Church life and religious belief in 15th century Cologne

Inside St. Kolumba's Church

Inside St Kolumba's Church

The back of the right panel of the triptych displays a typical church scene from the era. The church is St Kolumba's in Cologne, Germany, and it was the parish church that the Rinck family attended. Hermann Rinck, the man dressed in black in the foreground, was Burgermeister (Mayor) of Cologne on three separate occasions in 1480, 1483 and 1488.

His likeness painted here is the earliest known portrait of any Burgermeister of that city. Shown in prayer next to him is his wife, Gertrud von Dallem. The couple had eleven children together. The eldest of their four sons was born in 1458, and the youngest in 1472. They also had seven daughters.

However, only three sons appear in this picture; they can be seen in a pew in the right-hand background. It is possible that the missing son is Hermann Rinck the younger, who was based in England from 1502 as Imperial Envoy to the court of Henry VIII. As well as the human visitors to the church, two of the family's pet dogs are also present. Their contrasting white and black colours suggest they had some symbolic meaning, yet as church going was a family activity, taking pets with you was not unusual in the 15th century.

When the wings are both closed, the Rinck family are seen to be praying within the same church as the miraculous Mass of St Gregory, where Christ appeared to the 6th century Pope. Gregory, Pope from 590-604 AD, prayed to convince a monk of the real presence of Jesus’ blood and body in the consecrated bread and wine.  The story relates that Christ stepped out of a depiction on the cross and poured his blood into a chalice.  The imagery was a popular choice for altarpieces, since it reminded people of the significance of the Eucharist. The scene both reveals the true usage of the triptych as an altarpiece and identifies its patrons.

This theme was possibly chosen and painted after Hermann Rinck's death in 1496 in order to pay penance for sins and intercede for his swift admission to heaven. Purgatory, the place where souls wait before entering heaven, was an important part of theological teaching in the era.

It was thought that commissioning splendid works of religious art like this altarpiece could speed up the soul's passage through purgatory. The patron was more important than the artist was at this time. We can therefore identify Rinck but the artist he commissioned remains anonymous.