Oxford painter, sculptor, and glass designer Nicholas Mynheer works almost exclusively on religious themes, fulfilling commissions for churches throughout the UK (he’s working on two right now). His style is instantly recognizable—a distinctive blend of medieval, expressionist, and primitive influences resulting in simplified figures with exaggerated features and compositions full of color and movement.
In 1999 Mynheer was commissioned by St. Mary’s Church in North Leigh, Oxfordshire, to create an altarpiece for its fifteenth-century Wilcote Chapel. He decided to create a hinged polyptych (multipanel painting) that shows three Christ-based scenes in its closed view and then opens to reveal four additional scenes on the wings. (The center panel remains fixed.)
One of the challenges of painting a polyptych is figuring out how to arrange various episodes into one unified story, or, if portraiture is used instead of narrative, how to draw multiple figures into thematic coherence. The panels should not be isolated pictures but should speak to one another, aiding the viewer in worship. Mynheer achieves this unity brilliantly by establishing visual links through symmetry, which suggest associations of contrast between an earlier event and a later one: the expulsion versus the resurrection of the saints (sin and redemption), the nativity versus the pietà (birth and death), Jesus in Joseph’s workshop versus Jesus carrying his cross (wood as an innocent building material, wood as a horrendous instrument of execution).
When the wings of the altarpiece are open, the leftmost panel depicts the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after they had broken fellowship with God. Miserable and ashamed, the couple departs under the shadow of sin’s curse while a cherub enforces the banishment with a red-hot sword. As they go, though, they step—seemingly unawares—on a snake, foreshadowing the Second Adam who would come to crush Satan, as prophesied in Genesis 3:15.
This panel is juxtaposed on the other end with the resurrection of the saints, which shows Jesus bending down to raise up the faithful from the grave. His arms mirror those of the angel in the Expulsion panel, but to different effect: whereas the angel of Eden points downward, forcing our eyes into the dark corner that signifies separation from God, Christ the reaper scoops up, leading our eyes along the whoosh of ascent into light. Here humanity is at last reunited with God, their multiple embraces resembling heads of wheat. This is the Great Harvest, in which Christ brings in the sheaves.
Mynheer says he intended this panel to depict not only the physical resurrection of our bodies on the last day but also the figurative resurrection of our spirits in baptism, from death into life.
The second panel of the left wing depicts the Nativity, which is echoed visually by the Pietà on the other side. A popular subject in art that shows Mary cradling the body of her dead son, pietà means “pity” in Italian; it is so named because we are made to feel sadness and sympathy for and with Mary. Throughout history artists have often evoked the Nativity in the Pietà and vice versa—the one taking us forward, as did Simeon, to the death of the Messiah, and the other taking us back to the joy of his birth. In both scenes Mary holds her son, first in the very natural context of a new mother holding her infant, and second, in the very unnatural and tragic context of a mother holding her child’s corpse.
The elongated wings of the altarpiece close up to reveal another pair of images on the reverse. (The altarpiece can be found in this closed display during penitential seasons, such as Lent.) The first shows Jesus as a child in the workshop of Joseph, his adoptive father, learning the trade he would pursue as a young man. Three nails are scattered on the floor, foreshadowing the three nails that will later pierce Jesus on the cross, much like the cruciform shape of the wooden beams they are attaching foreshadows the instrument of his execution. Jesus shaped wood for a living, but the time would come when wood would forever shape him.
These omens come to pass on the other side, which shows Christ taking up his cross. Here he is at the beginning of his walk to Calvary, supported by two faithful friends: one (Simon the Cyrene?) helps ease the weight of his burden, while the other (Nicodemus?) follows behind with burial preparations, a ladder to remove his body from the cross. The prospect of Christ’s death is so ghastly that even the tree shivers; it closes up its leaves and turns away.
The central panel of the altarpiece, the same in both views, depicts the centerpiece of our faith: the Resurrection. Here the wound sites on Christ’s body are covered with gold, and water and blood flow forth—a river of life, glory. This represents the final vision that God vouchsafed to the apostle John, writer of the Book of Revelation:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (22:1–5)