BOUTS, Dieric the Elder
(b. ca. 1415, Haarlem, d. 1475, Leuven)

Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament

Oil on panel, 185 x 294 cm
Sint-Pieterskerk, Leuven

The central panel of the altarpiece is given over to The Last Supper. It is one of the key works in the history of Flemish art. Here, Bouts breaks with the tradition according to which Christ is always represented in the act of announcing the betrayal of Judas. Instead, he chooses to show the moment at which he institutes the Eucharist. On the four side panels are biblical episodes which prefigure the sacrament, namely: The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, The Gathering of the Manna, Elijah in the Desert and The Feast of the Passover. We know now that this innovation was not accidental. Two professors of theology at Leuven University, Master Jan Varenecker and Master Aegidius Ballawel, were asked to provide the painter with precise instructions as to the subjects he should represent.

The four scenes depicted on the side panels are drawn from the Old Testament, and are more plainly narrative in character. They set small figures within vast natural landscapes. Only Elijah in the desert and the angel who bends over him with his enormous wings come anywhere near the monumental scale of the central panel.