The Beaune Altarpiece (1442-50)

The Beaune Altarpiece (or The Last Judgement) is a large polyptych painted in oil on oak panels with parts later transferred to canvas. It consists of fifteen paintings on nine panels, of which six are painted on both sides. Unusually for the period, it retains some of its original frames.

Six of the outer panels (or shutters) have hinges for folding; when closed, the exterior view of saints and donors is visible. The inner panels contain scenes from the Last Judgement arranged across two registers. The large central panel spans both registers and shows Christ seated on a rainbow in judgement, while below him, the Archangel Michael holds scales to weigh souls. The lower register panels form a continuous landscape, with that on the far proper right showing the gates of Heaven while the entrance to Hell is on the far proper left. Between these panels, the dead rise from their graves. They are depicted moving from the central panel to their final destinations after receiving judgement.

The enormous plyptych was painted by Rogier van der Weyden and his studio for the "great hall of the poor" in the Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune. This hospital was founded by the fabulously wealthy Chancellor Rolin and his devout third wife, Guigone de Salins, for the salvation of their souls and in the hope of storing up treasures in heaven. Work began in 1443. These were dark times indeed. Beaune had suffered greatly at the hands of pillaging soldiers who were creating havoc throughout France and particularly in Burgundy; bad harvests had been followed by famine, and the plague had also struck. The existing hospitals were unable to cater for the myriad of sick and suffering. The new room was a vast open nave with a panelled barrel vault for a ceiling, and could contain thirty canopied beds along its two long walls. The polyptych was placed at one end of this space, behind the altar, in a chapel separated from the nave by an "open work wooden partition", through which patients could follow the divine service from their sick beds.

Fortunately, perhaps, it would normally have been kept closed so that the invalids would have seen only the portraits of Rolin and his wife and the grisailles of the Annunciation, St Anthony and St Sebastian; only occasionally would they have seen the magnificent but terrifying Last Judgement. The central figure of St Michael weighs souls in his balance with improbable delicacy and complete impassivity as he appears to step forward from the surface of the panel. In the figures of the damned, compelled by invisible forces to enter Hell, Rogier showed how powerfully he could depict the extremes of human emotion.

As long as the polyptych hung in the chapel, it was traditional to open the wings on Sundays and solemn feast days. But since it has been restored, it is now kept in a neighbouring room which is air-conditioned to prevent any further deterioration due to the heat generated by the three hundred thousand visitors who come to see it each year. The panels were sawn in half across the thickness of the wood a few years ago, and both the front and the reverse are now exhibited simultaneously, side by side.

Rogier's disdain for accurate representation and spatial logic and his confidence in his ability to produce startlingly memorable images of immense dramatic power became very apparent in the great altarpieces of the late 1440s: the polyptych of the Last Judgement (Musée de l'Hôtel-Dieu, Beaune), datable between 1443 and 1451 and painted for Nicolas Rolin, Chancellor of Burgundy, and the triptych of the Seven Sacraments (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp), painted for Jean Chevrot, Bishop of Tournai, also a man of great influence at the Burgundian court.