From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
An altarpiece is a picture or relief representing a religious subject and suspended in a frame behind the altar of a church. The altarpiece is often made up of two or more separate panels created using a technique known as panel painting. It is then called a diptych, triptych or polyptych for two, three, and multiple panels respectively. Groups of statuary can be placed on the altar. Sometimes the altarpiece is set on the altar itself.
Originally, the altarpiece was placed in front of the altar, with the priest standing behind it facing the congregation. In the 13th century, the altarpiece moved behind the altar, with the sacrament placed in front of it and the priest standing with his back to the congregation. This movement to behind the altar allowed the altarpiece to expand to larger proportions, such as how they were during the Renaissance.
Famous examples include,
- the Byzantine Pala d'Oro in the Basilica di San Marco, Venice
- the Ghent Altarpiece (1432) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck
- the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald
- the Altar of Veit Stoss