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“The Skånela Reredos”

Oak altarpiece, made in Brussels during the first quarter of the 16th century. Polychrome carvings and panel paintings. Pinnacle and predella missing.

This altarpiece consists of a corpus with niches containing various scenes composed of carved figures, plus a pair of wings with panel paintings both inside and out. The scenes deal mainly with the story of Anne and Joachim, the Virgin’s parents.

The corpus is divided into six parts. The central scene portrays the meeting of St Anne and Joachim, top left Joachim’s vision, bottom left St Anne sorrowing, top right the birth of the Virgin Mary, bottom right the Purification, and, below the central scene, the Holy Family. The public spaces are teeming with buildings, people and animals, whereas the private ones are more intimate, comfortable domestic interiors. The scenes also present a wealth of detail and variety in the apparel of the figures, which, however, is predominantly gilded, with touches of blue, red and white. The scenes are separated and framed by Gothic frameworks, such as pillars and tracery, which gives them an airy ambience while at the same time creating an impression of depth.

The late medieval period saw a growth of interest in the Virgin’s antecedents and the Immaculate Conception. Mary herself only gets a few mentions in the New Testament, and her parents are not mentioned at all. The apocryphal sources, by contrast, have far more stories about the Virgin Mary. Despite the scantiness or absence of material in the New Testament, the Holy Family played a prominent and important part in religious life during the late Middle Ages. The marriage of St Anne and Joachim was often held forth as an ideal for latter-day couples to emulate, and so it is not very surprising that entire altarpieces, like this one, were devoted to their life story. Uppsala Cathedral purchased the altarpiece from Skånela Church, Uppland, in 1912.