The origin of altarpieces used to be associated with the display of holy relics at the altar because it was generally thought that images and figures alone could not transmit religious dogma on their own. Over time, it was accepted that a painting or sculpture might possibly serve as a method of transferring a manifested veneration, not of the object itself, but of the thing it represented.
That was the moment when altarpieces acquired their primordial meaning: that of a way of teaching that conveyed the basic concepts of Christian doctrine to the uneducated faithful whilst simultaneously serving as a backdrop or scenario for liturgical ceremonies. This was essentially the basic purpose of Flemish altarpieces at the time they were manufactured. Later they were to acquire new uses, such as being used for the Eucharist when sacrariums were incorporated into their structure.
Altarpieces also represented the way its commissioner or owner announced his religious devotion and piety publicly, not to mention his social status, given the elevated cost of the work of art.
The doctrine of the church was thus displayed to the faithful in an extremely visual way in the shape of a group of sculpted and painted scenes that transmitted a series of subjects; we call this "iconography". Episodes were taken from the New Testament, collections of stories about saints, such as the Legenda sanctorum and other texts, some of which were not officially approved of by the Church on account of their being classified as apocrypha. These stories or episodes were then visually represented in a series of different scenarios and sequences. The most commonly-found series were those concerning the Life of the Holy Virgin and Jesus’s Infancy, the Passion of Christ and the Lives of Saints.
Main subjects could be complemented with other, less important ones of a similar nature taken from the Old Testament that served to preceed others and also decorate the wings on either side of the altarpiece that were closed to protect it. Thanks to the altarpiece’s doors, the series of images and figures could be exhibited in many different ways, normally reserving the full display of all the scenes they contained for the most important religious festivals such as Christmas, Easter and the day of the altarpiece's patron saint.
The life of Christ Our Lord that allowed us humans to save our souls began with the birth of the Holy Infant. The Holy Virgin Mary obviously played a very important role in this particular narrative. Consequently, Her followers gradually increased in number towards the end of the Middle Ages and the Holy Virgin Mary became important as a cult figure in Her own right. Both stories, however, are very closely entwined and are just two of the many tales frequently found illustrating Flemish altarpieces.
When altarpieces are dedicated to the worship of the Holy Virgin, then we will find Her Death represented at its centre together with Her Ascent to Heaven and Her Coronation (Bascones altarpiece in Valdibia). Side sections could be decorated with such episodes from Her life such as Her Presentation in the Temple, Bethrotal of the Holy Vierge or Her Funeral, or with scenarios more characteristic of altarpieces such as the Childhood of the Holy Infant, whose main scene was always reserved for the Birth of the Holy Child (such us the one of Sotopalacios). The Annunciation, The Adoration of the Three Wise Men, The Holy Circumcision and The Presentation of the Holy Infant in the Temple are all representations frequently found in Mannerist altarpieces together with the scene of the Nativity.
If the very peak of Christian iconography was indeed reached with the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Our Lord, this is why His Passion is the subject that is most represented on Flemish-made altarpieces. This particular scenario is based on His Crucifixion: the scene is normally enriched with complementary landscapes and characters amongst whom we can see St. John holding a swooning Holy Virgin in his arms, Mary Magdalene crying or the Roman soldier who pierces Our Saviour's side with a lance and the Centurion who acknowledges that Christ is indeed The Messiah. All of the afore-mentioned characters normally make up a single, very complex scene, as in the Passion altarpiece of the Segovia convent of San Antonio el Real.
The Road to Calvary, The Lord's Flagellation, Ecce homo and the Crown of Thorns are normally incorporated to the left of the altarpiece and the Descent from the Cross, the Holy Burial and the Resurrection to the right. Occasionally, one of these minor landscapes could occupy the centre position, an excellent example of which is the relief in the Galinduste parish church.
By imitating the life of Christ, Our Lord, the saints gave their lives to defend Her by living austere, pious and charitable lives just as He did. In return, they were rewarded by God, the Father by His manifesting Himself in a succession of miracles. For all of the above, the saints became examples to be followed for the faithful, who considered them to be their main protectors in the face of all classes of diseases and calamities. Their succour and protection were likewise thought to extend to all groups of people made up of members of the same profession (Guilds) or a town's or village's parishioners who placed themselves under the patronage of a particular saint.
Stories of their colourful lives, complete with martyrdoms and miracles, were told again and again in uncountable sermons and readings, all of which were easily recognisable in the scenarios and figures decorating the altarpieces. Given the diversity of possible scenarios, mass production was completely out of the question, which is the reason why altarpieces dedicated to the worship of saints, such as the ones of St. John the Baptist in Valladolid were specially commissioned works.
J. Muñiz Petralanda