Zest for life: the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet (1)

Draughtsman, miniaturist, painter, stained glass designer and above all etcher, yet we know next to nothing about the 15th century artist known by two names: Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet or Master of the Housebook. It is not for want of trying: ever since the first publication on the Master in 1865 scholars have attempted to identify the artist. Several artists have been put forward, most recently the Utrecht painter Erhard Reuwich, but there is not, as yet, enough substance to any claim. The Master appears to have worked in the German Middle Rhine region around Mainz and for part of his career in the direct vicinity of the court of Frederick III, the first Habsburg emperor, but even that is tentative.

Artists lacking an artistic persona pose several problems for art historians since their oeuvre and their stylistic development can only be reconstructed on the basis of attribution. An introduction in two parts: part one will deal with drawings, miniatures, stained glass and paintings; part two with the Master’s etchings, the highlight of his oeuvre.

The Hausbuch

Hausbuch, page with the planet Luna and her Children and accompanying verse

The Master owes one of his names to a unique Hausbuch (Housebook) produced between 1475 and 1490. For whom or where it was produced is not known. The name is somewhat misleading since it is unlike the household manuals and almanacs common in the late Middle Ages; rather, the Hausbuch is a compilation of texts and images, often seemingly unrelated, with sections on mining, military technology, astrology, medicinal recipes (among which one for curing cancer) and other aspects of medieval life including a recipe for walnut cake, an erotic drawing of a garden of love and tournament scenes. Its pages are held together by a soft leather wrapper dating from the 17th century. The lack of a proper binding and title page suggests that the manuscript probably served as a reference that could have been added to and updated.

The most artistically original of the drawings in the manuscript have been attributed to the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet. They illustrate verses on the Planets and their Children, a motif common in, for instance, medieval block books. The Luna drawing (above and detail below) is deemed by many to be the highlight of the series together with those of Sol and Mars.

Luna’s Children, detail, black and white image

According to the accompanying verse, Luna’s children, the children of the moon, are fickle and eccentric (unstet und wunderlich) but also independent. They have round faces, thick lips and are short of stature. They have to beware of the cardinal sins Pride and Sloth. Vagabonds, magicians, hunters and fishermen, millers, seafarers and swimmers (pader) are all ruled by this planet and they are all wittily and energetically depicted by the Master. Details such as the child showing a small ball or marble to his mother and the man with the monkey on his back next to them frightening the dog by blowing his trumpet in its direction are quite catching in their liveliness, originality and humour.

Miniatures

Some scholars believe that the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet was trained as a miniaturist first and foremost, but not many illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Rhine area have been preserved. Today only four illuminations in an Evangeliarium (ca. 1480)in the Cleveland Museum of Art can be attributed to the Master with certainty.

Saint John, Cleveland Gospel, Cleveland Museum of Art

The Evangeliarium contains the texts of the gospels by Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John respectively. The penwork, tracery, vine scrolls, and the illuminated initials are the work of  other artists, but four page-length miniatures depicting the four scribes, all seated at their writing desk, are attributed to the Master. Characteristic for his work is the terraced space for each figure and the emphasis on realistically rendered details such as the furniture construction and the tools of the scribes as well as the facial types with their heavy-lidded, downcast eyes. A banderole or speech scroll with the Evangelists’ names is held by their traditional symbols: the angel, the lion, the bull and the eagle. Again the Master’s sense of humour is in evidence, for instance in the portraits of John and Mark: while John (above) is shown erasing an error in his text with a pen knife, Mark (below), needing two hands to turn a page in his manuscript, has resorted to holding his quill between his teeth.

Saint Mark, Cleveland Gospel, Cleveland Museum of Art

The miniatures are remarkably well-preserved, their colours fresh and lively. Especially in the clothing the evenly applied paint has been carefully modelled with contours and hatching in often complimentary tones and the shadows in the furniture and other details have been rendered with elaborate hatching, reminiscent of the Master’s prints from his middle period as we shall see in the next post.

Stained glass

Virgin of the Apocalpyse, colorless glass, silver stain, and vitreous paint, 13 7/8 x 9 5/8in. (35.2 x 24.4cm). The blue glass is modern. Metropolitan Museum, The Cloisters

Virgin of the Apocalypse, colorless glass, silver stain, and vitreous paint, 13 7/8 x 9 5/8in. (35.2 x 24.4cm). The blue glass is modern. Metropolitan Museum, The Cloisters

ca. 1478-82, Rijksmuseum

ca. 1478-82, Rijksmuseum

Among the few surviving stained glass panes ascribed to the Master, the Virgin of the Apocalypse (ca. 1485-90) is undoubtedly the most enchanting. The similarities between it and the drawings in the Hausbuch as well as its close resemblance to the etchings are numerous. Consider, for instance, the Master’s etching of the same subject: closely related to the stained glass pane are the Child, the Virgin’s facial features, her hair and the deep, angular folds of drapery.

The image on the small stained glass pane is extremely refined. Careful modelling has been applied with a fine brush in gradations that vary from greyish brown to deep black. The shadows on the mantle are built up with various layers of parallel hatchings with the use of a broad and a fine brush; the hatchings in the faces and in the Child’s body are drawn with a fine brush.

These refined techniques indicate that the maker of the stained glass pane must have been a highly accomplished graphic artist and draughtsman but also an experienced stained glass painter, since the end result could only be seen after the drawing had been burned into the glass. Did the Master do all the work himself or did a very experienced stained glass painter carry out his design? Since the small pane is stylistically close to the Master’s mature work, the question whether he executed the work himself is perhaps of minor importance.

Paintings

The attribution of paintings associated with this Master (and possibly his workshop about which we know nothing) is hotly contested. Among the paintings attributed to him, the Passion cycle known as the Speyer Altarpiece (ca. 1480-85) is, to me, the most convincing. Nothing is known about its original location or who commissioned it. The Speyer Altarpiece was named after the German town of Speyer solely because that is where the 19th century owner bought the center panel depicting the Crucifixion. The six surviving panels are today spread over several German museums.

Angel, detail from the Resurrection, Städelisches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main

Angel, detail from the Resurrection, Städelisches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main

The paintings, some of which with golden skies and all with golden halos, are archaic at a time when realistically painted landscapes by Flemish artists like Bouts and Van der Weyden could be seen on altarpieces in Cologne churches since the mid-15th century. In spite of these archaic elements, the Master shows more realism than his Flemish counterparts when it comes to, for instance, the depiction of the soldiers at the tomb. Unlike the Flemish depictions of the subject, in the Spyer Resurrection, Christ has risen from a closed tomb with seals still intact. This recalls early medieval texts which compare this miracle with the Birth of Christ: the seals of the tomb are as undamaged as the “seals” of Mary’s virginity. Since this is a common way of depicting the Resurrection in late medieval German art.

Where the draughtsman and graphic artist manifests himself is, for instance, in draperies such as that of the angel in the Resurrection panel and also in the underdrawings. The latter are, of course, not visible to the naked eye, having been brought to light through infra-red reflectography in the mid-1980s. It appears that the underdrawings are far more detailed than those in German contemporary paintings where they are mostly limited to globally sketched outlines. Sometimes the Master drew drapery folds in great detail using a network of fine hatching as in the underdrawing for Christ’s red cloak in the Resurrection (above). Such underdrawings would have remained visible for a long time and may have functioned as an accurate modelling guideline under the thin red glazing of the paint layer.

How difficult it is to attribute works to an anonymous artist, whether it be drawings, miniatures, stained glass or paintings when it can safely be assumed that over time many of his works were lost. The etchings are a different story since there are more of them although there, too, certain factors contribute to their not having been reproduced in greater quantities as we shall see in the next post.

Notes:

  • The 15th century Hausbuch belonged to the German noble family of Waldburg-Wolfegg from the 17th century until 2008 when they reportedly sold it for €20 million to a Swiss buyer. In 1999 a limited (only 750 numbered copies) facsimile edition was published by Prestel.
  • Infra-red reflectography images are built up out of sequences of small photographic details of a painting that are then mounted to form one image, called a mosaic, rather like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. While IRR mosaics can provide an often surprisingly direct insight into an artist’s working methods, they need to be interpreted with care.
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