The Sneaton Castle Altarpiece - Reredos tempera on individual panels, 154 x 276cm (60 5/8 x 108 11/16in).
Provenance: Commissioned for the first chapel at Sneaton Castle, Whitby, shortly after it was built in 1919. Literature : 'John Duncan', exhibition catalogue, Edinburgh City Art Centre, 1986, introduction by John Kemplay : "Part of his decorative work was ecclesiastical and among his more important undertakings was a series of paintings for St Hilda's Priory in Northumberland." Note : Duncan was commissioned to produce a reredos (rising from ground level behind an altar) depicting Christ in Glory, four Archangels, and eight Northern Saints. He worked at Sneaton Castle, taking inspiration and guidance from the priory community to produce a striking triptych which reconciles the religious content with Celtic and historical motifs and a universally decorative appeal. Some of the sisters were permitted to assist in minor aspects of the execution as was Duncan's custom with larger commissions (Such as Ramsay Lodge, Edinburgh) where he utilised studio assistants to paint Celtic designs. Duncan was present when the altarpiece was dedicated.
John Duncan was a major figure in the Celtic Revival, working with Patrick Geddes on 'The Evergreen' and executing a decorative scheme for his home. Duncan was influenced by Renaissance masters and techniques (ie tempera), and by contemporary French artists such as Puvis de Chavannes. His work, though, displays an innocence and serenity which was at odds with the Symbolists but entirely appropriate for commissions of this type.
Duncan's love of Iona, and knowledge of Celtic and Norse legends, made him the prime candidate for this task. For example 'St Bride', one of Duncan's most celebrated themes, had been tackled in 1913 (NGS) and 1918 (Glasgow Museums). Bride is a legendary figure who encapsulates the transition from paganism to Christianity; a herd-maiden of noble birth, she was taken from Iona to Bethlehem on the first Christmas Eve and became Christ's foster-mother. As she also symbolises the season of spring, she typifies the requirements of a 'Northern Saint' for the flanking panels.
REREDOS : The central section depicts Christ in Glory and, left to right, Archangels Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael and Michael. They are also said to denote Dawn/Spring, Midday/Summer, Evening/Autumn and Night/Winter, respectively. The panels are characteristic of Duncan's best work, depicting picturesque single figures in a shallow, flattened space. Decorative appeal is the principal concern, imbuing each high-keyed panel with a range of motifs and symbols to embellish the figure.