WEYDEN, Rogier van der
(b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles)

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece

Oil on oak panel, 200 x 97 cm (central panel), 119 x 63 cm (side panel, each)
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp

The subject of this triptych is the Seven Sacraments. Of the Christian sacraments - acts conferring grace - Protestants generally recognize two, Baptism and Communion, and the Catholics seven, which comprise, in addition, Confirmation, Penance (Confession), Extreme Unction, Holy Orders and Matrimony, the last two still being mutually exclusive. They are seen on medieval fonts and as altarpiece cycles in early Netherlandish painting, where the subject seems to have had greater appeal, at least until the 17th century. The triptych of Rogier van der Weyden is a good example of these altarpieces.

We see an acuteness of observation in the Altar of the Sacraments. The Calvary sequence takes place in the interior of a light, spacious church, whose carefully executed details immediately catch the viewer's eye. The seven sacraments are presented around the central crucifixion group accompanied by an angel with a banderole. The importance of the action in the central panel is emphasised by the size of the depicted personages compared to the figures in the side panels. The emotion of the central characters - Saint John and the three Marys - who are overcome with grief, is a characteristic feature of Van der Weyden's art. It is thought that the triptych was commissioned in 1441 by the Bishop of Tournai, Jean Chevrot, for the altar of his private chapel. Van der Weyden portrays him on the left of the painting, as the bishop administering Confirmation.

Van der Weyden was probably helped by his assistants during the execution of the Altar of the Sacraments.