The Inverted "T" Shape

Occasionally a student will ask me about why Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition altarpiece (also called “Descent from the Cross, c. 1440, shown left) is formed in an unusual shape. Up until this point, I have always answered that the shape (which looks like an inverted “T”) was a traditional form for altarpieces in Northern Europe. Although this answer is true, I have recently learned that I could give a much more detailed response to my students. In a fascinating article, “The Inverted “T”-Shape in Early Netherlandish Altarpieces: Studies in the Relation between Painting and Sculpture,” scholar Lynn F. Jacobs explores some reasons for why this particular shape would have contained significance, meaning, and specific purpose. 1 I wanted to highlight some of her ideas here:

  • The inverted “T” could help to visually emphasize the most important scene in the altarpiece. Along these lines, the added vertical section could also accommodate particular narrative features (such as a cross, as is well demonstrated in van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments altarpiece, c. 1445-50, shown right).2
  • The elevated section of the shape could have been used to suggest a type of hierarchy (in terms of sanctity). The more sanctified, holy persons appear in the most elevated section of the “T” altarpiece. This visual emphasis on sanctity is connected with the idea of heaven (since heaven is usually conceived as being a place “on high”). Jacobs points out that this connection with heaven is implicit in the “T” shape, simply by virtue of its form.3
  • The “T” shape could have symbolic associations with the church, since it also mimics the architectural cross section of a Gothic cathedral. (Notice how Seven Sacraments even places the figures within a cathedral setting, with the vertical section for the nave elevation and the smaller areas for the side aisles.) Jacobs even points out that some of these altarpieces seem to suggest the triple portal facade of a cathedral.4
  • Jacobs particularly stresses that the inverted “T” might have originated for practical reasons (and perhaps later took on these aforementioned symbolic associations). These altarpieces were used to define space during the celebration of the Mass. During this service, the priest elevates the Sacrament and holds it high in the air. Not only does the “T” shape altarpiece create “a backdrop to frame the display of the sanctified Host,” but the vertical stress of the shape ensures “a backdrop that could encompass this elevated gesture.”5 Since the elevation of the Sacrament had been an established part of the Mass service since the thirteenth century, this practical explanation seems extremely logical to me.

What suggestion do you particularly like? Do you have a favorite Netherlandish altarpiece that is formed in an inverted “T” shape?


1 Lynn F. Jacobs, “The Inverted “T”-Shape in Early Netherlandish Altarpieces: Studies in the Relation between Painting and Sculpture,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 54 Bd., H. 1 (1991): 33-65.
2 Ibid., 36.
3 Ibid., 48.
4 Ibid., 37.
5 Ibid., 45.
  • heidenkind says:

    All of these suggestions sound good to me. I right away thought of it mimicking the shape of the cathedral, but "framing" the priest during mass is a good one.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Fascinating post M!

    They all sound like valid reasons for the "T" form, but I wonder if they could also be applied to the "E" form such as seen in the Norfolk Triptych.

    I think it would be important to point out to a student that not all panels ended up in this shape, in terms of there being no strict dictum artists needed to adhere to. The Cranach Wittenburg Altarpiece is a famous example of a non inverted "T"

    Another factor I'd suggest is cost, in terms of looking at such panels as a triptych, but with two segments being reduced in size, would have cost less. Did these "T" panels turn up in Churhces and towns that were not as financially prominent as some of the more elaborate altarpieces we know?

    H

  • e says:

    I'll miss this, M!

    Here's to looking forward to reading many posts when I'm back!

  • Margarida Elias says:

    Wonderful post!

  • Michael Robinson says:

    Might the ‘inverted T’ shape of ‘The Deposition’ simply be a way of incorporating an external top mounted cross into the structure of the paint surface and therefore reducing the overall cost of the installation – for an example of a mounted cross, circa 1500, see that shown in: ‘The Mass of St Giles’ London, National Gallery NG4681, by the Franco-Flemish ‘Master of St Giles’ ( http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/master-of-saint-giles-the-mass-of-saint-giles ) [Read with the companion work ‘The Baptism of Clovis’ Washington, National Gallery 1952.2.15 (http://www.nga.gov/fcgi-bin/tinfo_f?object=41597 )there is absolutely no doubt that church furnishings etc are being shown as at circa 1500, and not at the date of the incidents depicted] The Deposition does resemble one of the carved and gilded alter pieces in which the wooden figures are set inside a painted and gilded box and, among the many spatial inconsistencies, the cross is simply not large enough to have supported the body of Christ as shown. The work incorporates a second ‘T’ shape: it was painted originally for the Archer’s Guild of Louvin, hence Christ’s body forming a shape that resembles a cross bow.

    In the ‘Seven Sacraments’ (painted for Jean Chevrot, Bishop of Tornai, who is shown administering the e sacrament of confirmation in the centre left panel) the figures are painted in different scales dependant on their importance in Church hierarchy and the use of two side panels, with the wings representing the smaller aisles and the center panel the nave of a great church, also resolves the problem of uniting these disparate sized figures in a scene painted in accurate perspective.

    Another example of these ‘inverted T’ alter pieces incorporating a crucifixion is that depicted in the van der Veyden (with assistants) ‘Exhumation of St. Hubert’ London, National Gallery NG783 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/rogier-van-der-weyden-and-workshop-the-exhumation-of-saint-hubert

    However the top section of the inverted T’ form could be used for other conventional purposes, for example the figure of God the Father at the head of the polyptych ‘Nativity,’
    New York, Metropolitan Museum , Cloisters Collection 49.109 http://www.metmuseum.org/works_of_art/collection_database/all/the_nativity_rogier_van_der_weyden/objectview.aspx?page=1&sort=6&sortdir=asc&keyword=Workshop%20of%20Rogier%20van%20der%20Weyden&fp=1&dd1=0&dd2=0&vw=1&collID=0&OID=70011881&vT=1&hi=0&ov=0
    [The orb with a ‘T’ in the right hand of God the Father is the orbis terarum representing the physical world as described by Isidore of Seville in the ‘Etymologiae’ (cap xiv) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T_and_O_map . This form is just a structural variant of the 'E' form — the doors covering the central panel have been attached to it directly, rather than being formed as vertical additions to the ends of the outer panels.]

  • Dr. F says:

    M:

    I enjoyed your discussion and the comments but I think the most interesting thing about Rogier's painting is the youthful but whitened face of the stricken Madonna. In fact, her face and hands are the same pallor of Christ's dead body.

    What could Rogier have been thinking?

    Frank

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments!

    H Niyazi: You've brought up some good points. You're right: not all altarpieces appear in this shape.

    I also wanted to point out that the "E" form altarpiece which you mentioned also would appear as a "T" form when the altarpiece wings are closed! So, I think that you're right: some of these reasons could apply to this altarpiece form. Often altarpieces would only be opened on special occasions and religious holidays – it could be that the Norfolk Triptych was usually seen in its "T" form.

    Michael Robinson: Great comment and links! Thank you! You've brought up some really interesting suggestions for the altarpieces: I especially like your idea about how these could have incorporated the idea of a "mounted cross" (in a less expensive way).

    I wonder if van der Weyden was copying a specific "T" form altarpiece when he made The Exhumation of St. Hubert. Since the painting does not depict the actual space of St. Peter's, it makes me wonder what other artistic liberties van der Weyden might have taken. Nonetheless, the inclusion of a "T" form gives great visual evidence for this altarpiece tradition. I wasn't aware of this painting or example beforehand – thanks for mentioning it!

    Dr. F: I've never thought about that before! Good observation. Perhaps this was a way for van der Weyden to emphasize Mary's suffering – it appears that she is "nigh unto death" with her grief for her son. If anyone else has other suggestions about this topic, I'd like to hear them.

  • H Niyazi says:

    With regards to Frank/M's comments on Mary's pallor, wouldn't the obvious explanation be the inheritance of the Medieval traditions of depicting 'The Passion'
    In this context, Mary was often shown/described as stricken in a manner mirroring Christ.

    H

  • Douglas says:

    Re: the T-altarpiece in the "Exhumation of St. Hurbert": Were gold-ground altarpieces fairly common in the netherlands? I can only think of one possible example(the met claims that the Merode Altarpiece had gold in the windows of the central panel at one point), and one example does not a rule make.

  • M says:

    H Niyazi: I thought the same thing, but you stated it much more eloquently than me! Yes, this reference to Mary's suffering is often visually emphasized when Mary/Christ are depicted in a similar way (often in terms of composition and pose).

    Douglas: Interesting question! I'm not familiar with Northern altarpieces that contain gold grounds, either. I thought that the altarpiece in the St. Hubert painting was a carved, wooden one (which is common in Northern art), but I could be mistaken. On second glance, I think you might be right. Perhaps that altarpiece is painted with a gold ground. (Anyone else have thoughts on this topic?)

  • Michael Robinson says:

    RE Ground of the altarpiece depicted in the Exhumation of St. Hubert

    We are only examining a photograph and not even the actual paint surface, however I think linked below this is the type of ground, perhaps over sgraffito, that is being suggested:
    http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/french-the-virgin

    However its very hard indeed to make any positive judgment, and very probably would be even in front of the work, with glass and balanced even illumination .

  • [c] @ penbrushneedle says:

    RE gold-ground altarpieces in the Netherlands, I believe the problem is that one of the many innovations of van Eyck, van der Weyden and their contemporaries was the substitution of the old-fashioned, abstract gold-ground with a more realistic landscape (or architectural) backdrop. But before ca. 1420 gold-ground altarpieces would have been the rule even in the Netherlands – unfortunately, though, only a handful of those early examples survives. (The best overview is now provided by the exhibition catalogue Pre-Eyckian Panel Painting in the Low Countries, ed. by Cyriel Stroo, 2 vols., Turnhout: Brepols 2009.) One of them is the „Norfolk Triptych“ mentioned above by H Niyazi which, btw, does have gold-ground. And if you focus on its central portion, you’ll realize that its overall design as well as its frame is pretty similar to the altarpiece shown in the „Exhumation of St. Hubert“.

    Oh, and may I redirect your attention from the comment section back to M’s original post – the background in van der Weyden's „Deposition“ looks pretty golden to me, too ;-)

    c.

  • M says:

    Michael Robinson, I agree: it is hard to make a positive judgment on what type of ground is suggested by van der Weyden (and would probably still be difficult when examining the art in-person). Still, it's fun to speculate! With the artist's extreme attention to detail, one would think that he had a specific type of altarpiece/ground in mind when he made the St. Hubert painting.

    Thanks for that background information, c@penbrushneedle. You brought up a good point about how van Eyck and his contemporaries made an innovation by depicting landscapes in their altarpieces. I feel silly that I didn't think of the Norfolk Triptych example, though – I was so busy concentrating on the "E" form that H Niyazi mentioned, that I didn't pay much attention to the gold ground!

    And I also thought that van der Weyden's backdrop looked fairly golden, but I wasn't completely sure if the artist was giving an impression of gold or wood. I guess it goes back to what I said (and Michael said earlier): I think it's hard to make a positive judgment on the type of ground (especially with a reproduction). But I agree with you: it does look "pretty golden to me" too.

    I'm really enjoying this discussion, folks.

  • [c] @ penbrushneedle says:

    I just discovered there’s even a Wikipedia entry dedicated to van der Weyden’s „Deposition“ – it has some detailed images where it’s plain to see that the background is, indeed, golden. Strikingly, though, it’s not the abstract, „immaterial“ gold foil generally employed in late medieval art, but it rather looks like the whole scene takes place in some sort of wooden box which has its interior decorated with golden cloth or wallpaper. (The figures even throw shadows onto the background „wall“!)
    So, in a certain way, the golden background in this painting has a very tangible reality – in another way, though, it adds a decidedly „unrealistic“ touch to the picture, creating an abstract stage-like setting for the scene. No matter how naturalistically the figures may be painted, van der Weyden makes it quite clear that we’re actually looking at a tableau-like image and not (if you excuse the pun) through Alberti’s window into the „real world“.

    c.

  • M says:

    Great find, c@penbrushneedle! The background in that reproduction looks much more golden, especially in comparison with the little wooden bows that frame the corners of the altarpiece. (If anyone is interested, these bows are thought to reference to the archer's guild which commissioned this altarpiece.)

    You're right: van der Weyden definitely makes the scene seem tangible in a way, especially because the golden background has a certain kind of texture (which we can deduce was intentional, given how the Northern painters were masters of fine brushstrokes and thin paint layers). If anyone has access to the ARTSTOR database, you can see fantastic details of the background and its texture there.

    P.S. I liked the reference to Alberti's window! :)

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.