Before it was ceremoniously dedicated in a chapel of St. Mary’s Church in Gdańsk in the year 1516, this monumental altarpiece had to travel nearly two thousand kilometres by sea. For the wealthy members of the Brotherhood of Saint Reinhold who owned the chapel, commissioning a local artist would not have been prestigious enough, and they opted to enlist artists from Antwerp. The altarpiece is an example of collaboration between two workshops, the woodcarving workshop of Jan de Molder and the painting workshop of Joos van Cleve. In the carved section, what immediately catches the eye is the scene showing a figure climbing steep steps. This is a young Virgin Mary, who has just been left in the care of a priest in the Jerusalem temple by her parents, Joachim and Anna. According to apocryphal texts, Mary would spend her childhood here amongst other children (whom we can see in the windows in the upper part of the scene), where they would pray and weave a curtain for the Temple.
While the Mother of God is the central character in the carved section, the painted side-panels focus on the life of Christ. Particularly striking is the realistic rendition of the landscape and the beautifully intense colours. However, the original colour did not survive everywhere – black lines are noticeable on Christ’s body in the Crucifixion scene. This is an outline sketch of the composition made before the paint was applied. It is visible today only because the layer of paint has become partially transparent over centuries.
This piece is the most important example of the painter Joos van Cleve’s early work. The young artist’s pride and ambition are evident in the fact that Saint Reinhold – the patron of the brotherhood and the chapel and depicted on the reverse of the outer wings – has the facial features of van Cleve himself.