Michael Pacher, St. Wolfgang Altarpiece, 1479-81
Michael Pacher, Saint Wolfgang Altarpiece, 1471-81, polychrome pine, linden, gilding, and oil (sculpture and painting), over 40 feet high and more than 20 feet wide, Parish Church, Sankt Wolfgang, Austria
Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker
About the Artist
Pacher was German speaking artist whose work is most often categorized as a variant of the Early Netherlandish style (from the Netherlands). However, his studio was in Bruneck (now Brunico), a South Tyrolean town in the Pustertal Valley in Italy close to the Austrian border, and he was clearly aware of the innovations of Mantegna and the art being produced in Venice and Padua to the south. The Saint Wolfgang Altarpiece is his most important surviving work and an extremely rare example of a complete 15th century altar in situ (in its original location).
About the Commission
Pacher received the contract for this altar in 1471 from Abbot Benedict Eck of Mondsee and installed the finished work in 1481. It was produced in Bruneck and transported to Sankt Wolfgang in pieces. It is extremely elaborate and contains two sets of movable wings (Wandelaltar), each are painted on both the interior and exterior sides and cover a large gilded linden sculptural group depicting the Coronation of the Virgin that sits are the core of this complex work of art.
Below is an excerpt from the 1471 contract:
ITEM, it is first to be recorded that the altar shall be made conforming
to the elevation and design which the painter has brought to us at
Mondsee, and to its exact measurements.
ITEM, the predella shrine shall be guilded on the inside and it shall
show Mary seated with the Christ Child, Joseph, and the Three Kings
with their gifts; and if these should not completely fill the predella
shrine he shall make more figures or armored men, all gilt.
ITEM, the main shrine shall show the Coronation of Mary with
angels and gilt drapery—the most precious and the best he can make.
ITEM, on one side St. Wolfgang with mitre, crozier, church, and
hatchet; on the other St. Benedict with cap, crozier, and a tumbler,
entirely gilded and silvered where needed.
ITEM, to the sides of the altar shall stand St. Florian and St. George,
fine armored men, silvered and gilded where needed.
ITEM, the inner wings of the altar shall be provided with good
paintings, the panels gilded and equipped with gables and pinnacles,
representing four subjects, one each….
ITEM, the outer wings—when the altar is closed—shall be done
with good pigments and with gold added to the colors; the subject
from the life of St. Wolfgang….
ITEM, at St. Wolfgang, while he completes and sets up the altar, we
shall provide his meals and drink, and also the iron work necessary for
setting up the altar, as well as help with loading wherever necessary.
ITEM, the contract is made for the sum of one thousand two hundred
Hungarian guilders or ducats….
ITEM, if the altar is either not worth this sum or of higher value, and
there should be some difference of opinion between us, both parties
shall appoint equal numbers of experts to decide the matter.
What is Visible and When
The altar is closed Mondays through Saturdays and shows four exterior panels devoted to Saint Wolfgang: The devil disturbs the preaching of St. Wolfgang, Wolfgang building his church on Wolfgangsee, Wolfgang distributing grain to the poor, Wolfgang healing a possessed woman. These panels are flanked by two Linden sculptures of St. Florian and St. George. The closed predella depicts Four Church Fathers on its two exterior panels
The outer panels are open showing eight scenes of the Life and Ministry of Christ: Baptism, Attempt to stone Christ, Temptation, Cleansing the temple, Wedding at Cana, Jesus and the adulteress, Multiplication of the loaves, and the Raising of Lazarus. The closed predella depicts Four Church Fathers on two smaller exterior panels.
Feast Days (religious hoiidays)
The altar is fully open and the center sculptural group of the Coronation of the Virgin is visible flanked by four panels: The Nativity (upper left), Presentation in the Temple (upper right),
The Circumcision (lower left), and The Death of Mary (lower right). The predella is also open to reveal a sculptural group of the Adoration of the Magi and two painted panels. The left panel depicts the Visitation and the right, The Flight into Egypt.
Where and When