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The Italian Renaissance Altarpiece: Between icon and narrative by David Ekserdjian

13 May 2022

Nicholas Cranfield on a study of Italy’s wealth of beautiful altarpieces

PROFESSOR EKSERDJIAN has brought together a career’s worth of knowledge of Italian art to focus on a subject that, while widely commented on, has not received detailed analysis.

His study covers the development from the 13th century to the beginning of the Baroque century with the Carracci and Caravaggio. It goes well beyond Peter Humfrey and Martin Kemp’s 1990 The Altarpiece in the Renaissance and supplements Eve Borsook and Fiorella Gioffredi’s invaluable Italian Altarpieces 1250-1550 (1994).

Figurative decoration at the altar, both painted and sculptural, originated in the antependia that were placed on the front of the altar, behind which the priest celebrated mass facing ad populum.

Liturgical changes in the 13th century and the efflorescence in building subsidiary side altars and chapels led to the priest’s standing with his back to the people, obscuring the front of the altar; a single image or a more complex triptych or polyptych developed, in front of which the priest said mass. By the end of the 16th century, the sacrifice of the mass governed the suitability of subjects depicted immediately above.

Ekserdjian concerns himself with hundreds of surviving examples, from churches in Italy to collections worldwide. They are broadly classified as immagini (icons, but not narrowly in the Orthodox tradition), historie (narratives; the Gospel narratives in Italian are historie), and misterie.

After an opening chapter on patronage and a survey of surviving contracts, he examines the polyptychs of the Virgin and Child with saints and then the narrative altarpieces of the Virgin and Child, of the saints, and of associated mysteries.

The final chapters examine the structure of the altarpieces with the predella scenes often included below the principal altarpiece, providing running commentaries on the lives of saints. A final, slightly rushed, chapter looks at the changes that occurred from 1560 to 1610 in the wake of the canons of the Council of Trent’s 25th session, 3-4 December 1563 (printed in an appendix).

I would have welcomed a slightly earlier start to explain the influence that Greek Orthodox icons had on the format and type of altarpieces and some recognition of how sources outside the Italian peninsula occasioned diversions.

For instance, he claims that the Sienese Marco Pino’s altarpiece in Naples of the Virgin and Child with saints has an “unparalleled” image of St Ignatius of Antioch, who is seen kneeling in front of a vision of the Virgin and Child between two lions, one of which is attacking his shoulder and biting through his cope. In Orthodox icons, the Early Church Father is depicted between two lions, and The Golden Legend picked up on this.

The publisher is generous with 250 reproductions, but Ekserdjian necessarily examines altarpieces that are not illustrated with such enthusiasm that I spent a great deal of my time following his footnotes to rather obscure sources.

Of the five altarpieces of Francesco Raibolini, called Il Francia (c.1497-c.1517), in which St Sebastian appears, I traced the Purification of the Virgin to a Sacra Conversazione now in the Capitoline Museum, begun c.1514 for the Church of San Domenico in Reggio, but so far have found only three of the others.

In the absence of any correlation to Louis Reau’s still authoritative Iconographie de L’Art Chrétien (1955-59) a gazette of all the altarpieces discussed would have been a real help, alongside the appendix of 117 narrative representations of saints.

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.


The Italian Renaissance Altarpiece: Between icon and narrative
David Ekserdjian
Yale £60
Church Times Bookshop £54

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