Altarpieces & Portraits

Spectacular multi-panelled altarpieces, known as polyptychs, were commissioned by the Church or private donors. Centred on a key image, usually a Madonna and Child or a Crucifixion, episodes from the lives of Mary or Jesus were depicted in the side panels or lower registers of the altarpiece. Individual saints, or scenes from their lives, were often incorporated. Diptychs and triptychs (works with two or three panels) also followed a set format, and their smaller scale allowed for their transportation or use in a private residence. While the panels of earlier Gothic altarpieces were decorative, usually crowned with pinnacles, during the Renaissance altarpieces became less elaborate, sometimes reduced to a single panel.

Before the Renaissance the portrait as a discrete image was rare in Western art. During the late Middle Ages portraits were reserved exclusively for royalty or historic figures. Sometimes images of donors were included in altarpieces but theirs was a subordinate role—they were shown in profile and kneeling, usually smaller than the sacred figures, and often in a lower register.

In the Renaissance individuals become the focus of paintings. As well as marking key events such as marriage, pregnancy or accession to power, portraits document a person’s likeness for future generations. Early Renaissance portraits represent the subject in profile like the image on a Roman coin or medallion. Later a greater range develops, from head-and-shoulders and three-quarter images to large, full-length depictions.