In contrast to the Swiss artists who are so superbly represented by the preceding lots, it was unusual for a 16th-century German artist to devote a great deal of attention to the designing of painted glass panels or roundels. The Augsburg artist Jörg Breu was, however, an exception to this rule, and designs of this type make up a considerable part of his drawn output.
Often, Breu's glass designs were for series of panels with related subjects, and one of the most appealing of these sets depicts episodes from the life of a young peasant boy who rises to become an emperor. The story originates from the Gesta Romanorum, a late medieval compilation of moralising legends which was widely popular during the Renaissance. The first German edition of this text was already published in Augsburg in 1489, but it seems that Breu's drawings of circa 1520-25 are the first illustrations of the story to which the present drawing relates.
The plot is rather involved, but revolves around a nobleman and his wife, who have somehow offended their emperor. It seems that the couple fled to a hut in a forest, where the emperor accidentally ended up staying on the very night when their son was born. The emperor dreamed that night that the new-born would become his son-in-law, and fearing that he was going to be usurped, he ordered his squires to kill the baby, and show him its heart as proof. Unable to bring themselves to perform this murder, the squires instead kill a hare, presenting its heart to the emperor, and hide the baby in a tree, where a duke discovers him while riding through the forest. As the child grows up, he becomes increasingly handsome and intelligent, and his father takes him to court. There, they attend a banquet, where the emperor recognises the boy, and forces him to acknowledge his true origins; it is this episode that is illustrated here.
No glass panels based on these designs by Breu survive, but the compositions must have been popular, as at least two partial sets of copies are known, recording not only designs that are known through originals by Breu, but also others that are not. Including the present drawing, four of Breu's original designs survive. The other three are: The Emperor orders the Child Killed (Frankfurt, Städelsches Kunstinstitut), The Duke Discovers the Child in the Forest (London, British Museum), and Bridal Scene (Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum).1 Of these, the Getty drawing is the most elaborate, the pen design being worked up with tonal grey and reddish-brown washes, probably as guidance for the glass-painter.
A copy after the present drawing, now in a European private collection, was also formerly in the Rodrigues collection, but did not appear in the 1921 sale.2
1. See Butts and Hendrix, op. cit., pp. 220-2
2. Bolten and Folmer-von Oven, loc. cit.; Butts and Hendrix, op. cit., pp. 221-2, reproduced fig. 75. In their footnote 4, Butts and Hendrix mistakenly attach the 1921 sale reference for the present drawing to the copy, which was not included in the sale.
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