Research and Experimentation: Altarpiece

An altarpiece is a type of religious art with a mixed media approach such as painting or sculpture. Altarpieces are often suspended above an altar in a Christian church and are grand, suggesting power and wealth. Altarpieces were most popular from the late middle ages to the era of the counter-reformation.

Many altarpieces would depict a series of saints in rows, with a central figure such as the Virgin Mary or Christ. Painted panel altars emerged in the 13th century and turned altarpieces into a mural of various different paintings serving to function as visual complements for the liturgy. These altarpieces were influenced by Byzantine art and the frames often took inspiration from contemporary Gothic architecture. Depending on where the altarpiece frame was designed, they would either be made in wood or stone.

The altarpiece is a grand object, iconifying religious figures and allowing us to gaze our eyes on their beauty. They are objects of power and importance, which is largely why I am aiming to use the altarpiece within my project. Due to the nature of the altarpiece its production declined in northern Europe during the protestant reformation in the early 16th century. Whereas catholic altarpieces would depict saints, Christ and the virgin in all their grandeur, protestant altarpieces often appropriated actual words from the bible instead of pictures.

There are various types of altarpieces, early on it was common for altarpieces to exist of two or more panels, opening and closing. These panels would tell a story of a certain saint, martyr or the life of Christ himself. During the Renaissance era, single panel altarpieces or pala became most common.

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Byzantine Altarpiece

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Byzantine altarpieces are one of the earliest examples of altarpiece composition and design. Such altarpieces appeared on one panel with various sections, the painters would paint the figures directly onto the gold painted altarpiece. Structurally, the altarpieces would appear with almost roof like shapes such as triangles, referencing the popular church architecture of the time.

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Panel Altarpiece

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Multiple panel altarpieces were most popular in the Netherlands and Germany. These decorative altarpieces would often be displayed above an altar and would only be open during a feast or holiday. Multi panel altarpieces allowed the artist to depict the story of a specific events in what appears to be like acts or sections. Such altarpieces mimicked the Gothic architecture.

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Single Panel or Pala Altarpiece

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Single panel altarpieces or pala emerged during the renaissance period in Italy. Palas turned their back on the traditional format of the altarpiece, instead the altarpiece depicted a single image and was not painted directly onto the altarpiece but separately on canvas. While altarpieces often replicated Gothic architecture, the pala embraced renaissance architecture and was seen as a more modern form of altarpiece.

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Open Ghent Altarpiece

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Closed Ghent Altarpiece

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Resposne to Altarpiece Research

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