The Bening Quadriptych
A Flemish Altar with brilliant images of Christ’s Life
Four pictorial panels, each with a gold-plated wooden frame measuring 33.8 x 27 cm, comprise a total of 64 fantastic miniatures by the great master in a format of 7.2 x 5.3 cm. In this compactness, the Stein Quadriptych has remained unique right through to the present day. Across a tiny area, it reveals Bening’s entire panoply of skills – a man revered even during his lifetime as “Europe’s unrivalled master illuminator”.
Bening can indisputably be seen as a synonym for illumination. No-one else comes close to him in this regard. His clients and customers included secular and clerical princes, kings and emperors who regarded the Ghent-Bruges School as the apogee and inimitable guarantor of supreme book art – at a time when handwritten books were already being superseded by Gutenberg’s printing press. Illumination reached its apotheosis with Simon Bening.
AN EPIC ACCOUNT OF THE LIFE OF CHRIST IN PICTURES
The first panel begins with an illustration of the legend of the Virgin Mary before going on to describe the birth and childhood of Jesus. The subsequent panel depicts 16 paintings, heightened with gold, which lead us from Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan to his being mocked in the events leading to the Crucifixion. The viewer then experiences the actual Passion and Death on the Cross in bold, very lurid colours.
The pictures on the final panel begin with Christ being taken down from the Cross and continue through until the miracle of Pentecost before returning, almost as a bookend to the life of the Blessed Virgin, to Mary’s death and her ascension into heaven. The cycle concludes with the Last Judgement.
The 64 miniatures are full of iconographic subtleties and ambiguities. They point to a painstaking representation of objects taken from daily life. Above all, the miniatures represent a striking form of vivacity and liveliness conveyed in powerful emotions, in gestures and facial expressions. The story of Jesus is told so expressively that its visual composition leads the viewer to a deeper understanding of the miracle of Christ’s resurrection. What’s more, Bening’s hand is clearly also able to express the human aspect underpinning the story of Jesus’ life and self-sacrifice of the Passion.
The apotheosis of illumination
When people start talking about miniatures, one inevitably tends to think of the astounding images in manuscripts which European art has created over the centuries.
This is why we feel all the more amazed and fascinated the first time we view the masterpiece whose physical embodiment has nothing to do at all with manuscripts – and yet is now considered one of the greatest works by probably the most famous illuminator in art history: the Stein Quadriptych by Simon Bening.