German Renaissance Painting 1300–1550

During the 19th century few works of early German Painting were acquired by the Staatsgalerie. One notable exception was the purchase in 1859 of the collection amassed by Stuttgart’s Chief Tribunal Procurator Karl Gustav Abel. Abel’s collection comprised noteworthy works of early Swabian painters such as Bartholomäus Zeitblom, Bernhard Strigel and the Master of the Sterzing Altar panels. The only other significant exception was the acquisition of three paintings from the collection sold by the Tübingen theology professor and later dean of the cathedral in Freiburg Hirscher, among them »Saint Benedict in Prayer« by the Master of Messkirch.

It was not until the 20th century that the Early German collection at the Staatsgalerie was substantially expanded and attributed the significance it has today. Much of the credit for this is due to Konrad Lange, who served as director of the Staatsgalerie for only six years - from 1901 to 1907. Thanks to his efforts, important works such as the »Virgin as the Throne of Salomon« from Bebenhausen, the »Mühlhausen Altar« and the »Ehningen Altar« - to name only a few examples - were obtained. Konrad Lange also initiated the process through which a large number of paintings in the possession of the Church were transferred to the Staatsgalerie. Lange focused his attention on enhancing and emphasising the collection of early Swabian art, since budget constraints and market considerations ruled out the collection of Early German paintings on a broad scale. The acquistition of works by the Master of Ulm (?), by Hans Schäufelein, Hans Holbein the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Christoph Amberger after the Second World War clearly underscores the foresight of Lange’s strategy.

The Stuttgarter Galerieverein provided continuous support for the expansion of the Early German collection, securing such significant works as a painting by the Master of the Darmstadt Passion and Hans Baldung’s »Man of Sorrows« - later sold to the Staatsgalerie. Private foundations also contributed to the collection. Worthy of particular note is the legacy of the industrialist Dr. h.c. Heinrich Scheufelen, which brought a number of works from the early German period - not to mention many baroque paintings - to the Statsgalerie after his death in 1948.

Today, six exhibit halls devoted to early German art provide a comprehensive survey of early Swabian painting. Its beginnings coincided with changes in liturgical customs that encouraged the development of moveable altar painting as opposed to the previously predominant fresco, with its close relationship to church architecture. The period came to an end with the political and religious upheavals - which ultimately culminated in the Thirty Years‘ War - that brought art production to a virtual standstill around the mid-16th century. When German artists became active again after 1600, they found themselves faced with the need to redefine aesthetic issues in response to the changes that had taken place in society. The solutions they developed differ so radically from those of the preceding time period that one recognises in them the beginning of a new era that would not reach its zenith until the 18th century.

Significantly larger in geographical area than the Swabia of today, the Duchy of Swabia once extended from lands west of the River Lech (now in Bavaria) to the Lake Constance region. The most important cultural hubs were commercial cities such as Nördlingen, Ulm, Memmingen and Augsburg. In these cities, most of them independent of imperial rule, a variety of artists‘ workshops found a rich field of activity open to them. Neither the Church nor the nobility but rather the economically strengthened middleclass took the lead in promoting the arts and commissioning artists‘ works. Bourgeois patrons were committed primarily to the decoration of churches and chapels, and thus we owe the existence of many of the altar paintings in the Staatsgalerie collection to private donors.

Painted or decorated with relief work, the retable mounted on the altar table began to take on increasing importance as the focal point of church decoration in the course of the 14th century. The expansion of the iconographic repertoire and the increasing richness of artistic design ultimately led to what is known as the folding or winged retable. In this the fixed - often also carved - centre section was flanked by two, four or six hinged side panels, ordinarily painted on both sides. The panels could be opened or closed in various ways to visualise aspects of the liturgy for the faithful in keeping with the different phases of the church calendar.

The Staatsgalerie is fortunate to possess several complete retables as well as others in a condition approaching their original appearance. Among these are the »Mühlhausen Altar«, the »Ehningen Altar« and Jerg Ratgeb’s monumental folding retable. Most of the works have been removed from their original context, however, as is the case in most museum presentations, and are now shown as single gallery paintings.

The purpose of the altar painting was to provide a visual representation of biblical events. Thus it not only contributed to the glorification of God and the saints but also offered the illiterate layman a substitute for legend and the Bible. In addition, the altar screen often contained an image of the donor, rendered unobtrusively and clearly apart from the biblical events depicted, as an object of reverence or appeals for intercession. The portraits of such donors are among the earliest examples of portrait painting, a genre that came into its own during the 15th century. The function of portraiture was to capture the appearance of a particular person at the time of depiction, thereby creating a permanent image that would last long beyond the subject’s lifetime. Portraiture developed during a period of cultural and intellectual change that shook the foundations of collective medieval communities and engendered a new, more positiv view of the individual. The prospect of experiencing a personal destiny and the awareness of personal responsibility fostered greater self-awareness and legitimised the portrayal of the individual in painting. [ EW ]

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