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A Rare and Stunning Triptych for Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

December 11, 2018

The Master of Saint Veronica
oil on oak panel
central panel: 70 x 32 cm.; 27 1/2 x 12 1/2 in.
two wings, each: 70 x 16 cm.; 27 1/2 x 6 1/4 in.
Click on image to enlarge

An exquisite triptych from c. 1410, called “one of the finest examples of early German Gothic art still in private hands” was acquired by Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen at Sotheby’s December 5, 2018 Old Master Painting sale in London, according to the museum’s press release. The painting by the Master of Saint Veronica, Lot 6 in the sale, sold for a hammer price of £1.3 million (£1.57 million with fees-slightly more than $2 million), against a pre-sale estimate of £1.2-1.8 million. The museum’s release states that the acquisition was made possible by “a generous donation from the Rembrandt Association, Mondriaan Fund, the BankGiro Lottery, the Stichting Bevordering van Volkskracht, the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds (also thanks to the Breeman Talle Fund), the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Foundation and a number of private donations.”

The painting had been featured in the museum’s 2012 exhibition “The Road to Van Eyck” and had been high on exhibition curator Friso Lammertse’s acquisition list, who notes: “The painting shows in an incredibly beautiful way the elegance and refinement that is so typical of International Gothic. It is a key piece of this period, deeply moving, especially because of the sweetness in the central panel that contrasts strongly with the scene on the outside where a lonely Christ carries the cross.”

The Sotheby’s catalogue entry states:

This beautiful and intensely personal triptych was painted in Cologne around 1410. It is one of the earliest and most complete surviving works of art of its type, and certainly one of the finest examples of early German Gothic art still in private hands. In its refinement and exquisite detail it exemplifies the contemporary taste for beautiful courtly works of a small scale. Although the precise identity of its creator has not yet convincingly been determined, the Master of Saint Veronica was undoubtedly the most important of the painters who introduced this International Court style to Cologne at the beginning of the fifteenth century, thus laying the foundations for the Cologne school under the great Stefan Lochner a generation later.

The triptych, still intact, has the format of a portable altar, the inside panels framed, the reverse sides unframed for ease of transport. When closed the triptych shows a remarkably stark image of Christ on the path to Calvary. With the wings open, the central panel depicts the Virgin and Christ Child seated in a meadow, surrounded by six saints.

Detail showing the Madonna and Child with God the Father looking over.

Unusually, in this representation, Mary is both the Virgin of Humility – seated on the ground – and the Queen of Heaven, encircled by a host of angels with God the Father at the summit. The Virgin in the central panel is set against a gilded mandorla that dominates the painting. Her halo is particularly fine, and within it her crown decorated with pearls and jewels. The mandorla’s highly decorative quality is emphasised by intricate punch work of lines that radiate from a second halo. Brocade robes and decorative embellishments abound, particularly in the figures of the female saints, who are seated around her and all bear their traditional attributes. The four female saints are from left to right: Saint Barbara, holding a model of the tower in which she was incarcerated; Saint Christina of Bolsena, with one of the instruments of her torture; Saint Catherine, beside the wheel to which she was bound and the sword of her execution; and Mary Magdalen, her ointment jar held delicately between her fingers. The names of the two more prominent saints are spelt out in pearls on their crowns. Behind this quartet are Saint John the Evangelist and Saint John the Baptist.

When open, the wings depict four scenes from the Passion, chosen deliberately to emphasise, on the left, Christ’s suffering, and on the right, his Resurrection. The Crowning with Thorns is surmounted by The Crucifixion; and, on the opposite side, The Resurrection is painted below The Ascension. The attributes of the male saints in the centre panel would seem to underscore this distinction between Christ’s mortality and his divinity. Saint John the Evangelist holds the chalice with its Eucharistic associations, while Saint John’s lamb is emblematic of Christ’s role as redeemer. The gesture of the Christ Child grasping the golden pearls of his mother’s rosary is at the centre of the painting and is emblematic of atonement. The iconographical intent behind this selection of Passion scenes and Saints would seem to be intensely personal, and may very well have been the specific choice of the patron for whom the triptych was painted. The penitential message of the altarpiece offers a message of both hope and salvation and thus echoes the writings of Thomas à Kempis, who encouraged his followers to ‘assume your cross and follow in Jesu’s footsteps, and you shall enter Eternal Life!’.

This exceptionally rare work is unanimously attributed to the Master of Saint Veronica. Almost nothing is known about the artist, only that he worked in Cologne in the early years of the fifteenth century. Although some attempts have been made to identify him with recorded Cologne masters, such as Herman de Cologne (fl. 1389–1417) or Herman Wynrich von Wesel (d. c. 1413) none has been successful. His name derives from a painting showing Saint Veronica holding the sudarium, originally displayed in the church of Saint Severin in Cologne and now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich. His work is distinguished by the singular characteristics of the physiognomy of his Saints with their demure, sloping, heavy-lidded eyes and pursed lips, and with the rich colours and decorative patterns of his designs. It has been suggested that he may have worked for a period as an apprentice in the workshop of Conrad von Soest (1370–1422) in Dortmund in Westphalia, for not only do the two artists share several distinctive facial features in their figures but they even have in common some aspects of their workshop practice such as punch marks. From Conrad von Soest it is thought that the Master of Saint Veronica may have introduced the colours ultramarine and lead tin yellow into German practice at this date. The scenes of the Crowning of Thorns, The Resurrection and The Ascension in the present work are derived from compositions of the analogous scenes in von Soest’s Niederwildungen Altarpiece of 1403, now in the Stadtkirche of Bad Wildungen.

This painting shares a number of features with other works attributed to the artist. The facial features of the Saints recall those of the small angels in the Master’s aforementioned eponymous panel in Munich. The scene of the Crowning with Thorns on the left wing adopts the tiled and chequered floor that we see in the same picture. The Master of Saint Veronica uses this device to give a strong sense of spatial recession, a practice rarely explored in this decorative style. The range of colours in the present work, particular the reds and warm pinks, bear close comparison with the Master of Saint Veronica’s Calvary today at the Wallraf Richartz Museum in Cologne (fig. 2).5 The scene on the wing of the triptych omits the throng around the Crucifix and instead centres on the figure of Christ. In pose and rendering, the treatment of the figure bears a strong similarity to the Cologne Calvary. In the present picture, it is particularly worth noting the thoughtful attention given to the gesture of the Virgin, who is shown holding the edge of her headdress as if about to dry her tears.

Master of Saint Veronica
German, active c. 1395/1420
The Crucifixion
c. 1400/1410
tempera on panel
overall (design area): 40.7 x 25.2 cm (16 x 9 15/16 in.)
support: 46.2 x 31.1 cm (18 3/16 x 12 1/4 in.)
framed: 58.1 x 43.8 x 4.4 cm (22 7/8 x 17 1/4 x 1 3/4 in.)
Samuel H. Kress Collection
Click on image to enlarge.

A similar figure occurs in the artist’s Crucifixion today at the National Gallery of Art, Washington (above). The same air of tender devotion in which the relationship between the Virgin and Child is explored with particular charm occurs in another triptych, the so called Virgin with the Sweet-pea Blossom in Cologne.

Although the Master of Saint Veronica was probably not a native of Cologne, his style and its courtly idiom was clearly perfectly in accord with the aspirations of the patrician classes in a city that had only recently entered a period of peace and stability. His works embodied the International Courtly Style that was elegant and worldly on the surface but was also able to convey the solemnity of its religious content. In the early 1400s Cologne society was concerned with displays of wealth and rank, spectacles of chivalry and the splendour of their churches. They were just as preoccupied with death, eternal punishment and the hope of salvation. Commissions of religious works of art such as this important triptych reconciled the conflicting concerns of profanity and penitence. The Master’s ductile handling of oil paint, the delicacy of his colouring and his softly modelled forms, all of which are exquisitely displayed in the present work, answered this need for a hugely decorative and chivalric style that nevertheless answered the spiritual conscience of the newly wealthy.

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