Every now and then scientists discover something that forces them to re-write history. This has just happened in the case of Middle Ages altarpieces.
It has long been assumed that altarpieces from the late Middle Ages were made in Germany, but this is not true.
A new study now reveals that several of them were in fact made in Norway. Altarpieces from the Middle Ages are a feature of many churches along the coast of Norway. They are often called Lübeck altarpieces, because it was assumed that the altarpieces were imported to Norway by the Hanseatics from Lübeck.
Kristin Kausland, a postdoctoral fellow with the Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History at the University of Oslo, studied more than 60 altarpieces, most of them in Norway and Germany, but also several in Sweden and Denmark. Some of the altarpieces are in museums, others in churches along the Norwegian coast.
Since there is no written documentation on the origins of the altarpieces the physical clues are important, Kausland had to use other methods to find out the truth about Middle Ages altarpieces.
Using an infrared camera, UV camera and electron microscope, she searched for hidden clues and she was rewarded for her work.
“Through analyses of even the tiniest paint fragment I have sought to trace the physical prints of the craftsmen and the various production environments under which the objects were created. Call it, if you will, the craftsmen’s fingerprints,” Kausland said.
“In Germany, the craftsmen were organised in guilds. There were strict rules for what was allowed. For example, there were several places where the use of materials other than real gold was not permitted.At that time, churches were very dark. The idea was that these altarpieces should radiate toward you, creating the impression of something holy. They were supposed to shine, and give light,” she explained.
The altarpieces that Kausland believes were made in Norway used imitation gold instead of real gold. In the Norwegian altarpieces, several types of oak were also used. This set them apart from the Northern German altarpieces, which were made of Baltic oak.