A painting (more rarely a sculpture) placed on, behind, or above an altar in a Christian church. Altarpieces vary greatly in size, construction, and number of images (diptych, triptych, and polyptych). Some are small and portable; some (known as a retable or reredos – there is no clear distinction) are fixed.
A typical Italian altarpiece has a large central panel, flanked by subsidiary panels, with a predella, or strip of scenes, across the bottom. Spanish altarpieces tend to be architecturally elaborate retables. A popular form in northern Europe was the winged altarpiece, in which outer wings are hinged so that they can be closed to cover the centre panel; the backs of the panels are usually painted in a less elaborate fashion.
Outstanding altarpieces include Duccio's Maestà (1308–11, Cathedral Museum, Siena), Mathias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece (c. 1515, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar), and Jan van Eyck's Adoration of the Lamb (1432, St Bavon, Ghent).
Few altarpieces survived the Reformation in Britain.
Gothic altarpieces From a pictorial point of view it became important during the Gothic period as an alternative to wall painting, partly because the diminished wall space of the Gothic church offered fewer opportunities for large-scale decoration, but also as the result of a growing desire for realistic representation, better achieved on a comparatively small scale. It often consisted of a set of hinged and folding panels, painted on either side. Large polyptychs in elaborate Gothic frames, several storeys high and divided into a number of compartments, formed the retables that gave a special character to Spanish churches. An ancestral form of the easel picture, it ultimately became an oil painting on canvas let into the wall behind the altar.
Mantegna, Andrea The Ascension of Christ into Heaven
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