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Late Gothic Altarpieces as Sources of Information on Medieval Wood Use: A Dendrochronological and Art Historical Survey

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Wooden altarpieces are important features of European medieval material culture, especially of the Late Gothic Fine Arts from the 15th and 16th century. Many of them were carved in the Brabantine towns of Antwerp, Brussels and Mechelen in present-day Belgium. Although they were highly esteemed and exported all over Europe, little is known about their production process. In order to understand the context of the creation of the altarpieces, a detailed analysis of the wood has been completed to supplement and test historical documentation and art historical approaches.Tree-ring patterns and anatomical features of 209 wooden sculptures from collections of different museums were analyzed. Tree-ring analysis proved the 15th–16th century origin of the sculptures but also allowed a detailed technical characterization of the carvers' basic material. The striking uniformity of the grain and the sawing pattern revealed that medieval woodcarvers preferred quarter sawn oak lumber, imported from the Baltic area. Stylistic and iconographic hypotheses concerning the current setting of several altarpieces could be founded, based on the wood anatomical and dendrochronological observations.Intensive collaboration between wood biologists and art historians proved to be essential in order to reconstruct the creation process of carved wooden altarpieces.

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