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Renaissance miracles - David Ekserdjian

Blog | By David Ekserdjian | Sep 29, 2022

David Ekserdjian’s favourite altarpiece: Giovanni Bellini’s Virgin and Child with Four Saints (1505), San Zaccaria, Venice. The altar table is below

For over 300 years, Italian painters produced the finest altarpieces in the world, says David Ekserdjian

Most art forms – like Miss Jean Brodie (and the rest of us) – have their primes.

They may then stagger on, growing gradually more feeble, while still enjoying occasional highs that match their former glories, but their best days are behind them.

Very occasionally, as with the epic poem, their reign can last for millennia. But as a rule, managing to hang in there for two or three hundred years is pretty good going.

Take the symphony, which held sway from Haydn and Mozart in the second half of the 18th century until Sibelius and Vaughan Williams in the first half of the 20th.

The heyday of the altarpiece lasted roughly from the late-13th century until the early-17th. It was above all an Italian triumph in the field of painting.

No doubt I am a teeny bit biased, since I have a doorstop of a book coming out this month on the subject of the Italian renaissance altarpiece. But a handful of absolute masterpieces north of the Alps – the Van Eyck Ghent Altarpiece, Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece and one or two others – cannot begin to hold their own against the sheer abundance and variety of what Italy has to offer.

That said, in the field of sculptural altarpieces – above all, in wood – northerners like Tilman Riemenschneider and Veit Stoss are streets ahead of the spaghetti-eating competition.

The altarpiece’s religious function – to sit above the altar table and form a backdrop to the daily miracle of the mass – remains basically unchanged, even after the Council of Trent (1545-63). But, excitingly, both its format and style are subject to extraordinary transformations over time.

By 1300 or so, the grandest altarpieces tended to be elaborately compartmentalised – polyptych is the term used by art historians. That meant they could display a large cast of characters and/or a whole array of stories. The latter often came in the form of a kind of visual footnote, a predella, at the base of the main field. The whole was set against a gold-leaf background, presumably to evoke heaven.

Within this broad conception, a combination of the simple physical scale of the various figures and their proximity to – or distance from – the centre made it very clear where they stood in the altarpiece’s hierarchy. Tellingly, at that early date, mere donors tend to be ant-like in their subordination.

In the early-15th century, however, the rise of scientific perspective made two interlinked ideas – locating the figures within a believable three-dimensional space and replacing the gold backdrop with a naturalistic one – all but irresistible.

Regardless of whether the setting was predominantly architectural or outdoor, the holy personages truly seemed to inhabit this new world, and they too were incomparably more realistic in their appearance. Regardless of whom they represent within the fiction of the painting, they were based on the observation of actual people.

Over time, life drawing from the nude model was added to the repertoire, sometimes even when the final figure was to be clothed. What is more, very considerable numbers of preliminary drawings were commonly produced, not only to devise the poses of the actors but also to plan compositions.

Consequently, the standard altarpiece type – which assembled a group of saints within a unified space around the Madonna and the Christ Child – had to be understood as representing a gathering beyond time, rather than as a painted snapshot of an actual event, since the protagonists had often lived centuries apart.

At the same time, there was a gradual rise in the number of altarpieces given over to narratives as opposed to these iconic gatherings.

As the 16th century progressed, more and more subjects from the New Testament and from the lives of a whole host of saints were explored. There is a tendency to refer to these works as narratives. To the extent to which that term conjures up notions of the passage of time and one-thing-after-another-ness, it is misleading. Almost without fail, what is shown is a frozen moment – even on occasion to the extent of the severed head of Saint John the Baptist being depicted in mid-air on its way to the ground.

The most bizarre altarpieces are neither straightforwardly iconic nor purely narrative. They instead are the ones that in the renaissance tended to be called ‘mysteries’.

They may focus on types of the Virgin, such as the Madonna of the Rosary or of the Immaculate Conception, or doctrinal subjects, such as the Mystic Mill and the Mystic Wine Press. In the peculiarly gruesome latter, Christ is portrayed being crushed by the wine press and the streams of his blood are then collected, from the pool that receives them, into chalices.

In all cases, the challenge was to retain the richness and complexity of the polyptych within a single-field altarpiece. Artists demonstrated immense ingenuity in their endeavours to square that particular circle. They invented ways of compensating for the demise of the predella by siting its personnel either in the middle distance or at the base of the picture field in a kind of no-man’s-land between their world and ours.

Altarpieces were also works of art. Their creators – for all that this tends to be slightly forgotten – were often gleefully aware of their importance within the scheme of things.

There is a hilarious inscription on an altarpiece by one of the looniest of the lot, a minor but compellingly unique artist called Niccolò Alunno. It names the late patron, a lady called Brisida. It adds that its artist is Niccolò Alunno, ‘the fine crown of his native city of Foligno’, before concluding, ‘But who, O reader, deserved more in your judgement, I ask, when Brisida gave the reason, he the hand?’

Perhaps in some parallel universe they broadcast a programme called Desert Island Altarpieces. In that case, I am happy not to live there, because choosing my eight favourites would be a hell of a job.

Funnily enough, I wouldn’t find the ‘If you could keep just one’ element much of a problem. Whenever I go to Venice – and it has been a while – and however briefly I am there, I engage in a lagoon-based equivalent of throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain in Rome to guarantee my return.

I make sure I pay my respects to Giovanni Bellini’s Virgin and Child with Four Saints in the church for which it was painted, San Zaccaria, handily close to Piazza San Marco. It is signed and dated 1505. Although there is no record of precisely when Giovanni was born (probably in the early-1430s), we do know that, a year later, in 1506, the great Albrecht Dürer wrote home to Nuremberg and said of him, ‘He is very old and still the best in painting.’

Dürer knew a good thing when he saw one. In my experience, San Zaccaria is never exactly pullulating with other tourists – so I cannot recommend the pilgrimage too highly.

David Ekserdjian is the author of The Italian Renaissance Altarpiece (Yale University Press)