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The iconography of the Antwerp altarpiece


One thing is the adoration of an image, another thing is to learn what to adore from the story rendered by the image. For what the scripture teaches those who read, this same the image shows to those who cannot read but see; because in it even the ignorant see whom they ought to follow, in the image those who do not know letters are able to read. 

St Gregory, Ep Xl:131 Sixten Ringbom, Icon to Narrative, ACTA Academiae Aboensis ser.A., 1967, p. 11, fn.2.   

According to tradition, the Antwerp altarpiece – a didactic edifice for the contemplation of the faithful – belonged to a Beguine Convent at Tongres. The van der Straten family acquired the altarpiece before 1871, housing it in the chapel of their Chateau at Ponthoz. Unfortunately, sometime before 1880, the original order of the painted panels was tampered with, probably when they were transferred from oak to plywood supports; and three small sculptured groups representing Christ before Herod, Descent from the Cross and Entombment have been lost since its acquisition by the Gallery in 1935. 

Writing on the painted wings in the catalogue to the exhibition of the altarpiece in Antwerp and Victoria, Perier-D’ieteren concludes that it is an ‘eclectic work’ and that its execution is of ‘secondary quality’! By showing certain analogies with representations from the Häverö and Hökuvud altarpieces, the author infers that this altarpiece was ‘put together’ in a workshop from a repertory of available representations. Although one may agree that the painted panels are of ‘secondary quality’.2 C. Pierier-D’ieteren, Catalogue of the Exhibition of the Antwerp Altarpiece in Antwerp and National Gallery of Victoria, ASLK, 1983, p. 108. the carving of the figures shows ingenuity and the compositional devices give strong impact to the various scenes. Moreover, a definite iconographical scheme unites both the exterior and the interior: namely the eucharist, its institution and its two aspects of the Real Presence and the Sacrifice. 

The etymology of the word ‘eucharist’ can be traced to the Hebrew berakoth which is translated in Greek as eucharistia.3 Louis Boyer, Eucharist, tr. Charles Underhill Quinn, University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana, 1968, p. 29. In Jewish usage, it is a form of liturgical praise or blessing of God which is accompanied by a ‘breaking of bread’ before the official beginning of the Passover meal or any other Holy Day meals. During the ‘Last Supper’ Jesus followed this tradition but while ‘blessing’ he spoke the words of institution, ‘This is my body … this is my blood … Do this in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22 v. 17–20). This action gave to the sacred rite the name eucharist.4 C. Bernas, ‘Eucharist (Biblical Data)’, The New Catholic Encyclopaedia V, Mcgraw Hill Book Company, New York, pp. 594–5. Later this word came to designate the sacred elements of bread and wine which were offered to God. 

 

Whereas, visually, the body of Christ in the form of eucharist species – host and wine – is the centre of attraction on the exterior, the figure of Christ on the cross dominates the interior. The latter represents Christ offering Himself on the cross in a bloody manner, the former shows the same victim offered in a mass in an unbloody manner.16 Joseph Martos, Doors to the Sacred, p. 286. Thus exterior and interior are bound together not only iconographically but also visually. A definite association between the Adoration of the Magi and the eucharist existed in the pictorial and literary traditions of the Middle Ages as has been convincingly demonstrated by Ursula Nilgen in ‘The Epiphany and the Eucharist’.17 Ursula Nilgen, ‘The Epiphany and the Eucharist: on the interpretation of Eucharist motifs in Medieval Epiphany scenes’, tr. Renate Franciscono, Art Bulletin 49, 1967, pp. 311–16.The arrival of the magi with their gifts to adore the Christ Child (living bread) at the manger (altar) was seen as the prototype of the congregation coming to the altar to offer the mass, and receive the precious gifts of bread and wine. This inference became more obvious from the 13th century onwards when the vessels containing the gifts of the magi took the shape of liturgical vessels such as the Pyxis, Monstrance and Ciborium as seen in the altar of St Peter by Konrad Witz. Moreover, the offering of tithes by Abraham to Melchizedek (Genesis 14 v.21) has been seen as the prototype of the magis offering.18 ibid., p. 314, fn. 28. Thus the Meeting of Melchizedek and Abraham prefigures the Adoration of the Magi as well as the institution of the eucharist as mentioned previously. Hence the representation of the Meeting of Melchizedek and Abraham on the exterior and the Adoration of the Magi in the interior establishes a closer relation between the eucharist and the Adoration of the Magi and links the exterior and the interior of the altarpiece. The Ascension of Christ and the Pentecost (descent of the Holy Ghost) in the interior are also related to the theme of eucharist. The ascension into heaven was the consummation of the sacrifice of Christ and was essential for the descent of the Holy Ghost. Christ Himself declared to His disciples: ‘It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you’ (John 16, v.7). According to Jacobus de Voragine, the Holy Ghost is not only ‘the remission of sins’ but also that which ‘enseigned and teached [sic] the hearts of the disciples to know the mystery of this holy sacrament [eucharist]’and for this reason Pope Urban IV chose ‘the first Thursday after the octaves of Pentecost’ to celebrate the feast of the Holy Sacrament (the festival of Corpus Christi).19 Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend , vol. 1, tr. William Caxton, ed. F. S. Ellis, Ams Press, New York, 1973, pp. 143–4.There is also a unified appearance in the drawing of all the wings.20 C. Perier-D’ieteren, Catalogue, 1983, p. 108. In addition, the decorative use of blue and red, the predominant colours, links the panels while the blue, pink and golden yellow unify the painted surfaces and carved figures.

 

During the Middle Ages, the growing sense of Christ’s miraculous presence in the eucharist increased the worshippers’ devotion. The Feast of Corpus Christi (the body of Christ) was officially established by Pope Urban IV in 1264, but the feast originated in the Diocese of Liege in the Netherlands where Julienne, Prioress of Mont-Cornillion, instigated it in honour of the sacrament. It is also significant that the devotion to the eucharist became characteristic of the Beguine movement in Belgium. 

As already noted, a tradition relates that the Gallery’s altarpiece belonged to the Beguine Convent in Tongres. When one considers the nature of its subject, that is, the eucharist, the partiality of Beguine nuns towards eucharistic devotion21 Ernest W. McDonnell, The Beguines and Beghards in Medieval Culture, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, 1954, p. 312. and also its pictorial and iconographical coherence, one may speculate that this tradition may be true after all. Is it not possible that the iconography of the altarpiece was masterminded by the one who commissioned it, while another – the craftsman – supervised the drawing and pictorial unity; so that it was not as has been suggested ‘one of the many non-commissioned altarpieces, intended for display in the Antwerp ‘pand’ (market place) or stocked with a dealer, awaiting a client’.22 C. Perier-D’ieteren, Catalogue, 1983, p. 109. 

In the Last Supper, painted on the exterior, Christ is shown in the act of blessing, which clearly signifies the institution of the eucharist. Other dramatic events relating to the betrayal of Judas usually depicted are ignored. The Last Supper is prefigured in the altarpiece by the Meeting of Melchizedek and Abraham from the Old Testament, in which Melchizedek, the king and priest as the prefiguration of Christ (Hebrews 6 v.20) offers bread and wine to Abraham (Genesis 14, v.18-20). Abraham receives this offering with humility and respect as a communicant, on bended knee with his hat removed. 

The two important aspects of the eucharist are the real presence, or transubstantiation, and the sacrifice. The former is the belief that ‘the body and blood of Jesus Christ are really and substantially present under the consecrated species of bread and wine as the spiritual food of the Christian’.5 W. F. Dewan, ‘Eucharist (as Sacrament)’, The New Catholic Encyclopedia V, p. 599. The latter conception is of bread and wine as the sacramental representation of the sacrifice of the cross. The words of Christ during the institution of the eucharist, ‘My body which is given for you’, ‘My blood, which is shed for you,’ interprets His death as a sacrifice He Himself made to the Father on behalf of men.6 Yngue Brilioth, Eucharist faith and practice, Evangelical and Catholic, tr. A. G. Herbert, The Macmillan Company, Great Britain, 1930, p. 43.This sacrifice is represented in the interior, whereas the transubstantiation is dealt with in the Mass of St Gregory which occupies the large space in the centre of the exterior. This depicts one of the many variations of a legend popular in the first quarter of the 15th century in which the wine was miraculously transformed into blood during a mass offered by St Gregory thus dispelling doubts regarding the real presence of Christ in the species.7 Gertrude Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art II, tr. Janet Seligman, Lund Humphries, London 1972, pp. 226–8. The iconography of transubstantiation is further strengthened by its visual representation. The light emanating from Christ forms a circle of illumination around Him, creating the form of a Host (Latin word for sacrificial victim), while the figure of Christ set against a section of the Cross emphasises His real presence in the host. Moreover, beneath this group is the cup containing wine, miraculously turned into blood. Thus one can see both the physical representation of the eucharist as species of bread and wine and as the sacrament with the real presence of Christ. The exterior also prepares the viewer for the interior which deals with the second aspect of the eucharist, the sacrifice. In the Mass of St Gregory Christ stands in a sarcophagus which signifies His death and resurrection. The instruments of the passion which surrounded Christ when He appeared in the miracle, are integrated with the main scene by the cross, and yet appear on separate panels, thus preparing the viewer for the passion scenes of the interior. Although in the early days of Christian worship, Christ was regarded as both priest and victim, gradually the priestly role was taken over by the bishop and the role of Christ as victim offered by the Church to God the Father for the salvation of mankind became important.8 Joseph Martos, Doors to the Sacred, SCM Press Ltd, London, 1981, p. 258. 

This might explain why the sacrifice of Christ is given more importance and is treated in a very detailed manner in the altarpiece. The notion of Christ as a passive victim is shown in various interior scenes, especially in the Betrayal of Christ and Christ before Pilate where the calm figure is surrounded by active figures. The helpless body of the Christ Child in the Circumcision is forcefully repeated in that of the dead Christ, in each case surrounded by moving figures. Finally the still form of Christ stretched on the cross, flanked by the writhing thieves, while dominating the entire scene, forcefully brings out the passiveness of the victim. The savage treatment of Christ by His tormentors, who kick and pull Him with a rope, increases the pathos of the Carrying of the Cross. Occasionally the brutality of the tormentors is treated in symbolic manner. For example, in Christ before Pilate a lion lies under Pilate who is thus characterised as the tormentor,9 James H. Marrow, Passion Iconography in Northern European art of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, van Ghemmert Publishing Company, Belgium, 1979, p. 36. an image which has its source in Psalm 22 v.13, ‘They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and roaring lion’ and Psalm 22 v.21, ‘Save me from the lion’s mouth’. 

 

The three Gospel writers (Matthew 26 v.28, Mark 14 v.24 and Luke 22 v.20) while narrating the events of the Last Supper, refer to Christ’s blood that will be ‘poured out for many’ as ‘the blood of the convenant’, thus paralleling His death and the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb. This pouring of the blood is visually portrayed in the carvings and the painted Ecce Homo panel. ‘The pouring out of blood’ occurs for the first time in the Circumcision and10 Gertrude Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art I, p. 88. on three later occasions – on the Mount of Olives, at the scourging and finally on the cross.11 ‘Meditations on the life of Christ’, attributed to St Bonaventura, end of 13th century, tr. Isa Ragusa & Rosalie B. Green, Meriden Gravure Co., Connecticut, 1977, p. 43. In the Circumcision the shedding of blood is indicated by the knife prominently held by Mohel, while in the Carrying of the Cross and the Crucifixion blood literally flows from Christ’s head crowned with thorns. The notion of sacrifice is forcefully brought out in the Circumcision by laying the body of the Christchild on the altar, instead of on a table whilst in the Entombment the body is not interred in a tomb but placed on a ‘table altar’, supported by a single column.12 For examples of table altar (der Tischaltar) and other types of altar see Joseph Braun S. J., Der Christliche Altar, alte Meister Guenther Koch & Co, München, 1924. 

In nativity scenes the manger symbolises the sacrificial altar and in some early works it is portrayed as an altar, thus uniting the incarnation and sacrifice.13 Yrjö Hirn, The Sacred Shrine, Macmillan and Co. Ltd, London, 1912, p. 473. This symbolism is harder to read in the altarpiece since the figure of Christ is missing. Unfortunately the original base, an integral part of the group has been cut off and the figures have been fitted into a new base. The Christ Child probably was removed at that time, but another interpretation is possible. The two figures appear to occupy the narrow space adequately, leaving very little room for a cradle. Moreover, while the Virgin folds her hands in adoration, Joseph appears to be holding a candle and gazing at her. Perhaps this scene takes place before rather than after the birth of Christ, representing the vision of St Birgitta of Sweden when she saw the Virgin ‘well wrapped in a white mantle and a delicate tuni’ with an old man who after having ‘brought to the Virgin a burning candle’ left the cave, went outside, ‘so that he might not be present at the birth’.14 Gertrude Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art I, p. 78. Alternately, the altar itself, to which this altarpiece was attached, could have been considered as the manger.

The Adoration of the Magi contains a clear indication of Christ’s impending suffering and death. The bitter myrrh is associated with death and suffering for according to Wernher, a Bavarian priest, it is ‘an allusion to His willingness to die’.15 ibid., p. 96. The sacrifice of Christ was made to atone for the sins of not only the living but also the dead and this is indicated in the Descent into Hell.  

Dr Emma Devapriam, Senior Curator of European Painting Before 1800, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1985).

Notes

1              Sixten Ringbom, Icon to Narrative, ACTA Academiae Aboensis ser.A., 1967, p. 11, fn.2. 

2              C. Pierier-D’ieteren, Catalogue of the Exhibition of the Antwerp Altarpiece in Antwerp and National Gallery of Victoria, ASLK, 1983, p. 108. 

3              Louis Boyer, Eucharist, tr. Charles Underhill Quinn, University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana, 1968, p. 29. 

4              C. Bernas, ‘Eucharist (Biblical Data)’, The New Catholic Encyclopaedia V, Mcgraw Hill Book Company, New York, pp. 594–5. 

5              W. F. Dewan, ‘Eucharist (as Sacrament)’, The New Catholic Encyclopedia V, p. 599. 

6              Yngue Brilioth, Eucharist faith and practice, Evangelical and Catholic, tr. A. G. Herbert, The Macmillan Company, Great Britain, 1930, p. 43. 

7              Gertrude Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art II, tr. Janet Seligman, Lund Humphries, London 1972, pp. 226–8. 

8              Joseph Martos, Doors to the Sacred, SCM Press Ltd, London, 1981, p. 258.

 9             James H. Marrow, Passion Iconography in Northern European art of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, van Ghemmert Publishing Company, Belgium, 1979, p. 36. 

10           Gertrude Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art I, p.88. 

11           ‘Meditations on the life of Christ’, attributed to St Bonaventura, end of 13th century, tr. Isa Ragusa & Rosalie B. Green, Meriden Gravure Co., Connecticut, 1977, p. 43. 

12 For examples of table altar (der Tischaltar) and other types of altar see Joseph Braun S. J., Der Christliche Altar, alte Meister Guenther Koch & Co, München, 1924. 

13           Yrjö Hirn, The Sacred Shrine, Macmillan and Co. Ltd, London, 1912, p. 473. 

14           Gertrude Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art I, p. 78. 

15           ibid., p. 96. 

16            Joseph Martos, Doors to the Sacred, p. 286. 

17           Ursula Nilgen, ‘The Epiphany and the Eucharist: on the interpretation of Eucharist motifs in Medieval Epiphany scenes’, tr. Renate Franciscono, Art Bulletin 49, 1967, pp. 311–16. 

18           ibid., p. 314, fn. 28. 

19           Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend , vol. 1, tr. William Caxton, ed. F. S. Ellis, Ams Press, New York, 1973, pp. 143–4. 

20           C. Perier-D’ieteren, Catalogue, 1983, p. 108. 

21           Ernest W. McDonnell, The Beguines and Beghards in Medieval Culture, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, 1954, p. 312. 

22           C. Perier-D’ieteren, Catalogue, 1983, p. 109.