Altar Garden, Saint Andrew's Church, Antwerp.

PART OF THE WHOLE: Altar Gardens

Guilds, craftsmen, fellowships, families and individuals establish altars in churches in order to guarantee their salvation. When all of the chapels along the nave or the choir were taken, in certain cases one would have a column designated along which an altar could be erected. Guilds and craftsmen competed for the place of their altar. How much closer to the high altar it was, the greater the prestige. In addition, the form, the extent of decoration and the altarpiece also say something about the status of the owner(s) of the altar.

The altar usually consists of an altar table, a painted or hewn altarpiece in a wooden or stone framing, images and candlesticks. Often one would add a heraldic vault keystone or a vault painting, also when it was necessary to erect an altar against a column. In order to close the shrine off from the public or to create the effect of an actual chapel, the space is fenced in by a so-called altar garden of wood, metal or stone. The gardens are provided for on three sides (1 in front, 2 on the sides) equipped with a high parapet, possibly decorated underneath with columns or balustrades. One can enter the altar via a central door. The closed-off space is comparable to a hortus conclusus, or literally a closed garden. Many altarpieces are found today in a museum context, by which the original context with the altar garden is disappeared.

Matthias Depoorter