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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

Diptych  

Nigel J. Morgan

Two wood, ivory, or metal panels of equal size, usually hinged together so that they can be folded, and closed with some form of clasp. There are usually images on the inside surfaces of the panels and sometimes also on the outer sides. The panels are most commonly vertical rectangles; Gothic examples often have gables, while those from the 15th century may be round-headed.

The diptych as a work of art seems to have originated in Late Antique ivory-carving as a luxury form of writing tablet. These ivories have carved images on the exterior faces, while a sunken field inside could be filled with wax for writing on with a stylus. Such objects commonly functioned as gifts from the imperial consuls at the beginning of their term of office. They were carved with an image of either the consul or the ruling emperor, seated or standing in an attitude of authority and sometimes presiding over such activities as wild beast fights. These ...

Article

Dossal  

Article

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 ...

Article

Gordon Campbell

Article

Font  

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 ...

Article

Icon  

Richard Temple

[Gr. eikon: ‘image’]

Wooden panel with a painting, usually in tempera, of a holy person or one of the traditional images of Orthodox Christianity (see fig.), the religion of the Byzantine empire practised today mainly in Greece and Russia (see Early Christian and Byzantine art, §VI, and Post-Byzantine art, §II, 1). The word also has a range of related but disparate meanings, from the abstract and philosophical to the purely literal. For example, it is still used in modern Greek to mean an image or picture in the ordinary sense. In antiquity, Platonists and Neo-Platonists held that the material, earthly world reflects, or is the image of, the higher and divine cosmos; the Old Testament provides the theme of man as the icon of God in the temple of the world; and St Paul declared that ‘Christ is the icon of God’ (2 Corinthians 4:4). Thus the idea of the icon is associated with cosmology and the theology of the Incarnation. In the Early Christian period, disputes over such questions as whether or not God can be known or depicted or the invisible can be seen were part of an intense debate surrounding the acceptability, meaning and function of images of Christ. All this was bound up with the complex questions of Christology that exercised the best minds of the period. Whole communities and nations were divided into Orthodox and heretics over the problem of defining the two natures of Christ, the relationship between his humanity and his divinity. The theory and belief system of icons was developed by theologians between the 4th and the 9th centuries, though only a few icons survive from then and up to the 12th century. Once established, however, the doctrinal principles never changed, and the study of icons is as much a matter of theology as of art. Subject-matter, form and composition did not deviate from the established dogma on which they depended; indeed, icons have been called theology in colour (Trubetskoy)....

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Article

Lavra  

Article

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 ...