Printer Friendly

A passion altarpiece restored: a remarkable 15th-century Netherlandish altarpiece acquired by the 15th Duke of Norfolk in 1886 has gone on show at Arundel Castle, following a restoration that has revealed its original painted decoration. Kim Woods reviews the information about its history that has come to light and discusses its place of origin and maker.

Among the treasures at Arundel Castle now displayed to the public for the first time is a 15th-century Netherlandish carved wooden altarpiece (Fig. 1). Until the 1980s, it was one of the unstudied curiosities bought by the 15th Duke of Norfolk. Its history has now been partially reconstructed, and its restoration in 2005 by Plowden and Smith has provided further insights into how and where it might have been made. (1) The altarpiece contains five narrative scenes from the Passion of Christ. Before restoration, Christ Carrying the Cross preceded the scene of Christ at the Column, but they have now been returned to their correct order.


Each of the scenes has vivid anecdotal details, departing in some measure from conventions of Netherlandish carved altarpieces. In scenes of Christ Carrying the Cross, the cross is usually carried with the crossbar facing forward rather than backwards, as here (Fig. 3). Although a common scene in painted Passion narratives, the scene of Christ at the Column is much less common in carved sequences and the presence of the enthroned Pilate is equally unusual (Fig. 2). (2) In the Crucifixion, in an earlier narrative moment, the two thieves are led to the cross to the left of the fainting Virgin, St John and female mourners. Longinus, the soldier who pierced Christ's side with a spear (John 19:34) and whose sight was restored by the blood of Christ, according to The Golden Legend, is to the left of centre. Unusually, the Centurion who converted to belief in Christ Mark 15:39) is represented standing at the right of the scene, rather than on horseback, and equally unusual is the presence of a camel in the right gateway. Two subsidiary scenes of soldiers disputing over Christ's robes are also included at the foot of the crosses. The figure of Nicodemus removing the nails from Christ's hand in the Descent from the Cross (Fig. 5) is perhaps the most virtuoso pose in the entire altarpiece, while the Entombment (Fig. 4) is animated by the expressive gesture of the woman in the back left, captured as if in mid-sentence.


The 15th Duke of Norfolk, an avid collector, bought the altarpiece in 1886. (3) He may have intended it for some religious purpose, but it seems overwhelmingly more likely that it was acquired primarily as a collector's item. By contrast, in the hands of its previous owner, Mexander Beresford Hope, it seems to have served its original function. It was described by Gustav Waagen, director of the Berlin Gemaldegalerie, in a sort of oratory in 1, Connaught Place, Beresford Hope's London house: 'A large altarpiece with wings, carved in wood, from a church in Ypres, in Belgium, the Crucifixion in the centre, with the events before and after it represented in other compartments, with rich gothic accessories. This is the work of a very able master of the end of the 15th century. The motives are speaking, the forms slender, the drapery good taste. Considerable portions of the original over-painting are preserved. (4)

Waagen visited the house in 1854 or 1856, while gathering material for his book on art collections in Great Britain. His claim that the altarpiece originally came from Ypres could be right. In 1813, for example, the cathedral of St Martin, Ypres, held a sale of 'some old church furnishings/ornaments for which there was no further use and which were kept in a state of deterioration; similarly some old stone and wooden goods which were not needed and which were taking up space in the sacristy for no good reason'. (5) Beresford Hope is unlikely to have purchased the altarpiece before 1841, when he inherited his first fortune. He took holidays in Holland and Belgium, but could easily have bought the altarpiece from a London dealer or auction.

Beresford Hope was a renowned high churchman, who described his religious sensibilities as 'strong in sacramental doctrine and aesthetic worship'. (6) He was a member of the Cambridge Camden Society, founded in 1839 by J.M. Neale and Benjamin Webb, and shared their antiquarian views on liturgy, ritual and ecclesiastical aesthetics. From 1846 Beresford Hope was chairman of the society and in 1859 became its president. For high Anglican bodies such as the Cambridge Camden Society, or the Ecclesiological Society as it became after 1845, accusations of 'popery' were never very far away, and it might have been for this reason that the Arundel altarpiece's polychromy was toned down by a disfiguring dark stain at some point in the 19th century, possibly by a dealer.

In 1886, shortly before his death, Beresford Hope's collection of sculpture was sold by Christie's, between 12 and 14 May. The altarpiece formed lot 303: 'An old Flemish carved wood Altar-piece with the crucifixion; and four smaller subjects from the Passion, in high relief under Gothic canopies'. The Duke of Norfolk's dealer Charles Davis bought it for the large stun of 91 [pounds sterling] 7s and eventually charged the duke 95 [pounds sterling] 18s 6d. (7) This price did not include the painted wings, which had been detached by this stage, presumably to be sold separately. There is a possibility that they might have been the 'pair of wings of a triptych each with two subjects, on gold ground, mounted in oak frame, of Gothic design, as a screen' sold on 15 May for 21 [pounds sterling] as lot 16. Their whereabouts are now unknown.

During the 15th and early 16th centuries, carved altarpieces were produced in considerable numbers in the Netherlands--that is, the territories coveting roughly present-day Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of northern France then ruled by the Valois Dukes of Burgundy and subsequently the Habsburg Dukes Philip the Fair and Charles v. Brussels, Antwerp and to a lesser extent Mechelen were the main commercial centres of carved altarpiece production, but documentary evidence proves that carved altarpieces were also produced in a series of other artistic centres throughout the Netherlandish territories. Indeed the earliest surviving documented Netherlandish carved altarpieces, made between 1390 and 1399 for Duke Philip the Bold for the Chartreuse de Champmol in Dijon and now in the Musde des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, were made in Dendermonde, a town between Mechelen and Ghent and not otherwise renowned for its artistic activities.

The production of a Netherlandish carved wooden altarpiece involved the collaboration of three different sorts of craftsmen: carvers to make the narrative scenes; joiners to make the case and tracery and painters to polychrome the carvings and supply painted shutters. Antwerp, where woodcarvers and painters belonged to the same Guild of St Luke, and where from at least 1477 carvers were permitted to make their own altarpiece cases if they wished, was the only city in which guild regulations might allow an altarpiece to be produced from start to finish within a single workshop. Even here it seems clear that subcontracting between painters and carvers' workshops was the norm, however. The Arundel altarpiece relates more closely to Brussels models, where three different guilds might be involved, and perhaps as many as four workshops, since although the polychromy and painted shutters might be done by the same craftsmen, this was not necessarily so.

For much of the 15th century the inverted T-shape case was standard in Netherlandish carved altarpieces. In a Passion altarpiece, the raised central section provided not only added emphasis but also valuable additional vertical space for a Crucifixion scene, while the case's upper surface provided a convenient shelf on which statues would probably have been stood. (8) The case of the Arundel altarpiece, like almost all other Netherlandish carved altarpieces, is made of oak. It has not been possible to establish whether it is Baltic oak, imported from Gdansk in Poland, which was preferred above local oak because its slow growth made it relatively free from knots and resistant to thermal expansion and contraction. (9)

Patches of gilding with punched decoration remain on the interior of the case, and traces of gold also survive on the tracery. The tracery is essentially flat, simple and box-like in structure, comprising components that slot together vertically (Fig. 8). Although restoration revealed many repairs to the tracery, probably made in the 19th century, there are no indications that its essential form has been altered. Its construction is in marked contrast to the complex three-dimensional architectural tracery typical of many carved altarpieces, found as early as c. 1420 in the altarpiece attributed to the Netherlandish Master of Hakendover in the Reinoldikirche, Dortmund. (10)


The wood used for the carved scenes was obscured by the remains of the polychromy and the heavy dark stain applied in the 19th century, and it had been assumed also to be oak. During restoration, when the carvings were removed from the case and the underside and backs were visible, it became obvious that they were in fact made of walnut. There are several surviving oak altarpiece cases with walnut carvings, for example the mid-15th-century Passion altarpiece recently acquired by the Musees Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire in Brussels, but it is really a 15th-century phenomenon. (11) By the end of the 1500s, walnut was rarely used.

The Arundel scenes, like those in most Netherlandish carved altarpieces before the end of the 15th century, are carved essentially from a single block of wood. Typically, the ground slopes steeply upwards toward the back of the scene, offering a modest illusion of space. The base of each of the Arundel scenes is hollowed out, presumably primarily to reduce their weight. The carved scenes were usually free-standing within their architectural compartments rather than permanently fixed within the case. This meant that the carvings might be securely wrapped for transport and the altarpiece constructed only on arrival at its destination. Although a huge advantage in the 15th-century export trade, this meant that it was all too easy on its arrival in England in the 19th century for the two left scenes of the Arundel altarpiece to be reversed.

Additional boards simulating a landscape background, and occasionally additional figures, are nailed to the back of the Arundel carvings, for example in the Descent from the Cross. The back of the Crucifixion scene was particularly revealing (Fig. 7) The exaggerated and robust thieves and their guards to the left of the Crucifixion are so unlike the rest of the altarpiece that it looked as if they had been interpolated at a later date. This is not the case. When seen from the back it is quite clear that the two narrow side sections are integral to the scene and were specifically designed to slope inwards at the top, disguising the join between the blocks when seen from the front. The subsidiary scene of the soldiers quarrelling over Christ's robe is in fact part of the same block as the two thieves. The conclusion was unavoidable: these anomalous figures were an original part of the scene, or perhaps, together with the corresponding fight section, constituted an original enlargement of an existing scene, albeit by another carver. Perhaps the abrupt stylistic shift was seen as a way of differentiating the rustic thieves from the holy figures of the Virgin and St John adjacent. At least four hands are detectable in the altarpiece, showing that it was the work of a small team of carvers.


Most carved altarpieces imported to England in the 19th century were stripped of their polychromy. The Arundel altarpiece is particularly important because it was not. (12) Although underneath the dark stain the polychromy had looked as if it might be rather unexciting, cleaning revealed that it was much richer and more vivid than had been suspected. (13) In the Entombment, for example, St John the Evangelist's robe appears to be decorated with so-called 'press brocade', that is, imitation brocade made out of wax, or chalk mixed with glue pressed into a detailed mould to make sheets of imitation brocade. These were then stuck to the figure, painted and gilded. There are several other fragments of what appears to be press brocade in the altarpiece.

Polychromy was also used to great expressive effect. Simon of Cyrene in Christ Carrying the Cross has a particularly delicately painted face (Fig. 6). His redder complexion contrasts with the white flesh tones of the Virgin immediately above him. The reddest and coarsest flesh tones in this scene are reserved to single out the bad character in the scene, the soldier in the lower left. Streaks of blood are painted on the back of Christ's hand and foot. Polychromy is also used to give an impression of old age--Simon of Cyrene, and one of the two thieves led to the cross are grey-haired--and to suggest particular textures, such as the fur collar worn by I the man in the back left of Christ at the Column.


Like most Netherlandish carved altarpieces, the Arundel altarpiece was heavily gilded, using two methods. What is now the brightest gold is oil gilding: gold mixed with a binder and applied like paint to the wood. This responded well to cleaning. Oil gilding requires only that the wood receive a sealing layer beforehand, hence it is good for areas carved in fine detail that could be obscured by the chalk ground required for polychromy and gilding with gold leaf. Most of the hats and hair in the altarpiece have been done using oil gilding. Much of the landscape and most of the robes in the Crucifixion scene were gilded using gold leaf, easily distinguished now by its duller appearance, since here the 19th-century stain proved more resistant to cleaning, but was probably originally brighter, since, unlike oil gilding, it could be burnished. The legacy of the 19th-century stain means that it is unusually easy now to distinguish which method of gilding was used where and why.

The fundamental question of precisely where in the Netherlands the Arundel altarpiece might have been made has proved surprisingly troublesome. In many respects, it resembles carved altarpieces made in Brussels in the second half of the 15th century. It follows a basic Brussels altarpiece format and, very broadly speaking, the Brussels altarpiece of St Leonard in Zoutleeuw, documented to 1476-79, is comparable in the zig-zag upper frieze, the lower frieze and the occasionally elongated figures. (14) Parallels with this work and the tall acorn hat and long hair of the man riding the camel in the Crucifixion all suggest a date within the 1470s. (15) The two narrow side blocks supplementing the Arundel Crucifixion scene is a structure also found in the central Nativity of the lower altarpiece of Villers-la Ville, another Brussels work. (16) The Brussels altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi in Rouen provides general comparisons with Arundel in the suggestion of landscape, in the elongated proportions of the figures, and, to an extent, individual facial types and the lower frieze. (17) The well-known Claudio de Villa altarpiece, made in Brussels c. 1460-70 (Musees Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels; Fig. 9) is broadly similar in costume, in figure types--such as the St John figures--and in the distinctively square facial types of the soldiers of the De Villa Resurrection and those of the Arundel Crucifixion.


Although it is clear that in style and format the Arundel altarpiece conforms to Brussels conventions: its recent dismantling and restoration highlighted some of the problems in attributing the work to Brussels itself. In 1454, as a sort of quality control measure, the Brussels carvers' guild introduced a hallmark constituting a mallet mark incised into the wood of the carved work. (18) Typically this was applied very sparingly on the back or underside of scenes, areas that would not normally seen. Hence it was only when the altarpiece was dismantled that it was possible to search for Brussels marks. There were none. This is not the only difficulty.

In its frieze-like tracery comprising a series of ogival arches (Fig. 8), the Arundel altarpiece departs from the three-dimensional architectural tracery of altarpieces of the 1470s, such as the Zoutleeuw altarpiece, and instead is closely comparable with much earlier Brussels work, such as the mid-15th-century Katharinekirche altarpiece in Schwabisch Hall, usually dated around 1440, over 30 years earlier than the proposed date of the Arundel altarpiece, and attributed to Willem Ards, a Brussels carver who later settled in Leuven. (19) If the Arundel altarpiece is indeed a Brussels work of the 1470s, the tracery appears to be very old fashioned. It differs subtly in other ways from its Brussels models. The scale of its figures is smaller in relation to case and tracery than was the norm in Brussels altarpieces. As discussed above, the iconography and design of its scenes depart from Brussels conventions in some respects, most notably in the absence of horsemen in the Crucifixion scene.

Hitherto the suggestion that the Arundel altarpiece was the work of an elderly Brussels carver, using very old patterns and a very old-fashioned case-maker, seemed the most convincing. (20) Now that no Brussels mark has been found, it seems rather more likely that it was made by a Brussels carver who, like Willem Ards, worked elsewhere and adapted his practices somewhat, or one who worked in a satellite centre closely dependent on Brussels work. Even supposing the Ypres provenance of the altarpiece to be correct, too little is known about the sculpture produced in Ypres to tell whether it might have been made there. (21) Wherever it was made, the Arundel altarpiece in all its restored glory is a tribute to its makers, to the discerning collecting habits of the 15th Duke of Norfolk and to the skills of its restorers.

(1) I am very grateful to Plowden and Smith for allowing me unrestricted access to the altarpiece during its restoration and for all I have learned through many conversations with them. For previous analysis of the Arundel altarpiece, some of which is now outdated, see K.W. Woods, Netherlandish Carved Wooden Altarpieces of the Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries in Britain, unpublished PhD thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, 1988, pp. 142, 144, 256-65; idem, 'Questions d'attribution stylistique: retables inedits en Angleterre,' in S. Guillot de Suduiraut (ed.), Retables brabancons des XVe et XVIe siecles, Paris, 2002, pp. 348-32.

(2) The seated figure of Pilate is also included in the scene of Christ at the Column in the Brussels carved altarpiece from St Donatian, Bruges, and now in the cathedral of St Saviour. See M. Buyle and C. Vanthillo Retables flamands et brabancos dans les monuments Belges, Brussels, 2000, pp. 144-45.

(3) J.M. Robinson, The Dukes of Norfolk, Oxford, 1982, pp. 212-37.

(4) G. Waagen, Galleries and Cabinets of Art, London, 1857, p. 190.

(5) 'quelques vieux ornements de l'eglise dont on n'avait aucun besoin, et qui perissaient en les conservant; ainsi que quelques vicux offers en bois et en pierre dont on ne pouvait faire aucun usage et qui inutilement prenaient place a la sacristie'; sec A. Deschrevel, 'Verdwenen kunstschatten uit de Sint Maartcnskathcdraal te Ieper' in Kerkelijke en Kunstgeschiedenis ran West-Vlaanderen opgedragen aan Z.E.H. Michiel English, Bruges, 1952, p. 109.

(6) H.W. and I. Law, The Book of the Beresford Hopes, London, 1923, p. 133.

(7) Arundel Castle Archives MD 1681.

(8) The most famous representation of this arrangement is the statue of the Virgin in a folding, case placed on top of the altarpiece in Rogier van der Weyden's Seven Sacraments altarpiece. Koninklijke Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp (M. Friedlander, Early Netherlandish Painting, Leiden, 1967-76, vol. II, plate 34).

(9) For recent scholarship on Baltic oak, see T. Wazny, 'The origin, assortments and transport of Baltic timber', in C. Van de Velde. H. Beeckman, J. Van Acker and F. Verhaeghe (eds.), Constructing Wooden Images (Proceedings of the symposium on the organisation of labour and working practices of Late Gothic carved altarpieces in the Low Countries), 2002, Brussels Vrije Universiteit, Brussels, 2005, pp. 115-26.

(10) L. Jacobs, Early, Netherlandish carved altarpieces, 1380-1550: Medieval Tastes and Mass Marketing, Cambridge, 1998, pp. 42-43, fig. 28.

(11) A. Huysmans (ed.), La sculpture des Pays-Bas meridionaux et de la principaute de Liege, publication of the Musees Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire Brussels 2000, cat. no. 36, pp. 89-92.

(12) Another Netherlandish carved altarpiece with original polychromy is now in Carlisle Cathedral. The Netherlandish carved altarpiece in Oxburgh Hall has been repainted. For these and the other carved altarpieces in England see K.W. Woods, 'Five Netherlandish carved altarpieces in England and the Brussels school of carving', The Burlington Magazine, vol. CXXXVIII, no. 1125 (December 1996), pp. 788-800; idem, 'Some sixteenth-century. Antwerp carved wooden altar-pieces in England', op. cit., vol. CXLI, no. 1152 (March, 1999), pp. 144-45 and idem, Imported Images, Donnington, 2006 (forthcoming).

(13) I am particularly grateful to Pamela French of Plowden and Smith for sharing with me her expertise on polychromy and gilding.

(14) Buyle and Vanthillo, op. cit., pp. 232-33 (includes bibliography).

(15) Information on costume and hairstyle kindly provided by Margaret Scott.

(16) Buyle and Vanthillo, op. cit., p. 222 (the altarpiece is here dated c. 1450-60). See also M. Serck-Dewaide, 'Retables non polychromes ou retables decapes?', in S. Gulilot de Suduiraut (ed.), Retables brabancons des xve et xvie siecles, Paris, Paris, 2002, p. 71, fig. 6.

(17) Musee Departemental, Rouen; R.H. Randall, 'A Flemish altar made for France', Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, 1970-71, p. 17, fig. 8; C. Perier D'Ieteren, 'Les Volets peints du retable de la Vie de la Vierge conserve a Rouen', Jaarboek van her Koninktijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, 1996, pp. 9-35). The altarpiece has been dated c 14611-811 (see J. Steyaert, Late Gothic Sculpture, Ghent, 1994, pp. 156-57, cat. no. 27) but Perier D'Ieteren proposes a rather later date of c. 1485-90 for the painted wings.

(18) The classic article on this is H.Nieuwdorp, 'De oorspronkelijke betekenis en interpretatie van de keurmerken op Brabantse retabels en beeldnijwerk, Archivum Artis Lovaniensis, Bijdragen tor de geschiedenis van de kunst der Nederlanden opgedragen aan Prof.Em Dr J.K. Steppe, Leuven, 1982, pp. 85-98; see also Woods, op. cir. in n. 12 above (2006), chapter 1.

(19) Steyaert, op. cit., pp. 72-73 and cat. no. 17, pp. 132-33; W. Deutsch, 'Der Hochaltar der Haller Katharinenkirchc. Gcschichte und Herkunft,' Wurttembergische Franken Jahrbuch, 1985, pp. 127-220.

(20) I am grateful to Robert Didier for this suggestion.

(21) The pulpit of Winnezele in French Flanders came from the Martinuskerk in Ypres and has very interesting carved scenes, but it is 16th century and quite unlike the Arundel altarpiece. Sec E. Lotthe, Lez eglises de la Flandre Francaise au nord de la Lys, Lille, 1943, pp. 171-77, fig. LVII.

Kim Woods is a lecturer in art history at the Open University and a specialist in Netherlandish sculpture c. 1400-c. 1500.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Apollo Magazine Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Woods, Kim
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUNE
Date:Jun 1, 2006
Previous Article:Arundel Castle ducal splendour revived: to open this special issue on the collections of the Dukes of Norfolk, John Martin Robinson explores the...
Next Article:The collector Earl & his modern marbles: Thomas Howard & Francois Dieussart: Charles Avery elucidates the puzzles that surround the Earl of Arundel's...

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |