Great Paintings: Seven Sacraments Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden

The art of the Northern Renaissance holds a special place in my heart. The Northern Renaissance (a term I’m using pretty loosely here) refers to an artistic movement in northern Europe that occurred at roughly the same time as the Italian Renaissance. Art of the Northern Renaissance is characterized by increased attention to the accurate portrayal of three dimensional space and greater realism in the depiction of the human form. However, art of the Northern Renaissance lacks the grandiose style of its Italian counterparts; instead, northern artists focused on more down-to-Earth scenes of everyday life and religious subjects.

Rogier van der Weyden was one such northern artist; van der Weyden-whose work dates to the early fifteenth century-was among the first wave of Northern Renaissance artists, and his Seven Sacraments Altarpiece is a good example of the style. Painted altarpieces were especially popular between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries and were commonly commissioned by churches and cathedrals, especially in northern Europe.

This particular altarpiece depicts the interior of a church in which parishioners are receiving all seven of the sacraments recognized by the Catholic church. The left panel portrays baptism, confession, and confirmation, while the right panel depicts holy orders, marriage, and the anointing of the sick. The central panel includes the sacrament of Holy Communion; however, this panel is primarily dominated by the image of the crucified Christ; at the foot of the cross, three women-probably the three Marys present at the crucifixion-weep.

Although this scene is undoubtedly the most eye-catching element of the altarpiece, it is only part of the larger iconographic program of the piece. The presence of Christ in this painting symbolizes the overarching influence of God in the lives of Christians. However, it is the seven sacraments that form the narrative backbone of the painting. Van der Weyden orders the sacraments from baptism to anointing of the sick, symbolically moving from birth to death in the lifecycle of a Christian.

In fact, the lives of everyday people are at the crux of this altarpiece. Van der Weyden centers ordinary Christians as the beating heart of the Catholic Church, focusing on their lived experience as believers. Such imagery would have been unusual before the Renaissance, which opened the doors for northern artists to explore the lives of the everyday people they encountered. This marks a major shift in artistic iconography.

It’s also important to note just how beautiful this painting is. Paintings of the Renaissance period are often marked by a singular brightness and clarity in style, and, in the case of the Northern Renaissance, attention to detail. The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece demonstrates van der Weyden’s artistic prowess and masterful execution of detail.

Originally published at on March 26, 2020.




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Maria Cristina

Maria Cristina

Music, Art, and Pop Culture

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