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Alexander Nagel

[Fr. postautel, retable; Ger. Altar, Altaraufsatz, Altarbild, Altarretabel, Altarrückwand, Retabel; It. ancona, dossale, pala (d’altare); Sp. retablo]

An image-bearing structure set on the rear part of the altar (see Altar, §II), abutting the back of the altarblock, or set behind the altar in such a way as to be visually joined with the altar when viewed from a distance. It is also sometimes called a retable, following the medieval term retrotabulum [retabulum, retrotabularium].

The altarpiece was never officially prescribed by the Church, but it did perform a prescribed function alternatively carried out by a simple inscription on the altarblock: to declare to which saint or mystery the altar was dedicated. In fact, the altarpiece did more than merely identify the altar; its form and content evoked the mystery or personage whose cult was celebrated at the altar. This original and lasting function influenced the many forms taken by the altarpiece throughout its history. Since the altarpiece was not prescribed by the Church, its form varied enormously. For this reason, it is often impossible, and historically inaccurate, to draw neat distinctions between the altarpiece and other elements occasionally associated with the altar apparatus. For example, movable statues, often of the Virgin and Child, were occasionally placed on altars according to ritual needs, and at those times fulfilled the function of the altarpiece....


Alison Manges Nogueira

Monumental, marble paschal Candlestick of the late 12th to early 13th century with reliefs signed by Nicolaus de Angelo and Vassallettus now in S Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome. The imposing column (h. 5.6 m), adorned with six registers of reliefs and surmounted by a fluted candle holder, rests upon a base of sculpted lions, sphinxes, rams and female figures. The upper and lower reliefs bear vegetal and ornamental patterns while the three central registers portray Christ before Caiaphas, the Mocking of Christ, Christ before Pilate, Pilate Washing his Hands, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Ascension. The culminating Easter scenes reflect the paschal candle’s function during the Easter season as a symbol of Christ resurrected, as evoked in an inscription on the base. A second fragmentary inscription refers to the unidentifiable patron’s desire for commemoration. A third inscription identifies Nicolaus de Angelo as the master sculptor and Petrus Vassallettus as playing a secondary role. Both were active in the second half of the 12th to the early 13th century and came from leading families of Roman sculptors: the Vassalletti and Cosmati (Nicolaus’s family). The candlestick is the only work signed by and securely attributed to Nicolaus and the scope of his contribution remains uncertain. A plausible theory attributes the base and first register to Petrus, based upon similarities to works signed by him and ascribed to his family, such as the cloister of S Giovanni in Laterano in Rome and the narthex of S Lorenzo fuori le Mura in Rome. Nicolaus probably executed the Christological scenes, distinguishable for their more dynamic, expressive figures and decorative chisel work, and appropriate for the master sculptor because of their centrality and significance. Early Christian sarcophagi and Carolingian ivories may have provided models for the figural types. This form of paschal candlestick was probably inspired by Roman columnar monuments carved with triumphal scenes....


Elizabeth C. Parker

Double-sided Latin cross (h. 577 mm, New York, Cloisters, 63.12) that is a masterpiece of Romanesque carving in walrus ivory. Its history is unknown before the 1950s, when it belonged to the art dealer Ante Topic-Mimara of Zagreb, formerly in Yugoslavia, from whom it was acquired for The Cloisters Collection by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1963. It is in excellent condition with the exception of the irregular break at the bottom of the shaft and the complete loss of the bottom terminal. These suggest wear caused from using different holders if it functioned both as a processional and an altar cross. Holes on the lower shaft and cross arm also suggest there was originally a corpus attached, despite the marked projection of the central roundel.

Some 99 figures and 66 biblical inscriptions in Latin enhance the unusually complex iconography of the cross. The obverse, characterized as the Tree of Life by truncated branches on the shaft and cross arms, depicts ...


V. Sekules

Temporary structure set up in church to simulate the place of Christ’s burial for a symbolic enactment of the Entombment and Resurrection. The Tomb of Christ and the later sacrament house, although also concerned with the bodily presence of Christ, belong to a separate tradition (see below). Special rites for Easter in which some kind of Easter sepulchre played a part are found in some 400 texts from medieval Europe. The earliest description is in the 10th-century English Regularis Concordia, according to which a cross wrapped in a linen shroud was placed in the sepulchre on Good Friday and guarded there until Easter Sunday by two or three brethren singing psalms continuously. The cross was removed from the sepulchre by the sacristan before Matins on Easter Sunday. During the service one of the brethren sat quietly by the sepulchre to represent the Angel of the Resurrection, while three others represented the Marys who found the sepulchre empty and announced the Resurrection. In this instance the sepulchre was described as a veil stretched in the form of a circle set beside the vacant part of the altar. This type of Easter sepulchre, a kind of tent, appears in the 12th-century wall paintings in the chancel at ...



John Thomas, Marina Falla Castelfranchi, Marchita Bradford Mauck, and Iris Kockelbergh

[Lat. fons: ‘spring’]

Object in which, or by which, baptism, the Christian rite of initiation, is practised. Evolving modes of liturgical practice, most notably the adoption of infant baptism (see §3 below), resulted in widely varying physical forms and positioning within the church.

John Thomas

According to Christian belief, John the Baptist baptized people in the River Jordan, washing them clean of sin. Jesus, however, told his followers that they must be reborn through baptism: ‘except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God’ (John 3:5). Christian baptism is thus a ritual dying and rebirth as a new person, entering the tomb of death (or the womb, for the second time) and being resurrected to a new life, sharing in the experiences of Christ, who himself suffered death but was reborn. The font, therefore, is an item of liturgical furniture, but it is also a physical symbol, embodying the ideas of death and rebirth. Some of the earliest fonts that have been identified were shaped like a coffin or tomb; others, being circular, approximated more to the womb. The numbers six and eight are found in early baptismal architecture, in the shape of either the font or the ...



Ulrike Liebl

Term applied to life-size wooden sculptures carved in the round and originally always painted, commemorating the entry of Christ into Jerusalem riding on an ass, as recounted in Matthew 21:1–11. There are also smaller palmesel statuettes made of wood, pewter, plaster or ivory that must have served a different function; there is some evidence that they were used as accompanying figures to the actual palmesel, or as toys.

From the Early Christian period, in the Eastern Churches, Christ’s entry into Jerusalem was commemorated on Palm Sunday by a solemn procession, which often resembled the ceremonial associated with the entry of a ruler into a city. In these processions a Gospel book or a consecrated Host was frequently carried as a symbol of Christ, and those taking part carried blessed palm branches and laid garments in the path of the procession. This practice was adopted in the Western Church by the 7th century, but in the Middle Ages the symbols were replaced by a live donkey or a wooden figure. The first documentary evidence of the use of a palmesel comes from a contemporary account dating from between 982 and 992 of the Life of St Ulrich of Augsburg (890–972; extract in Wiepen), but it is uncertain whether this was a three-dimensional figure or a painted image, such as those in use in Italy in the 11th century. Such palmesel processions appear to have been customary in ...



Barbara Watts

[It.: ‘pity’]

Devotional image of the Virgin Mary mourning the dead Christ, who lies across her lap. Occasionally other figures, such as St John the Evangelist or Joseph of Arimathea, grieve with her. The Pietà was a popular devotional subject in European painting and sculpture from the 13th century to the end of the 17th.

The subject is thematically related to the Crucifixion, the Descent from the Cross, and the Lamentation, but unlike these it is not a specific event from the Passion cycle. Thus, representations of the Pietà usually lack narrative elements such as the cross, the tomb, and other mourning figures. A related, but more hieratic, subject is the Man of Sorrows (imago pietatis; Lat. ‘image of pity’), in which the dead Christ, sometimes supported by Mary or angels and surrounded by the instruments of the Passion, is presented to the viewer for contemplation.

There are three general types of Pietà, differentiated by the position of Christ’s body. In early German representations it has a sharp diagonal axis, with the torso virtually upright, as in the ...



Iris Kockelbergh

[Lat. pulpitum: ‘platform’]

Raised structure from which a preacher delivers a sermon or religious exhortation in church. Its most important element is the casket, which sometimes rests on a pedestal or base, or may be suspended from a wall, and is approached by a flight of steps. A sound-board, positioned above the pulpit, was not introduced until after the 15th century. Figural and decorative ornament often comprises biblical scenes or iconography related to the pulpit’s function in the dissemination of Christian doctrine, such as the four Latin Doctors of the Church (e.g. 15th century; Burnham Norton, St Margaret). The placing of the pulpit within the church has varied according to the liturgy practised and the emphasis placed upon preaching (see Church, §II, 3, (i)).

The materials used are largely subject to regional variations. The earliest pulpits were of stone, commonly marble in Italy, painted sandstone in Germany, France, and the Netherlands, and limestone or ...



James Cordova and Claire Farago

Term that refers to handmade paintings and sculptures of Christian holy figures, crafted by artists from the Hispanic and Lusophone Americas. The term first came into widespread use in early 20th-century New Mexico among English-speaking art collectors to convey a sense of cultural authenticity. Throughout the Americas, the term imagenes occurs most frequently in Spanish historical documents. Santos are usually painted on wood panels (retablos) or carved and painted in the round (bultos). Reredos, or altarpieces, often combine multiple retablos and bultos within a multi-level architectural framework.

European Christian imagery was circulated widely through the Spanish viceroyalties in the form of paintings, sculptures, and prints, the majority of which were produced in metropolitan centres such as Mexico City, Antigua, Lima, and Puebla, where European- and American-born artists established guilds and workshops. These became important sources upon which local artists elsewhere based their own traditions of religious image-making using locally available materials such as buffalo hides, vegetal dyes, mineral pigments, and yucca fibres, commonly employed by native artists long before European contact....


Elizabeth Struthers Malbon

Early Christian carved stone Sarcophagus (Rome, Vatican, Mus. Stor. A. Tesoro S Pietro) of Roman city prefect Junius Bassus who, according to an inscription on the sarcophagus, was ‘neofitus’ (newly baptized) at his death in 359. It was originally placed near the tomb of St Peter and discovered in 1597.

This double-register, columnar sarcophagus of white marble (2.4×1.4×1.0 m) is carved with ten intercolumnar façade scenes of biblical characters in the ‘fine style’ and five spandrel scenes of biblical characters personified by lambs, with shallowly carved double-register harvest and season scenes on the two ends. The now-fragmented lid contains the remains of a verse inscription and two scenes, the most complete of which represents a funerary meal. Thus the Junius Bassus sarcophagus, one of only two extant double-register columnar Early Christian sarcophagi, presents a distinctive combination of carving styles and both Christian and Roman iconography.

The façade scenes on the upper register (under a level entablature) are: ...


David Alan Robertson

[Ger.: ‘carved altarpiece’]

Type of altarpiece produced primarily in Germany, Austria, and the Tyrol during the second half of the 15th century and the first two decades of the 16th. Related terms include Flügelaltar or Flügelretabel (both Ger.: ‘winged altarpiece’) and Wandelaltar (Ger.: ‘transforming’ or ‘changeable altarpiece’). Placed on both the high altar and side altars, and carved of native woods (mainly limewood and pine), Schnitzaltäre consist of four essential sections: a central shrine (Ger. Schrein; Lat. and Ger. Corpus) containing sculpture rests on a smaller shrine commonly referred to by the Italian term predella (Ger. Sarg); movable pairs of shutters or wings (Ger. Flügel), bearing either paintings or relief carvings on both front and back, are attached to the shrine and to the predella; and the shrine is always crowned with an architecture-like superstructure (Ger. Auszug) consisting of carved tracery and sculpture niches. Most examples are profusely coloured and gilded. The altarpiece in the Klosterkirche of ...


In its most general sense, spolia (pl., from Lat. spolium: ‘plunder’) denotes all artifacts re-employed in secondary contexts, from building blocks reused in a wall to pagan gems mounted on a Christian reliquary. It is a matter of debate whether this broad application of the term is justified, or whether it should be restricted to the relatively small subset of reused objects that were taken or ‘stripped’ (like spoils) from their original context, rather than found, purchased, inherited or otherwise acquired by non-violent means. It is likewise debated when the use of spolia should be considered meaningful, if at all. Arnold Esch defined five possible motives for using spolia: convenience, profanation, Christianization, political legitimation and aesthetic attraction. Michael Greenhalgh has argued for reducing the motives to three (at least with regard to marble): pragmatism, aesthetics and ideology; while Finbarr Barry Flood cautioned against reductive interpretations generated by any taxonomy, insisting that reused objects are mutable in meaning and capable of multiple interpretations during their life cycle....


William M. Voelkle

Portable altar–reliquary (New York, Morgan Lib.), made c. 1156 for the Stavelot Abbey in the Ardennes, Belgium and decorated with both Mosan and Byzantine enamels (see fig.). The reliquary is named after the Benedictine abbey headed by Wibald of Stavelot, its enlightened abbot from 1130 to 1158. It is the first of a series of Mosan reliquary triptychs containing portions of the True Cross. Of these, only the Stavelot Triptych contains scenes from the life of Constantine and the legend of the finding of the True Cross by Empress Helena, his mother. Although two commissions by Wibald are documented (the St Remaclus Retable, destroyed during the French Revolution, and the Head Reliquary of Pope Alexander of 1145; Brussels, Musées Royaux A. & Hist.), the Stavelot Triptych is not. Wibald may have been given both the cross relic and the two small Byzantine enamel triptychs displayed on the centre panel of the Stavelot Triptych during his diplomatic mission (...