The Altarpiece in the Middle Ages and Renaissance
Before the 13th century some local traditions had the priest standing behind the altar to say Mass while others had him in front, with his back to the people. After the church council of 1215 the latter practice came to be universal. This had a consequence for the design of altars. In earlier times they often had painted panels known as "altar frontals" (the first picture at right, for example). These would not have been visible when the priest stood before the altar, so in the 13th century the altar frontal was moved to behind the altar. Thus was born the earliest type of altarpiece, which Ekserdjian calls the "retable" – and others call the "dossal." (I will prefer the latter term.)1

Dossals were commonly divided into three vertical registers: Christ or a saint in the center, flanked by two columns of small portraits or narrative images. Originally proportioned like altar frontals, they soon came to be extended vertically, like the second example at right.

As can be seen in that second example, painted images of architectural columns could separate the central portrait from the smaller images. In the 14th and 15th centuries this led to actual physical separation in "polyptychs," the second type of altarpiece. In these the side images are separated from the center by engaged columns or are on hinged "wings," as in the third example at right. The wings and the central panel will customarily be topped by Gothic-style arches.

In some polyptychs the center image is flanked by full-length portraits of other saints. In others sides may have a number of smaller panels with more portraits or with episodes from the saint's life (example). The portraits are almost always painted on gold ground; the episodes will sometimes have a background landscape instead.

During the 14th century more and more polyptychs would have a "predella," a separate strip of panels at the bottom of the work featuring either portraits of saints or narrative episodes (example). The central panel might be reserved either for the most important episode in the story or for a portrait complementing the one directly above.

Dossal altarpieces were vastly outnumbered by newer types after the 13th century, but they did continue to be used from time to time. This altarpiece from the 16th century, for example, is organized in the old style. Similarly, the popularity of polyptych altarpieces waned during the course of the 15th century, but they too retained a place in church art for some time.

In Spain and its colonies, the polyptych was popular in the Baroque era in the form of large wooden "retables" with statues and relief sculptures instead of paintings (example).

What overshadowed the polyptych in the 15th and 16th centuries was a new type that devoted the entire space to one painting. An early example of these "single-field" works was the Boulbon Altarpiece from 1450 (fourth picture at right). When an artist wanted to include different events or portrait groupings in this single painting he would separate them by painted devices such as the cloud in Raphael's altarpiece of the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin or the mountaintop in his Trans­fig­uration.

In Italy contemporary documents referred to this type of altarpiece as a pala (plural pale). A key difference from the polyptych was the abandonment of gold ground for a background with either a landscape or an interior setting.

The subject matter of these pale could be an episode in a narrative (as in the Raphael), or it could be an enthroned figure with saints stationed on the left and right (example) or a Sacra Conversazione, an image of several saints gathered together from various eras in Christian history.

Prepared in 2022 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.


Altar frontal from Catalunya, 12th century, 1280s. (See the description page.)

Altarpiece of St. Clare, 1280s. (See the description page.)

Antonio Vivarini, The Santa Sabina Altarpiece, 1443. (See the description page.)

The Boulbon Altarpiece, Provence, circa 1450. (See the description page.)


Polyptychs Single-field Altarpieces Spanish Retables


1 This essay draws largely on Ekserdjian's exhaustive study of Italian Renaissance altarpieces; any errors on this page will surely be my own. For the priest's stance at the alter before and after 1215, see Beth Williamson, "Altarpieces, Liturgy, and Devotion," Speculum 79 (2004), 341-406.