The Altarpiece of Saint Peter

The Altarpiece of Saint Peter

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The Altarpiece of Saint Peter
Art is a window to the past and there is no place other than the many museums of the world where this is more strongly felt. More specifically, it is also seen through Martin de Soria's work, The Altarpiece of Saint Peter, which was completed around 1480.
According to the panel near the altarpiece in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the piece is an enormous work of tempera on panel with parchment ground; it is a typical Spanish altarpiece of the medieval period and is comprised of a complex arrangement of twenty-six paintings. This piece was chosen as a representative of the medieval period because its emphasis is placed entirely on religion, the style with which it was painted and decorated is hugely characteristic of the medieval period, and finally the painting depicts the economic state of Europe as far as the church was concerned during that time.

The piece was chosen primarily because of the magnificent presence that is felt as one enters the room, or cathedral, where the piece may be located. The viewer's eye is drawn immediately to the central figure of Saint Peter who was seated as pope at the time. Giving the main focus of the work to the pope is representative of the importance that was placed on the papal seat. This importance was exemplified, during the time of this altarpiece's creation, by the crisis of the Great Schism. Furthermore, a scene of Christ's crucifixion can be seen directly above the panel of Saint Peter further emphasizing the importance of Christ in the painting, and in the medieval time period as well. Overall, the piece depicts four images from the life of Saint Peter, which surround the center panel on the left and the right sides. In addition, scenes from the lives of the Virgin Mary and St. Blaise, a fourth century martyr, are also present. All the characters in the panels more or less have halos and therefore are holy figures. The twelve apostles line the bottom of the panels, perhaps suggesting that they were the foundation of the Catholic religion. Basically, the painting is designed for a church altar, it has religious figures in it, and it is filled with Bibles and images of Christ's crucifixion. All of this relays a strong message to the viewer that this is what is important in life; one should pay close attention to religion and have respect for it.

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Stylistically, the painting is very characteristic of the medieval time period. There is not much detail given to the body or the face of the characters in the painting. More emphasis is placed on their halos and adornments rather than human physical appearance.
The panels are all two-dimensional with no real world elements devoted to them. For example, there is very little, if any, landscape present in the panels. The painting is also extremely symmetrical. For example, in each panel the focus is in the center.
Additionally, the entire altarpiece is symmetrical as well; the center of the altarpiece is Saint Peter, with the next focus of attention being on the Virgin and St. Blaise on either side of him. The colors are also extremely characteristic; there is no real bright color in the painting. The work is very drab with dark red, black and gold being the primary colors utilized in the paintings. The altarpiece is limited to the focus of religion and not much attention is given to detail of life on earth or other secular topics. Therefore, Soria's style is much like other artists of the time and can be used as a good indication of the life of the time.

Yet, the painting does show the economic situation of Europe extremely well also. The painting was in itself an expensive proposition. The size of the painting and the wide extent to which the painting is adorned with gold shows that the church had a lot of money to invest in making sure the public was aware of its presence and importance.
Furthermore, upon investigation of the characters of the painting, you discover that they are all well dressed. The pope himself is adorned with rings, gloves, an extravagant robe, and an expensive papal tiara. This shows the great wealth that the church that the church possessed and had no qualms about putting on display.

In essence, this piece by De Soria illustrates the medieval time period and the church's influence over that time period very well. It shows that the church had control over the social, economic and religious areas of medieval life. While it shows the extravagance that the church possessed and its influence, it also shows the excesses of the church, which is what the Protestant reformers will soon attack.


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