Dijon Altarpiece by Melchior Broederlam
Interpretation of Flemish Panel Painting, Museum of Fine Arts, Dijon

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Dijon Altarpiece (left-panel)
By Melchior Broederlam.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Dijon Altarpiece (1394-99)


Interpretation of other 14th Century Paintings


Name: "The Dijon Altarpiece"
Date: 1394-99
Artist: Melchior Broederlam (c.1350-1411)
Medium: Tempera on panel
Genre: Christian art
Movement: Flemish painting
Location: Museum of Fine Arts, Dijon, France.

For analysis and explanation of other important pictures from the Renaissance, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For analysis of paintings by
Flemish artists like
Melchior Broederlam, see
our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Dijon Altarpiece

The Dijon Altarpiece is an important work by the Ypres-born Melchior Broederlam, one of the earliest Flemish painters whose name is known to us, and an important pioneer of the Netherlandish Renaissance (1430-1580). A highly versatile artist, noted for his stained glass art and goldsmithing, as well as his Biblical art, Broederlam's principal contribution was to combine the decoration and symbolism of International Gothic art, with the naturalism of Italian pre-Renaissance painting of the trecento. His achievements would be built upon and refined by the great Jan van Eyck, in the first half of the 15th century.

Originally commissioned by Philip the Bold (1342-1404), Duke of Normandy, for the Carthusian abbey of Champmol near Dijon, the Dijon Altarpiece was carved in wood by the Flemish sculptor Jacques de Baerze (1340-1405). It was Broederlam's job to decorate the wings of the altarpiece with panel paintings - the themes chosen being: in the left-hand panel, The Annunciation and The Visitation; in the right-hand panel, The Presentation of Christ and The Flight into Egypt. The first three of these scenes are described in St Luke's Gospel; the fourth appears in St Matthew. Broederlam, however, made a number of changes to the biblical narrative, introducing new and rather obscure symbols to the composition.

The Dijon Altarpiece has the conventional gold background - a standard convention stemming from Byzantine art - which symbolizes paradise, the realm of the soul. Despite the artist's familiarity with the ideas of proto-Renaissance art, his use of perspective is very primitive, although he more than compensates for this with his sophisticated use of light and shadow which creates a wonderful sense of depth in the pictures. The details of the landscape background are reminiscent of 14th century religious paintings produced by the Sienese school as well as by Giotto's in his fresco paintings for the Upper Church in Assisi.



Some other details are worth recording. In the left-hand panel the painter disregards the strict, solemn style normally used to depict these scenes, choosing instead a colourful approach with a significant amount of detail. Inspired by Italian religious paintings, Broederlam tries to depict several buildings in a realistic manner - the first time this was attempted in Flemish art. In fact the architectural detail takes up almost all of two of the four scenes. This detail is delicately painted using several points of view, and does not adhere to one method of perspective. Broederlam's figures also herald an innovation in art: the Angel of the Annunciation, for instance, displays a physicality and presence never seen before. He holds a swirling banner with words of greeting to Mary. The jug with a white lily dominating the foreground symbolizes her virginity.

Meanwhile the right-hand panel shows characteristics of International Gothic illuminations of the day. The opulent landscape (inspired by Italian painting) with a genre-like scene - Joseph is depicted drinking from a bottle - is rather unusual for altarpieces. However, the realistic portrayal and delicate nuances of colour surpass any miniature painting found in books. The continuous extension of the landscape from the foreground into the background is another innovation.

Interpretation of other 14th Century Paintings

For an analysis of other paintings of the 14th century, see the following articles:

Betrayal of Christ (Kiss of Judas) (1305) By Giotto
Fresco, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua.

Lamentation of Christ (1305) By Giotto
Fresco, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua.

Maesta Altarpiece (1308-1311) by Duccio
Tempera/gold/wood, Siena Cathedral Museum

Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus (1333) By Simone Martini
Tempera and gold on panel, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338-9) By Ambrogio Lorenzetti
Fresco, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena

• The Wilton Diptych (1395-99) by Unknown Artist
Egg tempera on oak panel, National Gallery, London.


• For the meaning of other 14th century Flemish paintings, see: Homepage.

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