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Made to Order:
An Avignon Altarpiece
Notary for Jean de Montagnac and Enguerrand Quarton

Almost forty years after the last pope sat on the throne in its great palace, Avignon still maintained an aura of luxury and splendor. For over a century, the Burgundian city just across the Rhône River from France claimed the papacy - by itself from 1305 to 1377 and in competition with Rome during the Great Schism (1378-1417). Cut off from traditional papal resources in central Italy, the Avignon popes developed a sophisticated bureaucracy superb at raising revenues. Rich and powerful, the Avignon papacy achieved a standard of material comfort that became the envy of neighboring secular courts. The following document gives us an idea of this lush world as an Avignon priest hires an artist to paint an altarpiece to the priest's exacting specifications.

Questions to Consider
  • Even without knowing the relative value of the cash involved, how can you tell that this is an expensive painting?

  • What do we learn about the priest's views on theology from this contract?

On the 25th day of April [1453], Master Enguerrand Quarton, of the diocese of Laon, painter, resident in Avignon, made a contract and agreement with the said Dominus Jean de Montagnac - both contracting parties being present - for painting an altarpiece according to the manner, form, and prescription contained and set forth article by article on a sheet of paper, which they passed over to me, written in French, whose tenor follows and is such:

Here follows the list of items of the altarpiece that Messer Jean de Montagnac has commissioned from Master Enguerrand, painter, to be placed in the church of the Carthusians, Villeneuve-les-Avignon, on the altar of the Holy City.

First: There should be the form of Paradise, and in that Paradise should be the Holy Trinity, and there should not be any difference between the Father and the Son; and the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove; and Our Lady in front as it will seem best to Master Enguerrand; the Holy Trinity will place the crown on the head of Our Lady.

Item: The vestments should be very rich; those of Our Lady should be white-figured damask according to the judgement of said Master Enguerrand; and surrounding the Holy Trinity should be cherubim and seraphim....

Item: On the left side will be Hell, and between Purgatory and Hell will be a mountain, and from the part of Purgatory below the mountain will be an angel comforting the souls of Purgatory; and from the part of Hell will be a very disfigured devil turning his back to the angel and throwing certain souls into Hell, given him by other devils.

Item: In Purgatory and Hell will be all the estates according to the judgement of said Master Enguerrand.

Item: Said altarpiece shall be made in fine oil colors and the blue should be fine blue of Acre, except that which will be put on the frame, that should be fine German blue, and the gold that will be used on the frame as well as around the altarpiece should be fine gold and burnished.

Item: Said Master Enguerrand will show all his knowledge and skill in the Holy Trinity and in the Blessed Virgin Mary, and will be governed by his conscience....

A promise was given, I declare, by the same Master Enguerrand to execute these things faithfully and according to the foregoing description, from the next [feast of] St. Michael, for the next one continuous year, for the price of one hundred and twenty florins, each at the value of XXIII sous of the currency at Avignon....


Source: Elizabeth G. Holt, A Documentary History of Art (New York: Doubleday, 1957), 298, 301-302.