Wilcote altarpiece by Nicholas Mynheer

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.)

Wilcote Chapel, St. Mary's, North Leigh, Oxfordshire
Wilcote Chapel, St. Mary’s Church, North Leigh, Oxfordshire.
Wilcote altarpiece
Wilcote Chapel polyptych (open view) by Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), 1999. Oil on oak panels. St. Mary’s Church, North Leigh, Oxfordshire, England.
Wilcote altarpiece (closed)
Wilcote Chapel polyptych (closed view) by Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), 1999. Oil on oak panels. St. Mary’s Church, North Leigh, Oxfordshire, England.

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).

Expulsion

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.   Continue reading “Wilcote altarpiece by Nicholas Mynheer”