A miniature Gothic altarpiece (S279)
Because so many great medieval cathedrals and churches are massive, dominating structures, it is easy to think of the art of the Gothic era (13th-early 16th centuries) as essentially large in scale. The extraordinary box-wood tabernacle altarpiece in the Wallace Collection demonstrates that there was also a demand from patrons for intricate and small-scale works of art, which showed off the virtuosity of the craftsmen who made them. Although it is only some 44 cm. (17 inches) high, the altarpiece contains as much narrative detail as the sumptuous large wooden altarpieces made in great numbers for churches in the Low Countries (modern Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg) during the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries. The Wallace Collection tabernacle even replicates to some extent the form of these shuttered altarpieces.
The altarpiece consists of a large number of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, as well as individual figures of saints and prophets, all carved in great detail on a minute scale. Around the lower section, supported on three lions, are scenes from the Creation of the World, including the creation of Adam and of Eve, the Temptation and the Expulsion from Paradise. The scenes on the back of the altarpiece depict, from left: the Drunkenness of Noah and the building of the Ark; Abraham with the three angels; Jacob's Journey and his
Dream. The most spectacular tableaux only become visible however when the doors of the tabernacle are opened: on the left shutter, the Vision of the Shepherds and the Nativity; in the centre, the Journey and the Adoration of the Magi; on the right, the Presentation in the Temple and the Massacre of the Innocents. All these scenes are set within an extraordinarily complex structure of gothic arches and canopies, culminating in the multi-storied openwork spire.
We do not know for whom the altarpiece was made, although the individual and his wife can be seen kneeling at the extreme left and right edges with their patron saints, identified as St Nicholas for the man, perhaps his name. He and his wife were almost certainly very wealthy members of the urban elite of Flanders, where the altarpiece was probably made around 1500. Flanders seems to have been the main centre for the production of miniature carvings in boxwood which, as well as altars, included intricately-carved prayer nuts and rosary beads.
The Wallace Collection tabernacle appears to be the largest and most ambitious surviving example of this type of object. Although a legend persists that Sir Richard Wallace bought it by pigeon-post during the siege of Paris in 1870, we in fact know that he acquired it from a Paris dealer in October 1871.
- *James Mann, Wallace Collection Catalogues: Sculpture, 2nd edition, London 1981
- A Sense of Heaven: 16th-century Boxwood Carvings for Private Devotion, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds 1999
*Available in the Museum Shop