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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children. Email
Altarpiece of the Church Fathers: Vision of St Sigisbert, Michael Pacher, c. 1483
The Dec. 20 edition of Commonweal features a cover review by Lawrence Cunningham of what the Notre Dame theologian calls "as stunning a book of art" as he has seen, Great Altarpieces: Gothic and Renaissance, by Caterina Limentani Virdis and Mari Pietrogiovanna (Vendome, $150, 421 pp.).
What end did these altarpieces serve? Cunningham writes. Some, to be sure, gave glory to the patrons who paid for them: their portraits appear not infrequently in the central or side panel, usually in an attitude of prayer. But like so much Christian art, altarpieces were meant, simultaneously, to raise the mind and heart of the worshiper to the mysteries of the faith and to enhance the beauty of the setting for the liturgy. Since the interior panels of the altarpieces were shown only on special occasions, they assumed a certain revelatory character. When the exterior doors were pulled back, the interior panels gave the viewer a glimpse of the beauty of the world of heaven.
For most people today altarpieces are simply great art, and many of them adorn the walls of museums. Yet they were meant to be seen in a church setting, illuminated by the unsteady light of candles and lamps andwhatever natural light filtered in through stained-glass windows. It is only in their intended setting, I think, where we can properly gaze as opposed to look, that we can really appreciate how powerful these works are. That said, there is still merit in a careful perusal of a book as beautiful as this: as Saint Bonaventure notes in the opening chapter of the Itinerarium, "whoever is not enlightened by such splendor of created things is blind."