(active 1181-1205)

Winged Altarpiece: Samson and the Lion

Gilt copper, embedded enamel
Augustiner Chorherrenstift, Klosterneuburg

This is one of the forty-five email plaques on the altar retable, or superstructure, called the Klosterneuburg Altar (height 109 cm, width of middle section 263 cm, width of side wings 121 cm each). This exquisite work has a complicated history. Originally the email plaques, designed by Nicholas of Verdun, were located on an ambo, a type of chancel. Probably in the thirteenth century, they were removed and combined with the cross altar, perhaps as an antependium (or screen), or perhaps already in the form of a retable, a "golden panel" of the kind familiar from the Pala d'Oro in San Marco in Venice. The winged retable is composed of the emails, forming their setting: framing and presenting them. This array of emails, the largest known from the Middle Ages, juxtaposes scenes from the story of redemption at Christ's time with corresponding subjects from the Old Testament in which the New Testament appears prefigured.

Nicholas of Verdun's understanding of the human body and its organic motions, and his ability to represent these in the classical sense, increased as work progressed, as becomes clearly evident in the sequence of plaques. The transition from a very schematic rendering of the figures to a relaxed, organic depiction, as well as to proper proportions of figure and drapery surely resulted from a knowledge of late-antique ivory diptychs, bronze and silver statuettes, and influences from Byzantine art. The Samson scene is represented as it were a legacy of classical depiction of Hercules.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.