Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 6, 1998
Lynn F. Jacobs Early Netherlandish Carved Altarpieces, 1380–1550: Medieval Tastes and Mass Marketing New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 352 pp.; 91 b/w ills. Cloth $80.00 (0521474833)

If quizzed to name two sculptors of early Netherlandish wooden altarpieces, many of my colleagues and I would not pass or would do so only with considerable searching the depths of our memories. Even if we relaxed the rules and permitted the use of the standard introductions to Netherlandish art by Charles Cuttler (1968), James Snyder (1985), or Craig Harbison (1995), these yield just four examples, two of which are given as by anonymous artists. Jacques de Baerze is known primarily because at a slightly later date Melchior Broederlam, one of the “pathfinders” of early Netherlandish art, painted exterior wings for the retable that he sculpted for the Chartreuse de Champmol in Dijon. The name recognition of the other master, Jan Borman the Elder, scarcely rivals that of his German contemporaries Veit Stoss or Tilman Riemenschneider.

This quiz underscores the almost invisible profile of these carved altarpieces and their makers within the general discourse about Netherlandish art. The dearth of discussion is even more perplexing considering the fact that over 350 of these altarpieces survive. These large showy ensembles captivated contemporary audiences in the Low Countries and across Northern Europe. Indeed, many were exported to Scandinavia, England, and Germany. In the majority of documented cases, these retables adorned the high altars of churches, while their painted counterparts by such now-acknowledged masters of Netherlandish art as Rogier van der Weyden or Dirk Bouts were generally relegated to lesser side altars.

Lynn Jacobs’s very useful book provides a much needed assessment of these great retables. Although good scholarship exists on this subject, it tends to be a monographic study of either a single altarpiece or locale. Jacobs is the first author to analyze these retables as a cultural phenomenon that transcends any single center of production or reception. She is also very sensitive to issues of interpretation and market.

The book is divided into an introduction and two long parts on medieval tastes and mass marketing, respectively. The introduction is superb. Written in a clear, orderly manner, the author defines the essential features of these sculpted retables. The basic structure consists of a rectangular corpus or caisse with a raised center, which she describes as having an inverted T-shaped profile. The corpus is subdivided into three or more sections, the center of which is typically the largest. Often these sections are arranged in two horizontal tiers. Separate sets of painted wings cover the corpus and its raised center. A predella is appended below. Over time, the accompanying architectural decoration becomes ever more complex. In contrast with most contemporary German retables, the Netherlandish examples display numerous very small figures in dense narrative scenes rather than a few large, almost fully carved, iconic figures; their compact frames contrast with the often elaborate superstructures or Aufzugs popular in southern Germany; and these exhibit a remarkable uniformity from one altar to another rather than the intentional individuality of style that marks works by Riemenschneider or Michael Pacher.

Jacobs provides a succinct yet helpful summary of the origins of artistic decorations on or next to altars. By about 1400 altarpieces functioned to identify the dedication of the altar; they defined the sacred space of the altar and provided a backdrop for the mass; and, like most church art, they facilitated religious knowledge, notably through their biblical stories, and they stimulated memory. Surveying the evolution of the sculpted retable, Jacobs identifies four general stylistic phases: pre-1400, 1400-1500, 1500 to the 1520s, and the 1530s to the 1550s, with its Italian influence. Once mentioned, related issues of chronology and stylistic development are scarcely broached.

Part One (chapters 1-3) offers a fascinating, if not always convincing assessment of these retables as manifestations of medieval tastes. Netherlandish carved altarpieces differ from their painted counterparts and from sculpted retables made in neighboring countries. The distinctions are not due to their use by a particular class, since over 70 percent of documented examples (75) were made for parish churches and were often commissioned by confraternities or guilds. Jacobs argues that the format and the lavish polychroming were designed “to hold the attention of the congregants during mass” (64), though she readily admits these altarpieces played no real liturgical function, unlike the nearby mass objects on the altar. In fact, she notes that eucharistic themes, such as the Last Supper, are very rare. This view stands in direct contrast with some prevailing interpretations of contemporary Netherlandish painting in which virtually all objects are read as having eucharistic meaning. Perhaps these carved altarpieces provide a necessary warning against the overreading of the paintings.

I am troubled by Jacobs’s sometimes conflicting comments on the relationship between the altarpieces and their audiences. These are large ostentatious retables, whose general forms are visible throughout the church. As high altarpieces, they do provide a backdrop for the mass, yet one questions just what the worshiper could actually see. The individual carvings and scenes are tiny and rarely legible at much of a distance. The altarpiece at Oplinter (fig. 35) has 36 total scenes. If the worshiper were really to benefit from these narratives, how and when could she or he view them? Did the individual approach the high altar to receive communion, which typically occurred only once a year around Easter, or remain outside the choir at all times? Jacobs suggests the worshiper could have meditated on the narratives while waiting to receive the host. Again this is questionable, especially in the context of a parish church.

What else might account for this intentional miniaturization? Jacobs proposes two contradictory explanations. First, “the use of miniaturized figures . . . imbues the work with the intimacy of scale of devotional art, similar to that found, for example, in the tiny meditation books. It creates the impression that the retable was designed for an audience of one.” Second, “the somewhat crude appearance of many altarpieces when viewed very close up may even indicate that these works were primarily intended to be viewed from afar, and that the close view was sacrificed for the distant one.” (78) Far more satisfying is the author’s subsequent discussion of the growing intricacy of retable ornamentation, a development that coincides with the period’s taste for complex architectural forms, as manifested in contemporary city halls and churches, such as those in Louvain, in eucharistic tabernacles, and in such examples of microarchitecture as reliquaries and monstrances. Even manuscript illumination, with the fascinating tensions between image and marginal decoration, or painting during the opening decades of the sixteenth century participated in this widespread aesthetic preference for complexity over simplicity.

The author is truly in her element in Part Two (“Mass Marketing,” chapters 4-7). She constructs a rich economic history of the production and sale of Netherlandish carved altarpieces. She argues convincingly that the retable artists consciously created a “good buying environment” for their product. Without minimizing the very real differences among Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, Louvain, and other cities as well as the distinctions among their respective guilds, Jacobs notes that all sides sought to facilitate the manufacture of carved retables. This may be observed in both minor and major actions. For example, I was intrigued to learn that Bruges permitted its artists to work longer hours if they were laboring on an altar for a merchant whose ship soon was due to sail. (156) More significantly, the artists in these towns, inspired by the region’s cloth industry, developed methods for insuring quality and the efficient production. Jacobs adroitly explains the practice of stamping each work to guarantee its materials and craftsmanship. This was especially important to the foreign buyers who acquired many of the retables.

Using documentary records and a close scrutiny of the altarpieces, Jacobs concludes that the majority of the retables were made for the open market as opposed to being commissioned. This follows the practice in many other industries, though most fifteenth-century Netherlandish paintings seem to have been made on order. A remarkable standardization of corpus and figure sizes resulted, while individual figures were available on the market, parts were prefabricated, the choices of design options and iconographic content were limited, and even costs tended to hover in a restricted range. Jacobs defines this general phenomenon as a “strategy of consistency.” She cites numerous cases in which different shops, sometimes in different towns, collaborated on a single altarpiece or, on the other hand, examples of such longterm working relationships as that between the painter Jan van Coninxloo and the Borman sculpture shop. The result was an altarpiece whose design, execution, and function skillfully matched contemporary expectations. Buyers and their congregations knew exactly what they were getting.

Jacobs’s masterful treatment of this overly neglected art form is to be lauded. Although I might have some differences of opinion over interpretative issues, I heartily recommend her excellent book. It provides an invaluable assessment of the economics and production of a whole industry. Like Dan Ewing, Jean Wilson, and Kim Woods, among others who write on the mechanics of the roduction and sale of Netherlandish art, Jacobs forces us to recognize marketplace issues and their effects on the work of art. After reading this text, I am still not sure I would pass the quiz mentioned above. Jacobs steadfastly avoids discussing individual artists and most individual altarpieces. Nevertheless, I have learned much about this fascinating topic.

Jeffrey Chipps Smith
University of Texas at Austin

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