Heaven and Hellfire: Illustrating a Fifteenth-Century Spanish Altarpiece

Learn about the use of gilding and composition in fifteenth-century Spanish altarpieces.

This video features The Trinity Adored by All Saints, which is on view in The Met's European Paintings galleries.

This early fifteenth-century Spanish altarpiece once adorned a private burial chapel in a royal monastery. It is well preserved and largely intact, but a few of its original components have been lost over the years: the base, or banco, provided structural support and space for additional imagery; and the dust guard, or guardapolvo, surrounded it above on three sides. There may also have been a protective curtain that covered the altarpiece when it was not in use. Spanish altarpieces typically feature ornate gilding that shimmers in the glow of candlelight.

In this altarpiece, gold highlights small details such as the wings of St. Michael and the stars twinkling against the ultramarine sky. This display of gold was also meant to convey holiness and magnificence. The coat of arms decorating each of the gilded arches belonged to the noblemen who commissioned the altarpiece. Wealthy patrons often commissioned altarpieces for religious reasons and as memorials to themselves and their families.

Early fifteenth-century Spanish altarpieces are typically composed of three panels, divided into multiple rows. This layout organizes a great deal of visual content. The side panels present a hierarchy of saints, all facing the Trinity at the center. At the top are the prophets and patriarchs, followed by apostles and evangelists, martyrs, monks, hermits, and Confessors of the Faith, and, at the bottom, female saints.

The central panel depicts three subjects: Christ's Crucifixion with emblems of the Passion; the vision of the Trinity, accompanied by the Virgin Mary; and an apocalyptic vision of the "End of Time." Here, St. Michael expels the rebel angels from heaven and pushes them into the fanged mouth of hell. Standing before this fiery image, viewers would have been confronted with their own mortality.

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