The Verdun Altar

Panel of the Verduner altarpiece, Jonah and the whale, c. 1130. Photo: Wikipedia.

The first stone of the Klosterneuburg abbey complex was laid on 12 June 1114. The abbey Church is a Romanesque basilica with nave, transept and two aisles. Three semicircular apses were built at the end of the choir.

Though later renovations and reconstructions give the abbey a neo-gothic nineteenth century outlook and a sixteenth century baroque interior, some remarkable Romanesque sculptures and monuments have been preserved.

One of the most outstanding works is the Verdun altar, a pulpit panelling depicting scenes from the bible and illustrating the selmon. The altar panel compromises 51 tablets. The maker is goldsmith Nikolaus of Verdun (1130-1205) , according to the inscription ( Nicolaus Virdunensis) in 1181, commissioned by provost Wernher.

Verdun is the birthplace of Nikolaus, who died in Tournai. The tablets are enamelled and gilded, worked in the sunk enamel technic. (one of his other famous works is the Dreikönigenschrein in Cologne, comparable in quality and craftsmanship to the works of Godefroid de Huy or Godefroid de Claire (1100-1174).

The panel gives an overview of the salvation of mankind by typology. Typology is a manner of interpretation of the New Testament through the Old Testament. Events and persons of the Old Testament have a foreboding that is realised in the New Testament, proving that Christianity (New Testament) and not Judaism (Old Testament) is the true religion.

The Old Testament era before the giving of divine law to Moses, ante legem, is presented in the top row. The bottom row expresses stories and persons from the period after the giving of the divine law, sub lege. The middle row shows the era of fulfilment and redemption through life, sacrifice and resurrection by Christ, sub gratia.

The comparison is sometimes far-fetched, but the meaning was clear to contemporary spectators. The last six panels are dedicated to the final judgemen, D’Day for those going to hell or to heaven (or purgatory). These six panels are from a later period and another artist however, from around 1350.

The altar  symbolizes the high and sophisticated culture and intellectual environment of the twelfth century.

It also shows the European dimension of politics, art, economy and culture of the this period (Source: G. Rennhofer, Klosterneuburg Abbey).