From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
The Ghent Altarpiece (1432) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Considered one of the masterpieces of Northern Renaissance art, it is an example of a complex polyptych panel painting

An altarpiece is a piece of art such as a painting, sculpture or relief representing a religious subject and suspended in a frame behind the altar of a Christian church.[1][2][3] The altarpiece is often made up of two or more separate panels created using a technique known as panel painting. It is then called a diptych, triptych or polyptych for two, three, and multiple panels respectively. In the thirteenth century each panel was usually surmounted with a pinnacle, but in the Renaissance, single panel, or pala, altarpieces became the norm. In both cases the supporting plinth, or predella often featured supplementary and related paintings. In the eighteenth century altarpieces, such as Piero della Francesca's polyptych of St Augustine, were often disassembled and seen as independent artworks.

The Altarpiece of the Holy Blood, by Tilman Riemenschneider (1501-1505). An example of a sculpted wooden altarpiece

Altarpieces seem to have begun to be used during the 11th century, with the possible exception of a few earlier examples.[4] If the altar stands free in the choir, both sides of the altarpiece can be covered with painting. The screen, retable or reredos are commonly decorated. Groups of statuary can also be placed on an altar. Sometimes the altarpiece is set on the altar itself and sometimes in front. Originally, the altarpiece was placed in front of the altar, with the priest standing behind it facing the congregation[citation needed]. In the 13th century, the altarpiece moved behind the altar, with the sacrament placed in front of it and the priest standing with his back to the congregation. This placement to behind the altar allowed the altarpiece to expand to larger proportions, as during the Renaissance.

Famous examples include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Altarpiece". Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent. Retrieved 20 July 2014. 
  2. ^ "altarpiece". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 20 July 2014. 
  3. ^ "altarpiece". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 20 July 2014. 
  4. ^ Hourihane (ed.), Colum (2012). The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture, Volume 1. Oxford University Press. pp. 44–48. ISBN 0195395360. 

External links[edit]