This statuette originates from one of the most original and influential sculptor's workshops of the 15th century, that of the Master of Rimini. Much like his contemporaries Jan van Eyk and the Master of Flémalle, this anonymous artist supplied luxureous works of art to a fashionable European clientele from his workshop in the Southern Netherlands. The present figure, with its startling expression, opulent drapes, and refined details, compares closely to some of the Master's most seminal sculptures, including the famous Apostles from the altarpiece which is now at the heart of the Liebighaus sculpture museum in Frankfurt. For decades Saint Philip was kept nearby the altarpiece in the Museum für Angewandte Kunst. Previously, it was in the possession of two of the most astute German collectors of the 20th century, Ottmar Strauss and Oskar Mulert.
The Master of Rimini takes his name from an early 15th-century alabaster altarpiece now on display at the Liebighaus but formerly in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Covignano, just outside Rimini. The altarpiece consists of a central Crucifixion scene, made up of three remarkable groups, flanked by twelve statuettes of the Apostles. His style is characterised by voluminous, richly folded drapery which is an elaboration of the cascading zig-zag folds of the International Gothic. Details such as their attributes, gestures and hairstyles are equally given individual, and in some cases a highly naturalistic, treatment whilst the faces are full of expression and united by sharp features and a prominent bone structure.
The location of the Master's workshop has been the source of much debate over the years but the recent consensus is that the Master of Rimini stems from the Low Countries. This is substantiated by the close relationship between the Flemish Primitives and the sculptor. The faces of the Frankfurt Christ and the Christ in The Trinity by the Master of Flémalle, for example, compare well, as do the alabaster Good Thief in a private collection illustrated by Woods and the famous blindfolded Good Thief in the lost but much copied Descent from the Cross also by the Master of Flémalle. (Williamson, op. cit., p. 187 and Woods, op. cit., pp. 64 and 73, fig. 5) In addition, numerous alabaster quarries and centres for the production of alabaster sculpture were located in the Southern Netherlands. Alabaster as a material for sculpture was particularly coveted by wealthy citizens of the Netherlands. Furthermore, the Master's work seems to have had the most profound influence in the Low Countries and bordering regions. In the most recent study on the Master of Rimini, Woods tentatively identifies Gilles de Backere, a "tailleur d'ymaiges d'albastre" in the service of Philip the Good from Bruges, as the Master. (op. cit., pp. 73-75)
The proliferation of alabasters from the workshop of the Master of Rimini is illustrative of its status and practices. Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta probably commissioned the Rimini altarpiece which may have been unveiled under the auspices of his three sons on the occasion of the Santa Maria delle Grazie's consecration as a Franciscan church in 1430. Another prominent Italian noble family, the Borromini's, ordered an altarpiece from the workshop for Isola Bella in Lago Maggiore. A group of mourners with a lengthy provenance from Breslau that is now in the National Museum in Warschau (see Legner, op.cit., fig. 33) suggest that an altarpiece was shipped there as well. The existence of more such ensembles is proved by many fragments, such as as the Good Thief in a private collection published by Woods (op.cit., p. 64, fig. 5), a Mary Magdalen at the base of the Cross in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. no. 65.85), and a mourning Virgin in the church of Clerques in Pas de Calais (Woods, op.cit., p. 67, fig. 7). Seemingly autonomous statuettes include the Pietà of which the prime examples can be found in the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini and the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv. no. A.28-1960). The number of large projects and presence of different styles within the altar pieces mean that the Master of Rimini employed numerous assistants and apprentices. That some of these sculptors left the workshop as journeymen or to start their own business is corroborated by the geographical spread of these works of art throughout Europe.
This figure of Saint Philip finds a direct parallel in Saint Thomas from the Rimini altar piece in Frankfurt. (see Legner, op.cit., pp. 101 and 104, fig. 7) Like the upright of Philip's cross, the remaining half of Thomas' carpenter's square rests to the left side of the front of the shallow rounded base. The attribute was supported by both hands in front of the chest of the figure, and both look to their left. Generally, the present statuette is carved with all the finesse and originality of the Rimini altar. The drapery scheme is complex and the placement of Saint Philip carefully studied and highly original. The rounded and pronounced upper half of the face, wrinkles and the delineated mouth and teeth compare closely to figures from the Crucifixion groups including Christ and particularly Longinus and his page (see Legner, op.cit., pp. 113 and 134-135, figs. 15, 42 and 44). There is therefore no doubt that the piece is by the hand of the Master.
G. Swarzenski, 'Deutsche Alabasterplastik des 15. Jahrhunderts', Staedel Jahrbuch 1, Frankfurt, 1921, pp. 167-195 ; A. Legner, 'Der Alabasteraltar aus Rimini', Staedel Jahrbuch 2, 1968, pp. 101-169; P. Williamson, Northern Gothic sculpture 1200-1450, cat. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1988, pp. 187-191, no. 54; K. Woods, 'The Master of Rimini and the tradition of alabaster carving in the early fifteenth-century Netherlands', Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 62, 2012, pp. 56-83