Friday, June 19, 2009

Left at the Altar

To make the grand churches of medieval Europe even grander, and to focus the altar as the true center stage, the greatest artists created works on commission to celebrate those holy spaces. Along with Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden created some of the greatest religious images of the Netherlandish school between his birth sometime in 1399 and his death on June 18, 1464. Weyden’s Deposition (above, from 1435) captures the imagination in several ways. First of all, its sheer size (over six feet tall and nearly 8 feet wide) dominates the altar area. Secondly, the colors of the nearly life-sized figures’ garments strike us with their brilliance almost six centuries after they were first applied. Finally, our eye begins to unravel the fugue of movement enacted by the figures. Each figure plays out some small narrative that adds up to the total effect. Christ and his mother, the Virgin Mary, seem to fall in tandem—he clothed in only his marble-like skin and her in a brilliant blue gown of intricate folds. Saint John pulls Mary to the left while Joseph of Arimethaea pulls the dead Jesus off to the right, perhaps echoing the act of the protective doors of the altarpiece opening to reveal this central scene. The action is as high keyed as the color, but there’s no sense of frenzy. Rather, everything seems carefully orchestrated, like different voices all singing at once in a scene from an opera. Or, more aptly for the time, each character “sings” a theme in the great polyphony of action just like the polyphonic music played in the cathedral around it.

The Deposition is the earliest work attributed to Weyden, who would have been in his mid-30s at the time. No work can be conclusively linked to Weyden through documentation. Only traditions tell us that he painted The Deposition and other works, such as the Crucifixion Triptych (above, from 1445). The common theme that drives art historians to attribute such works to Weyden is the signature color, energy, and composition. Weyden unifies all three pieces of the triptych by extending the landscape left and right, although the central scene can easily stand on its own. Mary Magdalene, on the left, and Saint Veronica, on the right, literally stand in the wings, painted on the reverse of the doors normally left closed to protect the central crucifixion panel. The Crucifixion Triptych is less crowded than The Deposition, but there is still a great sense of balance within the interplay of the figures. Christ physically and theologically centers the work, while the women in the wings balance one another out as if they were standing upon a great scale with the cross itself as a fulcrum. My favorite part of this work is the dark little angels in the distance, flitting in the air like musical notes and rhyming with the ends of Christ’s loincloth dancing in the breeze. Again, Weyden demonstrates great musicality in this work, but, in contrast to the active contrapuntal themes of The Deposition, we “hear” here a more restrained, somber adagio.

In The Last Judgment Polyptych (above, from 1446-1452), Weyden uses the multiple doors to visually drag us down to Hell or rise with us to Heaven. We begin in the center, where the risen Christ sits in judgment. Moving to the right, we progress deeper and deeper into the darker ranges of Hell itself. Unlike, say, in the works of Hieronymus Bosch, who paints after Weyden, we see little of Hell’s horrors here. Moving to the left, however, we ascend to the realm of the elect. Weyden elects to accentuate the positive in this depiction of the Last Judgment, which would literally unfold before the eyes of viewers as the doors of the fifteen panels were opened one after another. Weyden painted this polyptych for a chapel for a large hall for the poor and the sick. Just as Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece inspired patients suffering from skin diseases to bear their burden like Christ bore his cross, Weyden’s Last Judgment inspired patients to accept their suffering as the path to greater glory in Heaven. I like to think of the great unfolding of the multiple panels of this polyptych as an unfolding of the church’s “arms” to embrace these unfortunate souls who found little reward on Earth. In this installment of the “soundtrack” of Weyden’s art, you might hear a joyful chorus doing their best to be angelic in singing a song of praise and, through that praise, consolation for humanity.

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