Something to ponder…

Lest you think I’ve fallen off the face of the earth, here’s a quick note to let you know I’m still around, just so much covered with work at the moment that I don’t really find the time for blogging. You may rest assured though that regular blogging will resume soonish. Until then, here’s a couple of pretty paintings and a puzzle to go with them to keep your minds occupied…

Exhibit A:

Image © Wikimedia Commons

Unknown French (or Flemish?) Master, Crucifixion with Saints (aka Le Retable du Parlement), oil on panel, between 1449 and 1454, made for the Grande Chambre du Parlament in Paris, now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris

Exhibit B:

Image © Wikimedia Commons

Matthias Grünewald, Madonna and Child (aka The Stuppach Madonna), mixed media on panel, 1514-1517, made for the Church of St. Peter and Alexander in Aschaffenburg, now in the Parish Church, Stuppach

The Puzzle:

The two paintings shown above have something in common – and by that I mean something rather specific, not just the fact that both show a religious subject and fall roughly in the category of the so-called “Northern Renaissance”. Come to think of it, there’s another particular (slightly more obvious) trait they share and there may be even more I’m not aware of myself… Anyway, as you will have guessed by now, the puzzle is: What do exhibits A and B have in common? If you can think of anything, feel free to leave a comment – I’ll be back in a week or so and reveal the correct answer(s). And no, there aren’t any prizes in this except the right to pat yourself on the shoulder and feel clever…

UPDATE March 14

Sooooo… I said I was going to be back in a week or so… Well, as it turns out I’m more on the “or so”-side of that timeframe and hope you forgive the delay!

I also said that of the things the two paintings have in common one was slightly more obvious. And right enough, Bob Consoli came up with the answer to that one before the ink on my post was even dry (or whatever the digital equivalent of that expression might be): They both show an actual cityscape in the background.

It’s quite interesting to note, though, that those cityscape interact with the paintings’ main subject in two different ways: In the case of the Retable de Parlement, the painting was made for a prominent location in Paris and three of the four saints it depicts surrounding the Crucifixion are closely connected to Paris, too (i.e. St. Louis, St. Denis and Charlemagne – for all I know, a reasonable explanation for the inclusion of St. John the Baptist as the fourth has still to be found). Grünewald’s Stuppach Madonna, on the other hand, was made for a church in Aschaffenburg, more than 200 km northeast of Strasbourg, and it’s harder to explain why Strasbourg features so prominently in the background. One possible explanation is that Grünewald may actually have executed this painting in Strasbourg: As the dating indicates, the Stuppach Madonna was painted at the same as the Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516) – hence the apparent similarities to the Virgin and Child from Isenheim, pointed out in the comment from Monica Bowen of Alberti’s Window – and it has been suggested that he was undertaking this work in Strasbourg. The weird thing about this is that the Stuppach Madonna doesn’t only show Strasbourg Cathedral but also the Antoniterhof, i.e. the townhouse of the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim (about 100 km south of Strasbourg) – the very monastery for which the Isenheim Altarpiece was made.

Matthias Grünewald, Virgin and Child with Angels, from the Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512-1516, Colmar, Musée d'Unterlinden (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

What’s probably more important, though, is the fact that the Stuppach Madonna was commissioned for an altar dedicated to Our Lady of the Snows, a dedication which refers to the legend of the foundation of S. Maria Maggiore in Rome. It’s likely therefore that in Grünewald’s painting Strasbourg Cathedral (which, by the way, was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, too) simply stands in for S. Maria Maggiore, a church with neither Grünewald nor most people in Aschaffenburg had ever seen. Last but not least, the church in the background may of course also allude to the once popular equation of Mary with the Church.

But what is that other thing the Retable du Parlement and the Stuppach Madonna have in common? Well, as I said there may be even more things that I’m not aware of myself – and the use of plants and their symbolism pointed out by H Niyazi may well be one of them (though, truth be told, my own knowledge of plants and their symbolism isn’t such that I could possibly come up with an informed judgement in this matter). However, the thing I was going for in the first place is something that you don’t actually see in the paintings: When scholars first got interested in Northern Renaissance art at the beginning of the 19th century, both paintings were attributed to Albrecht Dürer!

Admittedly, this was a tough one to crack but to be honest the point I was trying to make was sort of “You couldn’t possibly guess this one”. Because from today’s point of view it seems downright ridiculous that anyone could ever have ascribed the two paintings even to the same period of time, let alone to one and the same artist. On the one hand I believe this case shows how much knowledge we have gained since art history first became established as an academic discipline. But on the other hand I believe it is an extreme, yet still valid example of how attributions are made in the field of art: If a painting is of extremely high quality, we are sort of naturally inclined to give it to a famous painter, and that is what happened about 200 years ago with the Retable du Parlement and the Stuppach Madonna – people realized they were amazing paintings, they were vaguely aware that both paintings were Northern Renaissance (or Late Gothic, as we prefer to say here in Central Europe) so they ascribed them to the greatest Northern Renaissance painter they could think. Of course it didn’t take too long for them to realize that the Paris painting must have been executed long before Dürer was even born and they adjusted the panel’s attribution accordingly – claiming the artist to be Jan van Eyck instead. And I think the basic principle that was at work here 200 years ago is still very much at work today: As art historians we just don’t like the thought that a great painting like the Retable du Parlement could be by Unknown French Artist or Anonymous Follower of X rather than by one of the Big Names. And that, I believe, is one of the main reasons why to this day on a surprisingly regular basis little known paintings in little known collections are touted as being a long-lost work by Leonardo, Michelangelo or Botticelli. One of the other reasons is, of course, that a painting attributed to Dürer, Leonardo or van Eyck will make more money at an auction or draw more visitors to an exhibition than a work by Anonymous Follower of…

…but I won’t go into that here.

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8 Responses to Something to ponder…

  1. They both depict actual cityscape backgrounds. The Retable de Parlement de Paris depicts the Tour de Nesle, the Louvre, and the Palais de la Cite and it also suggests the Hill of Montmartre at the center. The Stuppacher Madonna depicts the Cathedral of Strasbourg at right and the group of houses is the Antoniterhof, also in Strasbourg.

  2. H Niyazi says:

    I’m also wondering if there is connection between two plants – seen in the front left foreground (in front of ?St John) in the Paris image and the bottom left corner of the Grunewald image. My botannical knowledge is far from comprehensive but I’m wondering if they are both a depiction of Juniper – a plant associated with the Passion?

    Wonderful paintings though, so iconographically rich!

    Kind Regards

  3. I was thinking along the same lines as Bob Consoli. The architecture seems to be a common link. I’m curious to see what you say.

    I’m not familiar with this painting by Grünewald; I like it a lot. The composition reminds me a bit of the Virgin and Child depicted on the second view of the Isenheim altarpiece (opposite “The Concert” scene).

  4. At best only partial credit for me since I claimed that the Antoniterhof is in Strasbourg. Oops.


    • Oh, but you were right – sorry if I was unclear. The thing is that in the Middle Ages most monasteries owned lots of land and were therefore important centres of agricultural production. Often though much of the land they owned was quite far away from the monastery itself. Consequently the monasteries had granges and townhouses serving as administrative centres (and also as places to sell their products) wherever they were needed. So, the monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim had such a townhouse – or perhaps I should say branche? – in Strasbourg which was known as the Antoniterhof and can indeed be seen in the background to the left in Grünewald’s painting. It’s still kind of weird though that it was included in the Stuppach Madonna; it would have made a lot of sense in one of the paintings from the Isenheim Altarpiece, but why it appears in a work destined for Aschaffenburg is a bit mysterious.

  5. Pingback: Late medieval cityscapes « L'Historien Errant

  6. HE says: “truth be told, my own knowledge of plants and their symbolism isn’t such that I could possibly come up with an informed judgement in this matter” and H. Niyazi charmingly confesses: “My botanical knowledge is far from comprehensive..” Add me to that number as among the bio-challenged. My task is to label thousands of photographs of European artworks and buildings and I’m often stymied by my ignorance of plants,animals, and stars The capitals in the average Cistercian cloister are enough to drive one to despair. (What is that spike-leaved plant? Iris? Tulip?) And yet one gradually realizes the extent to which these elements pervaded the lives of men and women before the invention of electricity. Whatever you wish to say about our ancestors they were intimately familiar with the local plants animals, insects, and other natural manifestations such as weather patterns, and the stars. They loved these things and incorporated them into nearly all of their artworks. It is we, the alienated, who don’t even know the Arbutus unedo when we encounter it. Rather than curse the darkness I choose to light two small candles:
    1. Collins Complete Mediterranean Wildlife Photoguide by Paul Sterry
    2. (The surprisingly good) Gardens and Plants of the Getty Villa by Patrick Bowe and Michael D. DeHart.

    I know that your readers will have their own favorites which they might care to recommend.

    With these we’ll all be recognizing the Arbutus unedo in no time.


    Bob Consoli

  7. Pingback: Searching for the Crucifixion (a google experiment) « L'Historien Errant

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