The carved altar from Britof on the Idrija River is one of very few medieval winged retables preserved in Slovenia. The main figure in the shrine cabinet depicts St Canzian, which means that the retable originally stood on the high altar in the presbytery of the church and was moved to the right side altar in the nave when the new Baroque high altar was installed. The retable consists of the shrine cabinet containing three saints – the patron saint of the church in the centre, St Bartholomew to the left and St Gereon to the right – two folding wings, each with a saint in relief (St Simon to the left and St Jude Thaddeus to the right), and a predella with a painting of God the Father. The altarpiece used to feature a superstructure that is documented in old photographs; by analogy, the main canopy contained another sculpture, probably the standing Christ in Agony. The outer sides of the wings, displayed when the altar is closed, are adorned with the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin, depicting the angel to the left and Mary at the lectern to the right. It is evident that the shrine cabinet was also flanked with tall, narrow carved wings like those of the superstructure.
While researching the time and place of origin of this altarpiece, our attention was first captured by the missing superstructure. Delicately carved superstructures with intertwining scrollwork and a canopy in the middle were characteristic of early 16th-century altarpieces from western Carinthia. The carved decoration beneath the upper edge of the shrine features Carinthian characteristics, although the figures in the shrine and on the insides of the wings cannot be associated with Carinthian works. Emilijan Cevc recognised their general, early 16th-century southern German characteristics. The National Gallery in Ljubljana keeps two more sculptures by the same artist, St Sebastian and St Roch, from the church of St Peter above Begunje; consequently Cevc attempted to attribute the figures from the Britof retable to a carver working in Carniola. Nevertheless, the characteristics of these figures point to Friuli, or to be more precise, to the output of South Tyrolean carvers from Bruneck, who worked for patrons from Friuli (particularly Master Nicholas and Michael Parth), and of their Friulian imitators, who had already introduced certain Renaissance elements in their works. The characteristic features of these works are heavy figures, broad bearded faces, a coat covering the body like an apron and a firm, frontal composition with a distinct contrapposto. Nevertheless, this figural pattern had already been transformed into a repetitive, rigid scheme and the sculptures therefore cannot be dated to the period before 1530.
The discrepancy between the shrine cabinet, which, together with the base, was probably made by a Carinthian carver between 1510 and 1520, and the sculptures probably results from the fact that the sculptures were made for the shrine at a later period. This also holds for the reliefs on the wings. The tops of the wings are adorned with similar, although more Renaissance-style scrollwork resembling red corals inlaid in gold. The Blessed Virgin on the outer side of the right wing is based on a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer from the Small Passion series, printed in 1511, which was extensively copied across Europe.
To answer the question of where the altarpiece was made, we must therefore consider South Tyrolean and Friulian influences. Although Cevc’s attribution to a Carniolan workshop cannot be completely dismissed, it seems more correct that the workshop came from the western edge of the Slovene territory, possibly Gorizia. Nothing is known about painting and sculpture workshops in Gorizia in the early 16th century; nevertheless, the town was situated at the meeting point of northern continental and western Italian art and is therefore the most likely location for the origin of this altarpiece.
Prof. Janez Höfler
Realisation of the exhibition
National Gallery of Slovenia, Restoration centre
Authors of the texts
Nuška Dolenc Kambič, Janez Höfler, Robert Peskar
Nuška Dolenc Kambič, Martina Vuga
Head of the project
Nuška Dolenc Kambič, Martina Vuga, Mojca Višner
Promotional leaflet designed by
The exhibition was made possible by the
Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia
5 February–23 March 2008
Narodni dom Gallery