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Mary Altarpiece

Rogier van der Weyden

Mary Altarpiece

Rogier van der Weyden
  • Date: 1445
  • Style: Northern Renaissance
  • Genre: religious painting
  • Media: oil, panel
  • Tag: Christianity, Jesus-Christ, Virgin-Mary
  • Dimensions: 43 x 71 cm
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The Miraflores Altarpiece (or Triptych of the Virgin, or The Altar of Our Lady or the Mary Altarpiece) is a c. 1442-5 oil-on-oak wood panel altarpiece by the Early Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden, in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin since 1850. The three panels are each 71 x 43 cm and show, from left to right, a portrait of the Holy Family, a Pietà (the Virgin cradling the dead body of Jesus) and Christ's appearance to Mary—a chronological reading of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus, with Mary the focus of both wings. The altarpiece examines Mary's relationship with Christ at different stages of his life. It is notable for its use of colour, distinguished by its use of whites, reds and blues, and use of line—notably the line of Christ's body in the central panel—and, typically of van der Weyden, its emotional impact.

Typical for triptychs of the period, the altarpiece is rich in religious symbolism; each panel is framed by a rounded arch with Gothic decorations in open tracery below and in the spandrel. Each is lined with highly detailed simulated relief sculptures, with complicated iconography. The altarpiece influenced contemporary painters, especially in the use of symbolically decorated portals placed as imaginary reliefs in the framing arches. It informed works by Petrus Christus, Dirk Bouts and Hans Memling.

Each panel is framed by an arch or doorway and seems to be positioned within church portals, in interior spaces that give the appearance of taking place on a stage. The front of each frame contains the facing of a step, which, according to art historian Jeffrey Chipps Smith, implies "the viewer's proximity to, and potential for imaginatively entering into, the divine stage." In contrast to most triptychs of the time, the panels were originally fixed and not hinged, although they were later broken apart and reassembled as movable. Each is remarkably free of the pictorial traditions generally used when depicting these episodes. The Holy Family panel shows none of the other figures usually represented in pictures of the birth or infancy of Christ. Many of the elements are van der Weyden's own inventions, for example the winding path in the right panel does not refer to any previous representation or biblical text. It is a temporal device to link the resurrected Christ with the figure who appears before Mary.

The different colours of Mary's robes in each panel bear symbolic meaning; the white, red and blues are intended to depict her three traditional virtues; respectively purity, compassion and perseverance. She is shown in pure white in the family panel to underscore her perpetual virginity, in red (a predominant colour in the triptych) as she mourns her son, and in blue as he reappears to her.

The framing arch of each panel is historiated, containing series of small and imagined but highly detailed and symbolic, protruding or raised, marble statues which augment the narrative of the particular episode from Christ's life. The triptych is often associated with van der Weyden's other John the Baptist altarpiece as both utilise imagined stone reliefs both as framing devices and as a means to develop on the main theme of the particular panel. The arches are painted in browns, likely to give the appearance of timber. They are fantastic rather than realistic, serving as a device to include the small relief figures located in the archivolts which reflect on and accentuate the narrative and theme of the panel on which they appear.

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