Chapter 15. Altar Pieces

The altar has always held a central role in Christian worship. It is the focal point of the Eucharist, where the priest prepares the sacrament of bread and wine and the faithful kneel to receive it. In the early days of Christianity the altar was referred to as the Mensa (‘table’ in Latin).  It was a simple slab of wood or stone that could be set up when and where it was needed to function as a table top.  The Mensa was covered with a cloth which hung down to hide the supports and to give dignity to the act of worship.

In the Middle Ages altars evolved into more solid structures, with emphasis placed on the vertical outer face.  The altar front was the most visible surface for the congregation, and through pictures and symbols it could help them to connect with the Christian message.  Altar cloths were embroidered with increasingly elaborate designs and images, often in costly silver and gold thread. In Italy these were known as paliotti (after the Latin pallium, an embroidered stole worn by the Pope and senior clergy).

During the Renaissance removeable and interchangeable fabrics were often substituted with rigid panels made from carved wood, metal or stone.  The practice became widespread following a ruling from the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which stated that all Roman Catholic  altars and altar fronts should become permanent structures (See Chapter 5).

The earliest Pietre Dure paliotti were of Roman or Florentine origin, and date from the end of the 1500s. The style closely follows  the developments of secular Pietre Dure work, with different coloured panels and abstract geometrical designs giving way to more naturalistic (often floral) decoration (See Chapter 3). They often include a symbol that reflects the subject matter of the painting or statue above the altar, or they might bear the coat of arms of the donor;  in rare cases they are pictorial.

The region of Emilia Romagna to the east of the Apennines did not have the same access to marble that was available in Rome and Tuscany; nor did it have the skills available to work it.  On the other hand there were large deposits of selenite, the translucent rock used to make gypsum plaster.  The area was not wealthy and when the technique of scagliola first appeared in the early 17th. Century, it provided a solution to the problem of upgrading church interiors, and in particular altar fronts and surrounds; the prestige and beauty of architectural and inlaid marble were brought within the reach of town and country parishes, at a fraction of the cost and time.   As in the case of the secularly inspired scagliola in Munich, no stigma attached to the fact that the material was an imitation.  The ability to copy rare and precious marbles with plaster and pigments was something to be acknowledged and celebrated, a triumph of human skill and ingenuity in the service of God and the  Counter Reformation of the Catholic Church.  In a curious turn-around from its exclusive position in Bavarian court architecture and decoration, scagliola found a new role for itself in Italy: as  poor man’s marble, il marmo dei poveri.

ReferencesOrnamental Antependiums using Pietra Dure, Scagliola and Stuccolustro, by Heinrich-Joseph Klein, in: Kunstgeschichtliche Aufsatze:  Von seinem Schulern und Freunden des KhlK Heinz Ladendorf zum 29.Juni 1969 gewidmet, edited by Joachim Guas, pp. 276-308, Cologne 1969

A silk and silver thread Paliotto bearing the coat-of-arms of Pope Alessandro VII Chigi.  (Museo delle Opere, Siena Cathedral 17th C.)

An early bronze altar front by Lorenzetto depicting Christ and the Samaritan (Chigi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, ca. 1522)

Pietre Dure altar front by Gian Battista Rangheri, 1693.  Relief carvings of the Madonna Addolorata, side cherubs and festoons by Domenico Aglio .  (Main altar of Santi Siri e Libero, Verona.)

Chapter 15: Altar Pieces

The altar has always held a central role in Christian worship. It is the focal point of the Eucharist, where the priest prepares the sacrament of bread and wine and the faithful kneel to receive it.  In the early days of Christianity the altar was referred to as the Mensa (‘table’ in Latin).  It was a simple slab of wood or stone that could be set up when and where it was needed to function as a table top.  The Mensa was covered with a cloth which hung down to hide the supports and to give dignity to the act of worship.

In the Middle Ages altars evolved into more solid structures, with emphasis placed on the vertical outer face.  The altar front was the most visible surface for the congregation, and through pictures and symbols it could help them to connect with the Christian message.  Altar cloths were embroidered with increasingly elaborate designs and images, often in costly silver and gold thread. In Italy these were known as paliotti (after the Latin pallium, an embroidered stole worn by the Pope and senior clergy).

A section of a late silk and silver thread Paliotto bearing the coat-of-arms of Pope Alessandro VII Chigi.  (Museo delle Opere, Siena Cathedral 17th C.)

During the Renaissance removeable and interchangeable fabrics were often substituted with rigid panels made from carved wood, metal or stone.  The practice became widespread following a ruling from the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which stated that all Roman Catholic  altars and altar fronts should from now on be permanent structures (See Chapter 5).

An early bronze altar front by Lorenzetto depicting Christ and the Samaritan (Chigi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, ca. 1522)

The earliest Pietre Dure paliotti were of Roman or Florentine origin, and date from the end of the 1500s. The style closely follows  the developments of secular Pietre Dure work, with different coloured panels and abstract geometrical designs giving way to more naturalistic (often floral) decoration (See Chapter 3). They often include a symbol that reflects the subject matter of the painting or statue above the altar, or they might bear the coat of arms of the donor;  in rare cases they are pictorial.

Pietre Dure altar front by Gian Battista Rangheri, 1693.  Relief carvings of the Madonna Addolorata, side cherubs and festoons by Domenico Aglio .  (Main altar of Santi Siri e Libero, Verona.)

The region of Emilia Romagna to the east of the Apennines did not have the same access to marble that was available in Rome and Tuscany; nor did it have the skills available to work it.  On the other hand there were large deposits of selenite, the translucent rock used to make gypsum plaster.  The area was not wealthy and when the technique of scagliola first appeared in the early 17th. Century, it provided a solution to the problem of upgrading church interiors, and in particular altar fronts and surrounds; the prestige and beauty of architectural and inlaid marble were brought within the reach of town and country parishes, at a fraction of the cost and time.   As in the case of the secularly inspired scagliola in Munich, no stigma attached to the fact that the material was an imitation.  The ability to copy rare and precious marbles with plaster and pigments was something to be acknowledged and celebrated, a triumph of human skill and ingenuity in the service of God and the Counter Reformation of the Catholic Church.  In a curious turn-around from its exclusive position in Bavarian court architecture and decoration, scagliola found a new role for itself in Italy: as poor man’s marble, il marmo dei poveri, 

ReferencesOrnamental Antependiums using Pietra Dure, Scagliola and Stuccolustro, by Heinrich-Joseph Klein, in: Kunstgeschichtliche Aufsatze:  Von seinem Schulern und Freunden des KhlK Heinz Ladendorf zum 29.Juni 1969 gewidmet, edited by Joachim Guas, pp. 276-308, Cologne 1969