Group of altarpiece representing the life of a Saint, Saint Renualde? Engraved by the sign of Antwerp hand on the hat of the central character
Carved oak, traces of polychromy
First half of the 16th century
31.5 x 39 x 6.5 cm
Under the rule of the dukes of Burgundy and the Habsburg, the former Low Countries experienced an exceptional economic boom in the 15th and 16th centuries, fostering a flourishing artistic activity within the major centers of the region. This was notably the case in Mechelen, Antwerp, and Brussels, which specialized in the production of large wooden altarpieces, depicting episodes from the life of Christ and the Virgin.
While Brussels dominated in the 15th century, Antwerp seemed to take precedence in the 16th century. At this time, Antwerp became the main port of Europe and the hub of a trade in which one of the essential components was the market for art and luxury objects. Around 1500, the production of altarpieces became massive, explained by several factors. On one hand, Antwerp sculptors and painters, belonging to the guild of Saint Luke unlike the Brussels artists, could collaborate more easily, as their production was strictly regulated in terms of wood quality and polychromy. On the other hand, Antwerp production was done in series, in advance, to be subsequently placed on the market. This offered greater freedom while allowing for standardization aimed at increasing the number of models produced. Finally, sculptors and painters were often affiliated with entrepreneurs responsible for selling the works wholesale to couriers, who then distributed the works throughout Europe.
The increasing number of altarpieces at the end of the Middle Ages and in the 16th century also reflects the evolution of piety in the former Low Countries, the cradle of the devotio moderna seeking a direct link with the divine. The 16th century, marked by political, social, and religious upheavals, saw in sacred art a crucial means of expressing the Catholic faith. Antwerp, as a bastion of Catholicism, became the center of intense artistic production, with wooden altarpieces being essential elements. In the domestic sphere, the contemplation of religious images facilitated personal meditation and provided access to spiritual experience. Lay or religious sponsors could install modest-sized altarpieces in an oratory or simply in a room, on a sideboard covered with a cloth serving as a private altar. Workshops in Brussels, Mechelen, and Antwerp produced numerous examples of such altarpieces, featuring various styles, compositions, and formats.
Guilds played a central role in this specialized production. They rigorously organized creation, precisely defining each technical element, from the choice of wood to that of pigments, and also determined who was responsible for which task. Each city affixed a certification mark on works created under its auspices, according to the rules it had established. The most famous of these marks is probably the Hand of Antwerp, which appeared around 1470 and is found on both sculpted elements and the very case of the altarpieces. The small hand (Handwerpen, detached hand), stamped in the wood with a red-hot iron, refers to a legend about a giant hand-cutter who terrorized the population before being defeated by the local hero, Brabant. Medieval sculptors from Antwerp were required to become members of the Guild of Saint Luke and had to abide by its regulations. When the jurors found that the requirements were met, an iron punch would imprint a mark in the wood.
The Antwerp origin of our sculpted group is thus confirmed and specified by the presence of a small hand, a "guarantee mark," applied with iron on the head of the central character. All indications agree to date the altarpiece to the first half of the 16th century, around 1530. The work corresponds to a certain peak of Antwerp workshops, combining quality materials, intensive production, and mastery of style. This is characterized by graceful elegance, somewhat affected in the representation of the characters. The simple craftsmanship, angular drapery, and stiff lines combine with the delicacy of expressions and finely featured faces. Our group is not only emblematic of Antwerp production certified by the red iron mark depicting a detached hand but also rare because it presents an unusual scene from the life of a local saint, unlike the dominant themes related to the Passion of Christ and the life of Mary. To the left, a woman with elaborate hair turns her back to the two male figures beside her. One, dressed in an apron, stands in the center, while a third figure, clad in a kind of armor and wearing only one shoe, completes the composition on the right. The men wear wide, short coats to the knees, with split sleeves leaving the forearms exposed. The woman, with a charming face and a high forehead, is wearing a veil with a short visor tied at the back. Her dress is split in front, revealing the underskirt; the neckline is square, and the sleeves are voluminous.
The composition, elaborate costumes, finely sculpted, as well as the variety of attitudes of the characters, are equally remarkable. The theatrical positions betray an influence of the Antwerp Mannerist style, suggesting a dating to the first half of the 16th century, in accordance with the hairstyles and hats of the characters. Concrete details and picturesque costumes reveal a typical taste of Brabantine works, but also of late Gothic art attached to expressive and narrative values.
It is possible that the scene depicted is drawn from the life of Saint Renelde. According to an ancient tradition, when her parents entered religious life, Renelde wished to join her father at the Abbey of Lobbes, which was denied to her. She then went to the Holy Land and, upon her return seven years later, withdrew from the world to settle in Saintes, a village in the Duchy of Brabant, with her two faithful servants, Grimoald and Gondulphe. She devoted herself to charitable works, and according to local tradition, miracles occurred at her tomb. Her body was exhumed in 866 and placed in a shrine, quickly making the site a place of pilgrimage. Saint Renelde is always depicted with her two faithful servants, Grimoald and Gondulphe, who were murdered with her.
The group presented was part of an altarpiece that, like many others, was dismantled during the iconoclastic revolutions, the dissolution of monasteries, and wars.
This meticulously sculpted work, intended for private devotion, describes with great attention to detail the facial features and costume details, such as the intertwining veil covering the head of the female figure, as well as the dress with puffy sleeves and accentuated folds.
Wooden altarpiece groups in Antwerp in the 16th century represent a pinnacle of Flemish sacred art. Their creation was the result of a tumultuous but artistically rich period, where spirituality and creativity intertwined to produce works that transcend time.
Related literature :
M. Buyle and C. Vanthillo, Retables Flamands et Brabançons dans les Monuments Belges, Brussels, 2000
G. Derveaux - Van Ussel, Retables en bois, Bruxelles, 1977, Musée Royaux d’art et histoire. Guide du Visiteur).
Huysmans ed., " La sculpture des Pays-bas méridionaux et de la Principauté de Liège XVe et XVIe siècles ", 1999.
S. Guillot de Suduiraut, Sculptures brabançonnes du musée du Louvre, Bruxelles, Malines, Anvers, XVe-XVIe siècles, Paris, 2001
H. Nieuwdorp (ed.), Antwerpse retabels, 15de-16de eeuw, exhibition catalogue, Museum voor Religieuze Kunst Antwerpen, 1993
P. Williamson, Netherlandish Sculpture: 1450-1550, cat. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2002