Winged Altarpieces
from the 14-16th century

The mastery of late gothic winged altars flourished in Hungary - in harmony with European development - from the sixties and seventies of the 15th century up to the beginning of the 16th. Although our written sources testify that there had been winged altars in the whole territory of Hungary, in consequence of the Turkish and Protestant iconoclasm and later of the change of tastes against what was mediaeval, quite a lot of them were destroyed. In fact there were scarcely any left in Transdanubia (Western Hungary), the great Hungarian Plain and Buda, the capital of the country. The majority of known Hungarian winged altars used to adorn churches in Upper Northern Hungary. Those on display here come from the former counties of Szepes, Sáros, Liptó and Zólyom, and two altarpieces come from the county of Csík, representing the art of Transylvania. The exhibits include four altarpieces from the 1480s, six from the 1510s and 1520s, and the High Altar of the Virgin Mary from Csíkmenaság, Transylvania, dated 1543, it being the latest mediaeval specimen of its kind in existence.

There was a flourishing of triptychs in the 15th century. Added to the high altar in the presbytery dedicated to the patron saint of the church, a number of side-altars were erected by affluent families and pious fraternities in the aisles attached to columns, or in the side-chapels. With the increase in the number of altars, triptychs had become the main commission for painters and wood-carvers, cabinet-makers and gilders organized into guilds. With its upper part with openwork pinnacles and the spacious shrine with painted wooden sculptures, carved ornament, reliefs and paintings on the shutters, the late Gothic winged altar integrated the main branches of art favourably into a decorative architectural entity. This delicate "small architecture" fitted harmoniously into the monumental spaces of Gothic churches.

Although the work needed to produce an altarpiece may have been done by one master, in the case of major commissions the leading master - who mostly was also the contractor - usually distributed the tasks among his pupils or members of his workshop. Fifteenth-century European sources, too, often make mention of craftsmen's guilds, among whose members there may have been artists as well. Only in major towns were there painters' guilds, including wood-carvers too, since the wooden figures were mostly painted. The work of the painters and carvers commenced by priming the panel with chalk; painting and gilding began only after this procedure. By the second half of the 15th century it had become a custom that the person or body commissioning the works wanted to see the design of the whole altar, and this design was always drawn by the painter. The contractor was obliged to adhere exactly to the programme indicated in the design and stipulated in all particulars by the ecclesiastical or secular body or person commissioning the work.

At its most simple a winged altar is a superstructure built on the altar-table with a rigid central part consisting of the lower support or predella and the central shrine with one or two pairs of wings hinged so as to fold over the shrine. The variable shape of the altar allowed for the division of the themes to be presented according to ecclesiastical feast-days. On week-days the altars were closed. Thus the congregation could see the shrine with its fanciful carvings and the gilt interior of the leaves only on church holidays.

The reverse of the wings generally featured scenes from the Passion, which would be exposed to the congregation in the period of Lent when the wings were closed, for example the altar of the Virgin Mary from Liptószentandrás, the altar of the Two Holy Bishops from Leibic, the High Altar of the Descent of the Holy Ghost from Csíkszentlélek and the altar of the Virgin Mary from Csíkmenaság. On closing the shutters the so-called fixed wings were revealed which served to maintain the original proportions and outline of the altar when the wings were closed.

Fourteenth-century altarpieces mostly contained relics and their panels generally carried typologically contrasted scenes from the Old and New Testaments. By the 15th century the Old Testament subject-matter had almost completely disappeared, and was increasingly replaced by the Lives of the Apostles and Saints, and also by the two major topics of the New Testament, the Passion of Christ and scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. In choosing the saints, the patron saints of the church and the donor or the titular saint of the altar enjoyed priority. Next, the saints revered in the given church, town or diocese were considered. As a result, local characteristics could more markedly assert themselves.

Scenes from the Virgin Mary's life are shown on the altarpiece of the Annunciation from Kisszeben and the high altar of Mary from Csíkmenaság. The detailed depiction of the life-cycles of saints is well exemplified by the Saint Martin altarpiece from Cserény with eight scenes from the saint's legend, or by the Saint Andrew altarpiece from Liptószentandrás, dedicated to Saint Andrew the Apostle. The images of various saints, individually or in groups, can be seen in the altarpiece of the Virgin Mary and that of Saint Andrew from Liptószentandrás, on the altar of the Two Holy Bishops from Leibic, on the Saint Anne altarpiece from Kisszeben or on the winged altar from Csíkszentlélek. The four virgin martyrs, SS. Catherina, Barbara, Margaret and Dorothea were often depicted together. Among the saints popular in Hungary, Saint Stephan, Saint Emeric and Saint Ladislas images are shown in the wings from Nagytótlak. The figure of Saint Hedwig on the Saint Anne altar from Kisszeben attests Silesian influence. The portrait of the donor was usually relegated from the altarpiece to a separate votive picture: an example is the votive picture of János Hütter from Eperjes. The coat of arms, on the other hand, frequently featured on the predella, like that of the Czakó family on the winged altar of Csíkszentlélek.

In Hungary, the central part of the mid-15th-century altarpieces was in general pictorally adorned, whereas in the latter half of the century altars with spacious shrines decorated with carvings became predominant. This, however, doesn't mean that the former type had completely disappeared: some evidence for this is the altar of the Virgin from Liptószentandrás or the winged altar from Csíkszentlélek, which are embellished with paintings only.

The rise of the role of sculpture to a leading one can be traced back to the 1470s, with the spreading of carvings on the upper part and spacious shrines with numerous figures. The side altars from Kisszeben are picturesque examples of a later development, that of the relief-adorned interior panels replacing paintings.

In the altarpieces of Transylvania, the Gothic upper part with pinnacles gave way to the semi-circular closed lunetta in the early 16th-century, rendering the form of the altar more closed and selfcontained (Csíkszentlélek). Renaissance motives are also most accentuated in the altarpieces of Transylvania, which have Renaissance pillars and decorated cornices. The finest example, also of the latest date in the exhibition, is the winged altar from Csíkmenaság.

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Created and maintained by Emil Krén and Dániel Marx; sponsored by the T-Systems Hungary Ltd.