In the Burgundian era, the period in which they were painted, the elite had travel altars. These were painted structures with multiple panels (polyptychs), which you could store in a box or a leather case. This polyptych may well have been commissioned by Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy.
4/ 2 = 3
The panels in the museum are only half of what was once a four-panel altar (tetraptych). The other half is in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. How can half of a four-panel altar make six panels? Because two of the panels consist of a separate back and front: they have been cut in half.
What can we see on the panels in the museum? The birth of Jesus, Christ emerging from his tomb and St Christopher wading through a river. Christopher is the patron saint of travellers, so he was a very appropriate subject for a travel altar.
The scenes on the panels in Baltimore are the annunciation (when Mary was told that she was to be Jesus’ mother), Christ’s crucifixion and his baptism. The altar thus depicted key moments from the life of Jesus, in beautiful colours, under an azure sky and on a gilded background.
On the panel showing Christ’s birth, Joseph is sitting at the bottom left. He is cutting a stocking into pieces to make swaddling clothes for the newborn child – something occasionally mentioned in Christmas carols. We know that Joseph’s stockings were one of the relics preserved in Aachen Cathedral. This beautiful work is thought to have been made in the Meuse-Rhine region.
- Unknown painter
- Two panels of the Antwerp-Baltimore Polyptych, ca. 1400
- Tempera and oil, gold and silver on oak, 37.9 x 26.5 cm