PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE COLLECTION
This is the last surviving intact multi-panelled altarpiece by Lucas Cranach the Elder remaining in private ownership, its extraordinary survival due to its having remained for almost four hundred and forty years in the family church of the patrons who commissioned it.1 It was almost certainly commissioned by the sons of Jobst von Feilitzsch in their father's memory in 1511, the year of his death. The altarpiece remained in the family collection until after the Second World War. In 1947 it was acquired directly from the Von Feilitzsch family by Heinz Kisters who later sold it to his friend, the great post-war Chancellor of Germany, Konrad Adenauer. After Adenauer's death it was re-acquired by Kisters along with the large majority of Adenauer's collection.
Though its purpose was ultimately ecclesiastical, within the altarpiece are some of the best extant examples of Cranach's portraiture. It was commissioned for the Salvator church located on the Von Feilitzsch estate in Kürbitz (fig. 1). Jobst von Feilitzsch had only acquired the estate in 1510, the year prior to his death. The patrons of the church, Saints Peter and Paul, are included in the wings of the altarpiece, and are found elsewhere in the church on either side of the Virgin in a 16th-century winged altarpiece. Another saint of particular significance to the family, Saint Anne, is elevated to the central role in the middle panel. She was increasingly celebrated in Saxony after Frederick the Wise returned with a relic from the Holy Land in 1493, a trip on which he was accompanied by two members of the Von Feilitzsch family, one of whom was most likely Jobst himself and her central role in his altarpiece here is thus self-explanatory.
The precise original form of the altarpiece is not known since the original framing device no longer exists. In 1624/26 an additional chapel was constructed in the church, intended as a family tomb, by a descendant of Jobst, Urban Caspar von Feilitzsch, and he reframed the five panels in a heavy baroque frame (fig. 2). This frame displayed the panels as a Schaubild, with all five panels lined up in a row. While possible that they were originally so-arranged, it is more probable that they were conceived in a manner resembling its current 'folding triptych' format. The 1624/26 frame includes what is either a transcription of an inscription from the original frame, or simply a new explanatory inscription provided by Urban Caspar, and it reveals details of the altarpiece's coming into being (fig. 4). Roughly translated the inscription reads:
Year 1511, on St. Matthew's Day,1 the honourable and strong Jobst von Feilitzsch, for whom God's grace gave for sons Moritz, knight of Drewen, Urban of Korwitz [sic], Eberhard and Friedrich.
It is signed with initials V.C.V.F. (Urban Caspar von Feilitzsch). It tells us that Urban, Jobst's second son, took over the estate. It was probably he who commissioned the altarpiece from Cranach.2 The donor figure in the left wing, however, is most unlikely to be Urban, who was born in 1480 and, as revealed by the portrait on his tombstone, wore a beard. It most likely portrays Jobst who must have been about fifty years of age in 1511 (his birth date is not known). Indeed, Werner Schade has noted a plausible similarity with the sculpted portrait of Jobst on his tomb in the same church. In the very similar Altarpiece of the Holy Kinship in Dessau from circa 1510 Cranach portrays Jobst's contemporary Frederick the Wise who was born in 1463 (fig. 3). Frederick there appears of about the same age (he would have been in his late forties) as the donor figure here. Therefore, given that the altar is dedicated to him and that the figure portrayed appears of about the right age, it seems most likely, even certain, that the donor he portrayed is Jobst, Cranach basing his portrait either on one he had previously made of him in life, or from other extant portraits of him, whether drawn, painted or carved.
Von Feilitzsch's estate at Rittergut Kürbitz was in southern Saxony, about 50 miles from Wittenberg where Cranach was employed at the court of the Elector Frederick the Wise from 1504. Cranach's earliest pictures in Wittenberg still resemble those of his earliest, Viennese, period, with their almost 'over-drawn' appearance that often pushes his figures to the point of caricature, alongside a use of vivid, dazzling colour. Soon after his arrival in Wittenberg however Cranach's paintings become more and more indebted to Albrecht Durer. While the stark colours of the drapery in parts of this recall the vivid coloration of the Viennese paintings, the simple drama achieved through their synthesis with the jet black background would have been inconceivable before his arrival in Wittenberg. There is here, too, a heightened interest in the physiognomies and expressions of the sitters and it is here that we observe most clearly Durer's profound influence on the young master.
This heightened expression and realism of Cranach's portraits was most likely the result of his travels to the Netherlands in 1508 where from the likes of Quinten Massys he learned an increased sense of empathy for his subjects. Several scholars have also argued for a journey to Italy around this time, pointing to similarities with the work of Perugino and his pupil Raphael, particularly in some of his portrayals of the Virgin. Here this influence, though less keenly felt than in some other works from the 1505-10 period, is still palpable in the classical arrangement of the three protagonists of the central panel who form two neat equilateral triangles: one through the arrangement of the three heads; the other, larger, with St. Anne's head at the apex, the left diagonal running down the edge of her cloak, the right down the Virgin's long hair, and the lower horizontal formed by the neat alignment of feet and hands. Such symmetry is found principally in Cranach's works from circa 1508 to 1512 such as the Altarpiece of the Holy Kinship in Dessau (fig. 3), the middle panel of a triptych in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, and the now destroyed panel, formerly in Berlin, depicting the Virgin and Child with four female saints.3
Friedländer and Rosenberg dated the altarpiece to circa 1512-14 but it is now widely accepted as dating from 1511-12. In addition to the evidence provided by the previously mentioned inscription, such a date is supported by new technical and stylistic evidence. Dr. Gunnar Heydenreich has recently observed that Cranach used the same carpenter for his panels (probably Michael Tisscher) between 1505 and 1512 and that his panels from this period are formed of planks running horizontally across the picture plane. After 1512 the formation changes to the more conventional lengthways, or vertical, orientation of the planks. Given the horizontal arrangement of the planks that make up the central panel here, we can surmise a terminus ante quem of 1512 for this altarpiece.
Furthermore, each facet of the altarpiece compares itself favourably to another specific work from the 1511-12 period. The outer wings, depicting Saints Catherine and John the Evangelist, which are the only part Koepplin, Friedländer and Rosenberg ever considered to have possible participation from the workshop (an opinion Friedländer overturned in 1946 following cleaning of the whole altarpiece, at which point he pronounced these two saints as fully autograph) share the same proportions and extended, columnar structure and small heads as several other saints on altar wings, such as Saints Barbara and Catherine on the triptych commissioned by either Wilhelm II of Hesse (1469-1509) or, more likely, his wife Anna of Mecklenberg (1485-1525), in 1509-10. This latter is the first work Cranach painted in Wittenberg to be destined for a non-Saxon court.4
In the central panel Saint Anne shares the same features as her counterpart in the Education of the Virgin wing panel in the Anhaltische Gemäldegalerie, Dessau. Likewise the Virgin may be closely compared with her own counterpart in the Dessau companion wing depicting the Holy family with angels. Both panels are dated by Friedländer and Rosenberg to circa 1510-12, as they are by modern scholars.5 The Holy Kinship in the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna from 1510-12, in which the Christ Child likewise sits on Saint Anne's lap, shows the Virgin with precisely the same features and expression and in a remarkably similar pose (fig. 5). This Holy Kinship, the Dessau wings and the present work also display the same short-hatched haloes that Cranach only used for a short period around 1510-12.6
Saints Peter and Paul find their most striking comparison in the two small panels in an English private collection that were exhibited in London and Frankfurt in 2007-08.7 These two panels may have been executed by Cranach for use in the workshop as tronies, as the unfinished nature of Saint Paul would suggest. Both however, though especially that of St. Peter, are clearly indebted to their earlier counterparts in the Von Feilitszch altarpiece, in pose, physiognomy and execution. The model for St. Peter must surely have been the same for both paintings.
Saint Peter, whose principal role here is, with St. Paul, to commend Von Feilitszch to the subject of the central panel, rests his right hand on the right shoulder of Jobst von Feilitszch and gazes directly out of the altarpiece to meet the eyes of the spectator. Though not unusual for Cranach, such directness only exacerbates the dramatic nature of the altarpiece that is already so animated by the brilliant pigments emerging from the dark background. The black background is to be found in several other works from the period, such as the now dismembered altarpiece with portraits of Frederick the Wise and John the Steadfast in the Kunstsammlungen der Veste Coburg (circa 1515).8
Von Feilitszch himself is dressed in the fashionable wide fur collar and fur trimmed half-sleeves that are worn by Frederick the Wise in the Veste Coburg portrait.9 He too places his hands in prayer joined only at the fingertips. Unlike the idealised figures of the central panel, Von Feilitszch's fulsome chin, heavy jaw and bulbous nose are described in every detail. He is a foreboding figure, lent further gravity by the comforting hand of the protective Saint Peter. The softness of his fluidly executed, ample contours recalls Cranach's circa 1509 portraits of John the Steadfast and his son John Fredrick in the National Gallery, London, or the 1511-12 portrait of the Margrave Albrecht of Brandenburg-Ansbach.10 The Von Feilitszch portrait is one that shows Cranach as no longer working in the wake of Dürer but concurrently with him; that draws on the realism and psychology of Dürer's earlier portraits but that, with its softer more-mannered touch, pre-empts a new age of German portraiture in the decade and years to come.11
There can be few works of art from this prolific moment in the history of German art that trumpet so loudly and proudly the fully-fledged Renaissance in Germany and that draws so obviously on, and combines so neatly, influences from the Netherlands, Italy and from within Germany itself. The combination of some of the greatest extant examples of Cranach's portraiture and the classical beauty and quiet grandeur of the central figure group, together with the extensive knowledge we have of the work's original commission and purpose, lend us a vital new understanding of Cranach's practices at this key moment in his career, a moment at which he created his most vivid and brilliant masterpieces at the court of Saxony.
1. Celebrated on 24th February.
2. This is confirmed by archival material.
3. See Friedländer and Rosenberg, under literature, pp. 76-77, cat. nos. 36 & 37, both reproduced.
4. Ibid., p. 70, cat. no. 17, reproduced. For a colour reproduction see B. Brinkmann et al., Cranach, exhibition catalogue, Frankfurt and London, 2007-2008, p. 164, cat. no. 23, reproduced p. 165.
5. Friedländer and Rosenberg, op. cit., p. 76, cat. no. 35. See also Brinkmann, op. cit., p. 166, cat. nos. 24, 25, both reproduced in colour.
6. Other examples are the Copenhagen Virgin and Child with St. John and the four wings in the Thyssen Museum, Madrid.
7. Brinkmann, op. cit., p. 290, cat. nos. 83 & 84, both reproduced.
8. Ibid., p. 172, cat. no. 28, reproduced.
9. Ibid., p. 172, cat. no. 28, reproduced.
10. Friedländer and Rosenberg, op. cit., p. 71, cat. no. 19; and p. 73, cat. no. 26 respectively, both reproduced. The former was sold London, Christie's, 6 July 1990, lot 42, for £4.84m.
11. See, for example, Dürer's1516 portrait of a gentleman in the Samuel H. Kress collection, Washington D.C. F. Anzelewsky, Albrect Dürer. Das Malerische Werk, Berlin 1971, p. 242, cat. no. 133, reproduced figs. 163 and 164.
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