Stuck for something to do this weekend? This month the National Gallery opened a new exhibition Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500, which explores the function and the development of altarpieces in Italy during the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.
For those not familiar with early Renaissance ecclesiastical art, an altarpiece is a picture or relief representing a religious subject, suspended in a frame behind the altar of a church. These objects furnished altars in churches and were not originally intended to hang in a gallery as we see them today. Instead, they were created for a specific sacred context, forming the focus of devotion for worshippers.
About the Exhibition
Devotion by Design runs until 2nd October in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. It uses the National Gallery’s own collection, investigating the development of altarpieces and looking at changes in form, style and type. the exhibition examines not only the evolution of their physical structure but also their relationship to their frames and to the monumental architecture that surrounded them. A small section of ‘Devotion by Design’ will be dedicated to altarpiece fragments, explaining the role different elements of altarpieces played in the overall ensemble. The exhibition examines the reasons why altarpieces came to be dismembered (often with the dissolution of religious institutions in the 18th and 19th centuries) and the methods that art historians now use to reassemble them.
For a thorough introduction to altarpieces and the National Gallery exhibition, take a look at the film below.
About the Exhibition Catalogue (published by Yale)
Museum visitors today usually see pre-16th-century Italian painted altarpieces exhibited alone, as single paintings. Yet this beautiful catalogue shows that these works were once part of decorative, integrated schemes, and the original experience for viewers of the paintings was significantly different from our own. Focusing on Italian altarpieces from the second half of the 13th century to the very end of the 15th, the book investigates the original functions and locations of altarpieces as well as the circumstances of their dislocations, dismantlings, and reconstructions. Regional variations are also analyzed, and the author examines altarpieces’ formal and typological development, taking into account the wealth of related scholarship undertaken in the past thirty years.
Famous examples of altarpieces