Two Panels from an Altarpiece
These two panels show episodes from the life of Saint Giles, a seventh-century hermit who was enormously popular in medieval France. They once formed part of the folding wings of a large polyptych (a multi-panelled altarpiece). Two more of its panels are in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
When the altarpiece was open it showed scenes from lives of several saints, many with French royal connections, set in Paris churches. On the back were saints painted in tones of grey to look like statues.
We don't know exactly how the panels were originally arranged or where the altarpiece was originally located, or even who the artist was. However, he was probably working in Paris in around 1500, as in these paintings, the clothes worn by the laity (people who are not church officials) were in fashion in the first years of the sixteenth century.
These two panels show episodes from the life of Saint Giles, or Egidius, a seventh-century hermit saint who was enormously popular in the Middle Ages. In Saint Giles and the Deer he protects a tame deer from hunters, while in The Mass of Saint Giles the Emperor Charlemagne is forgiven a great sin when Giles prays for him. The panels once formed part of the folding wings of a large polyptych; two more from the same altarpiece are now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. All four panels once had figures of saints on the backs, painted in grisaille to look like stone statues in niches.
When the altarpiece was open it showed scenes from the lives of several saints, many with French royal connections. One of the panels in Washington shows Saint Remi, bishop of Rheims (in northeastern France), baptising Clovis, the first King of the Franks. Although this actually took place in Rheims, here it’s set in a church based on Ste Chapelle, the private chapel of the French kings in Paris. The King kneels in a font, based on a Roman bath kept at Saint Denis. In the Middle Ages this was believed to be the font in which Clovis was actually baptised. The second panel in Washington shows a bishop-saint – we don‘t know who – performing miraculous cures on the steps of a Gothic church, thought to be St-Jean-le-Rond in Paris. The backs of both these panels once showed paintings of statues of Saint Denis, patron saint of Paris, and Saint Giles with the deer, the particular emblem by which he was known.
We aren’t sure how the panels were originally arranged or where the altarpiece was originally located. Ideas about its shape and layout have been suggested. It may have been a large central panel with wings of four panels in tiers of two, or perhaps an inverted ‘T’, with three scenes on each of the wings, and six scenes in the centre. However, none of these suggested arrangements are convincing. We also don't know who the artist was, but at least four painters contributed to the pictures: the master (or lead artist) himself and three assistants. The principal artist had a very distinctive style: in all his scenes the composition is structured around vertical lines, and they are split vertically down the middle so that the action seems to be going on in separate halves. He favoured patterned textiles and bright colours, especially alternating reds and greens, but had an imperfect grasp of linear perspective – the floors of his buildings seem to be disconcertingly tilted. This is especially obvious in the patterned carpet in The Mass of Saint Giles.
The master was probably a Frenchman who had worked in the Netherlands and adopted features of Netherlandish painting, such as the detailed landscapes and interiors and portrait-like faces. He seems to have been influenced by Hugo van der Goes, but his style also resembles that of Jean Hey (look at his The Meeting of Saints Joachim and Anne at the Golden Gate; Charlemagne). The clothing depicted in all four paintings was fashionable in around 1500.
The fronts of both panels are in good condition, the backs less so. Both seem to have suffered some burn damage, possibly from altar candles.