By Trine Møller Madsen, art and culture writer, 2006
Although it is a far cry from the colourful Disney cartoons of our time, you might call the Bordesholm Altar a cartoon. The gigantic wooden relief describes the Passion, scene by scene and with a multitude of figures. As many as 400 figures have been brought forward from under the oak bark by Hans Brüggemann and his tools. It took him seven years to complete the altar.
In its entirety, the altar seems almost chaotic. But a zoom into one of the scenes - such as “Christ breaks down the gates of death” - reveals Brüggemann’s impressive wood-carving skills. Notice the shameful couple, Adam and Eve, who cover their nakedness. Or a fine detail such as the expressive glance exchanged between Christ and Abraham whom he frees from the land of the dead. Or how about the devilish bird that points its trident at those who are damned? Ready to be impaled if they are not true to their faith!
The floating city
Weighing several tons, the altar gets lighter towards the top where it is completed by fine ornaments. Overall, it is reminiscent of a piece of magical architecture reaching for the sky. The altar becomes a symbol of The Heavenly City ruled by Christ on his throne who hovers above it all. He is “The Last Judge” who will sit in judgment of the living and the dead. Separate the sheep from the rams. Who wouldn’t prefer to hover up there in eternity instead of being roasted in the flames of hell, deep down beneath the earth?
In Brüggemann’s time, art was developing rapidly. Try to compare the description of space and figure with Resurrection by Unionsmesteren (which has also been selected for the Canon of the Arts) painted just 80 years earlier. Now the picture space begins to resemble something real!
There is no doubt that Brüggemann knew the Passion wood-carving by the German master Albrecht Dürer. Dürer had learnt several tricks from the clever Italian renaissance artists who developed the central perspective, and life-like figure drawing. Brüggemann imitated him in a most accomplished way.
Did you know?
The Danish-German painter Emil Nolde started his artistic career with an education as a wood carver and in this connection helped to restore the Bordesholm painting. He worked with great enthusiasm and was both involved in washing the figurative groups in spirits as well as cutting out missing halibut and swords for the figures.
The committee's justification
By the Committee for Visuel Art, 2006
During the same period, another of the prominent sculptors of the period, Hans Brüggemann, was employed by King Hans’ younger brother, Duke Frederik, to create the vast altarpiece, which now stands in the Schleswig Cathedral.
While Berg’s altarpiece is painted in a way that is crucial to the impression of the figures in the bible stories, Brüggemann’s altarpiece is made of untreated wood. It may have been decided to finish it in this way for conservation reasons, but the work of art had nothing more to add.