Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Zwinger mit Semperbau Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister: Mediæval & Renaissance Art
It’s a few minutes before 10am. I’m wondering where the entry is. Back at the entry, Frances, that’s where the entry is, the door on the side where there’s a queue. I’m fourth in and sorted with ticket plus stashed my gear in the locker and have no idea where to go. Ah, that way and up. I tend to get museums wrong, walk the wrong way, enter the wrong door, go around the room backwards. This museum, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in the Zwinger mit Semperbau, is undergoing massive renovations, which means my purpose for being here — mediæval art — is as truncated as the collection. About 1/3 of the floor space is open, and it’s the oldest stuff that takes the biggest loss.
Does it matter? No. By the time I’m done, I’ve thrashed three museum buildings and eight or more collections and it’s closing time 9 hours later. Back here at the beginning in the old stuff, I think I visited the three floors in non-sequential order, though moving through history roughly in a forward direction.
Old stuff! We start in the late-1400s, debatably Middle Ages, definitely crossing into Renaissance in various locations. Mostly it’s a mix of German and Netherlands artists on one side, Italian on the other, all squashed into a makeshift hall. For the purposes of showing of a selection of their works, I’m not going to find fault in that. I did get sulky about the crap glass in front of the majority of paintings, which threw off a vile cyan-green hue from the searchlight overhead glare, itself heavily tinged into an indescribable yellow. Not the best lighting, forgivable because it’s temporary. The glass though, it’s like this: if I take a photo and it’s mostly glass glare and colour cast, that’s exactly what your museum visitors are seeing with their eyes.
One of the first works I got really excited about is Albrecht Dürer’s Dresdener Altar. It’s a fantastic piece, large, dominated by a trio painted only from the waist up, so they fill the wings and centre panel to the edges. It’s painted in a light technique, you can see the canvas weave, often the tempura is simply dry-brushed, and the contrasting detail of line work and shading is phenomenally delicate. The palette is dominated by mute, cool greys, blues and desaturated reds, with browns, golds, jade and turquoise greens for highlighting. When you look at it closely, there’s this beautiful movement between rapid, almost expressionist sketch-like brushwork and strokes, and fine shading, layering, line work, two completely different approaches. And then it’s populated with a mob of cherubic angels, busy cleaning and flying around, holding Mary’s crown. The wings were added around ten years after the wide-angle central panel was completed, and do look structurally and technically dissimilar, their background full with small angels, and with little architectural framing. I photographed the crap out of it, as you can see by the fifteen images of it below.
Shortly later is Lucas Cranach der Älter’s Katharinenaltar (the central panel). I’m totally into Saint Katharina of Alexandria because she was a stone cold scholar and had an incredible mind and ability for learning, as well as being a killer orator, all while being a woman who was martyred for being a better philosopher than any of her debaters. It’s important to count her as a philosopher and not just eject her from the history of philosophy by calling her a Christian Saint. There’s very little difference between the intellectual tools she was using and what we’ve been calling philosophy since the Enlightenment. I also like Cranach the Elder, maybe not as much as Dürer, but I would happily steal this painting.
Then there’s two pieces by Antwerpen painter Joos van Cleve: Die kleine Anbetung der Könige and Die große Anbetung der Könige, both early 1500s works. These are part of a recognisable thematic tradition across northern Europe in late-mediæval and renaissance art of the Magi, that occurs so consistently and is kind of an essay in representation, coming as they do from Africa, Persia, Central Asia. Presuming a little here, maybe reading in too much from the present world, but it must have been profound for people in Northern Europe, in towns and cities who travelled little if at all, to be in Church and see these figures of a much larger world, who as individuals stand in for their country or land or people. Especially: here is an African king in finest green and gold robes with furs and ropes of precious metal, wearing spurs over his tooled leather boots so obviously he also rides a horse — everyone is well-dressed in these paintings, but Balthasar is always the finest, down to his prominent earrings, and he was there at the birth of Christ.
I always look for these paintings when I’m trawling mediæval art, and would be extraordinarily disappointed to not find one in any museum I visit. They are canonical.
Running on a bit now. A few Cranach the Younger works, he’s not his father, but he did paint Der schlafende Herkules und die Pygmäen (one half of a diptych, the lighting on the second one was impossible) full of dwarfs who are going the hack on Hercules. One other work in the mediæval and renaissance collections was Parmigianino’s Die Madonna mit der Rose which I loved for the globe showing Europe, Central Asia, northern Africa, the Arabia, and a rather small Indian subcontinent, and which has enough signifiers to be as easily Venus and Cupid as Mary and Jesus.
All that done, up and down some stairs and onto what I’m calling the baroque and enlightenment collections.