About this artwork
This remarkable ensemble is made up of a retable, which was set up behind the altar table, and a frontal, which decorated the front of the table itself. The work is literally a testament to the piety of Pedro López de Ayala, a major figure in the political and cultural life of late medieval Spain. He was a courtier, soldier, and diplomat in the service of the kings of Castile, eventually serving as chancellor; he also wrote poetry, a treatise on hunting, and important chronicles of his era.
Ayala expected his altarpiece to be a perpetual plea for his eternal salvation and that of his family. Indeed, for more than five hundred years, it decorated the family’s funerary chapel in their fortified palace in northern Spain. Ayala was careful to declare his donation of the altarpiece in honor of Christ and the Virgin Mary through the inscription that runs across the bottom margin; the images of himself and his wife, Leonora de Guzman, kneeling in prayer with their son and daughter-in-law at either end of the lower register; and their coats of arms — two wolves and two cauldrons — alternating around the frames.
The massive altarpiece must have been constructed and painted inside the small chapel. To accomplish this, Ayala called upon local artists, who created a series of scenes that tell the stories of the life of Christ and the Virgin and center on images of the Crucifixion and of an empty throne that probably once framed a statue of the Virgin and Child. These scenes are not projections of convincing pictorial space. Rather, with their plain backgrounds and framing arcades, they hark back to earlier architectural decoration and manuscript illumination. The altarpiece was clearly intended to impress through its monumental scale, its narrative clarity, and its costly materials, which include gold and silver leaf and glazes of rare and expensive ultramarine blue.
- Retable and Frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin Made for Pedro López de Ayala
- Tempera and gold on panel
- Inscribed: :COMO:FUE:FALLADO:IXU:XPO:ENL:TENPLO:Q:ENSENA[U?]ALA:LEY:.COMO:IHU:XPO:TORNA:EL:AGUA:BINO:.COMO:IHS:XPO:REÇUSÇITO:.AL:TERCER:DIA:.EL:CRUÇIFI:XO:.COMO:IHS:XPO:.SUBIO:ALOS:ÇIELOS:.COMO: UINO[:]EL[:]ESP[I]RITU:SANTO:EN:SANTA:MARIA:E:EN:LOS:APOSTOLES:. COMO:SANTA:MARIA:FUE:SOBIDA:ALOS:ÇIELOS:. (along top below frame), PEDRO:FIIO:.DE:.FERNAN:PEREZ:DAIALA:.;MARI:.ROMIREZ:.FIIA:DE: FERNAN:PEREZ:DAIALA:. (on banderoles in the Crucifixion), I:.N:.R:.I (attached to the cross), :.SANT:BLAS:BENDIZE:AESTOS:CAUALEROS:. LA:SALUTAÇION:COMO:SE:ABRAÇARON:SANTA:MARIA:E:SANTA: HELIZABETH:.COMO:NAÇIO:.IHU:XPO:LOS:PASTORES:.SANTA MARIA:.COMOUIN[IE]RON:ADORAR:LOS:TRES:REYS:MAGOS:.COMO:FUE:IHU:XPO:PRESENTADO:ENEL:TEN:PLO:.COMO:JOSEPH:FUYO:CON: SANTA:MARIA:E:IHU:XPO:AEGITO:. (between the two registers of narratives), :.FERNAN.PEREZ.DAIALA:.SU:.FIIO; DON:.PEROLOPEZ:.DAIALA; SANT:.BLASBENDIZE (on banderoles in scene at lower left), AVE:MARIA:GRACIA (on banderole held by Gabriel in the Annunciation), :GLORIA:INEÇEL:SIS (on banderole presented to the shepherds), :SANTO:.TOMAS:.DAQUINO:.; DONA:.LEONOR:.DE.GUZMAN; DONA:.MARIA:.SU:.NUERA:. (on banderoles in scene at lower right), :ESTA: CAPIELLA:ESTOS:[F]RONTALES:MANDARON:FACER:DON[:]PERO:LOPES:DE:AIALA:EDONA:LEONOR:DE:GUZMAN:SU:MUGER:AL:SERUIÇIO:DE:DIOS:EDE:SANTA:MARIA:ENEL:ANO:DEL:NAÇIMIENTO:DE:NUESTRO: SENOR:IHU:XPO:DE:MILL:E:TRESIENTOS:E:NOVEINTA:SEIS:ANOS:UENDIZELAS:SANTOMAS:DAQUINO:+ (along bottom above frame), [C]OMO:PAREÇIO:EL:A[N]GEL:ALOS:PASTORES:COMO:CSTA:ENÇAEÇIDA:SANTA:MARIA:.GASPAR:.MELCHIOR:.BALTASAR:.REIES:. (on the frontal), GLORIA:INEÇELSIS:DEO (on banderole held by angel), arms of Ayala (two wolves) and Guzmán (two cauldrons) (alternating on frames)
- Retable Image: 232.1 × 649 cm (91 3/8 × 255 1/2 in.); Frontal Image: 86 × 266.9 cm (33 7/8 × 105 1/16 in.)
- Gift of Charles Deering