Le Retable de la Passion de l’Église Sainte-Marie de Güstrow: Éude historique et technologique/ Der Passions-Altar der Pfarrkirche St. Marien zu Güstrow: historische und technologische Studie, under the direction of Catheline Périer-D’Ieteren, in collaboration with Ivo Mohrmann. Brussels: Éditechnart, 2014. 255 pp, 148 color illus. and 17 color plates. ISBN 978-94-6136-045-8.
Le Retable du Couronnement de la Vierge: Église de l’Assomption d’Errenteria/ Het retabel van de Kroning van Maria: Kerk van Maria-Tenhemelopneming te Errenteria, under the direction of Maite Barrio Olana, Ion Berasain Salvarredi and Catheline Périer-D’Ieteren. Brussels: Éditechnart, 2013. 206 pp, 110 color illus. ISBN 978-94-6136-036-6.
Over the last twenty years or so, there has been a wealth of scholarship on Netherlandish carved altarpieces of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. We now know much more about these art works, which were hugely popular in their day, but until recently hardly known outside Belgium. Still, it has been difficult to get a good handle on these altarpieces due to various factors: their multi-media nature (usually combining polychromed sculpture with painted wings); their large size and elaborate narrative cycles; their collaborative production by often anonymous workshops; and their preservation in scattered, typically hard-to-reach locations. These two publications – both produced under the direction (or co-direction) of Catheline Périer-D’Ieteren and containing numerous essays by different authors – each provide a detailed art-historical and technical study of an individual altarpiece. They both were produced in connection with major restoration campaigns and form very welcome additions to the body of research on Netherlandish carved altarpieces.
The book on the Passion Retable of Güstrow in Mecklenburg (in French and German) treats one of the better-known and prestigious works, a double-winged altarpiece produced shortly before 1522 by the leading sculptural atelier in Brussels, the Borman school, with wings attributed to the leading Brussels painter of the first decades of the sixteenth century, Bernard van Orley. The essays help refine the attributions, giving the paintings not to Van Orley, but to artists in his circle, with the two main hands identified as the Master of Saint Michel and Jan Rombouts, along with assistants who included a specialist for the landscape elements. The sculptures are attributed to three main hands: Jan III (active c. 1499-1522), son of Jan Borman II (the head of the Borman school), for the central part of the caisse in his more Gothic style; Jan III’s brother, Passier (active c. 1491-1537), for the lower sections of the right wing in a more Renaissance style; and an assistant, working in a less refined style, for the left wing. (I was not convinced, however, that Jan III did the Entombment in the upper right wing). The essays provide a lot of insight into the workings of the Borman shop, studying their practices of producing copies, of using stamps as authorizations for export, and of signing their works with names or with the “hidden signature” of a monkey (which could represent an unexpected sign of artistic self-consciousness within the carved altarpiece industry). Of particular interest is the evidence that some of the work was done in situ: study of the wood indicates that the soldier bearing the signature “Jan Borman” was made in local Mecklenburg wood that dates c. 1523, the year after the altarpiece was erected in the church.
I also found the more general, introductory essays to be of great interest, particularly Périer-D’Ieteren’s study of double-winged altarpieces and D’Hainaut Zveny’s very thought-provoking study of the multiple roles of the wings of carved altarpieces; these included their functions for creating sacred status, establishing a devotional community, representing the mystic body of Christ, and creating a scansion of liturgical time.
The second book reviewed here, the volume on the Coronation of the Virgin altarpiece in Errenteria, represents a particularly important addition to our understanding of the Borman school because it studies a very little-known Borman retable that was exported to the Basque region of Spain. In general, Brabantine altarpieces in Spain – particularly those located outside Castille – are not widely known because most were preserved in a fragmentary state and/or integrated into other, later structures. Moreover, current scholarship on Netherlandish altarpieces in Spain – most notably, by J. Muñiz Petralanda and M.J. Gómez Bárcena – has appeared in Spanish, a language less commonly used in the study of Northern European sculpture. This volume, in French and Dutch, will bring much more attention to the Netherlandish retables in Spain; and the introductory essay here by Olano and Salvarredi provides a fundamental entrée into this topic.
Périer-D’Ieteren considers the Errenteria altarpiece (which no longer retains its wings) to be a collaborative production of two hands from the Borman atelier, one similar to Jan II and Jan III, and the other similar to Passier. The retable was produced around 1528, hence later than the Güstrow altarpiece (dated before 1522). Périer-D’Ieteren’s essay on attribution provides further evidence of the differing stylistic characteristics within the Borman shop that are also apparent at Güstrow. An especially notable feature of the Errenteria altarpiece is its highly unusual iconography: its main scenes present a virtually unprecedented combination of The Coronation of the Virgin (in the center) – in which the Virgin is crowned by the entire Trinity, including the Holy Spirit shown in human form – The Pentecost(originally at the right, now at left), and The Last Supper (originally at left, now at right). Périer-D’Ieteren suggests that this thematic combination indicates the work was produced for a Trinitarian or Augustinian church. She conjectures that the small scenes (of which only one, The Entombment of a Bishop Saint, remains) included an event from the life of Thomas Becket, an English saint with connections to the Augustinians. If true, the iconography would support the traditional belief that the altarpiece was given to the Spaniard María de Lezo, in exchange for her services to Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII of England. However, the patronage circumstances and their impact on the work’s iconography still remain hazy.
Another intriguing aspect of the Errenteria altarpiece arises from the discovery – based on solid stylistic and physical evidence – that its small scene showing The Entombment of a Bishop Saint was made in Antwerp. This raises the possibility that the Brussels-based Borman shop purchased readymade sculptures from Antwerp for inclusion in their altarpieces. Not all the small scenes at Errenteria came from Antwerp, however, since the wood in the surviving landscape section of another small compartment came from the same tree as the Last Supper scene, likely carved by Jan III. I wish this book had considered more fully the question of custom-made vs. prefabricated parts here; also the extent of accommodation to foreign tastes – as evidenced by the altarpiece’s shape – could have been probed more. Still, the book is very informative, and includes much valuable information not found elsewhere, including material about wood, tools, measurements, as well as details about polychromy, including the use of press brocade and red lakes.
Lynn F. Jacobs
University of Arkansas