Bernt Notke's Altar in Århus - Advent position
Bernt Notke's Altar in Århus - Advent position

Veiling the Altar at Advent in Århus

Bernt Notke (c. 1440 – 1509) was a German Painter and wood-carver responsible for the intricate altarpiece in Århus Cathedral, which has three positions, Feast, Passion and Advent. A video shows how it is still done

The Zittauer Lenten Cloth. Source Wikipedia
The Zittauer Lenten Cloth. Source Wikipedia

In the fourteenth century, winged polyptych altarpieces in Central and Northern Europe introduced a new visual regime: the veiling of the altars during Lent and Advent.

Little is known about the history of shuttering and veiling the altarpieces in the medieval church. Some scholars believe that the practice evolved as church officials in the later Middle Ages tried to entice people hungry for images to visit the churches on feat days. Somewhat like state-sponsored broadcasting companies before Netflix tried to starve their viewers of the next episode in their favourite series by spacing them a week at a time, priests would close off or veil the altars and statues.

This tradition is closely connected to the construction of the Late Medieval winged retables, which art historians explain in different ways. Some believe the form was inspired by the smaller portable altars cut from ivory and destined to be packed down or closed when not used. Others believe the inspiration came from the reliquaries constructed to be occasionally opened for the veneration of the faithful, such for instance, the Medieval shrine Madonnas. As altars were constructed as “graves” for the deposition of relics, first the frontals and later the painted retables were created to embellish the stone altar considered the symbolic sepulchre of Christ – thus mimicking the opening up of the grave on Easter Sunday and revealing the Risen Christ.

Altarpieces with a painted frontal and backside are known from the middle of the 13th century. The proper winged altarpieces, however, date to the end of the 14th and especially the late 15th century. The earliest preserved altarpiece of this type – a double-sided cross altar – belonged to the Cistercian church in Doberan and was constructed in such a way as to keep the lay congregation apart from the choir. Partly dated to c. 1300 to 1310, it was rebuilt after 1368. On the Western side, the altar shows Christ hanging on the cross of life, while the back depicts the Good tree of Mary and other paintings from her life. Thus the Passion of Christ would be revealed in all its glory on feast days, while fast days would be filled with pictorial admonitions to live faithfully as Mary.

Not much is known about the practice of opening and closing the altarpiece wings. They were generally open on Sundays and feast days, but closed for the rest of the year, perhaps for more than two-thirds. Although the most prolonged period of hiding occurred during the forty days of Lent, Advent was another significant period of abstinence. Accordingly, a glimpse of some of the spectacular art would be something for which it was worth venturing out to see together with friends and neighbours. Thus, participating in the celebration of Mass on feast days might become a communal affair. Also, the practice – regular as clockwork – would help set the rhythm of the year in villages, towns and larger cities.

Lenten Veils

However, most of the shuttering took the form of veiling of the altarpieces and the statues of saints with cloths called Lenten Veils. Also called fasting sheets (Hungertücher) or languishing rags, they could paradoxically be “historiated”, that is decorated with flat pictures like those on the Lenten Cloth donated in 1472 by the merchant Jacob Gürtler to the Church of St. John in Zittau. Measuring 8.20 x 6.80, this cloth is displayed in the “Museum Kirche zum heiligen Kreuz and depicts 90 scenes from the Bible. Another famous example is the Lenten veil by Konrad von Friesach, donated in 1458 to the Gurk Cathedral in Carinthia, where it is still hung during Lent. Painted with tempera and holding 99 images, it is a miracle to have survived. Thus, kind of defeating its purpose, the event of the hanging might in itself have lured people to peer through the screens (if possible).

The Altar Piece in Århus

1479 Jens Iversen Lange i Århus Domkirke
Bishop Jens Iversen Lange in Århus Cathedral 1479

One of the more elaborate altarpieces may be seen in the Cathedral in Århus. Created by Bernt Notke, it dates to 1479, when Bishop Jens Iversen Lange commissioned the work in Lübeck.

One of the few works we know with certainty to have been assigned to Bernt Notke, the retable consists of both carved reliefs and paintings. The individual elements of the paintings cannot be traced to Notke’s hands. They were the results of teamwork by Notke and his coworkers.

The Notke family originally came from Reval in Estonia, and Bernt Notke may have been the son of a ship-owner, Michael Notke, who traded on Flanders. Notke may have spent his apprenticeship in the southern Netherlands, where he learned to carve, build and paint Late Medieval altarpieces. His works, however, were taken to another level with their grandiose over-size and their effectual impact on viewers.

He is perhaps best known for his inventive Dance of Death frieze, painted with tempera on linen and later copied as a mural in Lübeck (destroyed in 1942). The Dance of Death shows 24 representatives of different social classes and professions alternating with skeletons and dancing in front of late medieval towns like Lübeck.

Another well-known piece is the altar of St. George, which was commissioned by the Swedish administrator Sten Sture, who summoned him to Stockholm c. 1483 -7. This massive and overwhelming piece of art consisted of some carved life-size figures of which St. George and the Dragon and the princess with the lamb may still be admired in the Storkyrkan.

Finally,  significant piece is the altarpiece in the Cathedral in Århus in Denmark, which was commissioned in 1477 by the Bishop of Århus , Jens Iversen Lange, for the high altar in the Cathedral of Our Lady. Notke is attested as the carver on the bases of the carved figures in the central panel.

One of the features of the altar is that it can be folded and unfolded according to season – festive, passion and advent. A fascinating video demonstrates how this is still done at the beginning of December.



Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum
Amy Knight Powell
MIT Press, 2012 – 369 sider

Flügelretabel ( Winged Altarpiece)
In: RDK Labor/Reallexikons zur Deutschen Kunstgeschichte





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