Publicador de contenidos

Back to 2017-10-27-opinion-FYL-como-se-lee-un-retablo

Ricardo Fernández Gracia, Director of the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art.

The works and days in Navarrese art (11). How to read an altarpiece?

Fri, 27 Oct 2017 13:22:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

In times past, with a great scarcity of images, the observation of how many of them were shown in the altarpieces of rural churches and large towns, was an opportunity to contemplate for the eyes, more or less curious, at the same time that they constituted an effective means for catechization in times when the illiteracy rates were very high percentages. The messages conveyed by their reliefs and paintings are usually clear, especially if they can be read correctly. The relationship with the word emanating from the preachers with all that iconic repertoire generated an authentic alliance between the brush and the gouges with the word.

Nothing could be more common in past times than the observation of the altarpieces of churches for an audience that could make their contemplation therapeutic or awe-inspiring, always induced by the preacher's words to empathy. In this regard, we must remember that culture in past centuries was defined by its massive and directed character. A good part of the media was directed to all social groups and with them it was tried to control their ideology, through the exaltation of spiritual values and monarchies, together with the social and religious order that they defended.

In a society, mostly illiterate, the means of diffusion of culture were carried out by means of formulas linked to oratory and images. The paintings, sculptures and reliefs of the altarpieces were extraordinarily effective in times of scarcity of images, when the time for their contemplation was abundant, so that whoever looked at them could extract different sensations and evaluations.


Origin and development of the altarpiece

The altarpiece (from the Latin retro-tabulum: table that is placed behind) traces its origin to the liturgical custom of placing relics of the saints on the altars. When these were not abundant or were simply exhausted, it was necessary to be content with placing images in the form of diptychs and triptychs, often made of ivory. Later, when the altar was full of sacred vessels, candelabra and other objects for the celebration of the Mass, the figure of the saint, Christ or the Virgin was painted on a board that was placed in front of the altar (frontal or antependium) until, when the priest was placed to celebrate with his back to the people, not allowing the frontal to be seen, the image began to be placed behind and above the altar, in order to make it fully visible. This is how altarpieces emerged and developed, especially in the middle of the leave Age average.    

The altarpiece evolved until it became, at the end of the Middle Ages, a gigantic machine of alabaster, stone, marble or wood that housed painted cycles of the life of Christ, the Virgin and the saints, occupying the entire chevet of the church. At that time the rich genre of the altarpiece was generally in the hands of the painters who were in charge of their mazonerías or sublet them.

This custom continued during the 16th century, during the Renaissance, although the sculptural altarpieces competed with the pictorial ones and therefore painters ceased to be the main protagonists in the contracting of those pieces of liturgical ornament. The altarpieces of the time typified by Professor Martín González multiplied and adopted varied typologies such as stages, rosaries, expositors, sepulchers, triptychs or polyptychs.

But, undoubtedly, it was in the Baroque, during the 17th and 18th centuries, when the altarpiece reached the greatest Degree of plenitude and development. The vibration of its forms, the density of its decoration and the multiplicity of its images gave the Spanish temples of the time, almost always with rigid, inert walls cut at right angles, a sensation of mobility and expansion of space that was structurally lacking. The altarpieces thus provoked an illusionism very characteristic of the Baroque, in which the dichotomy between background and figure, between surface and reality, was only deceptively resolved.


Golden scenographies for images

Generally, with favorable economic circumstances, the altarpieces were built to adequately adorn the temple, to worship God and to increase and promote devotion and catechesis, in times of controversy about the role of the images and what they represented. Old and newly built temples saw remarkable altarpieces of great dimensions added to their headers since the 16th century. In the case of the old buildings, the medieval altarpieces were judged to be small in their dimensions, since they did not fit the proportions that were then in vogue. In addition, the extensive iconographic programs were too complex for the new custom imposed in the 17th century, which tended towards unification and simplification around a single body.

The primary purpose of an altarpiece was to adorn and contribute to the perfection, splendor and beauty of the temple, since it was the piece of furniture that best fulfilled this task. Its mission statement was to serve to adore God, as well as to place the faithful in contact with the celestial world through the veneration of the sacred images. Tapié affirms that "the altarpieces responded to a religion of ostentation that wanted to give its rites the greatest possible solemnity and brightness, and that was pleased to erect a triumphal arch above each altar".

Orozco Díaz pointed out that the temple "is conceived with a sense parallel to the scene to fulfill, in the divine, the social function that the altarpiece performs in the mundane", making clear the correspondence between the rhetorical artifices of oratory and its grandiloquent forms that sought to concentrate the attention of the believer and stimulate the senses, transferring them from the material to the spiritual. Rodríguez G. de Ceballos affirms that the main altarpiece of the church served wonderfully for the function of learning, contemplating its iconographies, while listening to the sermon, since the preacher could almost go pointing with his finger from the pulpit the scenes of painting or relief to support his words, "in the manner of the blind coplero pointed with a wand in the street the drawings displayed before the spectators who listened spellbound to his story". The altarpiece, therefore, was not just another object in the temple destined only to instill greater veneration, but had its projection and life inside the sacred space.


Reading: from left to right and from bottom to top

Statistically it has been demonstrated that the preferred and rigorous reading order is from left to right of the spectator and from bottom to top. This is the case in most of the Navarrese altarpieces. When this is not the case, on many occasions, it must be attributed to the poor placement of the reliefs or paintings due to poorly understood repairs and interventions, when replacing pieces that were more worn by rubbing or by light, for others that, due to their position, had suffered less. In any case, it should be noted that there are also altarpieces without the slightest order, although they are the fewest.

In most of the cases, the central street is more enhanced than the others for its greater significance and architectural vitality and to house in its bodies nothing less than the tabernacle, the patron saint, the image of the Virgin and the Calvary. This last group will become the culminating focus of attraction, as a symbol of redemption, basic for the Christian. The fact that the Assumption or some Marian topic is located below the Calvary indicates the great significance as a mediator that is given to the Virgin, and it can be read that Calvary is reached by the path of Our Lady. The top, above the Crucifixion usually corresponds in many cases to the Eternal Father, who appears in bust with the protective arms extended and with the orb, symbol of the eternal power.

The side of the Gospel -left of the spectator- was always preferred to the Epistle, for that reason the saints were placed in that one in front of the saints or the martyrs in front of the confessors...etc. In this respect, we have in Navarra a good example with the location of the co-patron saints San Fermín and San Francisco Javier that, from 1657, would go on the side of the Gospel and the Epistle respectively, as can be seen among other examples in the Larraga's major or that of Santa Teresa de Fitero where also the patrons of the universal church (San Pedro in the side of the Gospel and San Pablo in that of the Epistle) and the holders of the churches or local confraternities are given quotation .

Evangelists, apostles, fathers and doctors of the church, allegories of virtues, lives of Christ, the Virgin and the saints are given quotation in the pictorial or sculptural representations. The order is also taken into account in their placement. For example, when the lateral wings were added to the Peralta altarpiece in 1772, Diego de Camporredondo was warned that two more would be added to the apostles already represented, "which must be the next in Degree from those that are now on the main altar". In this regard, it is worth remembering the so-called Credo apostolorum, or text of the Apostolic Creed or Symbol, which, divided into twelve articles, is distributed among the apostles, although with some variations.


From narrativism in the gothic examples to the unity of speech in the baroque ones.

In medieval representations, generally in painting, complexity and narrativism prevail, dependent on many occasions on the readings of the Golden Legend, source iconographic very used by mentors and artists and that, as it is known, is a compilation of hagiographic stories gathered by the Dominican Santiago (or Jacobo) de la Vorágine, archbishop of Genoa, in the middle of the 13th century. An example of this is the altarpiece of the Villaespesa chapel in the cathedral of Tudela (Bonanat Zahortiga, 1412) where there are no less than three iconographic cycles dedicated to the Virgin, St. Giles and St. Francis of Assisi.

In the 16th century it brought with it the order in the architectural that was imposed little by little until the classic triumphed, and in the iconographic, banishing everything legendary so that the programs obeyed to the "property" that was demanded especially after the Council of Trento and some programs more ordered around the holders, the Virgin and Christ. The tabernacle would gain prominence especially since 1585, when by ecclesiastical legislation it had to preside over the main chapel of the temple. The Romanesque altarpieces are excellent examples of all this. The one in the cathedral of Pamplona, today in San Miguel, made in 1597, at the expense of Bishop Zapata and studied by Prof. García Gainza, has an exquisite arrangement, despite the fact that there is quotation the passion of the Lord, the evangelists, fathers and doctors of the church, scenes from the life of the Virgin, the particular devotions of the bishop and the sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance, so attacked by the Protestants.

During the baroque period, the altarpiece assumed an overflowing character, destined to exalt sensorially and move behaviors, counting on the essential of the style in its forms, ornamentation, artifice, lights, fantasy, richness, color and images. Wrapped in the rich liturgical ceremonial and polyphony, it became a spectacle for all the senses, provoking sensorially the individual, moving and enervating him.

The most significant examples tended to contain a large painted scene with the large altar canvases, as was the case in the largest of the Trinitarians of Pamplona that contained the Foundation of the Order, work of Carreño de Miranda (1666), or with the primitive of the Jesuits of Tudela with the painting of San Francisco Javier by Vicente Berdusán (1674).

However, from the last decades of the 17th century, the Baroque altarpiece also embarked on a path towards the scenographic and decorative in a singular dialogue with rhetoric and theatricality, as can be seen, in a very special way, in the works of the Tudela workshop. The programs, not excessively complicated, revolved around the great themes of the Eucharist, works of charity, the Virgin and the saints, in final as much as had been attacked by Protestantism. An example is the Virgen del Camino de Pamplona (1766) with a monumental tabernacle-exhibitor and a Marian program, contemplating Mary in her temporal generation with her parents and Saint Joseph; in her virtues with four allegorical sculptures of the cardinal and three theological virtues embossed in silver on her pedestal and, finally, as daughter of God the Father, which is located in the attic, Mother of God the Son, whom she holds in her lap and wife of the Holy Spirit, which is located on her niche.