Here the two lovers are depicted in separate special planes, divided by a wall and window depicted with a primitive naturalism. Fra Filippo Lippi’s celebrated Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, dated to around 1440, follows a similar pictorial device (fig. 1). These two conjugal portraits emerge from a tradition of extensive commentary on the Song of Songs, particularly verse 2:9: ‘Behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice.’ The Song of Songs, unique in its celebration of sexual love, is the most heavily interpreted of all the books in Scripture, and it became the basis for a rich imagery of love in Medieval and Renaissance literature and art. In his interpretation of the Song of Songs, a 12th century prior of the Cistercian monastery of Forde, in Dorset, England, named John of Forde, wrote that ‘they had simply to return the gaze of their beloved, standing behind our wall and gazing on us through the window of our senses. Only the thickness of one wall, only one step, separated them from the ineffable contemplation of the eternal light which is heaven.’ Of course John of Forde is speaking of the souls’ mutual gazing with God; the wall is the sinful flesh which separated mankind from God, bride from groom (in prohibiting physical embraces and other, less sacred exchanges), but this peaceful restraint defines the couples union as sacramental, and reflects Christ’s love for His Church.
Such metaphors have long been illustrated in manuscripts; such conjugal gazing is depicted in a frontispiece of a twelfth-century manuscript of Honorius of Autun’s commentary on the Song of Songs (fig. 2). In this frontispiece Christ is shown enthroned with His bride, the Church, as embodied by Mary, upon whose shoulders he has one hand and to whom his gaze is turned. His other hand, through a small window in a wall, rests on the cheek of his other bride; a female figure embodying the human soul, and clearly awaiting the direct sight of Christ as enjoyed by Mary. As Robert Baldwin wrote of the present painting and Lippi’s painting in the Met, in combining the window gazing from the Song of Songs, and the accompanying tradition of eschatological gazing that it inspired, "Lippi and Zeitblom may have even hinted at the new esteem given to marriage in the Renaissance. For here was a state of grace in which men and women could – at least occasionally find a semblance of heaven on earth."3
Bartholomäus Zeitblom was born in Nördlingen but had moved to Ulm by 1482 when he became a citizen of that city. He is known to have soon made contact with the leading master Hans Schüchlin and had connections with many prestigious families in Ulm. The wide distribution of his works throughout the Swabian Alps and surrounding Danube region is thanks to the numerous noble patrons whose support Zeitblom enjoyed. For one of his patrons, the knight Georg von Ehingen, Zeitblom painted the altarpiece from Kilchberg near Tübingen which was praised by the poet Justinus Kerner (1786-1862) as the work of ‘a German Leonardo’. It is thought that the young Bernhard Strigel was his pupil in his workshop in Ulm before establishing his own practice and becoming a favored painter of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I.
We are grateful to Till Holger Borchert for noting the similarities in the physiognomy of the faces of the male figures in the wings of the Heerberger Altarpiece in Stuttgart which is signed by Zeitblom and dated to 1497; the slim elongated nose of the young lover in this double portrait is particularly reminiscent of those of Simeon and his attending priests in the panel representing the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.4 The present painting is not included among those paintings attributed to Zeitblom in Deitlinde Bosch's 1999 catalogue, but the gathering of so many excellent images of his works enables one to draw certain stylistic comparisons between the artist’s works. Indeed, the young male lover’s appearance is close to that of the Saint John the Evangelist, depicted half-length with his eagle, in the predella for the Blaubeuren Altarpiece in the Chor der Klosterkirche, in Blaubeuren.5 In addition, the faces of the women in the panel depicting the Birth of the Virgin from the Pfullendorfer Altarpiece, also in the collection at the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, warrant close comparison with the face of this female sitter.6 The delicacy of their features, with their small chins, long narrow noses, the eyes placed far apart and long necks. Their faces are all framed by the clean white linens of their headdresses.
The motif of the window, and the artist’s interest in representing sitters in different spaces, is evident in details such as his Saint Valentine converting the Executioner in the Valentinstafeln Altarpiece, Staatsgalerie, Ausburg;7 and in the eight half-length portraits of prophets, each gesturing as they hang out of separate window frames (all similarly portrayed as in the present painting), that accompany the aforementioned Birth of the Virgin, in the Pfullendorfer Altarpiece.8
Infra-red photography of the panel reveals a comprehensive liquid under-drawing that was likely applied with a brush (fig. 3). The spontaneity and lucidity of its execution is clear in the extensive use of parallel hatching employed throughout the composition to denote shadow and delineate the forms of the two figures. The marks made are vigorous and loose, and there are numerous differences between the drawn and painted composition that show a noteworthy degree of fluidity in the design process of the painter. The most significant changes are in the positioning of the male sitters hands, and in the lines of the profile of his face, nose and lips. There are also noticeable changes in the contours of the female sitters face, in both of their costumes, and in the details of the towers in the back-ground. Furthermore, infra-red photography tells us something of the artists working process – for example it is clear that it was his method to paint the costumes early on in the process, before even the flesh tones of the sitters: visible, for example, the pigment of the male sitters fingers extending over the already completed black of his collar.9
1. According to Dr. Eva Leistenschneider, Ulmer Museum.
2. See translation: A.T. Hatto, Tristan, London 1960, p. 200.
3. R. Baldwin, Winter 1986, p. 12.
4. Staatscalerie, Katalog Der Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart 1957, p. 327-9. For images see D. Bosch, Bartholomäus Zeitblom : das künstlerische Werk, Stuttgart 1999, p. 372, fig. 74.
5. See Bosch 1999, p. 359, fig. 40.
6. See Bosch 1999, p. 402, fig. 137.
7. See Bosch 1999, p. 395, fig. 123.
8. See Bosch 1999, p. 400, figs 133 and 134, p. 403, figs. 138 and 139, p. 408, figs 146-49.
9. Infra-red images are available from the department upon request.
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