PROPERTY FROM A EUROPEAN PRIVATE COLLECTION
Their sale, Vienna, Kunstsalon Pisko, 11 November 1907, lot 77 (as German School, 16th century, entitled 'The Adoration of the Christ Child'), to Berger;
Dr Berger, Vienna [?];
Princess Hilda Schwarzenberg (1897–1979);
By whom returned to Dr Berger, United States, after 1945;
Thence by descent until acquired in 1995 by the late mother of the present owners.
E. Ullmann, 'Lucas Cranach D. Ä., Die Verlobung der Heiligen Katharina von Alexandria', in Acta Historiae Artium Scientiarum Hungaricae, vol. 34, Budapest 1989, pp. 81–85, reproduced p. 83, fig. 2 (incorrectly identified as the Dessau painting), and p. 84, fig. 3 (as datable to 1512/13).
The scene depicted in this small, devotional panel is an amalgamation of two iconographic traditions, both of which originate from medieval mystical philosophy. The first is the Virgo inter virgines, particularly popular in German and Netherlandish art of the time – the Virgin surrounded by the four most highly venerated female, virgin saints: Catherine, Barbara, Margaret and Dorothea (sometimes excluding this last figure). They are each identifiable here by their attributes: Catherine kneels on part of a spiked wheel and holds a sword; an unusual, bird-headed dragon appears behind Margaret on the left; Barbara sits before a tower; and Dorothea is shown holding a small basket of flowers, which had miraculously filled her headdress before she was martyred. The Virgin is positioned at the centre of this courtly group, who gather round her like the ladies-in-waiting of a heavenly entourage.
Most popular among the capital virgins was Saint Catherine of Alexandria, whose legend developed its own visual lexicon. The beautiful and highly intelligent daughter of a king, Catherine would only accept a husband who was her equal, and consequently rejected all her suitors. Learning that Christ was the only man to fulfil her criteria, upon being baptised Catherine had a vision in which He appeared and placed a ring on her finger as a symbol of marriage.
Depicting these two subjects simultaneously clearly presented the challenge of integrating the virgin saints with the defined group of the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Cranach explored the notion differently in each of his three paintings, of which the present panel is by far the smallest. The earliest work is that in the Anhaltische Gemäldegalerie, Dessau, which is dated 1516 and signed with the serpent.1 It is on a large scale and shows the Mystic Marriage frieze-like in the foreground, with the Virgin and Child on the left, Catherine on the right. Dorothea kneels behind the centre of the group and the other martyrs stand to the side, Barbara looking directly out at the viewer.
The other painting, in the Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, is also datable to 1516–18, signed with the serpent on Saint Catherine’s wheel, of smaller dimensions than the Dessau picture (fig. 1).2 The design of that work evidently formed the basis for the present composition, but differs markedly in its addition of the Cloth of Honour, which descends diagonally from the upper left corner, held up by incrementally receding angels, silhouetting Margaret on the left, and Catherine and the Virgin and Child in the centre, all three slightly larger than the other saints. A related drawing of the same subject, also including a Cloth of Honour, is in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg.3
The composition of the present work is more concentrated, and the virgin martyrs all on a more equal scale than the Budapest painting. The tree trunk behind the Virgin emphasises her centrality and relative monumentality. And while the disposition of the saints is comparable to those in the Budapest painting, their poses differ, forming a more symmetrical arrangement. Margaret leans forward in reverence to the Child, balancing Dorothea’s attitude, and in the foreground Barbara is seated, rather than standing before her tower, her outstretched hand, offering the Child a pear, mirroring Catherine’s. The reflection of their poses is also notable in light of the fact that Barbara is shown wearing a gold brocade dress almost identical to Catherine’s in the Budapest picture. And while Catherine here wears a dark dress, her facial type is also the same as that in the Budapest work.
Dr Gunnar Heydenreich, to whom we are grateful for his assistance in the cataloguing of this lot, dates the painting to circa 1520, not least due to his analysis of the panel construction. His research has shown that from around 1515 Cranach's panelmaker applied fibres in several strips to the front of the panel across the grain, as in the Dessau and Budapest panels. The present panel is also covered with fibres, but here they are applied along the join of the boards, a practice that was only introduced around the end of the decade (according to dated panels). A date of circa 1520 situates this painting within the context of Cranach's workshop at a time of its greatest productivity. This inevitably led to his delegating parts of his paintings to his assistants, and Dr Heydenreich sees this participation in certain areas of the present work, namely the masonry of the tower, parts of the landscape background, and in the less finely-wrought details of some of the saints’ hair.4
As with other works of this date, infrared-reflectography clearly reveals the hand of the master (fig. 2). The freely-executed underdrawing, with visible amendments, shows how Cranach’s thought process was worked out directly on the priming layer itself, without a preparatory draft. It is entirely typical of Cranach’s practice and directly comparable with the underdrawing of the Budapest panel. The rapid yet detailed execution of Catherine’s head, for example, is almost identical to that in the Budapest underdrawing, the curls of the hair shaped distinctively, along with the short, confident strokes that define the eyes and nostrils, the slightly hooked lines for the eyebrows, and the sequence of loops denoting her necklace.
There are also several changes between the underdrawing and the painting itself, most notably in the upper half of Barbara’s dress, which in the underdrawing includes a wide belt, slashed shoulders, and a lower neckline. These details, along with a choker and pendant that is visible in the design, have been omitted, and she is shown instead wearing a high-collared silk shirt. The drawing indicates even more obviously that the figure of Barbara was based on a model for Saint Catherine, with all her habitual accessories, but was adapted during the painting process. The infrared image also shows how in the initial design Dorothea was positioned in front of the tower, so the folds of her dress extended before it and around Barbara’s silhouette, just like the figures of Margaret and Catherine on the left. The few loose strokes suggesting the forms of the landscape in the underdrawing have been carefully modelled and rendered in some detail in the painting, particularly the town on the hill, upper left. And the tree trunk, the bark of which is described graphically, is covered with moss, applied with the dry bristles of a brush.
1 Oil on limewood panel, 119 x 97 cm.; see Friedländer and Rosenberg 1978, p. 86, cat. no. 85, reproduced fig. 85.
2 At least two workshop versions of this composition exist: one offered Berlin, Paul Graupe, 10 December 1932, lot 28; the other sold London, Christie's, 6 July 2017, lot 9.
3 Inv. no. OP-15388; see M. Pavlovna Garlova, Kranachi: mezdi Renessansom i Man'erizmom / The Cranachs. Between the Renaissance and Mannerism, exh. cat., Saint Petersburg 2016, p. 258, cat. no. 84, reproduced p. 259.
4 In written correspondence from 2008, Dieter Koepplin and Ingo Sandner also accord with this view.
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