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.
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.