Mari Griffith (in the Gallery): Here, in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing, we’re surrounded by religious paintings from the Renaissance and in these modern galleries with their skylights and sophisticated lighting they can be admired close-up and in detail.
Mari Griffith (narrating): Seeing these works in a gallery setting it is easy to forget that they were made first and foremost as sacred objects for churches and were once part of a larger programme of liturgical decoration and furniture. In fact many are fragments, pieces of altarpieces that once stood on or behind an altar, providing a visual focus for people’s prayers and devotion.
Perched on a hill above the city of Florence in Tuscany is the church of San Salvatore. The church once housed one of the National Gallery’s Renaissance altarpieces, Zanobi Strozzi’s ‘Annunciation’. Dating from the 1440s, the painting shows the Virgin Mary receiving news that she is to bear the son of god. Behind Archangel Gabriel is a cluster of buildings set on a hill, probably meant to reflect San Salvatore itself. The subjects of altarpieces were also closely connected to the sites for which they were made.
Jennifer Sliwka: Inside this church the atmosphere is much as it would have been in the 15th century when the church was built. You can see for example the way the altarpieces hang above the altars in the side chapels, and the way the light filters in through both the chapel lights and above through the clerestory level. The light is much more dim than we might see it in the Gallery for example. Here, the space is in a natural lighting and that is picked up by the flickering of the votive candles in front of the altars.
Mari Griffith (narrating): The word altar probably derives from the Latin ‘adolere’, meaning ‘to burn’. The Christian altar originated as a symbol of the table of the Last Supper, and came to be used for the celebration of the Eucharist, commemorating Christ’s sacrifice. From the early 13th century, candles were stipulated as an essential feature of an altar, along with a cross. As well as shedding light for reading the missal, candles were also a sign of the light of faith, thereby figuratively and literally illuminating the words of the Bible. But an altar did not have to have an altarpiece.
Mari Griffith (in the Gallery): This painting by the Master of Saint Giles depicts the celebration of mass, the central rite performed at the altar, and it shows how altarpieces were just one element of the ecclesiastical furnishings.
Mari Griffith (narrating): They were accompanied by sculptures, crucifixes and reliquaries, and sometimes curtains would veil the altarpieces or the sanctuary. The curtains served both a practical ands symbolic function, protecting the altarpiece from dust, and also concealing and revealing it at certain moments of the liturgy.
Although they were sometimes fashioned from metal, or sculpted from wood or stone, altarpieces in Italy were usually painted on panel, as in this work by Sassetta. It shows the funeral of Saint Francis of Assisi, and recalls the way areas in front of or beneath altars often served as burial places for venerated figures.
For the congregation in the church, altarpieces offered a tangible visual focus. They often depict the body or the suffering of Christ, in doing so evoking the mystery of transubstantiation – the belief that the Eucharistic bread and wine is transformed into the blood and flesh of Christ at the moment of consecration by the priest.
Mari Griffith (in the conservation studios): From the early 14th century, Italian altarpieces were usually made up of a number of panels, a format known as a ‘polyptych’. This example was made in 1387 by the Florentine artist Niccolò di Pietro Gerini. It is currently here, in the National Gallery’s conservation studio, being conserved.
Mari Griffith (narrating): As in all polyptychs, panels of different shapes and sizes are united in an architectural, Gothic-style frame. This one is a Victorian replica. But in the early 15th century, the polyptych format began to change with the emergence of the newer Renaissance style. We find evidence of this in Strozzi’s 'Annunciation', made for San Salvatore in Florence. It’s a new style of altarpiece, known in Italian as a ‘pala’.
While the earlier, gilded polyptychs conjured up a separate, heavenly realm, the pala altarpieces of the 15th century rooted these religious scenes in a credible world. We also see how painters began making spatially unified images instead of separating the figures into different panels. They also gave their works a greater sense of naturalism through the treatment of light, the scale of the figures, the expressions and the use of perspective.
Mari Griffith (in the Gallery): Whatever the style of the altarpiece, producing one was always a very close collaboration between a number of different parties, as we see in this altarpiece by Crivelli.
Mari Griffith (narrating): Two patrons were involved and, as is often the case, the painting holds the key to their identity. Directly beneath the Virgin and Child is the coat of arms of the Ottoni family, from Matelica, in the Marche region. Ranuzio Ottoni was a commander of the people’s militia, a ‘gonfaloniere’, hence the presence of the patron saint of soldiers on the right – Sebastian, shown unusually as a chivalric knight rather than the usual tortured martyr, as we see him in the predella below.
Opposite him is Saint Jerome, one of the four Fathers of the Church, holding a miniature church building. He represents the second stakeholder, the guardian of the local Franciscan convent, Fra Giorgio di Giacomo.
Mari Griffith (in the conservation studios): If commissioning an altarpiece was a collaborative process, then producing one was even more of a team effort, involving numerous artists and craftsmen.
Mari Griffith (narrating): The process began with the carpenters who carved the wooden structure, which often cost more than the artists’ work. Once the carcass was ready, the artists prepared the wood with a chalk-like substance called gesso, before the surfaces were gilded and finally painted. At times, due to the scale of the object, the process took place entirely in the church.
Mari Griffith (in the Gallery): But the question remains of how many of these altarpieces came to be broken up and their panels scattered around the world. Francesco Pesellino’s altarpiece for the church of Santa Trinità at Pistoia is a case of a jigsaw puzzle that’s been successfully reassembled.
Mari Griffith (narrating): Painted in the mid-15th century, by the early 19th century the altarpiece had been sawn into five, possibly six, pieces, and the predella divided into individual scenes. These were sold to private collectors. By today, all but one have been reunited. Quite a feat!
Jennifer Sliwka: People often ask why altarpieces were removed from altars, and this sometimes happened early on in their history because fashions changed. So for example one might remove an old-fashioned polyptych and replace it with a Renaissance pala. From the second half of the 18th century into the 19th century many religious institutions were suppressed – for example convents and monasteries – and in this case the altarpieces were removed from altars, and often dismembered or even butchered, and they entered the art market and they were dispersed around the world, and they would enter collections such as the National Gallery.
Mari Griffith (in the conservation studios): Which brings us back to the jigsaw. Here in the National Gallery’s conservation studios, we find one tool that helps curators and conservators in their task: X-rays.
Mari Griffith (narrating): X-rays can reveal the most unexpected things. When this painting of the Last Supper by Ercole de' Roberti was X-rayed, curators made a surprising discovery. Concealed behind the surface they detected a keyhole, which suggests that the painting was once a cupboard door – the door to the tabernacle within a predella, where the holy bread and wine were stored.
Mari Griffith (in the Gallery): All of these things contribute to solving the mystery of these prized works of art, and once-sacred devotional objects.
Jennifer Sliwka: In the cases where we can solve these Renaissance jigsaw puzzles it is immensely satisfying and it really gives us a sense of the larger picture, both literally and figuratively. We get a sense of the artistic context but also the spiritual context that these were originally created for.
Mari Griffith (in the Gallery): These outstanding works of art, fragments of Renaissance altarpieces, are an enduring testament to religious devotion in the 14th and 15th centuries, showing how art and craftsmanship were once at the service of the higher ideals of religion and devotion.