The Passion Altarpiece

As I said earlier I’m continuing with my Open University BA, with the course AA315 Renaissance Art Reconsidered.

As part of the course you have to do an independent essay on a piece of work that you have access to and covers part of the course content.

Luckily enough I have Bowes Museum close by and they have a selection of Renaissance works but my favourite artefact is the one pictured above.

The carvings and paintings are very detailed and work through from the arrest of Christ to his resurrection with a lot of the story being told in the carvings.

This is a religious piece of art made for a church and known as a retable or altarpiece. It was used as a screen that went behind the altar of a church so that the congregation could see the religious scenes depicted. The sheer size and detail of the piece show how important the images were thought to be.

The central panel is made of oak and has been intricately carved in the form of the head of a cross, with scenes of the passion and death of Christ. The scenes represented from left to right are: the scourging of Christ; the Carrying of the Cross; the Crucifixion; the Deposition and the Entombment. Six painted panels form the wings and these show the other significant events in Christ’s life, including the Nativity and the Resurrection.

Master of the View of St Gudule (active c.1465 – 1500) The Passion Altarpiece c.1480 – 1485 Oil on panel 241 x 585.5 cm Flemish school
Master of the View of St Gudule (active c.1465 – 1500)
The Passion Altarpiece c.1480 – 1485
Oil on panel
241 x 585.5 cm
Flemish school

The passion, death and resurrection of Christ were held in the highest regard in the Medieval Church and it was important that all Christians knew the story. However, lots of people in church congregations could not read and write and so religious artwork was vital in reinforcing ordinary people’s understanding of the Christian faith. The sheer scale and detail of this altarpiece and the highly visible location it had in church would have ensured that even if members of the congregation could not understand the Latin read out in the service, the paintings and images in front of them could still help them in their worship.