Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Troyes Altarpiece at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

As I once mentioned in an earlier article, it is very difficult to write articles about entire museums or art galleries and their work, this is why in these cases I always focus on a single work. Recently, I once again visited the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, perhaps one of my favourite ones - it is famous for being the greatest and most important collection of decorative arts and design. I always spend time admiring the Italian works in the Renaissance wing, especially the beautiful Crivelli, I find the English section quite fascinating, all the Opus Anglicanum works are frankly amazing, the main gallery though, is probably the best, filled with Renaissance treasures from across Europe: Flemish altarpieces, breathtaking Della Robbias and even a Renaissance chapel from a Florentine church. This time my eyes once again fell on somewhat less looked upon perhaps: the Troyes Altarpiece, a masterpiece of the French Gothic Courtois, or International Gothic as we would call it, a transitional stile that was already looking at the Renaissance. That last breath of Gothic that was looking into the Renaissance, still retaining that last breath of Medieval charm found in the intricate pattern of its decorations, almost like branches, leaves and trees - very much like a French Cathedral, but then that's where this masterpiece is from. This work is from about 1525, but whereas Italy was well into the rediscovery of its Classical heritage, the rest of Europe was still developing its late Medieval style and we can actually see this from this very work, whereas in Italy (or the Flanders, though not always) altarpieces were painted, in the rest of Europe altarpieces were mostly sculpted, because architecture and sculpture were the main forms of art - we can see how the frame is integral part of the work - an architectural character that shapes and converses with the different scenes. Architecture, just like in the 1500s is still the protagonist, it is the container of the scenes but also the stunning factor. Whereas in Italian or some Flemish art the "stunning factor" would actually be the perfection and detail in which the characters are portrayed.
The style of the altarpiece was rather popular among similar works in the regions of the Champagne and Aube, the iconography is also rather popular in Northern circles, the six scenes represent the Passion of Christ: the Flagellation, the Betrayal of Christ, Christ carrying the Cross, the Crucifixion  (allegedly based on Albrecht Dürer's engravings of the Small and Large passion), the Entombment, the Resurrection. Behind these main scenes are smaller ones representing: the Betrayal, the Mocking of Christ, the Crowning with Thorns, the Ecce Homo (Christ presented to the people), the Deposition and the Harrowing of Hell, the three Maries at the Sepulchre, the Noli Me Tangere and Christ appearing to the three Maries, all the scenes are surrounded with complementary images and figures. In the upper section is the Annunciation, crowing the whole work and creating a not so imaginary bond with the heavens above.

Let us start this adventure into this enigmatic work. We can start from the central scene: a crucifixion, because this was an altarpiece, this was a necessary iconography - the sacrifice of the Mass had to be represented in the art work, creating a sort of interactive link between heaven and what is occurring on the altar. The donor, in true Renaissance fashion, is kneeling at the foot of the Cross, Jean Huyard l'Aine, who was a laywer and canon of St. Peter and Paul's Collegiate Church in Troyes, where the altarpiece used to be, his coat of arms can be seen on the the left and right panels. 

Here in the centre we have the whole crucifixion scene: the three crosses, the Roman soldiers and Longinus piercing Christ with his spear, dressed in a Renaissance armour, (in late Medieval and Renaissance art it was customary to dress figures in contemporary clothes) and helped by another soldier on a horse in full regalia. On the right, the two Marys are holding Our Lady who is fainting, in the centre another soldier in awe is probably acknowledging that He was truly the Son of God. Saint John is holding the Cross, this sort of pathos created the cult of relics, as John is holding the Cross, creating a link with his lost Lord, so many others will want to have a link with someone dear to them, a saint or even a family member, like we do today with family pictures or objects. However, above this main scene we can spot another cross being prepared for another brutal execution, the author of the work really used sculpture at its best here, in an painted altarpiece we would have had angels weeping and collecting Christ's blood, here we have the brutal truth, another cross, another death, another soul for whom this very Saviour died. The whole scene is framed by a Gothic looking like portal, a brutal door into heaven and the Passion.

Above the Crucifixion, in a rather common manner is the Annunciation, the heavenly link of this our Lord, the angel Gabriel announcing this lowly, and now Queen, Lady the birth of a God. The scene is quite traditional, in that the angel presents that will that shall be done, to a Mary reading the Scripture on a Renaissance lectern, next to a Renaissance bed, whose curtains are waving, this scene is indeed very Renaissance! It is partly because biblical scenes were represented in the style of the time, but also because the story of Christ, the story of our Salvation belongs to all ages and it happens all the time on the altar. As usual there is something in between Mary and the angel: a vase with fleur-de-lis, symbol of Mary and of the Trinity. The Annunciation is strongly linked with the below Crucifixion as the Son of God was destined to save the world since this very moment. Above the whole scene (including the Crucifixion) in a Gothic canopy are God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, and the whole company of angels and saints, presented to us during this very sacrifice of Christ and of the Eucharist. We must imagine, the priest and congregation looking at both scenes during the Mass: the sacrifice that leads us to the glory and salvation of heaven.

On the left, in what looks like the aisle of some Medieval French Cathedral, with a blue ceiling, Gothic carvings, and even Angel bosses are the Flagellation, Christ carrying the Cross - behind these are the minor scenes of: the Betrayal, the Mocking of Christ, the Crowning with Thorns, Christ presented to the people (Ecce Homo). 
In the first scene, the Flagellation, the soldiers are dressed in French Renaissance military uniforms, their rather flamboyant outfits are completely the opposite of the weak looking-like Christ, his halo though is much bigger than any of their hats! Above this scene are the Betrayal and the Mocking of Christ, this is probably the most violent scene after the Crucifixion, though the iconography is quite traditional.  On the right is Christ carrying the Cross, this time in his simple alb and Crown of Thorns Christ again has to deal with soldiers dressed in Renaissance military outfits, though they seem less sadistic than the precedent ones. Behind are the Crowning of Thorns and the Ecce Homo, these are the last moments of life of Our Saviour, the Passion is going to conclude in its sacrifice of Salvation.

On the right is the completion of the mission of Salvation of Christ, beginning from the back with the Harrowing of Hell, the Descent into Limbo, The Three Maries at the Sepulchre, Christ appearing to St Mary Magdalene (Noli me tangere) and Christ appearing to the Three Maries.
Here, after the Crucifixion, the story continues from the death of Jesus, but unlike the other side, this concludes in hope and one can feel it immediately. The first scene is the Deposition, the cadaver of Christ incredibly skinny is being placed in the sepulchre, once again notice it's a Renaissance one - this is a Renaissance work with a Gothic frame and looks!  Traditionally, John is shown to held Mary as she faints.  The other two Marys are also present and behind them. In the background are the Harrowing of Hell and the three Marys at the Sepulchre where the angel warns them that Christ is no more among the dead, an incredible sequence that shows how important is the role of the woman in the Passion of our Lord, present at the Deposition, the first to know the Lord has risen and also present at the Crucifixion - what really the Eucharist is about (not to mention the Descent of the Holy Spirit in the Pentecost, where Mary was also central). 
In the second scene is finally the resurrection of Christ, the soldiers are shocked by what they are witnessing, they are once again dressed in Renaissance outfits (and weaponries). In true late Gothic/Renaissance style, Christ is literally bursting out of the tomb, with the flag of the Resurrection and symbol of hope - his mission of Salvation is complete. Behind this are the Noli Me Tangere, when Mary Magdalene is the first to meet Our Lord and tells her "do not touch me" for he was risen, "have faith"! The last scene is Christ appearing to the Three Maries, including his Mother. A truly moving scene that really transmits all sorts of emotions to the viewer and I will leave that to your own feelings and interpretation.
My favourite scene, a rather rare iconography is the descent of Christ into Hell, showing an already triumphant Christ with his Resurrection flag to save all the righteous people who died before his birth. The mouth of hell is a rather "interesting" Medieval feature, the whole scene is quite "cozy" and quite magical, especially thanks to the charming blue ceiling with golden stars. Another detail, on the frame, is the carving of Jonah and the Whale. Medieval people loved monsters.

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