The Beaune Altarpiece (often The Last Judgement) is a large polyptych altarpiece painted around 1445–50 by the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden. It was executed in oil on oak panel, though parts have been transferred to canvas. The altarpiece comprises 15 paintings on nine panels, with six painted on both sides. It retains some of its original frames.
Six of the panels (or shutters) are hinged and show the exterior view when folded. The inner panels show scenes from the Last Judgement and are arranged in two registers. The large central panel spans both registers and shows Christ seated on a rainbow in judgement, with his feet resting on a golden globe. Below him the Archangel Michael holds a scale as he weighs souls. The panel on Christ's far right shows the gates of heaven, that to his far left shows the entrance to hell. The panels of the lower register form a continuous landscape, with figures moving from the central panel to their final destinations after receiving their judgement.
The altarpiece was commissioned in 1443 for the Hospices de Beaune by Nicolas Rolin, Chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy, and his second wife Guigone de Salins, who is buried in front of the altarpiece's original location in the hospice. It is one of van der Weyden's most ambitious works, equal to his Prado Deposition, Escorial Crucifixion Diptych and his lost Justice of Trajan and Herkinbald. It is in poor condition. It remains in the hospice today although not in its original position; it was moved in the 20th century to shield it from light and better protect it from the almost 300,000 visitors it receives annually. It has suffered from extensive paint loss, the wearing and darkening of its colours, and an accumulation of dirt. In addition, a heavy layer of over-paint was applied during restoration. The two painted faces of the outer panels have been separated so both sides can be shown simultaneously; traditionally, the shutters would have only been opened on selected Sundays or church holidays to reveal the interior view.
The altarpiece is a double-hinged polyptych, with 15 paintings on nine panels, six of which are on the outer sides of double-sided shutters. The six, when the polyptych is closed form the exterior view. There are four lower shutters and two above, which are separately hinged and close independently to the others. When the shutters are opened, the viewer is exposed to the expansive "Last Judgement" interior panels. These document the probable spiritual fates of the viewers, that they might enter either heaven or hell, salvation or damnation; stark possibilities deemed appropriate during its commission as a liturgical artwork for a hospice. While the exterior panels served as a funerary monument for the donors, according the Jacobs "the dual function of the work accounts for the choice of the theme of the Last Judgement on its interior". The wings of the exterior are set in the earthly realm of the donors, while the sculpted grisaille saints represents a movement from the to the heavenly.
Its iconography is most obviously in the inverted T shape of its frames, coupled with the spacial placement of the figures with in divine, earthly and hellish realms. It this it is similar to Jan van Eyck's large Ghent Altarpiece altarpiece. When the shutters are closed, the panels form an upside-down or inverted T, a form common in 15th century carved retables. An elevated central panel allowed additional space for a narrative scene, to depict heaven, a single large figure, or for the placement of a crucifixion with space for the cross to extend above the other panels, an innovation seen in van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross. This shape attemps to reflect the configuration of Gothic churches, in which naves extended past the aisles into the apse or choir.
According to Lynn Jacobs, the treatment of the panels as a whole and the "elimination of thresholds is quite remarkable and indeed astonishing in the history of the triptych." Similar to the technique found in his Braque Triptych, here van der Weyden's background landscape extends across all of the upper register panels. The celestial sphere, towards which the dead aspire, is dramatically presented in the "radiant gold background, spanning almost the entire width of the altarpiece". Motifs and arrangements of figures extend along the lower panels from one to the next, to the point that the separations between panels are ignored with the intersections cutting figures in two. This is particularly evident on the lower register where each panel intersection splices through figures, so that the whole figure is painted on two adjoining panels.
The lower register presents Earth, and the entrances to heaven and hell. The looming figure of Christ above indicates the "reign of heaven is about to begin." The distinction between the earthly and heavenly realms creates a "sense of order", according to Lane. Christ raised high above the altarpiece "exudes calm and control" and creates a sense of balance and movement throughout the other panels. The manner with which van der Weyden presents the resurrection of the dead across the five lower panels is reminiscent of a Gothic tympanum, specifically that at Autun Cathedral. Rolin would have been familiar with the Autun Cathedral tympanum, which may have formed his decision to commission a Last Judgement for the Beaune Altarpiece from van der Weyden. Additionally, Rolin knew the liturgy associated with the Mass for the Dead, and he would known Last Judgement scenes associated with the Mass from 15th-century illuminated manuscripts, such as the full-page Last Judgement in the Hours of Catherine of Cleves which shows Christ placed in a similar position, sitting above the rising dead.
Jesus sits in judgement on the upper center panel. A lily is placed to his right and a sword to his left. He is sits on a rainbow extending across two panels, whikle his feet rest on a sphere. His left hand is lowered, as his right is raised in the act of blessing. The position of his hands indicates the act of judgement as to whether the souls below should be sent to Heaven or Hell, and echo the direction and positioning of the scales held by the Archangel Michael beneath him. His palms are open, revealing the wounds sustained when they were nailed to the cross, while his cope is open in places and we can see the wound caused by the lance, from which deep-red blood pours. Christ's face is identical to the representation in van der Weyden's Braque Triptych, completed just a few years later in 1452. Adjacent to Jesus, the two upper register wings show two angels holding symbols of the passion, including a lance, a crown of thorns, and a stick and sponge soaked in vinegar. Both are dressed in liturgical vestments: each is dressed in an alb and amice, and one wears a deacon's peaked hat.
The Archangel Michael, as the embodiment of divine justice, is the central focus below Christ. Because here he stands on the ground beneath Christ, he is the only saint to straddle both the heavens and the earth. He wears a dispassionate expression as he holds a scale to weigh souls, which tips up for the blessed and down for the damned. The souls balanced in the scales are naked. The blessed look upwards towards Christ, the banished look downwards. They are tilted in the same direction as Christ's hands. Reinforcing this, inscriptions around the groupings read either VIRTUTES (Virtues) and PECCATA (sins). Michael is painted with iconographic elements associated with paintings of the Last Judgement and is by far the most beautifully and colourfully painted figure, clothed in a shining white alb, and a red cope with woven golden fabrics. He steps forward towards the viewer, giving the illusion of judging not only the souls in the painting but the worshippers gazing at him, Michael is surrounded by four cherubs playing trumpets to call the dead to their final destination.
The Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, the twelve Apostles, and an assortment of kings and other dignitaries are positioned in a Deësis at either side of Michael. Many are unidentified, but include a king, pope, monk and three women. The dead rise from their graves around Michael's feet. Some walk towards heaven, others towards hell. Heaven is represented by a gate leading to a cathedral illuminated by long thin rays of light. Clasping their hands in prayer, the saved walk calmly towards the cathedral where an angel waits by the entrance. The im agery of a church as an earthly representation of heaven was popularised in the 13th century by theologians such as Durandus; the gate to heaven in this woek resembles the entrances to the Beaune hospice. The way to heaven is shown clearly in the gilded church – the saved ascend a set of steps, turn left, and disappear from sight.
Hell is depicted as a place of fire and gloom into which the damned tumble screaming and crying. The dead risen from their graves are tiny in scale compared to Christ and the saints. Unusually for a Last Judgement painting before van der Weyden, the damned are not tormented by beasts and monsters. They scurry to their fate with heads mostly bowed, but are not troubled by accompanying malevolent beasts. According to Lane, descending into hell are the lost whose "only demons are the torments of the mind". Heaven is fully enclosed in a single panel, whereas hell extends onto the adjoining panel, showing that pollution spews outwards into the world from its open pit.
Lorne Campbell notes that the inner panels evidence a very pessimistic view of humanity, with the damned far outnumbering the saved, especially compared to Stefan Lochner's Cologne panel, where the saved crowd the entrance to heaven. Here, only a few "timid souls" enter the gates of heaven. The transformation that the resurrected undergo is visible as they move from panel to panel. As they rise at Michael's feet the faces show little expression, but as the damned move inextricably towards hell, their horror and desperation is visible. On his left side, the saved all "have the same beatific expressions", according to Jacobs, but in their postures they twist from facing Christ and Michael towards heaven's gate, as seen with the couple below Mary – the man turns the woman's gaze away from Michael and towards the entry to heaven. On the opposite panel, a second couple face hell. The woman is hunched looking down, as the man raises his hand in vain to beseech God.
The exterior panels contain the two donor wings, a pair of saints, and two wings with Gabriel presenting to Mary. The donors are on the outer wings, kneeling in front of prayer books. Four imitation statues in grisaille make up the inner panels. The lower two depict saints Sebastian and Anthony, the two healing saints, particularly appropriate to a hospital setting. Sebastian was the saint of plagues and an intercessory against epidemics; Anthony the patron saint of skin diseases and associated with St Anthony's Fire, identified in modern times as ergotism. The two small upper register panels show a rather traditional Annunciation scene, with the usual dove near Mary. These sets of panels, unlike those on the interior, are each sharply divided from the other. The figures in each panel occupy a distinctly separate niche, and the colour scheme contrasts sharply between grisaille saints and donors.
Like many mid-1400s polyptychs, the exterior panels borrow heavily from Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, which was completed in 1432. The combination of naturalistic donor portraits with grisaille imitation statues of saints is found in the Ghent Altarpiece, as is the treatment of the Annunciation. Van der Weyden used iconography in the Beaune exterior panels not found in his other works, suggesting he may have been commissioned to follow van Eyck's example. However, van der Weyden was not inclined merely to imitate, and arranges the panels and figures in a concentrated and compact format. Jacobs writes that "the exterior presents the most consistent pictorial rendering of trompe l'oeil sculpture to date". Gabriel's scroll and Mary's lily appear to be made of stone; the figures cast shadows against the back of their niches, causing a sense of depth, adding to the illusion.
Rolin and de Salins can be identified by the coats-of-arms held by the angels; husband and wife each kneels at a cloth-covered prie-dieu (portable altar) showing their emblems, and both are dressed in black fur-trimmed robes, which Rolin specified as his funerary attire. The red angel on Rolin's panel is the single most colorful figure; with its gold helmet and keys it "emerges like an apparition", bringing attention to Rolin. As was typical, his wife is placed on the exterior right, traditionally thought as the inferior position corresponding to hell, linking her to Eve, original sin and the Fall of man.
Van Eyck had earlier portrayed Rolin in his Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, and he is recognizable from that work; both portraits show similar lips, a large chin, and somewhat pointed ears. In van Eyck's portrait, Rolin is presented as perhaps pompous and arrogant; here – ten years later – he appears more thoughtful and concerned with humility, at a time when court politics caused his fall from power. Rolin is shown in profile in both works; Campbell wryly notes that van der Weyden may have been able to disguise the sitter's ugliness and age, especially the shape of his mouth may have been downplayed. He writes that while "van Eyck impassively recorded, van der Weyden imposed a stylised and highly personal vision of the subject". Van Eyck's depiction was likely the more accurate; van der Weyden embellished, mainly by lengthening the nose, enlarging the eyes and raising the eyebrows.
The panels contain reproductions of several biblical texts. They are applied in two ways, either as lettering seemingly sewn into the edges of the figures' clothes (which are mostly illegible because of the folds), or painted directly onto the surface of the central inner panel. The latter occur in four instances, with two pairs of text that appears to float on either side of Christ, and two around Michael. Beneath the lily, Latin lettering records the words of God the Father: VENITE BENDICTI PATRIS MEI POSSIDETE PATATUM VOBIS REGUM A CONSTUTIONE MUNDI ("Come ye blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundations of the world"). The text beneath the sword reads: DISCEDITE A ME MALEDICITI IN IGEM AERTERNUM QUO PARATUS EST DIABLO ET ANGELIS EIUS ("Depart from me ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels").
The inscriptions obey the 14th-century convention of showing figures, imagery, and motifs associated with the saved to Christ's right, and those of the banished to his left. The words beneath the lily (the benedicti) begin at the foot of the inscription and read upwards toward heaven, with their curves leaning in towards Christ. The text to his left (the maledicti) flows in the opposite direction, from the highest point downwards. The inscriptions to his right for the saved are in light colouring (to an extent that they are usually difficult to discern in reproduction), while the downwards words are applied with black paint.
Commission and hospice
Nicolas Rolin was appointed Chancellor of Burgundy by Philip the Good in 1422, a position he held for the next 33 years. His tenure with the duke made him a wealthy man, and he donated a large portion of his fortune for the foundation of the Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune. The majority of the population of Beaune were destitute, and the area had recently suffered an outbreak of plague. Having gained permission from Pope Eugene IV in 1441, the hospice was built and consecrated on 31 December 1452. In conjunction, Rolin established the "Les sœurs hospitalières de Beaune" religious order. Rolin dedicated the hospice to St Anthony Abbot, commonly associated with sickness and healing in the Middle Ages.
In August 1443 he wrote: "disregarding all human concerns and in the interest of my salvation, desiring by a favorable trade to exchange for celestial goods temporal ones, that I might from divine goodness render those goods which are perishable for ones which are eternal … in gratitude for the goods which the Lord, source of all wealth, has heaped upon me, from now on and for always, I found a hospital." In the late 1450s, only a few years before he died, he added a provision to the hospital's charter stipulating that the Mass for the Dead be performed twice daily. Rolin's wife, Guigone de Salins, played a major role in the foundation, as probably did his nephew Jan Rolin. De Salins in particular lived and served at the hospice until her own death in 1470.
Documents on the arrangement of the commission survive; we know it was intended as the centerpiece for the chapel. Rolin may have approached van der Weyden as early as 1443, when the hospital was founded, and the altarpiece was ready by 1451 when the chapel was consecrated. Van der Weyden painted it in his Brussels workshop – most likely with the aid of apprentices – and had the completed panels transported to the hospice. Unusual for a Netherlandish altarpiece, the artist, patron, place of installation and date of completion are all known. It is first mentioned in a 1501 inventory, when it was positioned on the high altar.
The polyptych was commissioned to comfort and warn the dying. It was intended to remind the dying of their faith, and direct their last thoughts towards the divine. This is evident in its positioning in the chapel, within view of the patients' beds. Rolin specified that 30 beds be placed within sight of the altarpiece for those too ill to walk, and that the altarpiece be visible to the patients through a pierced screen. The 1501 inventory specifies only two patients per bed, which would have been luxurious; documents from 15th century medieval hospitals show that anywhere from six to 15 patients in a bed was more common. In the 15th century, medical care was expensive and primitive and the spiritual care of patients at least as important to attendants as the treatment of physical ailments. As at the Old St. John's Hospital (Sint-Janshospitaal) in Bruges, patients in Hôtel-Dieu at Beaune were allowed to join the Liturgy of the Hours from their beds.
The moralizing is apparent from some of its more overtly dark iconography, its choice of saints, and how the judge's scales tilt far more underneath the weight of the damned than the saved. The damned to Christ's left are more populated and less detailed than the saved to this right. In these ways it can be compared to Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, which served much the same practical purpose, having been commissioned for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, which cared for the dying.
Saints Sebastian and Anthony are included as representatives of healing; both were associated with their efforts to assist those suffering with bubonic plague and likely intended to reassure the dying and serve as intercessors with the divine. St Michael had developed something of a cult following in 15th century France, most likely because he was said to have appeared to Joan of Arc. He was seen as guardian of the dead, all the more a crucial role given the disasters wrought by the plague in the region. There was a sever outbreak there between 1441–42, just before Rolin's foundation of the hospital. Pilgrimage to Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy reached its peak around this time. Barbara Lane writes that, although the patients were unlikely to survive their stay, they could at least "gaze on his figure immediately above the altar of the chapel every time the altarpiece was opened. Like Saints Anthony and Sebastian on the exterior of the polyptych, the archangel offered … hope that they would overcome their physical ills."
The altarpiece underwent a major restoration between 1875–78. In recent years the panels were divided laterally in two, so the sides could be displayed simultaneously. A number of panels are in poor condition, owing variously to darkening of the colours, accumulated dirt and poor decisions during restoration; at some point clothes were painted over the nude figures of the souls. These additions were removed during the 1870s restoration, but not without significant damage to the original paintwork. In general, the central inside panels are better preserved than the inerior wings and exterior panels. De Salins' panel is in poor condition. Its colours have darkened with age; originally the niche was a light blue, today it is light green. The cloth draped behind her was scarlet rather than gold, and the shield held by the angel was painted in blue.
Sources and influences
Van der Weyden may have drawn influence from Stefan Lochner's c. 1435 Last Judgement, and a similar c. 1420 painting now in the Hotel de Ville, Diest, Belgium. Points of reference may include Christ raised over a Great Deësis of saints, apostles and clergy, above depictions of the entrance to heaven and the gates of hell. In both earlier works Christ perches on a rainbow; in the Deësis panel he also is above a globe. While these two panels are filled with dread and chaos, van der Weyden's panels display the same sorrowful, but self-controlled dignity of his best works. This is most evident in the manner in which the oversized and dispassionate Christ orchestrates the scene from heaven. He towers over the other figures, extending across two vertical registers of panels, with the saints the on wing panels.
The similarities between van der Weyden's Beaune Altarpiece and Hans Memling's c. late 1460s Last Judgement (which was lost at sea and stolen by pirates) are so striking that art historians suggest Florentine banker Angelo Tani first approached van der Weyden to paint the piece before commissioning Memling. Similarities include Christ's placement above St Michael with his scales and the Deësis on the interior panels; on the exterior shutters, Memling's placement of the donors echoes van der Weyden's in the Beaune Altarpiece.
Memling's apprenticeship to van der Weyden probably started about nine years after the altarpiece was installed, leading art historians to speculate that either Tani or Memling saw the piece in situ at Beaune, or that a workshop pattern came into Memling's possession after van der Weyden's death in 1464. Two additional works showing a depiction of the Christ figure similar to van der Weyden's – a Martin Schongauer at the Louvre dated c. 1469 and another in Germany from about 1493 – underscore the theory of the existence of workshop patterns or drawings. Despite the marked similarities, Memling's Last Judgement diverges from van der Weyden's with the more crowded scenes contrasting sharply to "the hushed serenity of Rogier's composition," according to Lane.
- Campbell (2004), 74
- Campbell (2004), 78
- Campbell (2004), 26
- Blum (1969), 39
- Jacobs (2011), 112
- Jacobs (2011), 112
- Harbison (1984), 106
- Jacobs (1991), 60–1
- Jacobs (1991), 33–5
- Jacobs (1991), 36–7
- Jacobs (2011), 98
- Jacobs (2011), 97
- Lane (1989), 177
- Lane (1989), 172
- Lane (1989), 176–77
- Upton (1989), 39
- McNamee (1998), 181
- Blum (1969), 30
- Lane (1991), 629
- Technical analysis shows that the scales were at first tilted in the opposite direction.
- Campbell (2004), 81
- Jacobs (2011), 112
- Lane (1991), 627
- Jacobs (1991), 47
- Blum (1969), 46
- Jacobs (2011), 115
- Lane (1982), 172
- Jacobs (1991), 100
- Jacobs (1991), 98–9
- Jacobs (2011), 114
- Campbell (2004), 21
- Lane (1989), 170–71
- Lane (1989), 169
- Campbell (2004), 22
- Vaughan (2012), 340
- Acres (2000), 86–7
- Both inscriptions quote from Jesus' discourse on The Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25).
- Acres (2000), 87
- Smith (1981), 276
- Vaughan (2012), 169
- Blum (1969), 37
- Lane (1989), 167
- Hayum (1977), 508
- Smith (2004), 91
- Scholars are unsure where she was Rolin's second or third wife. See Lane (1989), 169
- Jacobs (1991), 60; Lane (1989), 167
- Lane (1989), 170
- Lane (1981), 171–72
- Hayum (1977), 505
- Lane (1989), 177–8
- Blum (1969), 87
- Traditionally the damned were thought to be heavier than the saved as they carried the weight of sin.
- Lane (1989), 180
- Campbell (2004), 77
- Lane (1981), 171
- Lane (1991), 628
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- Lane, Barbara. "'Requiem aeternam dona eis': The Beaune Last Judgment and the Mass of the Dead". Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, Vol. 19, No. 3, 1989
- Lane, Barbara. "The Patron and the Pirate: The Mystery of Memling's Gdańsk Last Judgment". The Art Bulletin, Vol. 73, No. 4, 1991
- McNamee, Maurice. Vested Angels: Eucharistic Allusions in Early Netherlandish paintings. Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 1998. ISBN 9-0429-0007-5
- Sinclair, Keith. Declaration De Hystoires. Leiden: Brill, 1990. ISBN 9-0040-9088-6
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- Smith, Molly Teasdale. "On the Donor of Jan van Eyck's Rolin Madonna". Gesta, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1981
- Upton, Joel Morgan. Petrus Christus: his place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish painting. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989. ISBN 0-2710-0672-2
- Vaughan, Richard. Philip the Good. Martlesham: Boydell and Brewer, 2012. ISBN 0-85115-917-1
- Media related to Beaune Altarpiece) at Wikimedia Commons