The Beaune Altarpiece

In Beaune, in the Burgundy region of eastern France, to visit Les Hospices de Beaune, which was founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, the wealthy chancellor of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, as a hospital for the poor and needy. It is one of the finest examples of fifteenth-century Burgundian architecture, particularly noted for its ornate rooftops with coloured glazed tiles.

Les Hospices de Beaune

Inside, the original hospital layout has been preserved, with the fifty-metre-long Salle des Pôvres furnished with two rows of curtained beds. At the end of this ward is the Chapel, which enabled the bedridden to attend Mass from their beds, and this was the original location of the polyptych altarpiece by Rogier van der Weydon, the purpose of my visit.

Salle de Povres

The altarpiece, commissioned by Nicolas Rolin, was painted c.1445 – 50, and consists of nine oak panels with fifteen paintings, as six panels are painted on both sides. The six rear paintings, of saints and donors, were only visible when the altarpiece was closed.

The inside panels contain scenes from the Last Judgement, with the large central panel depicting Christ seated on a rainbow in judgement, while below him Archangel Michael holds scales with which to weigh souls.The left-hand panel depicts the gates of Heaven, with the entrance to Hell on the right. Between these, the dead rise from their graves and move to their final destinations.

Rogier van der Weyden ‘Beaune altarpiece’ (c.1445 – 50) front panels

The wings of the rear panels contain depictions of the donors, Nicolas Rolin and his wife, Guigone de Salins, kneeling in front of their prayer books. (Jan van Eyck had earlier portrayed Rolin in his ‘Madonna of Chancellor Rolin” (c.1435)) The two lower central panels portray Saints Sebastian and Anthony, whilst the upper panels show an Annunciation scene, the four central panels all being in grisaille, borrowing from the Ghent Altarpiece.

Rogier van der Weyden ‘Beaune altarpiece’ (c.1445 – 50) rear panels

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