Painting placed on or behind the altar of a Christian church as a focus for worship

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  • Sir James Thornhill, 'Architectural Decoration, Design for an Altarpiece: Scene under a Wide Vault Supported by Two Pairs of Columns' date not known

    Sir James Thornhill
    Architectural Decoration, Design for an Altarpiece: Scene under a Wide Vault Supported by Two Pairs of Columns date not known
    Pen and ink, pencil and watercolour wash on paper
    support: 220 x 175 mm
    Purchased as part of the Opp Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996

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  • Thomas Struth, 'National Gallery I, London 1989' 1989

    Thomas Struth
    National Gallery I, London 1989 1989
    Photograph on paper on perspex
    support: 1805 x 1965 mm frame: 1835 x 1995 x 49 mm
    Purchased 1994 Thomas Struth

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  • Francis Bacon, 'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion' circa 1944

    Francis Bacon
    Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion circa 1944
    Oil on board
    support, each: 940 x 737 mm frame, each: 1162 x 960 x 80 mm
    Presented by Eric Hall 1953 Tate

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Usually depicts scenes from the life of Christ, especially the Crucifixion, or from the life of the Virgin Mary. Altarpieces are often in two or three panels (diptychs and triptychs) with the panels showing separate but related scenes.

Modern artists have sometimes adopted these formats for non-religious works, either for the increased narrative scope they offer or to add a sense of spiritual weight to subjects dealing with the major issues of human life, or both.