UNKNOWN MASTER, German
(active in 1260s in Westphalia)
Altarpiece with the Mercy Seat1260-70
Oak panel, 71 x 120 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
The altarpiece from Westphalia in north-western Germany was painted for the Wiesenkirche in Soest during the closing years of the Hohenstaufen family's rule of the Holy Roman Empire (1138-1254). It depicts St Mary, the Trinity and St John. The break with Byzantine art also coincided with the end of this dynasty and the subsequent interregnum (1256-73). The altarpiece can be assigned to this transitional period.
In this retable, jagged shapes are used as the main structural framework for the figures. The garments look as if they had been blow out and then frozen. The pointed folds project from the bodies in a rigid and unwieldy fashion. The shapes appear all the more bizarre as they are set in a framework of evenly rounded arches.
The picture area is divided into three panels of equal size by arches and half-columns. The mounted arcades of the frame, the clear contours of the figures, the gold background and the brilliant colours are reminiscent of reliquaries and precious retables worked in brightly coloured enamels and gold. In their abstract exaggeration, the sharply pointed folds of the clothes are typical of the late phase of the pointed style and therefore of the conclusion of the Byzantine-influenced tendency within painting. The middle panel shows God the Father on his throne. In his hands he holds the cross with the body of his sacrificed son. Above, there hovers the dove of the Holy Spirit. The cross grows out of the earth, alluding to the double nature of Christ, who is both man and god. Standing in the side panels are the Virgin Mary and St John the baptist, who appear as intercessors for humankind. The representation of the Holy Trinity in the form of the 'mercy seat' illustrates the sacrifice of the Son of God, in which, constantly renewed, God's mercy is revealed.
This example illustrates the exceptional form of Romanesque painting known as the German "zigzag style," or sometimes "jagged style." It marks the transition to the Gothic style.