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The Master of Messkirch: Catholic Splendour during the Reformation

December 31, 2017

Master of Messkirch, The Adoration of the Magi, detail from the middle panel of the former high altarpiece of St. Martin in Messkirch, c. 1535/40, coniferous wood, 165.7 x 92.8 cm, Messkirch, parish church, © Archbishop’s Ordinariat Freiburg.
Click on image to enlarge

In honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart is devoting a comprehensive monographic exhibition to one of the most important German painters of the early modern period, the Master of Messkirch, featuring nearly 200 loans.  The exhibition is on view through April 2, 2018.

According to the museum’s website:

“The Master of Messkirch” takes his name from his major work: the altarpieces of the collegiate church of St. Martin in Messkirch. To this day, all attempts to connect this anonymous figure with a documented artist active in this region remain hypothetical. Even the most recent suggestions, based on research from the 1930s, associating him with either Joseph Weiss or his brother Marx the Younger fail to completely convince on stylistic grounds, even though these two artists continued the tradition of the Master of Messkirch’s workshop well into the last quarter of the 16th century in Balingen and the Lake Constance region.

Very little reliable evidence survives regarding the Master of Messkirch’s apprenticeship and his travelling years as a journeyman. He probably received his early training in a workshop following the traditions of Ulm. Certain idiosyncrasies of his style identify him as a distant follower of Albrecht Dürer, whose imagery and subjects he probably knew primarily from prints. His work also reflects closer similarities with Dürer’s pupils Hans Schäufelein and Hans Baldung Grien. The Master of Messkirch may even have worked for a time in the latter’s workshop in Freiburg.

Master of Messkirch, Wildensteiner Altar, open condition, 1536, fir and softwood, 64 x 60 cm (center panel), 68.6 x 28.2 cm (left wing), 68.5 x 28.3 cm (right wing) , Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, © Staatsgalerie Stuttgart
Click on image to enlarge

The artist was active as a wall and panel painter in the region around Sigmaringen between approximately 1520 and 1540. The high number of works that survive from this period, and the recognizably varied quality of their workmanship attest to his status as the master of a well-organized workshop employing multiple assistants by the 1530s at the latest.

Master of Messkirch, Saint Benedict as a recluse in prayer, c. 1540, mixed technique, fir wood, 106 x 75 cm, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart

The Large State Exhibition unites the master’s oeuvre for the first time. A reconstruction of the church furnishings of St Martin in Messkirch forms the presentation’s core. The interior of 1535–1540, comprising as many as twelve altars amounted to a stronghold of the Counter-Reformation. The golden grandeur of the Master of Messkirch’s paintings belie the circumstances of their origins in the Reformation time. Along with broadsheetsand woodcuts that served as mediums of the struggle against the papal church, works by Cranach illustrate the Lutheran doctrine.

The so-called Gotha Altarpiece represents a counterpart to the panels by the Messkirch Master. Made up of 160 depictions in all, the monumental winged altarpiece executed for Stuttgart Palace in ca. 1538 is the richest in imagery of any work of Early German painting.

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