For My Daily Art Display today I am going to look at an altarpiece by the fifteenth century Austrian painter and sculptor Michael Pacher. As far as I can remember, I have only presented one other altarpiece in my blog and that was way back on December 7th 2010 when I talked about the exquisite Isenheim Altarpiece crafted by Matthias Grünewald. Before I go into details of Pacher’s altarpiece let me talk in general about altarpieces.
Altarpieces are normally carvings, sculptures or paintings or a combination of all three. They can be split into two main categories. One type is known as the reredos. It is this type which is positioned behind the altar, rising from ground level and acting as a backdrop to the altar. The other category is known as the retable, and these altarpieces stand either on the back of the altar itself or on a pedestal behind it. In some churches, one can see both types of altarpieces. The actual positioning of the altarpieces is often dictated by their size.
In the early days, before the use of canvas was the norm for painting, altarpieces were usually constructed of two or more separate wooden panels on which a set of religious depictions would be painted. When the altarpiece comprised of just two panels, usually hinged together, it would be known as a diptych. If the altarpiece construction was made of three hinged panels, a central panel and two side panels, then it was known as a triptych. There were some altarpieces which consisted of many panels hinged together, side to side, but these side panels were also split horizontally giving small top and bottom independently hinged panels. These were known as polyptychs.
Within the anatomy of altarpieces with their central and side panels,there are also such things as roundels, spandrels, predellas and pilasters and I won’t go into great detail about each of these but suggest you look at the website below which graphically explains the various “add-ons” that artists used to give to their altarpieces. The website is:
Today I want to concentrate on one particular altarpiece which Michael Pacher created for the Neustift Monastery high in the mountains close to Brixen, the south Tyrol town in northern Italy, known by the Italians as Bressanone. The altarpiece which is part painting and part sculpture is entitled The Altarpiece of the Church Fathers and Pacher completed it in 1483. Art historians have ranked this altarpiece as Pacher’s second most famous work, only being bested by the altarpiece he conjured up for the Church of St Wolfgang two years earlier. My reason for choosing the one I have is that I liked the various stories attributed to each of the panels. However before I look in detail at the altarpiece let me tell you a little bit about its creator.
Michael Pacher, an Austrian by birth, was born around 1435 in or around the town of Brixen, which presently lies on the southern slopes of the Italian Alps, close to the border with Austria. Little is known about his upbringing or his early life except that he is thought to have trained under the Tyrolean artist, Hans Von Brubeck, who had a painting school in the area. Records show that Michael Pacher set up his own workshop in the town of Bruneck (Italian: Brunico) in the southern Tyrol region about 35 kms from Brixen. It was here that he fashioned his altarpieces. In the days of Michael Pacher, the town of Bruneck, which lies in the Puster Valley, was on a well used trade route between Augsburg in Germany and Venice and the small town became a stopping off for both merchants and their goods and with that, came affluence and fame for the small town. The town of Bruneck is now often referred to as Michael-Pacher-Stadt.
Most of the work carried out by Michael Pacher was commissioned by the church and it was mainly his altarpieces which were in great demand. Pacher was not just a skilled painter but a master wood carver and his altarpieces often consisted of a beautifully carved figurative centrepiece flanked by religious paintings on the side panels. He spent most of his time in the area around Brixen and Bruneck although he did travel, on a couple of occasions, south to Mantua and Padua. It was when he was in his late fifties that he moved to Salzburg where he took on the large commission for the high altar of theFranziskanerkirche, the Franciscan church, but he was never to finish the commission, dying in Salzburg in 1498. Unfortunately what he did complete has not been preserved. Fortunately though , the statue of the Madonna with Child, one of Michael Pacher’s masterpieces, was integrated in the high altar designed two centuries later by Fischer von Erlach and has been preserved for posterity.
And so to My Daily Art Display featured work, The Altarpiece of the Church Fathers. The picture shows the internal panels of the Altarpiece, the ones seen when the altarpiece is fully opened. It is a combination of carved shrines and wood panel paintings. The altarpiece is divided into a centre panel which consist of two separate works and two hinged side panels, which have paintings on both sides. Each panel depicts one of the four Great Doctors of the Western Church. Each of the depictions serve to remind us of a legend attached to the depicted saint. The Catholic Church bestowed the title Great Doctors of the Western Churchon saints whose writings the whole Church is held to have derived great advantage from and to whom “eminent learning” and “great sanctity” have been attributed by a proclamation of a pope or of an ecumenical council. The four men we see on Michael Pacher’s altarpiece are Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome and Pope Gregory I all of whom were the original Doctors of the Church and were named as such in 1298. They were early and influential theologians, eminent Christian teachers and great bishops and are known collectively as the Great Doctors of the Western Church.
On the inner left side panel of the altarpiece we have Saint Jerome. Jerome of Stridonium, who was born around 347AD, is best known for the legend in which he drew a thorn from a lion’s paw, and in Michael Pacher’s depiction of the saint, we see him draped in the red robes of a cardinal, stroking the lion. Jerome was also a great scholar and was the translator of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. Jerome’s edition of the Bible, the Vulgate, is still an important text of Catholicism. Jerome was a noted Christian apologist, a term given to people who present a rational basis for the Christian faith, and who defend the faith against objections, and by doing so attempt to expose the errors of other world views.
If we move to the right of the St Jerome panel we come to the central part of the altarpiece which is formed by two separate panels. The left hand side of this central panel depicts St Augustine. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo Regius (now the Algerian town of Annaba), was born around 355AD. He was a philosopher and theologian. Augustine is looked upon as one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity. Augustine was greatly influenced by the writings of the great Classical Greek philosopher, Plato. He framed the concepts of original sin and just wars as they are understood in the West. If you look closely at the panel painting you will see a small child sat at the feet of St Augustine. The reason for the child’s inclusion harks back to the legend regarding St Augustine and his struggle to understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity, which goes as follows:
The scene is the seashore, where there is a small pool, a little boy with a seashell, and a sandy beach on which St. Augustine, clad in his Episcopal robes, is walking, pondering with difficulty the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.
“Father, Son, Holy Spirit; three in one!” he muttered, shaking his head.
As he approached the little boy who was running back and forth between the sea and the pool with a seashell of water, Augustine craned his neck and asked him: “Son, what are you doing?”
“Can’t you see?” said the boy. “I’m emptying the sea into this pool!”
“Son, you can’t do that!” Augustine countered. “I will sooner empty the sea into this pool than you will manage to get the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity into your head!”
Upon saying that, the boy, who was an angel according to legend, quickly disappeared, leaving Augustine alone with the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.
The right hand side of the central panel depicts Pope Gregory I. Saint Gregory, or Gregory the Great as he was known, was born around 540AD and was made pope in 590AD and held that high office until his death in 604. He was also known as Gregorius Dialogus (Gregory the Dialogist) because of his four-volume Dialogues, in which he wrote of the lives and miracles of the saints of Italy and of the afterlife. In the panel painting we see him seated in conversation with a man wearing a crown and who appears to be standing in the middle of a fire. So what is this all about?
The legend surrounding Pope Gregory the Great, was that while he was walking through the Forum of Trajan, he thought of the justice of that emperor towards a poor widow deprived of her only son by a violent death. On entering St. Peter’s he prayed that the soul of so virtuous an emperor might not be forever lost, and his prayers were answered. The panel painting depicts Gregory rescuing the Roman Emperor Trajan from Purgatory by the power of prayer.
The right hand side panel is of Aurelius Ambrosius, who would later be known as St. Ambrose of Milan, Ambrose, who was born around 330AD, was the bishop of Milan and who became one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the 4th century . In the side panel we see Ambrose sitting at writing desk but more interestingly at his feet is a baby in a cradle. Once again there is a reason for the baby’s inclusion and, like the other wood panel depictions, it is all about a legend, which is attributed to the main character in the painting. In this case it is a legend about Ambrose when he was a baby. Legend has it that a swarm of bees settled on Ambrose’s his face while he lay in his cradle, leaving behind a drop of honey. His father considered this a sign of his future eloquence and “honeyed tongued”. For this reason, bees and beehives often appear in depictions of St Ambrose.
In each of the paintings the four Church Fathers are depicted with a dove, which symbolised the presence of the Holy Spirit so as to represent their holiness. All four are set inside beautifully decorated individual recesses, but appear to jut out from the picture plane into the viewer’s space. One gets a feel of deep perspective as we look at the altarpiece and this is due to the way Pacher has foreshortened the floor tiles and by the way in which he has given the four overhead canopies a feeling of depth which make them appear as they are jutting out towards us.
On the reverse sides of the two wing panels there are two further paintings which can only be viewed when the altarpiece is closed. One of these depicts St Augustine liberating a prisoner whilst the other depicts the Vision of St Sigisbert.
2 thoughts on “The Altarpiece of the Church Fathers by Michael Pacher”
Wonderful stuff, thanks. Just to remind us that the roots of western art are in the works that the Church commissioned in the Middle Ages.