Ornamental, Polychrome Marble Altars of the 17th and 18th Centuries

In the modern era we've become accustomed to seeing altars that are rather monochromatic in form -- perhaps accented by gold, but otherwise usually found in white, grey or, wood painted white or stained. It would be easy to assume this is the only form altars take  However, if we look back in history we can find altars that were characterized by far greater colour which was accomplished by the use of coloured, inlaid marbled. Sometimes these were setup as simple geometric patterns, while other times they contained depictions of saints, flora, fauna or other symbols. One place this was especially common to see is within Italy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Today I thought we would take a look at a few examples of these beautiful, colourful, ornamental altars where the altar itself takes on something of the character of an antependium.

As trends go, those found in the eighteenth century might be particularly colourful with all manner of details including imagery, while those in the century prior might be more likely to tend toward larger, simpler geometric designs -- thought it should be said that I would not wish to suggest this is a definitive 'rule' so to speak; only the trends I have generally observed.

We will begin with some of these altars from the eighteenth first off, beginning with this absolutely gorgeous example which includes marbles of various colours that have been inlaid into patterns, some of which have been given floral form. The centre piece is the image of a saint, possibly St. Jerome.

18th century

Simlarly we can find another similar sort of example, this time depicting St. Michael, with beautiful floriated designs as well as birds decorating it.


Detail showing St. Michael the Archangel

Some of these examples take on the additional character of sculpted elements being embeeded within the altar, as is the case with this example which depicts Pope St. Linus and also includes cherubs. 

First half of the 18th century

Detail showing St. Linus

Not all of the examples form this period contain figurative imagery though of course. This next examples includes a familiar cross in the middle -- commonly seen in Rome -- but the rest of the design is made up by naturalistic vine and flower motifs. 


But returning to imagery, we can this beautiful example which contains a scene of the nativity, and another following which includes the crowned "Ave Maria" monogram. 

1722, Nativity

1729, Marian

The seventeenth century also saw a similarly colourful approach, but as noted, the examples I have found to date tend toward larger designs that rely on geometry and the inherent beauty of the marbles themselves.


A view of the entire altar with its accompanying reredos

Yet another example in the same vein:


However, as noted it is dangerous to create hard and fast rules, rather than merely noting stylistic trends, for this example, date the later seventeenth century, shows the inclusion of crosses as well two rather neo-classical urns / vases containing an unidentified fruit tree.


The entire altar

Certainly these altar pieces demonstrate that altars need not be monochromatic, and indeed, the use of coloured marbles can add a great deal of artistic beauty and prominence to these altars.

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