and this economic prosperity gave rise to a new class of wealthy bankers and merchants whose worldly interests encouraged artists to explore religious subject matter in an entirely new way. Portraiture also emerged as a major art form during this period, reflecting the growing self-awareness and pride of this new patron class.

Northern Renaissance:  The Supreme Art 1/3 (BBC Documentary)

Oil Paint
One of the great discoveries of Flemish painters in the 15th century was oil paint.  Until this new discovery, fresco and tempera were the only painting mediums available.  Amongst the advantages of oil paint were its slower drying time (allowing the artist to work longer), and its capacity to be applied in thin translucent layers, which made it possible to build up deep luminous tones and much more subtle gradations of light to dark.  The oil painting medium made the extraordinary realism of Flemish painting possible.

Learn more:  Tempera versus Oil Paint, The Renaissance Connection

The discovery of oil paint made it possible for artists to replace the symbolic gold backgrounds of their religious paintings with natural settings rendered with astonishing detail.  Watch this video about the difference between religious altarpieces of the middle ages, and the new approach introduced by artists in the 15th century:

The Norfolk Triptych, c. 1415-20, oil on panel, 33.1 x 16.35 x 2.85 cm (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Speaker: Friso Lammertse, Curator of Old Master paintings, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Video from ARTtube, video platform of Dutch and Belgian museums (source).

Piety and Prayer:  Devotional Altarpieces
Most of the art that was produced in this region took the form of devotional altarpieces, which were made to oder for private individuals, rather than the Church.  Prosperous merchants and bankers commissioned diptychs (two-panel altarpieces) and triptychs (three-panel altarpieces) for private prayer in the home.   While these works expressed the deep religious piety of their donors, they were also a way to display worldly status and wealth. In spite of their religious subject matter and pious appearance, therefore, these devotional works also reflect a growing Humanist outlook that departed from the strictly spiritual focus of the middle ages.

Hans Memling, Virgin and Child with Maarten van Nieuwenhove, 1487

This an example of the kind of devotional diptych private patrons commissioned for private use in the home.  Painted on carefully prepared wooden panels, the piece is hinged so that it can be opened and closed like a book.  The diptych could be placed open on a table top, or closed for transport (in case the owner wanted to take it on a business trip!)

The interior panels usually include an image of the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ, with a portrait of the owner (called a “donor portrait”) in pious prayer.  Painted in extraordinarily rich detail (made possible by the new oil painting medium), the pictures are typically filled with disguised symbols that infuse the everyday world with religious meaning.

In this image, the patron, Martin Van Niewenhoven, is pictured in a richly appointed interior, praying piously towards an image of the Virgin and Child in the adjacent panel. Although the earthly and divine characters are divided by the panels, they are nevertheless connected by ingenious devices:  the Virgin’s red robe spills out of her picture frame into his, while a reflection of the donor can be seen in the mirror behind the Virgin’s shoulder. This intermingling of the earthly and divine worlds is at the center of the new Humanist approach to religion:

“As Humanism became more popular during the Renaissance, ordinary people grew to be the same size as saints in paintings and saints began to look more like ordinary people . . . In the Middle Ages it was common for artists to represent figures of heaven against a gold background, a symbol for the beauty and value of the atmosphere of heaven. As Renaissance artists experimented with new Humanist ideas, the natural landscape began to appear as a background in paintings. Saints left their golden atmosphere to occupy the same gardens, forests and buildings that everyday people lived in.”
Humanism in the Renaissance 

But this painting isn’t only about the donor’s devotion to Mary; its also all about his own sense of pride and accomplishment.  His motto and coat of arms decorates the window in the Virgin’s chamber, as if to suggest that she is a guest in his own home.  Such a close and intimate relationship between divinity and an earthly mortal would never have been seen in the middle ages!

Learn more:  Prayers and Portraits:  Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych (NGA)


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