Writing in 1963, Walter Paatz (op. cit
.) hailed the Altarpiece in the Church of St Wolfgang in Kefermarkt, Upper Austria as 'the most magnificent Bavarian contribution to a series of masterpieces of late Gothic retable art in southern Germany'. Following his restoration campaign of the Altar in the 1850s, Adalbert Stifter drew such inspiration from the work that he dedicated a lengthy description to it in his Bildungsroman, Der Nachsommer
. The present statue of Saint Florian
may be counted among the few sculptures independent of the Kefermarkt Altar that can be attributed to this masterwork's elusive author and his assistants. It is a magnificent example of a life-size limewood Saint
in full armour, whose appearance on the art market is a rare event.
The Church in Kefermarkt was built in the 1470s under the orders of Christoph von Zelking, a captain and counsellor to the Holy Roman Emperor, Friedrich III. In 1476 the Bishop of Passau consecrated the new church in his diocese to St Wolfgang, and it soon became a site of pilgrimage. Documentary evidence suggests that the Altarpiece was ordered sometime before 1490 but not completed until around 1497, when a final payment was made. Frustratingly, the identity of its master is unrecorded, which has inspired a variety of attributions. While the exceptional quality of the Altar has in the past brought it into association with such illustrious names as Tilman Riemenschneider, Veit Stoss, and even Albrecht Dürer, the prevalent view in today's scholarship is that the Master may likely be identified with Martin Kriechbaum. Active between circa 1470 and 1510, Kriechbaum belonged to a family that seems to have run the foremost workshop in southern Bavarian Passau, which cultivated firm links to Upper Austria. Yet in the absence of secured works by Martin Kriechbaum, whose documented commissions are sadly lost or destroyed, the Master of the Kefermarkt Altar will remain an enigmatic visionary.
Stripped of its polychromy during restoration works in the mid-19th century, the Kefermarkt Altar is celebrated for its wealth of virtuoso carving in monochrome wood. In its current arrangement, the three monumental central figures of saints are flanked by richly decorated wings and surmounted by an ornate superstructure. In front of the church walls on each side of the altarpiece are two life-size figures of Saint George
and Saint Florian
, the so-called Schreinwächter
(Guarders of the Altar). Their iconography is borrowed from Michael Pacher’s representations of the same subjects in the church of St Wolfgang in Salzkammergut (Kahsnitz, op. cit
., pl. 39), whose altar was completed in 1479. Stylistically the figures of the Kefermarkt Altar seem indebted to several southern German schools and masters, and the heterogeneous nature of the carvings has frequently been remarked upon. Some have argued that more than one master executed the works, while others are dismissive of this idea, highlighting the inevitability of different hands within a single master’s workshop (see Schädler, op. cit
., p. 11). What is evident is that the Altar’s most admired figure, that of Saint Christopher
, exhibits a level of realism and psychological sensibility which is shared by only a few of the other figures, notably the Saint Florian
. The Christopher
’s lifelike, tormented physiognomy has been celebrated as an exemplar of late Gothic sculpture and contributed to the Altar’s fame.
It is to these figures that the present Saint Florian
most clearly relates. The statue is characterised by a similar tilted positioning of the head with a slight downward gaze and a hint of a frown. Like that of the Kefermarkt Florian
, the present figure’s mouth forms a full-lipped pout, lending it a tense, melancholic expression. While his large curls of hair are reminiscent of the savage locks that frame the head of Saint Christopher
, the Florian
’s pose appears to be derived from that of his namesake in Kefermarkt. However the present Saint
is represented in a more affirmed contrapposto
, with a more dynamic arrangement of the arms. The general appearance of his armour, too, compares to the Kefermarkt Schreinwächter
, with intricate chainmail details, though its appearance is on the whole more linear and subdued, and perhaps less fantastical. Note the absence of the large besagues sported by the Kefermarkt Saint
, and the lack of headdress in the present figure.
Another compelling comparison for the Saint Florian
’s physiognomy is found in an under-life-size Deacon Saint
at the Musée du Louvre (inv. no. R.F. 2810, see Guillot de Suduiraut, no. 42), which is generally accepted to be an isolated work by the Master of the Kefermarkt Altar. Note the exaggerated shock of hair, small eyes, and broad jawline exhibited by both figures. In its form and stylistic features the Paris Deacon
compares closely to the Saints Stephen
of the same size in the Kefermarkt Altar. The suggestion that the Louvre figure therefore represents a survival from a now-lost altarpiece by the Kefermarkt Master, which largely mirrored the form of that in Kefermarkt, is relevant to our Saint Florian
: His formal dependence from the Kefermarkt Florian
and their correspondence in height present the likelihood that the present figure functioned as a Schreinwächter
in a very similar altarpiece by the same workshop, which was later disassembled or for the most part destroyed. That this hypothetical altarpiece postdates the one in Kefermarkt is suggested partly by the shoes of the present figure, which are broadly rounded at the toes rather than pointed, indicating a date around or after 1500. The armour, though similar to that of another Saint Florian
of circa 1490 (Legner, op. cit.
, no. 243), may be dated to circa 1510 and in the ray-like grooves on the breastplate compares to that of later Schreinwächter
(see Legner, op. cit
., no. 329). If indeed the Master of the Kefermarkt Altar is identical with Martin Kriechbaum, the Florian
would thus date to the final years of his activity. Perhaps by this time the master had adapted his style, or given some of the important figures to his most talented assistants, who would have been able to achieve the superb level of carving shown in the present statue. The Saint Florian
’s expressiveness and abundant curly hair arguably anticipates later Altars by the so-called Danube School, such as that in Zwettl in Lower Austria, whose sculptors may have been influenced by the Kefermarkt Altar's style (see Kahsnitz, op. cit.
, pp. 364-385).
Saint Florian is the patron saint of Linz in Upper Austria and has traditionally been venerated by firefighters and chimneysweeps. Born in the mid-third century AD in the Roman-occupied Austrian city of Aelium Cetium, Florian became a commander of the Imperial army, where he recruited a brigade of firefighters. When Florian was suspected of laxity in enforcing the proscriptions against Christians, he was ordered to sacrifice to the Roman gods but refused, leading to his execution. About to be burned at the stake, Florian claimed he would be raised to heaven on the flames, prompting the Romans to drown the martyr in the river Enns. Saint Florian’s appearance as a Schreinwächter
in Austrian retables may have partly been intended to protect these wooden masterpieces from devastating fires. The documented history of Martin Kriechbaum, the proposed Master of the Kefermarkt Altar, poignantly demonstrates the harsh reality of this: Two of his elaborate altarpieces burned to extinction shortly after their execution – one in 1598, and another as early as 1512 (see Paatz, op. cit
., p. 56).
W. Paatz, Süddeutsche Schnitzaltäre der Spätgotik: Die Meisterwerke während ihrer Entfaltung zur Hochblüte, 1465-1500
, Heidelberg, 1963, pp. 56-61; A. Legner (ed.), Spätgotik in Salzburg: Skulptur und Kunstgewerbe, 1400-1530
, exh. cat. Salzburger Museum Carolino Augusteum, Salzburg, 1976; M. Baxandall, The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany
, New Haven and London, 1980, p. 276; S. Guillot de Suduiraut, Sculptures allemandes de la fin du Moyen Age dans les collections publiques françaises, 1400-1530
, exh. cat. Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1991, pp. 170-172; A. Schädler, 'Der Kefermarkter Altar und sein Meister – ein Überblick', Studien zur Kulturgeschichte von Oberösterreich
, vol. 1, 1993, pp. 7-15; R. Kahsnitz, Die grossen Schnitzaltäre: Spätgotik in Süddeutschland, Österreich, Südtirol
, Munich, 2005, pp. 164-179; pp. 364-385
The present lot is offered with a Radiocarbon dating measurement report (ref. no. RCD-8603) prepared by J. Walker of RCD Lockinge, which states that the wood dates between 1286-1400 (95% confidence interval).