WEYDEN, Rogier van der
(b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles)
St John Altarpiece1455-60
Oil on oak panel, 77 x 48 cm (each panel)
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
The sequence of panels, from left to right, corresponds to the sequence of events. The baptism of Christ, the most important action performed by John the Baptist, comes in the central panel between his naming (left) and his execution (right). Christ is thus at the exact center of the entire altarpiece. The archivolt reliefs narrate events connected with each of the main scenes below them, and the statues in the wall niches represent the Twelve Apostles.
Van der Weyden constructed the portal to look like that of a real church. The grisaille paintings portray archivolt figures as well as saints in scenes which parallel the main motifs. The church façade is therefore not only a holy place, but also a pictorial element that sets the event firmly in a biblical context. At the same time, the spiritual world becomes accessible to the secular world: scenes appear from everyday life and the view gives on to a vista that includes a landscape and a town in the distance. It is here that van der Weyden's concept of art meets van Eyck's. The sacred fuses with the everyday and it is towards the latter that the holy events are oriented. The differences between the two artists cannot of course be ignored: while van Eyck's treatment of the contact between the sacred and the secular was free and light, van der Weyden insisted on a strict separation.
The St John Altarpiece represents a new version of the Miraflores Altarpiece (Staatliche Museen, Berlin) in its pictorial construction. As in the Miraflores Altarpiece, three portals are decorated with relief and sculptural ornamentation, complementing the narrative content. Interestingly, however, parts of the real frame no longer run three-dimensionally across the panels, enhancing the plasticity of the painted architecture; instead, the impression is of a relatively shallow façade set slightly back. The main figures are on the same level as the portals, while in the Miraflores Altarpiece the space farther back is also opened up.
The shallow zone of the foreground is set off by the strong effects of depth in the side panels, where the rooms are almost like tunnels. This makes the narrative backgrounds of the left and right panels subordinate. The foreground and background areas are entirely separate in perspective too: as in the Miraflores Altarpiece, we have a full frontal view of the individual portals with the main figures at the front of them, so that the viewer might be standing directly in front of each panel. The backgrounds, on the other hand, are seen as if from a single viewpoint in front of the central panel, with the areas at the sides converging toward the middle and emphasizing the significance of the central event.