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Work The Annunciation, The Virgin in Majesty, The Baptism of Christ

Department of Sculptures: France, Middle Ages

L'Annonciation, la Vierge en majesté, le Baptême du Christ

© 2008 Musée du Louvre / Pierre Philibert

Sculptures
France, Middle Ages

Author(s):
Gaborit Jean-René

This large relief made from three blocks of limestone was found in 1835, concealed behind the altar of the Virgin in the church of Saint John the Baptist in Carrières-sur-Seine. It comprises The Virgin in Majesty, flanked by The Annunciation and The Baptism of Christ. It is probably the oldest surviving example of an altarpiece in the northern half of France. Despite a number of archaic features, it is highly representative of the transitional period between the Romanesque and Gothic styles.

The altarpiece

The twelfth century was characterized by a change in the way the altar was arranged. Until then, only the front of the altar, and very occasionally the sides and back, would be given a decoration, figurative or otherwise. It then became customary to extend this decoration to the wall behind the altar or to place a vertical structure on the altar itself: the altarpiece or retable.

Description

Visually very important for the worshippers, the altarpiece was placed in front of the celebrant and it almost always illustrated and asserted the basic points of dogma. At Carrières-sur-Seine, the Virgin is seated "in majesty" in the center of the altarpiece. On her right is the scene of the Annunciation, in which the angel is wearing a strange headdress made of crossed strips of cloth; his robe is raised in bell-shaped folds, perhaps to suggest weightlessness. The Baptism is depicted on the left. Christ's body, mutilated (perhaps for reasons of modesty), is emerging from the River Jordan, with Saint John the Baptist on his left, clothed in a fleece, and an angel who may be bringing him a towel, on his right. In the two side scenes, the wings of the angels extend beyond the frame, as if to show that they do not belong to the earthly sphere.

The historical background

The work was hidden for many years and has retained significant traces of polychromy, which has been restored at least twice.
Stylistically, the work is rather difficult to place. Traditional motifs (such as the ornamental foliage peopled with animals and even a human figure, which frames the altarpiece on three sides) are juxtaposed with innovative forms: the figures are completely detached from the background, which gives them a measure of autonomy. The architectural decor in the upper part (sometimes regarded as an evocation of the "Heavenly Jerusalem") fits around the figures and no longer dictates their posture. Some details are similar to the capitals of the royal portal in Chartres. But Carrières-sur-Seine (formerly Carrières-Saint-Denis) was a dependency of the Abbey of Saint- Denis and the famous Abbot Suger is known to have taken a special interest in this domain. The altarpiece nonetheless seems more advanced than the Relief of the Apostles found in Saint-Denis and is more refined than the west gate of the abbey (although restoration work makes this difficult to perceive).

Technical description

  • Île-de-France (deuxième quart du XIIe siècle)

    L'Annonciation, la Vierge en majesté, le Baptême du Christ

    Retable découvert en 1838 lors de travaux dans l'église de Carrières-sur-Seine (Yvelines), dépendance de l'abbaye de Saint-Denis

  • Pierre calcaire, restes de polychromie

    H. : 0,90 m. ; L. : 1,84 m. ; Pr. : 0,19 m.

  • Acquis en 1915

    Carrières Altarpiece

    R.F. 1612

  • Sculptures

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Saint-Denis
    Room 3

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