The Unity of the Arts

The Unity of the Arts

A glance at today’s museums generally makes it seem as if the various branches of visual arts were completely separate disciplines. Such divisions were foreign to the Middle Ages. Artists and artisans worked together so closely that it is possible to view Gothic aesthetics as a kind of artistic synthesis.

The Retable as a Key Field of Production

The interplay of different art forms can be seen clearly in one of the most important fields of artistic production in this era, the creation of altarpieces known as retables. Their production involved various art forms all contributing in equal measure, including carpenters, carvers and painters. The collaboration of these artists and artisans led to a rapid spread of technical and formal innovations.

Master of Cologne: Winged Altar from St Gereon’s Basilica, ca. 1420, oak, 194 x 362 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Christoph Schmidt
Master of Cologne: Winged Altar from St Gereon’s Basilica, ca. 1420, oak, 194 x 362 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Christoph Schmidt

The winged altarpiece from St Gereon’s Basilica in Cologne is among the most important, nearly completely preserved retables in the collection of Berlin’s museums – the shrine and fixtures, carving and painting are all original. Only the central niche and the original sculpture of the Virgin Mary have been lost.

This is a characteristic example of the “international style” that held sway before the late Gothic era set in. The figures exhibit an unrealistic ideal of beauty, and in their robes, seem as if they are almost devoid of bodies. The materials form an abstract pattern of intricate, curved lines, and there is almost a complete lack of space and perspective. At the time, this kind of representation was common right across Europe.