Brigitte D’Hainaut-Zveny, Les retables d’autel gothiques sculptés dans les anciens Pays-Bas. Raisons, formes et usages. Brussels: Académie Royale de Belgique, Classe des Beaux-Arts, 2008. 437 pp, 50 color plates, 28 b&w illus. ISBN 978-2-8031-0248-8.
Jean Magnin and Daniel Meyer, Le retable de Philippe de Gueldre: Le salut à Marie, Église Saint-Laurent de Pont-à-Mousson. Pont-à-Mousson: Imprimerie moderne, 2008. 64 pp, many color illus. ISBN 978-2-95235335-5-7.
Jan Friedrich Richter, Claus Berg: Retabelproduktion des Spätmittelalters im Ostseeraum. Berlin: Deutscher Verlag für Kunstwissenschaft, 2007. 407 pp, 12 color plates, 327 b&w illus., 3 maps. ISBN 978-3-87157-218-0.
This review considers three books on Northern altarpieces, each with a rather different perspective. Brigitte D’Hainaut-Zveny takes a fresh approach to the study of Netherlandish carved altarpieces of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. A well-known scholar of Brussels retables, D’Hainaut-Zveny’s focuses on the status of the altarpiece as a sacred object. Thus, she largely avoids frequently-studied issues, such as attribution, localization, dating, and style – or production and marketing – in favor of a thematic organization designed to address how altarpieces functioned within their religious context. This is a welcome addition to the field and provides many new insights into the material.
D’Hainaut-Zveny’s book is divided into three parts. Part 1, “History”, considers how the altar developed as a site, first for the display of relics, then for images, ending with the enshrinement of the consecrated host. Much of this material has been treated in other studies, but D’Hainaut-Zveny presents the line of development in a particularly clear way, and, in the section on images, brings out important points about how formal elements – notably the retables’ gilding, three-dimensionality and wings – help guarantee the new status of the image as sacred. In addition, D’Hainaut-Zveny presents convincing arguments about how these highly narrative altarpieces functioned to stimulate affective response, and places them within the context of contemporary religious trends, such as mysticism, female devotion, and the Devotio Moderna. It would have been useful, however, for the author to have addressed the vexing question of how the extraordinarily exuberant imagery of carved altarpieces squared with religious values of imageless devotion promoted within these same religious movements.
Part 2 of the book, “Iconography,” examines the main cycles treated in carved altarpieces: the Passion, life of the Virgin, and lives of the saints. This section at times is somewhat general and summary in character, but its strength lies in bringing out connections between subject matter and the functions (both liturgical and devotional) of the altarpieces. Part 3, “Functions and Usages,” represents the heart of the book. It begins with a study of “spatial functions,” that is, how altarpieces mark the altar as a source of the sacred, but in addition establish themselves as sacred. A particularly interesting point raised here is how altarpieces participate in the separation and sanctification of the choir within the unified spaces of Gothic ecclesiastical architecture. The study of “temporal functions,” considers the opening and closing of retables and their relation to the liturgical calendar and the celebration of mass. In the section on “religious functions,” D’Hainaut-Zveny examines how altarpieces accompany liturgical rituals and provide a backdrop to the elevation of the host that concentrates light on the altar (through the use of gilding that reflects light) to help forge an experience of the sacred. This analysis provides a nuanced sense of how imagery can help communicate the theology of real presence while at the same time providing a less eucharistically-oriented focus for serial meditation. The closing chapter of this section, “existential functions,” probes the social functions of the retable as part of a strategy for prestige, for obtaining intercession or remission from sin, and for establishing the identity of a community or lay group. Among the many fascinating points of discussion here is how requests for quality in a commission contract are less an issue of price than of concerns by a donor that the donation offered to the church be worthy to obtain its desired result.
The book is generally well produced with a nice number of illustrations, many in color, although the quality of the illustrations varies, and the small scale of the book is not fully sufficient for all the images to be of adequate size to capture the details of the carvings.
Another contribution to the study of Netherlandish carved altarpieces is Jean Magnin and Daniel Meyer’s book, which takes a more traditional approach in its focus on a single altarpiece, the sixteenth-century Antwerp retable of Philippe de Gueldre in Pont-à-Mousson in Northeast France. This altarpiece is not well known, so the book’s publication of many excellent color photographs will greatly benefit further scholarship on this altarpiece. However, the text of the book, which is quite short and largely describes the scenes and recounts the relevant biblical stories, does not delve into the full range of issues relevant to this altarpiece – whether standard questions about style, attribution, dating and technical data, or those of particular significance to this work. Among the most promising avenues for study within the latter category are patronage (the work likely was donated by Philippe de Gueldre, duchess of Lorraine, to the convent in Pont-à-Mousson, which she joined later in her life, yet contains a very common Passion and Infancy cycle) and export (the export of Netherlandish altarpieces into France warrants broader consideration here, especially in light the close stylistic connections between the Pont-à-Mousson retable and another Antwerp altarpiece in France, in Baume-les-Messieurs). Nevertheless, the authors have taken an important first step in bringing this altarpiece – which is of reasonably good quality, although significant numbers of sculpted figures are missing – to the attention of scholars of Antwerp sculpture.
Jean Friedrich Richter’s book treats German, rather than Netherlandish altarpieces, via a more monographic study of the works of Claus Berg. Berg, a sculptor from Lübeck, active in the first third of the sixteenth century, is not as well known as other Lübeck carvers, such as Bernt Notke and Benedikt Dreyer. But Berg’s work – much of which was produced in Denmark in service to the Danish monarchy – is fascinating in its highly idiosyncratic style and iconography. This beautifully illustrated book, the first monograph on the artist in almost 90 years (although a dissertation on Berg was written in 2000), provides a much needed examination of Berg’s works, although it does not fully resolve all the issues surrounding this somewhat elusive artist.
The book begins with a brief review of the literature on Berg and an equally brief discussion of dates and documentation. The next section provides an interesting (if also rather short) consideration of the historical context, focusing on the conflict within the Kalmar Union (between Denmark, Norway and Sweden), the politics of Schleswig-Holstein (the North German area where Lübeck is located), and the upheavals associated with the Reformation. The main body of the text, however, begins with the study of the royal graves in Odense, Berg’s most important and most securely dated and attributed work. It makes good sense to begin to construct Berg’s oeuvre with the works in Odense, which include a memorial relief for Prince Frans, an epitaph for King Hans, and a magnificent altarpiece for the high altar – and also to present the project at Odense as part of an artistic and political competition with Hans Brüggeman’s work in Bordesholm (Germany) for King Hans’s younger brother, Duke Friedrich. But starting here begins the analysis without any grounding in Berg’s artistic milieu, his early works and training, most notably his purported association with Veit Stoß in Southern Germany. The reader is left further adrift by the chapter’s surprisingly limited consideration of style.
As a result Richter lacks a firm foundation for the subsequent chapter, a very long one, on the attribution of Berg’s works. Here the author first treats the works in Denmark, divided up mainly by type of work (e.g., altarpieces, triumphal crosses), but sometimes by iconography or material (wood vs. stone). Next are Berg’s works in Germany – Berg moved to Mecklenburg in Northern Germany in 1532, probably because of the Reformation – this time divided on a chronological basis. This structure has the odd result that a work, a Madonna in Lübeck, which the author considers to be Berg’s earliest work, is not introduced until page 122. All things considered, it is difficult to form a clear picture of Berg’s stylistic development due to the organization of the material presented here. In this chapter, however, the author does provide some very stimulating discussions, including one of Berg’s treatment of the iconography of the Crucifixion and another (which I found particularly fascinating) about his incorporation of older carvings into some of his retables.
The book continues with useful chapters on carvers associated with Berg and on his school. I do, however, question the rationale behind the inclusion of a separate chapter on the artists who painted the wings of Berg’s retables: if the book is a study of retables, then this material should be presented in conjunction with the sculpted sections, treating the altarpieces as a whole, but if the book is meant to be a monograph on Berg, then studying these paintings here is not really relevant. It was particularly unfortunate that the stylistic context of Berg’s works, something that I think should have been integrated into the study of the objects, was relegated to its own chapter at the end of the book, and did not give much consideration to the relation of Berg’s works to Netherlandish retables, which were well known both in Berg’s home town of Lübeck and in Scandinavia. Of course, in the case of Berg, whom Richter rightly describes as a “lone wolf,” understanding his relation to other stylistic currents is easier said than done.
University of Arkansas