Oak Marian altarpiece, made in Antwerp during the first quarter of the 16th century.
This altarpiece is very richly decorated with figural scenes, and stands on a painted predella showing the Madonna of the Rosary and the donors together with Ss. Catherine and Barbara. The corpus contains seven theatre-like scenes from the story of the Virgin and Jesus.
The central scene has the Madonna dressed in gold, standing with the Christ Child within the Rosary. Two angels with musical instruments stand to either side in front of her, and overhead, her heavenly crown is supported by two angels. The other figural scenes, viewed from left to right, are as follows. At the bottom, the Annunciation and the meeting of Anne and Elisabeth. Above them, the Nativity. Bottom right, the Adoration of the Magi and the Circumcision. Above this, the Presentation in the Temple and, in the lower register of the central scene, the Holy Family.
The scenes in this altarpiece are vividly depicted and if anything resemble stage sets. They are also remarkable for their wealth of detail – notice, particularly, the bespectacled high priest in the Presentation scene. The altarpiece has painted side panels. The upper ones show, on the inside, the Birth of the Virgin and the Slaughter of the Innocents. When closed, the panels show St Bridget and Christ as the Man of Sorrows, alluding to St Bridget’s final revelation, in which Christ proclaimed that he was going to fetch home his bride. The lower double panels show, inside left, the meeting of Joachim and Anne and the Betrothal of the Virgin. On the inside, the right panels show the Flight into Egypt and Christ in the Temple. When closed, the altarpiece shows the Holy Family at the centre of the Adoration of the Magi.
This altarpiece has a huge wealth of Marian images and other iconographic programmes referring to the life of the Virgin. The Virgin Mary played a pivotal role in western Christendom throughout the Middle Ages, but towards the 16th century that interest was intensified. The Årsunda altarpiece indicates as much. Starting in the late 15th century, interest in the Virgin Mary had also been expressed through the piety of the Rosary, which grew very strong throughout Europe, and Our Lady of the Rosary occupies the centre of the Årsunda altarpiece. Conceivably, individuals beholding this image would have brought their own rosaries in order to “pray the rosary”. For each rose there were a certain number of prayers to be recited. This could be combined with meditations on the life of Mary, in which the other scenes on the altarpiece are rendered intelligible. Interest in the rosary was running high in Sweden, as witness the many altarpieces and murals on this theme.
Devotion to the rosary assumed a wide variety of manifestations which included both confraternities and guilds, and this form of piety was probably very widespread among the laity in general. It came under heavy fire at the Reformation. The fact of the Årsunda altarpiece not having been destroyed goes to show that, long after the Reformation, Marian piety continued to flourish.