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The Ayala Altarpiece, a Gothic narrative of the Nativity

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The Ayala Altarpiece, a pictorial narrative in the Gothic linear style by an anonymous 14th century artist, is one of the Medieval masterpieces of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The photographer/blogger is ithere to provide scale: the large Ayala Altarpiece fills a gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago. 
I was fourteen when I first saw the Art Institute of Chicago. I arrived in the Windy City by train from New York with my adoptive parents who brought me to America.

I remember a short walk from the train station, through busy streets bordered by tall buildings, and then I saw it: this amazing Greek temple, guarded by two bronze lions.

Since that day, the Art Institute is always on my to-do list when I visit Chicago. We circled around it, a few days ago, shooting on Michigan Avenue, the surrounding Grant Park, and the magnificent Buckingham Fountain that seems to lower the mid-nineties temperature.

Chicago is a photographer's dream. The Art Institute? A cloister, choke-full of art, that seals out the pulse of the city. First on my list was its brand-new, sunlit, Modern Wing that has added a new dimension to this venerable institution.

I had been told that the creation of the Modern Wing would eliminate my favorite dining spot, the outdoor Garden Cafe in the Art Institute's open air court. I was glad to see that it was still there, shaded by tall trees and cooled by a murmuring fountain. But my peaceful afternoon lunch is punctuated by commotion, and feathers fly as a flock of pigeons noisily takes off. Then, there's a big splash in the fountain. A duck flew in over the Institute's rooftop for a landing in what it must be its own private oasis. I could spend the rest of the afternoon watching its swimming antics and begging for food.

With eyes open wide, the ox gazes at the Infant cradled tenderly by Mary. 
But I've just bought a 22 megapixel Canon camera — the very week that my favorite Kodakchrome film was discontinued — and I'm anxious to photograph the Art Institute's treasures. As I round a corner there it is, the Ayala Altarpiece.

I must have walked by this Medieval altarpiece many times before, and I wonder how I could have missed its scenes of The Nativity. After all, the Medieval Ayala Altarpiece takes up a gallery all by itself (see photo, above, with me providing scale).

The Altarpiece, brought to Chicago in 1913 by Charles Deering (of the International Harvester family fame), is made up of two sections: the Retable, which would have hung behind the altar, and the Frontal, which, as the name implies, would have decorated the altar front. Its creator remains anonymous, because, in 1396 when its wooden panels were painted, artists were considered no more noteworthy than craftsmen who soldered pots and pans.

The Altarpiece graced the funerary chapel of the Ayala family in the convent of San Juan de Quejana, near Castile, Spain. Its nineteen Biblical scenes are separated by gilt columns supporting gilt Gothic arches punctuated with trefoils.

It is rendered in a Gothic linear style that lends immediacy to the scene and makes you think that the artist must have employed a camera, not a paintbrush. One of my favorite tableaus illustrates the point, that of a musician too busy watching a goat to mind his notes. The goat, feet firmly planted on the ground and the trunk of the tree, is blithely munching away (see photo, left).

Another of my favorite "snapshots" is that of the ox — rendered almost anthropomorphic with its big eyes — watching the Infant (see photo, below left).

But on the lower front panel, the ox's mood has decidedly changed, engaged, as it seems to be, in a spat with the ass that's showing its teeth (see photo, bottom of page, and video).

The Annunciation of the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Three Kings, scenes from the Ayala Altarpiece.


The Ayala Altarpiece is illustrated by scenes that capture the moment, as if by a camera — not a paintbrush. 

The Retable

Few could read and write in the 14th century, but that didn't matter: Christianity's story was "written" — a word that Byzantine iconographers still use today — in pictures, as the Ayala Altarpiece so beautifully illustrates. A catechism in pictures opens up in front of you, starting in the upper left-hand corner: Jesus at the Temple, The Wedding at Cana, The Resurrection, The Crucifixion, The Ascension, Pentecost, and The Assumption of the Virgin.

In the Retable's lower level, framed by scenes of the Ayala family being blessed by Saint Blaise and Saint Thomas Acquinas, are depicted The Annunciation, The Visitation, The Nativity, a throne with a golden sun — symbol of the Sun of Righteousness? — The Three Kings, The Presentation of Christ to the Temple, and The Flight into Egypt.

Many blog pages would be required to showcase this marvelous Altarpiece. The Annunciation of the Shepherds and The Adoration of the Three Kings (shown above), give only a hint of the beauty that awaits you at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Annunciation of the Shepherds: An angels comes down from heaven to give the Good News to the Shepherds, and in uncial calligraphy, his banner proclaims, "Gloria in Ecelsis" (sic).

The aforementioned goat is mirrored by another busily munching, while woolly sheep contend themselves with lower shrubbery.

A bearded Joseph is shown at lower right, brows furled and arms outstretched, as if to say, "Behold, a miracle."

But it is the tenderness of the Virgin, resting her left hand upon a rock and her right cradling the Infant, that draws the eyes.

Baby Jesus, in his swaddling clothes, is resting upon a manger resembling a tomb, an echo of the Byzantine iconographic tradition that foreshadows Christ's Passion.

A lion-like ox and an animated ass complete the scene.

The Three Kings: A Magi in a velvet and gold crown points to the eight-pointed Bethlehem star blazing in the sky, and turns to his companion who sports a long feather in his royal headdress.

They're both holding gold chalices, as is the third King, who has taken off his crown and is kneeling in adoration.

The lower Ayala Altar Front depicts, in three scenes, The Annunciation of the Shepherds, and The Adoration of the Three Kings.

A charming moment, amidst the miracle of the Nativity, caught as if by a camera — a page letting the horses know who's boss. 
The Altar Front

The lower panel of the Ayala Altarpiece depicts similar scenes of The Annunciation of the Shepherds and The Adoration of the Three Kings. But closer contact with liturgists seems to have taken a toll, and this panel — while glorious — shows its age more than the upper retable.

The centuries may have dulled its gilt, but the Altar Front still presents a powerful narrative. I especially love the vignette of the ass and the ox, engaged, as they seem to be, in a heated exchange.

And, in another scene that seems captured by a camera, besides resplendent Kings a young page raises a rod and holds the Kings' horses in check.

Visit Chicago — and plan to spend a day at the Art Institute. The Ayala Altarpiece awaits you…

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