National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: The Netherlands and France in the 1500s

« back to gallery

Much of this tour is made up of paintings that are disassembled parts of church altarpieces. Altarpieces began to appear in the twelfth century. After priests in the Latin church of western Europe began to stand in front of the altar when saying mass, a space was created on the altar for elaborate reliquaries or, lacking important relics to display, for a dramatic painted backdrop. Large assemblages of painted and gilded wooden panels, some more than twenty-feet high, became the focus of church decoration. Altarpieces, and with them the art of painting on wooden panels, gained new prominence and began to attract the greatest artists.

The forms of altarpieces varied. In Italy and Spain, for example, an altarpiece commonly included a predella, a horizontal area below the central image where several small narrative scenes from the life of Christ or a saint could be illustrated. In northern Europe, the altar’s central image was normally covered except on Sundays and feast days by hinged doors, which were decorated inside and out with many different scenes. In Germany especially, altars often included elaborate groups of painted and gilded wooden statues.

Altarpieces helped to explain basic tenets of faith, especially Christ’s human incarnation and the role of the saints as intercessors for people’s prayers. Many also focused on the eucharist, the central mystery of the mass, which took place on the altar, linking through their imagery the blood of Christ with the communion wine and its promise of redemption. After the Reformation in the early 1500s, altarpieces in some areas were destroyed by Protestant iconoclasts concerned about idolatry. But in Catholic regions altarpieces continued to be made, and their emotional appeal was an important tool of the Counter-Reformation.

Artist, Workshop, and Guild

Large altarpieces were important commissions. Financed by the church or by cities, professional guilds, lay religious confraternities, or wealthy individuals, they required the resources of an artist’s entire workshop. The master artist determined the design, contracting with the patron about subject matter, symbolism, and the use of precious materials, such as the costly blue paints made of lapis lazuli. The master trained and was assisted by journeymen and apprentices, who often painted the backgrounds and secondary figures. In some busy workshops, much of the painting was carried out by these assistants. Specialists prepared the wood panels and frames and applied gold leaf. Other helpers included the master’s young sons or, more rarely, his unmarried daughters.

Compensation and working conditions were determined by the rules of the painters’ guilds. Guilds served social and charitable functions. More important, they regulated trade, set standards, and limited competition. In many cities only master artists could sell works for profit. The number of apprentices was limited both to ensure the quality of instruction and to avoid producing more artists than the community could support.

« back to gallery