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Article

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....

Article

Pietà  

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 ...

Article

Santos  

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....

Article

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 (...