The Altarpiece - Ways to Solve a Task
In Christian countries during the Middle Ages, the altar-table (mensa) was one of the most important places there was. It was the focal point of Holy Communion and thus the place where the bread and wine transubstantiated into Christ’s flesh and blood. Consequently the altarpiece was one of the most challenging tasks that could be entrusted to a late mediaeval painter: As a vertical section set at the rear (retable), the altarpiece served as decoration for the altar-table
While the altarpieces in Italy could mostly not be altered, winged altarpieces came to be developed north of the Alps, consisting of several hinged sections that could be opened or closed. Particularly prevalent is the triptych, an altarpiece on three parts with a painted (or carved) centrepiece and a pair of wings generally painted on both sides. The opening of the winged altar followed the rhythms of the ecclesiastical year. Unlike here in the museum, the retable was generally kept closed and simply revealed its everyday side painted mostly in shades of grey. It was only opened to display all of its golden glory on church feast days and festivals.
The central panel depicts the most important topics and most senior saints on the altarpiece. Thus the wings allowed religious images to be veiled and revealed in significant ways. The method of hinging together several panels, some painted on both sides, also allowed more space for depictions – such as the saints to whom the altar was dedicated, as well as for portraits of the donors who commissioned and paid for the altarpiece, so as to guarantee their souls a safe passage to Paradise
Recent research has shown that right here in Cologne there were altarpieces that interacted with the rest of the altar’s adornments: some retables are incomplete, both in form and content, without the altar cross that once stood in front.