The Power of Things. The Altarpiece of the Virgin Mary in Tallinn

This altarpiece contains a dense network of luxurious objects. The painter attempted to depict as many different alluring objects as possible, greatly desired by the merchants.

Art Museum of Estonia - Niguliste Museum

The altarpiece was painted in Bruges. It was commissioned by the merchants from Tallinn, and it reached the Hanseatic city in 1493. It was placed on one of the altars of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads in the Church of St Catherine. It is now located in the Niguliste Museum.

The Altarpiece of the Virgin Mary of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads. Closed position (1493) by Master of the Legend of St. LucyArt Museum of Estonia

The Altarpiece is composed of three views and can be opened twice. The first, closed, view of the altarpiece depicts the Annunciation.

Archangel Gabriel is holding a lily that symbolises the purity of the Virgin.

He is approaching the Virgin Mary, who has just been reading from the Old Testament.

The Altarpiece of the Virgin Mary of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads. Half-open position (1493) by Master of the Legend of St. LucyArt Museum of Estonia

The second, half-open, view depicts the so-called Double Intercession.

The Virgin Mary, on the left, is interceding for the merchants. 

On the wings of the altarpiece we see fifteen merchants kneeling on either side with St Mary, Jesus Christ and John the Baptist interceding for them before  God the Father.

On the wings of the altarpiece we see fifteen merchants kneeling on either side with St Mary, Jesus Christ and John the Baptist interceding for them before  God the Father.

The Brotherhood brought together young and unmarried merchants and those who stayed in Tallinn temporarily. Most likely the donors depicted on the altarpiece include actual portraits of some members of the Brotherhood or the Great Guild.
 
 



The merchants carry leather pouches and signet rings which represent trade and the generosity of merchants. 

One of the merchants is holding a rosary made of amber or crystal. Such a rosary was both an object of luxury and simultaneously a sign of prayer and devotion.

When Black Heads married or became citizens of Tallinn, they usually left the Brotherhood and joined the Great Guild, an association of overseas merchants – the most prominent citizens of the town, from whose number the town councillors were elected.

On the right, St John the Baptist, is interceding for the merchants. He is holding a precious manuscript embellished with pearls in his hands. The Lamb of God, a symbol of Jesus Christ, is lying on the manuscript.

We can see a luxurious textile known as damask behind St John. This type of patterned silk drew its name from the city of Damascus in Syria.

In the centre of the altarpiece, Christ as the Man of Sorrows is kneeling in front of God the Father. Christ is showing his wounds in order to ask for mercy for the merchants who commissioned the altarpiece.

The angels behind him carry the Instruments of the Passion: a Cross, Nails and the Crown of Thorns. All these objects were venerated as relics and believed to incorporate the power of a holy person.

God the Father has been depicted with a tiara, which identifies him as a pope, a spiritual ruler.  
But he also carries the symbols of an emperor: a sceptre and an orb with a cross, which define him as a temporal ruler.

The Altarpiece of the Virgin Mary of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads. Open position (1493) by Master of the Legend of St. LucyArt Museum of Estonia

The third, fully-open, view of the altarpiece is the most luxurious and depicts a sacred conversation among saints.

On the left, behind St Francis, the founder of the Franciscan order, hangs a luxurious cloth of gold with a red pomegranate pattern.

This type of textile was one of the costliest, and it was mainly produced in cities of Italy, such as Venice or Florence.

The bench behind St Francis has been covered with a green cloth decorated with floral motifs. Such tapestry was known as verdure and produced in Bruges. 

Flowers symbolise Paradise and they also refer to the Virgin Mary and Christ. 

The panel on the right depicts St Gertrude, the abbess of Nivelles, holding a luxurious Book of Hours.

Such manuscripts were used for private devotion by the elite upper classes. 

There is a rodent on the floor in front of St Gertrude. St Gertrude was known as the guardian saint against rodents that could cause serious harm to the goods of the merchants. 

In the centre of the altarpiece we see the Virgin Mary enthroned with the Christ child, flanked by the saints George and Victor. 

On his hat, St George is wearing a golden lily- brooch, embellished with a feather, pearls and diamonds. The lily is the symbol of the Virgin Mary and St George is her guardian.
 



Both St George and St Victor as soldier-saints are wearing armour. 

Mary’s crown is also decorated with lily motifs and embellished with precious stones in red and blue.

In front of her lies a carpet from Anatolia (present-day Turkey) and a vase from Spain, decorated with floral motifs and lustre. The vase bears the symbols of Mary: the lily of purity and the iris of passion.

It is probable that the initiative to depict such objects of luxury came from the painter himself, since some of these objects reappear continuously in his oeuvre.  

Still, we may presume that the artist and the donors had discussed the inclusion of these objects on the altarpiece, as well as signed an agreement stipulating the cost of the materials necessary for their depiction, such as gold leaf and precious pigments.

Credits: Story

Inspired by the exhibition:
„The Power of Things"
19.10.2018-12.08.2019
Art Museum of Estonia – Niguliste Museum

Curator: Kerttu Palginõmm

Consultant: Merike Kurisoo
Exhibition design: Mari Kurismaa
Graphic design: Mari Kaljuste
Partners: Tallinn City Museum and Estonian History Museum
We thank: Böckler-Mare-Balticum-Stiftung
https://nigulistemuuseum.ekm.ee/en/syndmus/asjade-voim/

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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