(active c. 1100)

Christ and the Twelve Apostles

c. 1100
Tempera on wood, 130 x 150 cm
Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

The earliest surviving examples of Spanish panel paintings are the altar panels produced by painters active in the workshops attached to religious houses. These panels were intended for the decoration of altars and the choice of theme was confined to the symbolic representation of figures from the New Testament. Scenes from the lives of saints were but rarely depicted. In practically every one of these panels we find centrally placed in the composition the figure of the Virgin or of Christ, surrounded by a round or oval halo. Round the central figure are narrative scenes or a hieratic arrangement of the apostles.

This panel, now in Barcelona, is a typical example of such a retable. Its painter is referred to as the Master of Seo de Urgell. There are innumerable contemporary miniatures in which the faces and the drapery of the garments have been painted in a similarly stereotyped manner. Every single figure is schematic: the apostles stand stiffly upright, each one holding some object by which he can be identified - and yet the artist has breathed life into these figures. Christ, judging the world, places his hand on a book with the very gesture that might be used by a student of the law as he closes the codex in which he has sought guidance in reaching a fair jjudgment. At the same time there is in the iconography all the naivete of folk-art: the detail and ornamental elements convey the painter's delight in unrestricted decoration.