A Warning to Heretics


One of the oldest and most intriguing paintings in The Bowes Museum’s collection was the focal point of this display. The small panel, A Miracle of the Sacrament by Sassetta, painted in Siena c1423-25, has a dramatic tale to tell. It shows a cleric, struck dead as he is offered the Host during Mass. Even more dramatically, a devil swoops down to snatch his soul as it leaves his body.

This little painting was once part of a large altarpiece, comprising 23 separate pictures telling a complex story. The altarpiece paid homage to the Virgin, saints and prophets, and promoted the belief that bread and wine shared during communion turn into the real flesh and blood of Jesus. At the same time it offered a warning to the growing number of people who by 1400 were challenging this belief. They were warned that they would be treated as heretics: excommunicated, executed, their bodies burnt, and the ashes thrown away, to deny them bodily resurrection and eternal life.

Two of the panels of the altarpiece allude to the recent shocking deaths (during that period) of John Wycliffe from Teesdale and Jan Huss from Bohemia, both declared heretics by the Council of Constance in 1415. Wycliffe, whose fundamental belief was that the Church should be poor, as in the days of the Apostles, was a theologian who initiated the first translation of the Bible into the English language. He suffered a stroke while worshipping in his church at Lutterworth and died three days later in December 1384. 

The altarpiece was dismembered and dispersed c1790-1840, possibly after damage in an earthquake. “All knowledge of the artist, the subject of the painting and the circumstances of its creation were lost during this period,” said the Museum’s former curator Elizabeth Conran, who devised the display as part of her work as Monument Trust Fellow at The Bowes Museum. “It has taken art historians 100 years to retrieve its story.”

Amazingly, the panel that alludes to the death of John Wycliffe, from Teesdale, is the very painting that ultimately ended up in the collection of The Bowes Museum - and now its true meaning can be explained.

This small exhibition told the story of the large altarpiece, showing how the Museum’s painting relates to the whole. The altarpiece had been reconstructed, photographically and to scale, to show the impact and significance of the Museum’s painting in its original setting.

The display let people see how much thought went into the creation of large altarpieces in the Middle Ages, how complex ideas were expressed in visual imagery, and how it is worth learning how to read them. It was enhanced by some paintings and church plate from the collections, and the loan of a posthumous portrait of John Wycliffe from St Mary’s Church at nearby Wycliffe. A Miracle of the Sacrament went on loan to an exhibition in Siena, where it was shown with other panels from the altarpiece belonging to the Pinacoteca in Siena, in a larger exhibition of Sienese painting.