The Carved retable of the Passion of Christ is one of the most enchanting works of art in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. The doll-like scale of the carved and polychromed figures at the centre of this early sixteenth century altarpiece (a retable was designed to be placed directly behind the altar) gives the work an enduring charm. The retable was created, however, as an object intended to foster religious devotion, and was probably made for the chapel of a convent in the Flemish city of Tongeren. Altarpieces such as these could be made to order or supplied ‘off the shelf’ by workshops in Brussels, Antwerp, Mechelen and elsewhere. This retable is known to have come from Antwerp, because it carries in various places the mark of the Antwerp Guild of St Luke. The simplicity of the rectangular form of the case (the box enclosing the carved figures), and the quality of the carvings, date the work to the early years of production in the Antwerp workshops.
The overall theme of the altarpiece is the life of Christ, with the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Pietà, the Adoration of the Magi, and the Circumcision represented by the small-scale carved scenes in the lower section. The larger carved scenes show aspects of the Passion of Christ – the Carrying of the Cross and the Crucifixion – and, unusually, the Resurrection. The biblical narrative is further played out on the painted wings, which carry images on both sides. Visible when the altarpiece is open are the panels representing The Descent of the Holy Spirit, The Ascension of Christ, Christ in Limbo, Christ Shown to the People, Christ before Pilate, and The Betrayal of Christ. On the reverse are representations of Abraham and Melchizedek, and The Last Supper, as well as several images showing aspects of The Mass of St Gregory. The painted panels, which originally closed over like shutters when the altar was not in use, are of lesser quality than the carved section. In addition, they were assembled out of sequence during a miscarried restoration undertaken c.1870–80, at which time the paint layers were transferred from oak to plywood.
Though three small carved elements are now missing, the altarpiece is well preserved. When new, however, the carved section of the retable would have presented a dazzling display, dominated by gold, bright blue azurite paint, and rich crimson glazing.
Text by John Payne from Painting and sculpture before 1800 in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 30.