The Oxburgh Retable
Pieter Coecke van Aelst the elder (Aalst 1502 - Brussels 1550)
The Oxburgh retable or altarpiece was acquired to adorn the 19th century Chapel, celebrating the Bedingfelds’ Catholic faith. It was only after the relaxation of laws against Catholicism that such an imposing object could be displayed.
The Oxburgh Retable, a composite altartable, Flemish, second quarter of the 16th century with painted panels, almost certainly by Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-1550) who entered the Antwerp Guild of Painters in 1527, inscribed on the hems of two of the garments of the figures: MOREA, and YOLRWORPIN.
The ‘hand’ mark of Antwerp is stamped into several of the carved sections of the retable, and its ‘burcht’, or castle (guaranteeing the quality of the polychromy), appears twice below the hinges of the painted wings. Made up of a carved triptych showing scenes of the Passion and from the life of St James of Compostella. Enclosed by painted wings which act as doors, resting on a carved and gilded altar-table and tabernacle. Of three elements - at the bottom, the altar table carved on the front with The Mocking of Christ, The Deposition and The Flagellation. In the middle, a semi-octagonal sacrament tabernacle, flanked by panels painted with scenes from the life of St Catherine. At the top, a retable or triptych, probably made in Antwerp in 1520-1530. The carved scenes depict, in the centre, The Crucifixion, flanked by The Road to Calvary and The Deposition. In the lower register are Pilate, and possibly Caiaphas. The painted wings show more scenes from the Passion story and from the life of St James of Compostela on the inside and on the outside the four Fathers of the Church. A wooden and metal armature has been installed by NT to ensure structural stability with the wings open. The tabernacle was originally topped by a tall pinnacled 'exposition throne' or aedicule set against red curtains, this was replaced in the 1860s by the retable. (James Weedon 2017)
Made for an unknown location; reputedly acquired by Sir Henry Bedingfeld, 6th Bt (1800-62) in Bruges, where his sister was a nun for nearly fifty years but possibly really obtained (like some of his furniture) by him from the Belgian woodcarver (responsible for the added figures?) and dealer, Malfait, to replace the upper part of the neo-Gothic tabernacle originally installed in the Chapel when it was built (1835-37); or even by Sir Henry Bedingfeld, 7th Bt (1830-1902), since the widow of the 8th Bt - yet another Sir Henry (1860-1941) - claimed that her husband remembered its arrival at King’s Lynn [which has caused Christa Grössinger to say that it was bought in King’s Lynn in the 1860s - this seems the most probable, since it seems unlikely that the 6th Bt, who had only had the tabernacle made less than thirty years before his death, should have swept it away so soon; it is still visible in Matilda Bedingfeld’s watercolour of the interior of the Chapel, done shortly before her marriage to Captain Neville in 1855]; thence, by descent, in situ, until bought by the National Trust in 1982, with the aid of grants from the National Art Collections Fund, The National Heritage Memorial Fund, and the Victoria & Albert Museum-administered purchase support fund
Makers and roles
Pieter Coecke van Aelst the elder (Aalst 1502 - Brussels 1550), furniture designer and maker
Grössinger 1992 Christa Grössinger, North European Panel Paintings: A Catalogue of Netherlandish and German Paintings before 1600 in English Churches and Colleges, London 1992, pp.171-77 Woods 1988 Kim Woods, Netherlandish carved wooden altarpieces of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in Britain, unpublished PhD thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1988, pp.227-236 Maddison 1984 John Maddison, “The Oxburgh altarpiece,” National Art Collections Fund Review (1984), pp.145-6 Wainwright 1993 Clive Wainwright, “Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk. I,” Country Life 09 December 1993, pp.40-3. Wainwright 1993 Clive Wainwright, “Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk. II.” Country Life 16 December 1993, pp.48-51 McClure and Woudhuysen 1994 Ian McClure and Renate Woudhuysen, “The Oxburgh Chapel altarpiece: examination and conservation,” Apollo 139.387 (1994), pp.20-23. Jacobs 1998 Lynn F. Jacobs, Early Netherlandish Carved Altarpieces, 1380-1550: Medieval Tastes and Mass Marketing, Cambridge, 1998, p.196 Woods 1999 Kim Woods, “Some sixteenth-century Antwerp carved wooden altar-pieces in England,” Burlington Magazine 141.1152 1999, pp.144-55 Woods 2007 Kim Woods, Imported Images: Netherlandish Late Gothic Sculpture in England c.1400-c.1550, Donington, 2007, pp.164 & 455-65, illus. Antwerpse retabels, 15de-16de eeuw, vol.I: Catalogus, (ed. Hans Nieuwdorp), (exh. cat.), Antwerp Cathedral, 1993, pp.117 & 194