For discussion of the Kleinerdlingen altarpiece in general, see:
G.F. Waagen, Kunstwerke und Künstler in Deutschland, Leipzig 1843, vol. II, pp. 362-63;
E. Buchner, 'Schäufelein', in Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zum gegenwart, U. Thieme and F. Becker (eds), vol. 29, Leipzig 1935, p. 558;
H. Mahn, 'Beiträge spätgotischen Tafelmalerei in Wörttemberg', in Zeitschreift des deutschen Vereins für Kunstwissenschaft, vol. 9, 1942, p. 184;
R. Baumstark, Deutsche Malerei 15.-19. Jahrhundert aus den Sammlungen des rigierenden Fürsten von Liechtenstein, exh. cat., Vaduz 1979, p. 34, under cat. no. 7;
R. Baumstark, Masterpieces from the collection of the Princes of Liechtenstein, exh. cat., Zürich and Munich 1980, p. 281, under cat. no. 128.
Schäufelein was probably born in Nuremberg in the early 1480s, and was employed in Dürer’s workshop from circa 1503 for around four years, during which time he executed works such as the monumental Passion altarpiece for the Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony and his brother Johann the Steadfast, for the Schlosskirche at Wittenberg – a commission for which Dürer had made the designs, but the execution of which he entrusted to the talented young Schaufelein.1 Schäufelein next went to the studio of Hans Holbein the Elder in Augsburg, where he worked in 1507 to 1508. He journeyed to southern Tyrol between 1508 and 1510 and was back in Augsburg from 1511 until at least 1514, before moving to Nördlingen.
This painting is one of six panels which originally constituted the altarpiece in the church of Saint John the Baptist in Kleinerdlingen.2 It is one of four almost square paintings which formed the center of the retable, one on top of the other (or in two pairs of two as wings of a triptych, with a carved central section), depicting scenes from the childhood of Christ: The Annunciation and The Nativity, along with the two monumental wings depicting Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist (156.5 by 66.2 cm.), still reside in the church of Saint Michael, Holheim (close to Kleinerdlingen), where the altarpiece was moved by at least 1783; the other panel, depicting The Visitation, was removed from the church along with the present work in 1822; the paintings shared the same provenance until the 1906 auction of the Oppolzer collection, when The Visitation was acquired for the Princely Collections of Liechtenstein in Vaduz.3
Metzger notes that some of Schäufelein’s compositions for this altarpiece – the columned interior in which The Annunciation is set, and the architectural ruins in The Nativity and the present scene, for example – may have been inspired by a small altarpiece by Friedrich Herlin (Nördlingen’s previous principal painter), circa 1460, for the chapel of the Kaisheimer Hauses in Tändelmarkt in Nördlingen.4 What the present painting and the other panels from the altarpiece demonstrate above all, however, is Schäufelein’s skill in depicting well-observed details and ability to convey narrative. Here, we observe that the folds and different textures of the figures’ garments, such as Balthasar’s knotted belt, are lovingly rendered; moreover, the scene is brought to life through the touching glances between the figures: Melchior and Balthasar, having respectfully removed his hat, converse on the left, while Caspar carefully observes how the Child receives his gift. By the time Schäufelein set up his workshop in Nördlingen he had developed his distinctive style – characterized by large-scale, relief-like figures, which are defined by soft, painterly modelling in a colorful palette – that is exemplified in this work.
Most scholars have been of the opinion that the Kleinerdlinger altarpiece dates to circa 1518-20 (although Buchner, in 1935, dated them to 1525-32). By comparing stylistic and technical similarities between the underdrawing of The Visitation panel with several of Schäufelein’s graphic works, Maryan Ainsworth has dated the panels to the early 1520s. On the other hand, Christof Metzger believes they probably come from circa 1516, namely before the death of one of the donors, Wilhelm von Bodman, in that year (see note 2). Metzger compares the quality of the painting with Schäufelein’s works from circa 1515, such as the St. Gallen Holy Family, in which the delicately applied glazes, flowing folds of the garments, and soft, rounded faces find analogies in the present panel.5
1. Vienna, Diozesan Museum; see Metzger 2002, pp. 98-103 and 235-44, cat. no. 9, reproduced figs 71-74 and 164-68.
2. The presence of donors and their coats-of-arms in The Annunciation and The Nativity panels indicates that this altarpiece was commissioned by members of the Order of Saint John: two counts from the house of Oettingen (most probably memorial portraits of the brothers Ludwig (1306-28) and Friedrich (1312-19), since no member of the Oettingen family is known to have been a member of the Order in the early 16th century), and Commanders Wilhelm von Bodman (d. 1516), and Hans Eitel von Wernau (in office 1516-40). The donor in the lower left of The Nativity, Commander Konrad von Rosenbach (1602-42), is a 17th-century addition.
3. See Metzger 2002, pp. 126-28 and 396-401, cat. no. 45, reproduced figs 100 and 302-307; the Liechtenstein Visitation panel is reproduced in color, fig. 146 and on the cover of the book.
4. Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe, inv. Nos 2262a and b, 2277 and 2278; see K. Martin, ‘Ein unbekannter Altar von Friedrich Herlin und seine Herkunft’, in Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, no. 3, vol. 2, 1951, pp. 89-104, reproduced.
5. St. Gallen, Depositum der Stiftsbibliothek in der Bischöflichen Kunstsammlung, inv. no. 22; see Metzger 2002, pp. 357-58, cat. no. 36, reproduced fig. 264.
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