Gemäldegalerie: Details & Portraits from the Germanic, Flemish, & Netherlands Collections

Tuesday, I hauled self off to the Gemäldegalerie for The Botticelli Renaissance exhibition. I … eeeeh … let’s save that for another time. Once in though, obviously I couldn’t say no to a little perving at mediæval art. I have a major crush on Hans Baldung’s awesome Der Dreikönigsaltar but couldn’t devote my empty reel of (SD card) film to that alone, so I decided to look at all the glorious detail—which turned into some portraiture, and ended up getting well carried away in the Germanic, Flemish, and Netherlands sections (I made it to the Italian but for some reason my camera battery thinks around the 350th image is a good time to go flat.)

I appreciate this collection more and more each time I see it (fifth or sixth time in the last 18 months now). The older works by unnamed artists and workshops, the works by Hans Holbein the Elder, Hans Baldung, Hans Multscher, Der Meister des Aachener Altars, as well as better-known artist like Lucas Cranach and Peter Paul Rubens, so many I love and get stupidly happy every time I see them in their flesh and bones again. So, here’s not a complete dump (extenuating circumstances of flat battery, out of focus images, need to not edit and upload hundreds of images) of works I particularly like.

The first, on the right in the first room, is the Kölnisch Christus am Kreuz mit Heiligen from ~1430. The delicate, tiny angels in black robes collecting Jesus’ blood, levitating with filigree wings on gold, it’s a joyous start to the collection. The Türingisch Auferstehungsaltar aus Arnstadti, nearby and also from around the same time is a mass of detail across its three panels. From the diversity of the saints in the left panel, to the women in the right, the curling speech scrolls winding madly across and around everyone, the sleeping guards at the feet of Jesus arisen in the central panel, the stunning use of colour, blues and golds, reds, oranges, how it’s both artificial in its staging yet bursting with life and movement and individuality.

Another one I’ve photographed before—well, most of these I have—the Meister des Gereon-Altars Marienaltar aus St. Gereon, again from Köln around the same time. This one has a brilliant St. Mauritius in green and gold wearing a red cape, but it was the poor footless child on wooden clogs being clothed by a female saint in the right wing that I noticed this time, a motif once seen turning up frequently.

The workshop of Konrad Witz’ Der Ratschluß der Erlösung I just liked for the portrayal of a woman who is old and wrinkled, yet clearly highly regarded. This is something I notice in mediæval art which attracts me: the representation of difference and diversity; a representation that diminishes after the renaissance until by the 19th century, it’s wall-to-wall stuffy old white men.

Hans Multscher’s Die Flügel des Wurzacher Altars, an eight-panel work with an excellent Adoration of the Magi packed with people from everywhere, has beneath it the Death of Mary, and the faces, heads with hair and balding patés, beards and teeth and headdresses, actually I could almost call this collection of photos “Headdress of the Mediæval.” I’ve been reading Aloïs Riegl’s Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts, and one thing he says about Northern European mediæval art is that the representation of the world is not one attempting perfection, trying to outdo nature, rather it is one of imperfection in its fullness and completeness. I’d look at this stuff any day over the mediocre ‘perfection’ of Botticelli.

The robes in Thronende Maria mit dem Kind (Glatzer Madonna) are worth commenting on. First, the strong blankets of cobalt blue, crimson, and vermillion for the robes of Mary block out the lower central part of the panel. While the blue, visible on Mary’s chest and around her feet denotes royalty, it’s the vermillion spilling from under the green and gold clad baby Jesus’ and from the lining of Mary’s robes which denotes blood and sacrifice.

The Altarretabel mit der Kreuzigung Christi, (Westfälisch, from the Kirche St. Maria zur Weise in Soest, ~1230/40) is one of the first altarpieces north of the alps. Sometimes I wonder if the Gemäldegalerie slip in new works every so often. I love the linework and detailed colour in this, it seems almost crude on first glance, but it’s an incredibly articulate work. In the centre is Jesus crucified, but what’s going on on either side is the true story here: On the left, from his spear wound (always a black, negative space rimmed with red, a portal out of the world) a stream flows and leaps horizontally into a chalice; behind the bearer the word, “ecclesia”. On the right, an angel with a spear pushes a blindfolded figure away, crown flying off their head. Behind this figure, the word “synagoga.”

Next to this is the similarly aged Altarretabel in drei Abteilung mit dem Gnadenstuhl (Westfälisch, from the Kirche St. Maria zur Weise in Soest, after 1250), which has a similar but much stronger style and angularity, more like a mosaic than painting. I feel such stark design didn’t return in art until the 20th century, and that comic book and graphic novel art are probably the greatest inheritors of this.

Back in the 1400s, Meister LCz (Meister des Strache-Altars) Christus vor Pilatus is all about faces and headwear again, then about hands; Meister der Darmstädter Passion’s altar wing is definitely about the head gear, it’s a furry hat party.

The Meister des Aachener Altars is one of my favourite artists, and Die Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige one of my favourite works in the gallery. I’ve photographed the crap out of it, but this is a figure I’d overlooked, up in the background, carrying a spear, pierced ears with heavy rings, a pearl headdress with a fine, white feather. I like also how so many people look beatific in mediæval art, it reminds me of buddhist art—when it’s not all demons and torture.

Some more portraits, Hans Holbein the Elder’s Maria mit dem schlafenden Christuskind with the cherub and its magnificent plumage (I could do a whole series on angel wings and not repeat myself). Also the baby Jesus fully sated and passed out on Mary’s breast. Then there’s Die Kreuzigung Christi (Kaufmannsche Kreuzigung), fairly standard in its interpretation of the Crucifixion, all the players are accounted for, blood is spritzing, but the contorted bodies, faces, hands, the mass of bodies shoved together, how the work is split into upper (the crucified against a plain gold background) and lower (the crowd of bodies and robes) elevates it to something other.

A new favourite! A Mitteldeutscher Meister, Diptychon mit der Kreuzigung und dem Schmerzensmann, from around 1400. It’s two not-large panels, a trio in each. The Crucifixion with Mary and Magdalena on the left, and Jesus risen (in the Holy Vagina) with an apostle and Mary on the right. The spare use of colour and form is remarkable, and I feel sure there is an Islamic influence here, with the geometric background and the solid blue shapes of the robes. The second panel is stranger still, with Jesus in the Iris-shaped aperture, it and him radiating golden shards, and above, part of a huge blue orb which only when looking closely is full with lighter blue angels. It’s a really unusual piece, more like abstract Persian art than mediæval European.

Soon after is a follower of Jan van Eyck, Christus am Kreuz, one of the first naturalistic works, and only 40 years later. Again, an older Mary, eyes red-rimmed (like she had chilli rubbed in), face contorted with tears and anguish, and with the distinct interlaced fingers with palms downturned, a gesture that starts recurring.

More works, then Hans Baldung (Grien or Grün, so-named because of his green clothes and his strong use of the colour green): Der Dreikönigsaltar. Really one of my all-time favourites, and one of the most spectacular representations of St. Mauritius, fully clad in armour, jaunty as all fuck. I’ve photographed this piece to its knees, so was hugely surprised to see in the background of the central panel a group of knights on horses, one with a white banner on which is a silhouette of St. Mauritius in the exact same pose. I should have said that some of these photos are parts of paintings covering only a few centimetres, like this one; it’s difficult to convey size in photos, but the smallest of these works are around 40cm on the longest side, while the largest run for 3 or more metres.

Rogier van der Weyden starts turning up now as the action drifts out of the Germanic area and into the Low Countries—though still often with artists coming from Germanic areas. Der Johannesaltar, for the peculiar and highly symbolic pastel-red God appearing out of the blue sky with a thread of speech woven around a white dove. Next, not van der Weyden, but excellent headgear: Die Anbetung der Könige, after Jacques Daret (perhaps), though excellent headwear also from van der Weyden in Die Kreuzigung Christi and Bildnis einer Jungen Frau—we’re still in the mid-1400s, but portraits and non-religious art is starting to appear (though I could argue that the religious art is all about the secular mob gathered in frame).

More strange red deities in Johan Maelwael’s (attributed) Madonna mit Kind, Engeln und Schmetterling. The butterflies didn’t make the cut, all the glaze on darkness is not photographically possible for me with my camera. But the vermillion angels with golden hair? Awesome! And sometimes, like in the Thronende Maria mit dem Kind from Hans Memling, I just like the tiled floor and carpets.

Hugo van der Goes’ Die Anbetung der Hirten, I just love these two, they’re so happy and bounding in, all a bit wonky and clumsy but “We’re here!” Yup, this is a great one.

Solidly into the 1500s, Goswijn van der Weyden’s (grandson of Rogier!) Maria mit dem Kind und Stiftern just for the heraldry and for She with the Tree. Look, this whole piece is sensational, so much detail in tapestries and clothing, Maria alone for her almost black silk robes, I have no idea who the benefactors are but clearly they’re wealthy and of significant standing. And I just like the tree she holds, like it’s been plucked from a miniature forest.

Getting near the end and to some oddities, bits and pieces. Meister der Mansi-Magdalena’s Die hl. Maria Magdalena (Mansi-Magdalena) from after 1525, I keep seeing her as an echo of the Mongol Empire, the brown of her voluminous clothes, the sparse landscape, the high symmetry of her face and the background, as well as her hat, more horsewoman than follower of Jesus.

A few from Peter Paul Rubens who for these works becomes another favourite. It’s like looking at Turner but 300 year previous, or the better chaos of impressionism, especially in the unfinished Die Eroberung von Tunis durch Karl V. And his Bildnis einer Frau looks like Tilda Swinton. His Maria mit dem Kind (1625/28) I think exemplifies what I adore in mediæval art, even though this is pushing 200 years after the fact. The centre of the work is a standing Mary with an infant Jesus also standing, head at breast-height thanks to a judiciously placed table. But all the attention is in the bottom right corner, the viewer’s eyes driven there by both Mary’s gaze and Jesus’ trailing interest. In an area not more than an eighth of the whole work, an intricate illuminated book, yellow floral borders, green and gold capitals, a basket of grapes, plums, peaches—it anticipates Dutch and Flemish still lifes as if he wanted to paint just that but wasn’t quite able to relinquish rest of the piece. It’s this detail I find throughout mediæval art, layers of unfolding meaning and story, or just a dog chasing its tail in the corner because something needed to go there.

Many more not even mentioned. I think I let myself get out of control here. Art! Mediæval art! Pictures of!