In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, large-scale, lavishly carved wooden altarpieces achieved great popularity in the South Netherlands. Over 350 of these splendid works survive, yet until recently scholars have not paid them the attention they deserve. They were clearly important to contemporaries: documents show that they were often displayed on the high altar of a church, with their more thoroughly studied painted counterparts, even those by major painters such as Roger van der Weyden, for instance, placed in less important positions in side chapels.
Jacobs’s book makes an impressive case for these carved altarpieces’ importance in late medieval culture. She places these works in a broader context than have many earlier studies of them, including the major 1993 exhibition Antwerpse Retables 15-16th eeuw held in Antwerp cathedral, which helped stimulate new interest in the subject. Jacobs’s focus is not on individual artistic personalities, since the majority of these altarpieces were produced by anonymous artists, and they tend to be homogeneous in style. Instead, she examines the body of surviving work to study aspects of late medieval tastes, the functions of the altarpieces, and, particularly successfully, the production methods and marketing strategies developed to produce and sell them.
Jacobs’s introduction defines the characteristic features of the carved altarpiece which consists of a rectangular body (caisse) raised in the centre, a form aptly described as the inverted T-shape. The body is divided into two or three sections with the centre generally the largest. Painted wings were typically included, thus combining both sculpture and painting in a single ensemble. In the book’s first section, Jacobs analyzes late medieval Netherlandish tastes as revealed by these altarpieces. These works were ostentatious and extravagant, filled with small figures arranged in multiple narrative scenes (differing from their German counterparts, which favoured fewer, large iconic figures). They were brightly painted and polychromed, in keeping with the medieval love for bright colour in general, as Jacobs relates (with a fascinating foray into parallels, such as the medieval delight for brightly coloured, sparkling food and illusionistic meal presentations). The small sizes of the figures and of the scenes themselves make them difficult to read at a distance, revealing the medieval love of complexity and miniaturization as seen in other media such as architecture, but also raising still unresolved issues about how these images functioned.
While Jacobs examines the circumstances surrounding both individually commissioned altarpieces and those produced for the open market, the majority of these works, she demonstrates, belong to the latter category. In the second part of the book, Jacobs reconstructs convincingly how these carved altarpieces were designed and executed. Workshops standardized and prefabricated parts, and offered limited choices in compositions and subjects. The result is what she describes as a “strategy of consistency” that can be compared to the manufacture of other art forms, particularly those that also utilized collaboration such as stained glass.
Providing a wealth of new material based on thorough archival research and convincing interpretative analysis, Jacobs makes an important contribution to the field and complements other recent work on the economics and production of art, including the new studies of Netherlandish panel painting by Maryan Ainsworth and Jean Wilson. Jacobs demonstrates, moreover, how the examination of traditionally neglected media can now add a new and significant dimension to our understanding of Northern culture in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.