The altar ( altar ) picture (for the altar image; English altarpiece , French retable ) is an artwork installed in the altars of Christian , mainly Catholic churches .
Etymologically, the word “retable” (tabula de retto) means a simple ledge located behind the throne and intended for liturgical objects ( candelabra , tabernacle , crosses ). An altar picture emerged from this original form in the era of early Christianity . The utilitarian function of the altar soon gave way to the pictorial function - the image of the divine presence or saints - which soon became widespread. Thus, the altar painting is a patronal art ensemble. The simplest altar looks like a rectangular panel. Such altars existed in Italy in the Roman era and were painted by unknown masters.
In the Gothic era, especially starting from the XIV century, the altar picture undergoes great changes - it takes the form of lancet architecture, sometimes still just rectangular, but crowned with an “arch in the form of a miter”. Even then, the side flaps appear surrounding the central picture. So there was a polyptych.
Polyptych (from the Greek "poly" - a lot, and "ptychos" - folding) consists of several movable or fixed wings. A diptych is called a polyptych consisting of two wings, a triptych - of three. Movable flaps covering the central panel are usually painted on both sides, one of which is sometimes painted using the grisaille technique. The word " predella " (from Lombard preti - a bench, or a board) meant first the pedestal on which the altar stands, and then the lower part of the altar itself.
Usually the painting of the predella does not depend on the image on the altar itself, but sometimes it is part of the lower register of the central panel. In the 15th century , a protruding element, a canopy, was made over the upper part of some altars. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the shape of the altars varies depending on the architecture that it seeks to emulate. The pediment can be torn, or take the form of a miter, the central panel is often crowned with a lunette , the pinnacles are located on the sides, and medallions of different shapes (shamrocks, four-leafed) with the image of saints and angels adorn the tympans of lancet pediments .
In Italy, the central part of the altar, as a rule, portrays the Madonna or patron saint, and on the wings are various saints whose scenes from their lives are placed in the lower part (for example, “ Maesta ” by Duccio , XIV century). In the painting of the Northern Renaissance, in the Netherlands and German countries, from the 14th century, the altars consisted of many movable leaves, which made possible numerous combinations (one of the best examples is the Ghent Altar of Jan van Eyck , completed in 1432). In France, the Avignon school played a major role in that era. In Spain, the altar picture is just a frontal, rectangular-shaped panel, located not in the back, but in front of the throne.
Widespread in Catalonia during the Romanesque era, this type of altar will be popular in the XIV-XV centuries, when there will be numerous masterpieces, often of considerable size, reaching the size of an apse ( retablo ). In Germany, the Grunewald masterpiece - the Isengheim Altar - is still interpreted in Gothic forms.
In the Renaissance, the structure of the altar changes dramatically, which is associated with the opening of a direct perspective, with new architectural forms marked by a return to antiquity (for example, the monumental polyptych of Mantegna for the church of San Zeno in Verona , 1459 ). From this moment until the end of the 15th century a brilliant period in the history of the altar painting continued. In Venice, this heyday is associated with the work of Bellini , in Ferrara - Cosimo Tours , in Borgo San Sepolcro - Piero della Francesca , in Lombardy - Foppa . In the 16th century, the shape of the altars was simplified and gravitated towards a simple panel painted not only on wood, but also on canvas. At this time, the masterpieces of Raphael , Titian , Andrea del Sarto appear.
In the XVII century, the scheme is almost unchanged, the altar paintings of Rubens , Poussin , Caravaggio , the brothers Carracci , Gverchino , Zurbaran , and Kano remain true to the Gothic type of the altar, with registers located one above the other. In the 18th century, the heyday of large Baroque altars still continues; in the concept of the altar, architecture, which is sometimes more important than painting, acquires a new meaning. Tiepolo in Venice, Rottmire and Maulperch in Austria, Holper in Germany are considered outstanding artists of their time who worked in this genre. In the 19th century, the altar picture began to decline, as did religious painting in general, which was associated with changes in the Catholic liturgy. However, in the XX century, some artists returned to the formats ( Rothko ) and monumental forms ( Beckman , Bacon , Sulazh ) of altar paintings.
- Encyclopedic Dictionary of Painting. M. 1997.