Friday 6 March 2009

The Altarpiece- some thoughts 3

"The Mass of St Giles" is a panel painting in the National Gallery attributed to a northern European, Flemish or French, artist known as the Master of St Giles of about 1500 A.D.. Remarkable for its detailed realism, its narrative subject matter is depicted by means of a priest at the moment of the elevation of the sacred host. This is shown occurring at the high altar of the famous abbey church of St Denis a few miles north of Paris. The architectural interior, which played an important role in the evolution of the gothic style, may still be seen today. It is accurately portrayed as are the furnishings as they appeared at this date but which were subsequently lost. The retable or altarpiece is, on the basis of both stylistic and documentary evidence, believed to be the gilded bronze antependium given to the church in the ninth century by Charles the Bald.

The "recycling" of antependia as retables or altarpieces appears to have been a thirteenth century phenomenon. Here at St Denis the antependium appears to have been reused with no further modification. Elsewhere the piece would, as in the case of the famous "Pala d'Oro" of St Mark's basilica in Venice, have additional panels affixed in order to expand the surface. In some instances, as for example in Sant Ambrogio in Milan, gilded antependia remained in situ fulfilling their original function and two impressive examples originally from the cathedral of Basel can be seen in the Musee Cluny in Paris.

Here it seems worth noting that the use of gilded bronze for antependia was by no means fortuitous there being a deliberate attempt to create the impression of the altar being made of solid gold and thus a reflection of the heavenly altar described in the Apocalypse.

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