Following its transformative conservation, the Passion, Death & Resurrection of Christ altarpiece by the Master of the View of St Gudule [W.123 and B.M.1018-23] has rightly become a favourite piece in The Bowes Museum’s collection, and a popular topic on this blog. Chocolate eggs now dispatched, I thought I would reflect on its role in the celebration of the Easter festival, both historically as a religious object and today in the more secular setting of the picture galleries.
Today in the museum, its carved and painted figures look over at another fantastic work of international importance, Crucifixion by the Master of the Virgo inter Virgines (active 1483-98) [B.M.168]. In their original homes in Medieval churches these huge, multi-faceted scenes were the grand centre pieces of the theatre of feast days. Worshippers would be ensconced in a glittering haze of golden clothing, precious metal objects and polyphonic music.
In the more secular space of the museum, these works (family fun days aside) live a quieter existence, labelled and behind ropes. However, just before Easter, I had the opportunity to surround them with noise once again by performing Haydn’s Passion: the Seven Last Words of Christ in their presence. As me and my friends in Barnard Castle Choral Society sang the evocative lyrics, we understood something of the educational and emotional experience of medieval worship. When we sang the libretto: “When he was thirsty they gave him vinegar to drink” we were watching the figures on the Crucifixion Triptych who proffer their sponges on long sticks. I realise that it is something of a faux pas to smile at a requiem, but as a satisfied practical scholar I honestly couldn’t help it, my eyes and my heart connected in the joy of art.
Because these altarpieces have a life beyond that of a painting on a museum wall – they are interactive, three dimensional pieces. Until very recently, both these works were displayed in a static open state. Now, the Passion, Death & Resurrection of Christ altarpiece is opened every day at 11am, just as it would have been on feast days in Medieval times. I feel immensely privileged that this is, as far as I can ascertain, the only museum in the country, if not all of Europe, where visitors can experience a multi-panelled altarpiece in motion. Unfortunately, the Crucifixion triptych has not yet been conserved to the same degree and is still static, so the beautiful painting of sculpted angels on the rear of its wings cannot currently be seen. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t experience for yourself some of the movement- if you can, try kneeling down before it and see how the perspective changes and the figures appear to move, and, although you can’t currently see them, see if you can imagine the angels behind its doors.
By Rosie Bradford, Groups and Events Co-ordinator