Biblical Storytelling: Illustrating a Fifteenth-Century Netherlandish Altarpiece

Learn how fifteenth-century Netherlandish altarpieces would have been used in their original devotional context.

This video features The Nativity by the Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden, which is on view in The Met's European Paintings galleries.

This multipanel painting is a prime example of Netherlandish altarpieces from the fifteenth century. Although it has survived nearly intact for hundreds of years, two of the panels have been separated from the original set. Placed behind a high altar, this elaborate piece was designed to bring worshipers closer to God by drawing them in with detailed, realistic depictions of biblical stories.

It presents religious scenes in surroundings that would have been familiar—including local landscape and architecture, and characters dressed in contemporary clothing. There is even a candid scene of the Three Kings bathing. These intimate details were intended to help worshipers connect to the stories and inspire devotion and piety.

The unique design of Netherlandish altarpieces allows for complex, multilayered storytelling. The most remarkable feature is their hinged construction, which enables the panels to open and close like shutters. Whether situated in a church or convent, the panels were kept closed for most of the year.

The top outer panels, painted in muted colors, show an austere depiction of the fall of man, in which an angel brandishing a sword banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The lower panels portray four saints—the patrons of the person who commissioned the altarpiece or the church that housed it. On holidays, the altarpiece would have been unfolded, revealing a colorful and joyous illustration of the birth of Christ.

The story begins with the Annunciation, followed by a scene of Mary and her cousin Elizabeth embracing. The next panels show the Annunciation of the Tiburtine Sibyl to Emperor Augustus, the Nativity, the Annunciation to the Magi, and Christ's circumcision, concluding with the Adoration of the Magi.

Imagine how this brightly colored, cinematic sequence might have looked to people in the 1400s. It surely would have been one of the most spectacular images they had ever seen.

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