A Marian Altarpiece in High Renaissance Style

The Catholic Church has always been one of the most important and vigorous patrons of the arts in the world, and as such, it was and continues to be instrumental in inspiring and enabling production of an impressive body of works. Crafted and financed as means of expression, practical needs, and in best circumstances – to glorify God, religious and sacred art heritage calls for an especially close attention, owing to its cultural-historic impact and because it is an inseparable companion to the depth and beauty of the Catholic Faith.

According to a long-honored practice, next to the formal channels established by the Church, artists, art patrons and workshops judiciously invest in the creation of new art as well as proper care for the vulnerable historic pieces. In the same spirit, the workshop of Granda from Spain obtained a number of admirable religious and sacred artworks. Among these, a late XVI century Marian Altarpiece stands as particularly worthy of attention.

In case of a liturgical arts workshop like Granda, art collecting comes secondary to opportunities for in-depth study of artistic techniques and conservation planning. When Granda acquired the Altarpiece of the Immaculate, its Restoration Department took to an intense evaluation of the structure and artistic merit of this singular artwork. While conservation is an immediate concern in case of this type of antiques, putting religious art back in active liturgical use is always an ideal outcome.

Artistic Analysis of the Altarpiece
by Lucas Viar, Granda

The Altarpiece is crafted and constructed entirely in wood. The structure measures 6 meters (20’) in height by 4.2 meters (14’) at its widest. It combines architectural elements, fine carpentry, sculpted works and canvas painting.

The iconographic program consists of 4 large oil on canvas paintings which depict scenes from the life of Our Lady. The second storey holds 3 of these paintings in bays between Corinthian columns. From left to right, we find in the first place the Annunciation, showing the Holy Spirit descending upon the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel. The central painting represents the Nativity of the Lord; Saint Joseph looks over holding a lighted candle while the Virgin lays the Infant Jesus in the manger accompanied by two angels. The rightmost canvas depicts the Epiphany; the Virgin holds the Infant Christ while three Wise Men present their gifts in the presence of Saint Joseph.

These paintings follow the Mannerist style which was in fashion in Spain at the end of the 16thcentury. This is particularly visible in the ingenious use of light to create an intimate atmosphere, for example, by means of St. Joseph’s lit candle in the Nativity scene or the contrasts in the light background in the Epiphany image. The arrangement of the figures also shows the transition between the hieratism of the earlier styles towards more natural and intimate poses associated with the Renaissance. The coloring and composition follow the strict traditions of Southern European iconography: Our Lady is always dressed in red and blue, St Joseph in ochre, the three Magi represent the three ages of men, and Balthasar is African.

The attic of the altarpiece features another canvas, in this case, depicting the Immaculate Conception of Mary, flanked by two volutes painted with angels holding scrolls. The texts from these scrolls “Tanquam virgula fumi ex aromatibus myrrae et thuris” and “quae est ista quae ascendit de deserto deliciis affluens” are passages taken from the Song of Songs (3:6, 8:5). The pediment above holds a half body sculpture of God the Father looking down.

The construction of the altarpiece follows the canons of classical architecture. The three storeys are composed superimposing three classical orders, the Ionic and Corinthian and, presumably, since the attic is lost, Composite. Four columns on each storey, paired with their corresponding pilasters, form three bays. The attic, or uppermost level, retains two large side volutes and gilded pinnacles. A pair of Composite order columns, and pediment would complete this section. The entirety of the architecture is gilded and polychromed with intricate patterns in blue, white, rose and green.

The lower storey contains three niches for statues. The central one is an arched and scalloped niche; its sides are decorated with 4 painted figures, Saints Dominic and Francis, in full figure, and Saints Andrew and John the Baptist, half figure. The sides hold simple recessed rectangular niches. Each is flanked by a pair of gilt and polychromed echidnas.

The four pedestals for the Ionic columns feature gilded and polychromed relief figures. The front panels depict the four evangelists John, Matthew, Mark and Luke. The side panels feature the four Doctors of the Western Church, Saints Jerome, Gregory, Ambrose and Augustine; as well as the allegories of the virtues of Faith and Charity.

The central panel of the predella is decorated with a painting of two putti holding a large scroll with the text “Hic est enim calix Sanguinis mei novi / et √¶terni testamenti mysterium fidei /qui pro vobis et pro multis / effundetur in remissionem peccatorum”.

During the 16th century this panel was cut to accommodate the tabernacle, executed in a style similar to that of the altarpiece. Each of the two side panels contain an oval medallion depicting unidentified scenes, most probably related to the saints missing from the niches above.

Photography Credits: GRANDA

Kinga U. Lipinska
Art Dealer & Project Consultant working with new liturgical art commissions, renovation planning and heritage restoration.

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