Both donors are shown with their name saints – Saint Sigismund and Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Katharina bore her husband a son, Friedrich, who died unmarried, and two daughters, one of whom died unwed and the other, called Katharina, who married Anton Rieter. Sigmund himself later married Magdalena Fuxin aus der Pfalz, by whom he had a second son, Sigmund Held the Younger (1528-1587). The Held family had been prominent merchants in Nüremburg since the fourteenth century and had served as magistrates and upon the City Council.1 Their arms are found among those of the most eminent city families included in the great stained glass windows on the south side of the St Lorenz church. Sigmund the Elder seems to have been a prominent and conscientious Nüremburg citizen in this tradition, serving between 1513 and 1524 as a juror in the country courts and later, between 1533 and his death, in the City Court itself. He also sat as Richter or Judge in his district of Wöhrd in the east of Nüremburg. He also served as Amtmann (high-ranking administrator) in the districts of Burgfried (1527–58) and Gostenhof (1528–32). In 1516 he commissioned the Hagelsheimer altar, a large altarpiece comprising statues and some painted panels, for his local church in Wöhrd, much of which today survives in the St Jakobskirche in Nuremburg.
We do not now know where in the church of Saint Sebald this epitaph was placed, but it was most likely on one of the church columns or on one of the side walls of the Nave. Today only six such epitaphs from the late Gothic period survive in the church. The painting would probably originally have had an individual frame made for it and been accompanied by a dedicated inscription. Within this format it would have been quite common to have a special band of the painting reserved for the portrayal of the donor and his family. One such surviving example, in which the donor’s family is shown beneath a representation of The Death of the Virgin, is the Epitaph to Margaretha Haller of circa 1517, formerly in the Nuremburg church of the Holy Cross and today in Schloss Grossgründlach.2 Another epitaph, that of Georg Rayl, now in the church of St. Lorenz in Nuremburg, painted around 1494, shows another Crucifixion with Mary and Saint John as in the present panel. The design of the present panel is curiously old-fashioned, for it very much looks backwards to earlier, late fifteenth-century models for its inspiration. Its author was clearly inspired by the graphic work of Martin Schongauer (1448–91). The figure of the Magdalene, for example, derives from the latter’s engraving Noli me tangere of circa 1480–90. Other elements of the design, such as the billowing loincloth of Christ, the Virgin with her hands crossed at her breast, Saint John holding a book, and even the skull and bones at the foot of the cross are modelled on Schongauer’s engraving of The Crucifixion of around 1475. While it is possible that the donors and their family may have been added to a pre-existing Crucifixion – which might help explain the retardataire nature of its design – the facture of this panel seems consistent throughout and its composition was more likely conceived at the express wish of the patron. As yet, no firm attribution to any member of the Nüremburg School has been suggested. Both the Haller epitaph and another very similar Crucifixion also in the church of St. Lorenz, were formerly associated by Alfred Stange with the work of the famous illuminator Jakob Elsner (c. 1460–1517), but this seems untenable. The late Ludwig Meyer also tentatively suggested an association with an anonymous panel depicting The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine formerly on the German art market.3 The most plausible artist, the painter responsible for the painted panels in the Hagelsheimer altarpiece, seems to be a quite different hand.
The earliest history of this painting unfortunately remains unknown. It was most probably acquired by a member of the Darby family of Coalbrookdale in Shropshire in the early nineteenth century. It is first certainly recorded in an inventory of the Church of Saint Martin's in Little Ness in 1909, and was probably the gift of Mrs Rebecca Darby, who lived at Adcote House in the same parish, shortly after 1875. Alternatively local tradition keeps open the possibility that the painting came to church through the family of her son Alfred’s wife, Frederica, daughter of Sir Frederick Arthur, 2nd Bt. (1816–78). No traditional attribution survives from this period.
1 According to the Family Geschlechterbuch compiled by Sigmund Held the Younger, the honour of carrying the twin family titles of Held and Hagelsheimer was conferred upon them by imperial decree in recognition of exceptional knightly conduct.
2 A. Stange, Deutsche Malerie der Gotik, vol. IX, Munich and Berlin, 1969 ed., p. 85, figs 176 and 177
3 Private communication, 26 February 2005. Panel, 94.5 by 72.5 cm. Sold Munich, Neumeister, 10–11 September 1980, lot 1162 (as North German, 1st half of the 16th century). An old expertise from Alfred Stange, dated February 1961 apparently proposed an attribution to the youthful Master with the Violet.
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