This is an exceptional example of mediaeval European imagery
; it has been declared an Asset of Cultural Interest
. Attributed to a workshop in Limoges, this 12th-century Romanesque altarpiece is on display behind a grass screen on the high altar of the church of the Sanctuary of San Miguel de Aralar
Thirty-seven enamel panels make up a singular collection of figures, harmonically arranged on a gilded metal plate 2 metres wide and 1.4 metres high. The main figure, placed in the centre and surrounded by an oval shell, is the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus. According to the Romanesque tradition
, Mary acts as a throne for the Child Jesus, who wears a crown and gives a blessing with his right hand as he holds the Holy Scriptures in his left hand. The feet of the Virgin Mary rest an artistic footstool, and on both sides of her head are the Greek letters alpha and omega. The Star of Epiphany is beneath the two figures.
There representation of the Tetramorphous
surrounding the Mother and Child is striking, because they normally accompany the Saviour on his own. The four symbols of the evangelists are there: St Matthew as an angel, St John an eagle, St Mark a winged lion and St Luke a bull.
On both sides are twelve symmetric arches containing as many figures. We can make out the Three Wise Men with their gifts, six apostles (among them St Peter with the keys to Heaven), and angel, the Virgin Mary and the donor king. A number of reliefs of buildings representing Celestial Jerusalem can be seen under the arches.
The skilled way
in which the features and clothing of each figure are drawn is outstanding. The golden folds of tunics combine harmoniously with ranges of indigo, green and the odd touch of white, black and red. Another striking feature is the engraving of the heads and feet of all the figures.
The absence of medals and small sections of arches remind us that 'Erik the Belgian'
, an international art thief, stole a large number of pieces of this exceptional work in 1979
. Fortunately, almost all of them have been recovered over the years.