Staff Pick – The Ashwellthorpe Altarpiece

Lucie Molkova, Keep Project Support Officer

My favourite object in the Castle Museum’s collection is the Ashwellthorpe Altarpiece. I absolutely adore this triptych, not only because it is a beautiful object, but because I’ve become a part of its story as it’s become a part of mine (although the altarpiece is quite possibly unaware of this!)

The Seven Sorrows of Mary (The Ashwellthorpe Triptych) by Master of the Legend of the Magdalen (active c. 1490-1525), oil on panels, about 1520s

The triptych (literally meaning threefold, to indicate its panel design) dates back to the 1520s. We do not know the name of the painter, who is simply known as the ‘Master of the Legend of the Magdalen’. The central scene of the altarpiece depicts the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary set in a dreamy landscape. The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin became a part of a Church feast in the early 15th century, partially as a popular devotion but also as a reaction to the Hussite movement that emerged in the beginning of the 15th century in Bohemia, the westernmost region of the Czech lands.

This triptych was originally in private ownership, passing through the Knyvets of Ashwellthorpe from its commission in the early 16th century, to the Wilsons and lastly the Lees family until it was acquired by the museum in 1983.  Each of these prominent Norfolk families left their mark on the triptych’s history both as the owners of the altarpiece and as its primary audience.

The original owner and donor can be traced through the portraits and heraldry on the side panels of the triptych. The male figure on the right site is believed to be a portrait of Christopher Knyvet and the female figure to be a portrait of his wife, Catherine. The heraldry that hangs from the tree branch above them points towards their family lineage and status. Futhermore, the saints who flank the kneeling figures bear same names as the patrons, St Christopher with the baby Jesus and St Catherine with her attribute, a wooden wheel.

Given the provenance of the Ashwellthorpe Altarpiece, its original use was likely intended for private religious practice, either within a private chapel or a side altar. Such usage is indicated by the portraits of the donors and the Netherlandish tradition for painted altarpieces, from which the Ashwellthorpe Altarpiece draws, using a style, form and subject matter that transforms a devotional painting into a religious experience. The private use of the altarpiece could also explain the unconventional landscape framework for the triptych subject matter – the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin – given that a patron usually had influence over devotional art’s subject matter.

‘Today we see the art of the past as nobody saw it before. We actually perceive it in a different way.’

John Berger

Today’s audience for the altarpiece is more certain and much wider. The Ashwellthorpe Altarpiece will be one of the principal objects on display in a new gallery within the reconstructed Keep. The ambition of the Royal Palace Reborn Project is to attract over 300,000 visitors per year, comprising of local, national, and international audiences.

This will not be the first time the triptych is exhibited and viewed by larger audiences. Norwich Castle has displayed the altarpiece on numerous occasions, including within special exhibitions. The first time I saw the altarpiece was at the museum exhibition The Art of Faith (Norwich Castle Museum Oct 2010-Jan 2011); I was one of the students facilitating ‘Café Conversations’ for the public that were a part of a wider research project linked to the exhibition. The triptych then found its way into my work and, in a way, has stayed there ever since.

The curatorial team’s approach of presenting and contextualising the Ashwellthorpe Altarpiece inevitably guides the audience to look at the triptych in a specific way within a specific framework, from the other objects chosen to be displayed along with the altarpiece to the narrative offered in the label and exhibition catalogue. It is no longer a privately owned altarpiece.

Completing the story of the altarpiece are the viewers themselves. Each visitor looking at the altarpiece will view and understand it in a different way than the Knyvets and other families who owned it. The visitors’ understanding and perception of the triptych will depend on their knowledge, interest, beliefs and values.

So next time, when you are visiting and admiring the Ashwellthorpe Altarpiece, I invite you to look beyond the surface of this beautiful painting and visualise the story of everyone who owned, cherished and admired it. Today, when I look at the Ashwellthorpe Altarpiece, I see a painting that connects my birth place with my life as a student in Norwich and more recently as a part of the project team for Norwich Castle: Royal Palace Reborn.

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