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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....



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 ...




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 ...


Gordon Campbell



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 ...



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)....





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 ...


Jacques Heyman and Francis Woodman

A slender, turret-like projection employed universally as an architectural feature, particularly associated with Gothic architecture from the 13th to the 16th centuries, where it was used decoratively on such features as parapets and gables, and with some structural purpose on buttresses.

Jacques Heyman

A pinnacle placed on a buttress provides stability at the head of the pier, counteracting the tendency towards sliding failure caused by the force exerted on the pier by the flier. The relatively small weight of a pinnacle increases the frictional force along the potential lines of slip, effectively locking the stones together. The pinnacle can do little to prevent a buttress from overturning completely under the action of the thrust delivered by the flier. In fixing the stability of the head of the pier, the line of action of the pinnacle is immaterial, so that it can be placed towards the outside of the main buttress, where its small effect on the overall stability will be even further diminished....


Victor M. Schmidt

[Gr. polyptychos: ‘of or with many folds’]

Type of object with several panels, usually an altarpiece, although it may also fulfil other functions. The polyptych normally consists of a central panel with an even number of side-panels, which are sometimes hinged to fold. Although in principle every object with two panels or more may be called a polyptych, the word is normally used as a general term for anything larger than a Triptych. As with diptychs and triptychs, the size, and material can vary.

In the plural form polyptycha the word was used in late Classical and medieval Latin to describe account-books or registers. It may therefore be assumed that in Antiquity diptychs, in their original function as writing-tablets, were extended with additional hinged panels, so as to form polyptych-like structures. Such foldable objects existed in Byzantine painting as calendar icons from the 11th century onwards (examples in Sinai, monastery of St Catherine). In Russia during the 16th and 17th centuries multi-panelled portable ...




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 ...



Nigel Gauk-Roger

[It.: ‘sacred conversation’]

Term applied to a type of religious painting, depicting the Virgin and Child flanked on either side by saints, which developed during the 15th and 16th centuries and is associated primarily with the Italian Renaissance. The specific characteristics of the genre are that the figures, who are of comparable physical dimensions, seem to co-exist within the same space and light, are aware of each other and share a common emotion. This relationship is conveyed, with greater or lesser emphasis, by gesture and expression. The compositions are usually frontal and centralized, and are distinguished by an aura of stillness and meditation.

In late medieval and early Renaissance art Central Italian polyptychs had generally consisted of a main panel of the Virgin and Child enthroned, flanked by smaller panels showing individual figures of saints; large altarpieces often had small scenes of related narrative below (predellas) and sometimes also above. Usually the panels were divided and surrounded by a frame of a consistent architectonic pattern. Main and lesser figures were differentiated in terms of size and, set against a gold background, seemed to exist beyond space and time....


[revestry; vestry]

Storeroom in a church used for sacred vessels and ecclesiastical vestments.

H. W. van Os: Vecchietta and the Sacristy of the Siena Hospital Church: A Study in Renaissance Religious Symbolism (The Hague, 1974) L. Hamlett: ‘The Sacristy of San Marco, Venice: Form and Function Illuminated’, Art History, 32(3) (June 2009), pp. 458–84...


Elaine DeBenedictis

[Lat.: ‘school of singers’]

Term applied to nave chancels in medieval Roman churches on the basis of a supposed association with the eponymous body of papal chanters brought to renown by Pope Gregory I (reg 590–604). This association originates in the misinterpretation of a 16th-century description of S Clemente by Ugonio and was current by the 18th century. Although there is no evidence for the term being used in a topographical sense in the Middle Ages, it is nevertheless possible to trace the changing function and form of nave chancels from the Early Christian period to the 16th century (see Rome, §V, 17(iii)(d)).

The only extant source for the liturgical practice of Early Christian Rome is the Ordo Romanus, vol. 1, which comprises the rubrics for a 7th-century papal stational mass. The text refers to a presbyterium, which can probably be identified with the rectangular nave enclosure in front of the altar. During a stational mass the enclosure served as the locus of the clergy and probably of the papal choir; it may also have been used for offertory and communion rites. The precise function or functions of the presbyterium in the rites of non-stational liturgies remain uncertain. Although the liturgical disposition of Roman churches changed in the 9th century, this did not affect most presbyteries, which were simply re-decorated, thus retaining their earlier size, shape, and location. The ...