The altarpiece's origins can be seen in the function of the altar. This was traditionally a square block, usually the primary focus of the church. By 1000AD the altar developed into a rectangular form with a defined front and back. Changes in the altar's form led to the development of the altarpiece, a panel decorated with sacred figures. The emergence of the altarpiece marks a significant development in the history of the altar and highlights its importance as an element of the church's architecture.

An altarpiece is a structure bearing an image, positioned on the rear of the altar. An inscription on the altarpiece sometimes identified to which saint or mystery the altar was dedicated. Altarpieces were made from stone, wood and metal but wooden altarpieces were predominant all over Europe. The content and form of the altarpiece can give clues about who the patrons were.

The winged altarpiece was developed in Germany in the 14th century. Movable wings made it possible to vary the imagery of the altarpiece in relation to the changing requirements of public worship. The back of the wings usually showed further religious scenes or the coat of arms of the owner. This part would only be seen if the wings of the triptych were closed. The status and quality of carved wooden altarpieces in Germany was high. As a result this led to sculpted altarpieces being made for display without paintings or gilding.