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Pacher, St. Wolfgang Altarpiece

Michael Pacher, St. Wolfgang Altarpiece, c. 1479-81 (Church of St. Wolfgang, St. Wolfgang, Austria) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris. Find related images here. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) Male: We're in the Church of St. Wolfgang on a gorgeous lake in the Alps in Austria. We're looking at an alterpiece by one of the most important early Renaissance painters in this region, Michael Pacher. Female: And we're being very hushed because we're talking here in front of the alterpiece. It fills the entire space from almost floor to ceiling. Male: We're not used to seeing alterpieces that are this intricate and this large anymore. Female: It's a combination of sculpture, architecture and painting together in its original location, and this is incredibly rare. These things are often disassembled and in museums, so we don't get to experience them the way that they were meant to be. Male: We're also quite lucky because on the day of our visit, the alterpiece is opened completely so we're able to see the most sacred areas of the object. Female: We have a scene of the court of heaven and Mary being crowned as the queen of heaven. But the space that surrounds them is a Gothic space like the one we're standing in. Male: We recognize all of the figures here, but the one that most people probably wouldn't recognize would be St. Wolfgang, the namesake of this town, of the lake, and of this church. He was a 10th century hermit, and I have to say he chose a lovely spot. Female: You can see him on the left and St. Benedict is on the right of that central scene. Above Christ and Mary, flying toward us, is a white dove. The space of the alter is incredibly deep, I don't think I've ever seen anything like this, so that the figures are set back in shadow. Male: It is like a stage, actually. Female: Behind Christ and Mary we see angels. Male: There's a choir of angels, and then there are small angels in the front that seem to be flitting about, for instance holding the hem of Mary's garb. Female: The whole space that these central figures occupy, everything about it seems activated. The figures seem to move. The angels, as you said, seem to flit about. Christ raises his hand. Mary folds her hands in a gesture of prayer. The dove flies out towards us. The filigree on the Gothic niches catches the light. It's as though the whole thing is really alive and happening before us. What happens is that we look, then, on either side to the painted panels and we see painted figures in architecture that again resembles the space that we inhabit. Male: This is Early Renaissance painting and we know that the artist Pacher had actually crossed the Alps, gone to Northern Italy, and had learned the techniques of artists like Mantegna. It looks like he has learned the lessons of linear perspective from the Italians, which is only about 50 years old. He's brought this back to Northern Europe. We often think about [Daret] being the artist that does this, but Pacher does it long before. We see Pacher's interest in deep space. We see that in the sculptural figures in the center, we see it in his use of linear perspective and foreshortening. Male: You're absolutely right. This is clearly an artist that is concerned not only with the rendering of deep space, but also the creation of mass, of solidity within the figures themselves. Female: We see something very typical of Northern Renaissance in German art; those very deep and very complicated folds of drapery. Male: He was able to carve the wood quite easily because this is a very soft wood. Female: Surrounding the central scene are moments from the life of Mary. Male: We have a smaller sculptural scene down in what we might call the predella that shows the adoration of the Magi. They're framed by two panel paintings. On the left is The Visitation; and on the right, the Flight into Egypt. These are scenes that take place when Christ is an infant. We see that chronology continued in the panels up above. Female: On the upper left, The Nativity of Christ's birth. Even there we see an illusion of deep space behind Mary. Male: I love the way that the angels float very close to the pictural plane and the way in which those timbers seem to almost frame the painting itself. Female: And how about the cow who's foreshortened? Below that we see Christ circumcised in the Temple. Male: Look at the architecture there. The complex ribbing of the [unintelligible] is just a perfect mirror of what's above us. Female: Although I think it's more complicated even and more fanciful than the space that we're in. Then we see perspective in the tiles on the floor. We see that again in the panel on the upper right, the scene of The Presentation in the Temple. Male: Then down below that, the death of Mary. We can see her being attended to, but then Christ waits for her just above, assisted by angels. Female: What's so amazing about this alterpiece is that we have this sculpted Gothic architecture that surrounds the central scene of The Coronation of Mary. Then we have painted space with painted figures in it, and painted sculptures, for example, in the panel on the lower right of the death of Mary. Then we stand in this space which is itself inhabited by sculpted figures, by Gothic architecture. Male: All of that architecture, all of that sculpture in the real space of the church is also painted. So it is a kind of perfect fusion. Female: There is the potential for a truly visionary experience. Male: Art is most successful, and I think this is especially true in a religious environment, when art changes the way that we perceive the things that we would normally see as normal. This sculptural group, this painted group, transforms the way that we see the rest of the church. Female: There's a real fusion of our so-called "real world" and the visionary world of the biblical figures we are looking at. The tools of the Renaissance of creating three-dimensional form, of believable bodies, of believable space, are here used to create a total experience. Male: The idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art. Female: All we're missing is music. (jazzy music)