A Sign of Contradiction

Touching the Passion - Seeing Late Medieval Altarpieces through the Eyes of Faith

by Donna L. Sadler
2018 Brill, 255 pages, $140.00
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Donna Sadler’s study of late medieval Northern carved altarpieces focuses on their impact on the senses. A professor of art at Agnes Scott College, she is especially interested in how the format of these altarpieces, in which small multifarious painted figures are placed within elaborate shallow architectural settings, invite the worshipper to imaginatively inhabit their Christological subject matter.

Complemented by the liturgy, preaching, and the environment of the church interior, Sadler demonstrates how these altarpieces cultivated a spiritually immersive experience that fostered emotional identification with Christ, strengthened the faithful’s memory of the principal episodes of his life and death, and reinforced Christian dogma.

The works that Sadler studies were produced mostly in Burgundy and Champagne during the late fourteenth through the mid-sixteenth centuries. The first chapter introduces the altarpieces to be discussed and sketches the relevant late-medieval liturgical, theological, and devotional contexts. Subsequent chapters discuss different types of altarpieces, providing detailed descriptions of their appearance and contents and some formal analysis, and then venture into more theoretical issues, drawing upon recent scholarship in fields such as immersion studies, medieval narratology, rhetorical theory, and the role of framing devices in both texts and pictures.

Altarpieces and Frames

Altarpiece of the Passion at the Church of Saint Martin in Ambierle, 1446. Photo: wikimedia.org/D Villafruela

Sadler begins with two altarpieces from a Burgundian abbey of Benedictine nuns. One includes scenes from the Infancy of Christ, the other represents the Dormition and Coronation of the Virgin. Such subject matter was particularly appropriate for their female audience, though the prominence of books in the later work suggests a viewership that appreciated literacy and understood the theological meaning of an open book held by a saint or Christ as a symbol of Scripture fulfilled.

She then examines three fifteenth-century altarpieces. The typical format consists of a central inverted T-shaped field with figures of carved, painted, and gilded wood set in shallow niches surmounted by decorative architectural tracery, flanked by painted panels that would have been opened and closed in accord with the liturgical cycle. The deeper space of the Passion retable niches and the dynamic sculpted figures within draw the viewer into the Passion drama. They facilitate an imaginative interactivity between viewer and viewed, and vivify the invisible mystery at the heart of the Mass taking place on the altar below.

Sadler explores further the purposes of the affective appeal that characterizes a variety of carved altarpieces in both polychromed stone and wood. She relates the formal qualities of these carved altarpieces—their abundance, variety, and profusion of detail—to qualities prized in medieval rhetorical theory and homiletics, similarly designed to heighten emotion and enhance memory. The dollhouse-like appearance of the central field of most of these altarpieces intensifies the believer’s intimate encounter with the suffering Christ, fosters interiority, and mitigates the horror of the crucifixion.

The book also considers the role of the frame. The tripartite format and architectural tracery of the niches of some of these altarpieces mimics the late Gothic church interior. This reminds the viewer that the Christ depicted in the retable is a living presence within its walls and especially upon the altar, even if invisible.

Of Memory

Sadler invokes the altarpiece as a “House of Memory.” It could be characterized more aptly as a “Church of Memory,” whose architectural format and Christological subject matter distills the theological, ecclesiological, and sacramental significance of the physical structure of the church and the activities it accommodates.

Sadler repeatedly observes that the Crucifixion often depicted at the center of these altarpieces relates to the sacrifice of the Mass. But she does not explore how the form of Christ raised high against a gold or azure background illuminated by flickering candles—his nakedness in stark contrast to the extravagant figures below—provides a poignant yet powerful analog to the small white host elevated before it.

Likewise, her frequent observation of the sorrowful Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross would have been enriched by Amy Neff’s insights on the theological and ecclesiological meaning of the figure of the swooning Virgin as a parturient figure who births Ecclesia with the release of water and blood, the foundational sacraments, from the wound in Christ’s side.