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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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The art of altarpieces

Book shows Europe's best

Images of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection frequently were portrayed in church altarpieces, which proliferated in Europe after the Roman Catholic Church changed liturgical practice in 1274. Previously the priest had faced the people when he celebrated mass, but then the altar was moved to the wall. The priest, facing it, had his back to the congregation. (This policy was reversed again in the 20th century.) Thus, people focused on what the priest faced.

Artists created stunning works, often of several pieces, to hang above the altar or rest on its back. You can see many of these in Great Altarpieces: Gothic and Renaissance (The Vendome Press, 2002; $150), a comprehensive and most beautiful book by Italian art historians Caterina Limentani Virdis and Mari Pietrogiovanna.

In addition to Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, other scenes from the lives of Jesus, Mary or the saints are shown in the 397 color photographs of famous altarpieces. Some renowned artists were northern Europeans influenced by Martin Luther and the Reformation. They include Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald and Lucas Cranach the Elder.


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