Sassetta: the quest for an altarpiece – (1) The road to Borgo

Sassetta, detail of the Funeral of St Francis, panel from Borgo San Sepolcro altarpiece, 1437-1444, National Gallery, London

Sassetta, detail of the Funeral of St Francis, panel from Borgo San Sepolcro altarpiece, 1437-1444, National Gallery, London

It must have been a strange procession that wound its way from Siena to the town of Borgo San Sepolcro in the late Spring of 1444. The renowned Sienese painter Stefano di Giovanni (ca. 1392-1450), known as Sassetta, the carpenter who had crafted the frame and perhaps Sassetta’s close colleague Pietro Giovanni d’Ambrogio with other assistants arrived in Borgo with the enormous polyptych commissioned by the Franciscans of the convent of San Francesco seven years earlier. The altarpiece would have been transported in separate units: its predella, main tier, pilasters and pinnacles would be assembled on the spot. The men would also have brought with them dowels, iron devices, nails and tools for the carpenter (in all likelihood the one responsible for constructing the altarpiece’s frame back in Siena) to install the painted structure on the high altar. Sassetta had come not only to oversee the installation but also, if necessary, to repair any paintwork that may have sustained damage during transportation.

Anonymous painter, 16th century, with view of Sansepolcro, Museo Civico, Sansepolco

Anonymous painter, 16th century, panel with view of Sansepolcro, Museo Civico, Sansepolco

On June 2nd Sassetta’s polyptych was installed on San Francesco’s high altar which had been erected exactly 140 years earlier to commemorate Blessed Ranieri, a local Franciscan friar. The townspeople would have flocked to the church to see the new altarpiece. It had come from afar: the more usual practice was to erect structures on altars to be painted in situ, but on this occasion the first time the people of Borgo laid eyes on Sassetta’s majestic polyptych was in its finished and mounted form on the altar. Among the eager viewers were the young Piero della Francesca, a native of the town, and his master Antonio di Giovanni d’Anghiari. The two had failed to complete the altarpiece commissioned from them for the same church which was now replaced by Sassetta’s polyptych.

Church of San Francesco, Sansepolcro, photo MD 2011

Church of San Francesco, Sansepolcro, photo MD 2011

The installation of Sassetta’s altarpiece is uniquely recorded by Ser Francesco de’Larghi, notary and chancellor of the town, who, among the customary dry notarial acts recording sales, receipts and testaments, noted:

On the second day of the month of June [1444], which was the third day of Pentecost, the altarpiece painted and decorated by Stefano of Siena was placed on the high altar of the Church of San Francesco in Borgo. Benedictus Deus.

The polyptych stood on the altar of San Francesco for over a century. During the Counter-Reformation the altarpiece was dismantled but several panels still remained in the church, mounted on other altars as recorded by Apostolic Vicar Angelo Peruzzi who visited the church in 1583 and noted a “beautiful picture with beautiful framework” on one of its altars.

The cult of Blessed Ranieri and the Franciscans of Borgo San Sepolcro

Ranieri's corpse laid out in front of the high altar, 1954

Ranieri’s “incorrupt”corpse laid out in front of the high altar of San Francesco in 1954 on the 650th anniversary of his death

On 1 November 1304, Ranieri, a local man who was a lay brother of the Franciscan order in Borgo San Sepolcro (today: Sansepolcro) died. Nothing is known about his life other than his name, the date of his death and one or two miracles said to have taken place during his lifetime as recorded in a 1532 religious play about the friar. Probably from a poor background Ranieri would not have had a last name although in later times the family name “Rasini” came in use, however without historic foundation. It was not until after Ranieri’s death, in fact the very next day, that miracles started to occur in rapid succession, first through direct physical contact with the friar’s corpse and later by physical contact with his casket or by praying for his intervention. The Liber Miracolorum, recording testimonies of those Borgo citizens who had sought and found healing through Ranieri, survives in two manuscripts, the oldest dating from the 14th century. As many as sixty miracles are recorded for the period from his death on 1 November 1304 until April of the next year.

In Borgo San Sepolcro the climate was ripe for a local cult such as that of the Blessed Ranieri. The founding of a Franciscan convent with its church, the emergence of other confraternities as a focus for lay devotion and charity and the winning of self-government by the secular elite made that new saints were required: holy men and women who were local, therefore approachable, unburdened by high ecclesiastical office, contemporary, and who would be role models for the people. Ranieri fitted that bill exactly.

Detached fresco from San Francesco by a local anonymous artist depicting Saint Anthony Abbot, Madonna Lactans, Christ enthroned and a Franciscan Saint presenting a female donor figure, late 14th century, 215x263 cm, Museo Civico, Sansepolcro. Photo MD, 2011

Detached fresco from the church of San Francesco by a local anonymous artist depicting Saint Anthony Abbot, Madonna Lactans, Christ enthroned and a Franciscan Saint presenting a female donor figure, late 14th century, 215×263 cm, Museo Civico, Sansepolcro. Photo MD, 2011

Towards the end of that same year, 1304, the first step was taken to propagate Ranieri’s cult: a high altar dedicated to his memory. In view of the new climate described above it is important to remember that not the Franciscans but the commune commissioned the altar. It still stands in the church today and the crypt where Ranieri rests, now in a 16th century wooden sarcophagus, is also still largely intact but in all other respects the early gothic church interior is unrecognisable today, having been rebuilt between 1752 and 1760. Only very few original architectural elements survive and the frescos that once adorned the walls, those that survived, were detached and are now on display in the Museo Civico close to the church, as are the church’s carved choir stalls with intarsia panels dating from around 1495.

High altar, church of San Francesco, Sansepolcro, 1304

High altar, church of San Francesco, Sansepolcro, 1304

San Francesco’s high altar is of dark-gray sandstone or pietra serena. It consists of an immense monolith measuring 181 x 342.5 cm which rests on a block carved with large, rectangular rosette reliefs, surrounded by an arcade consisting of colonnettes, the majority of which with a rich variety of twisting designs. In its design it followed the Franciscan typology, modeled ultimately on the high altar of the Lower Church of San Francesco in Assisi which was consecrated in 1253.

San Francesco, Assisi, high altar of the Lower Church (Basilica Inferiore), consecrated 1253

San Francesco, Assisi, high altar of the Lower Church (Basilica Inferiore), consecrated 1253

The inscription on the front of Borgo’s altar’s mensa is unique among surviving Franciscan high altars and testifies to the close links between the friars and the local community:

In the year of our Lord 1304 on the Feast of All Saints, Saint Ranieri migrated to the Lord. In that year the commune of Borgo commissioned this altar to the honour of God and the magnificence of the said saint. Amen.

Once Ranieri had been laid to rest in the crypt below the presbytery, the worshippers could see his tomb from all sides through grids in the altar steps as is still possible today, again a similar situation as once existed in Assisi.

The presbytery of San Francesco today with the high altar and grills in the altar steps

The presbytery of San Francesco today with the high altar and grids in the altar steps

Precedents and empty altarpieces

In 1426 the carpenter Bartolomeo di Giovannino d’Angelo was commissioned to construct a frame following the model of Sienese artist Niccolò di Segna’s altarpiece of 1340-50 in the church of the Camaldolese order (today’s cathedral) with the difference that the altarpiece for San Francesco should be prepared for painting on both sides.

Niccolò di Segna, c. 1350, Duomo Sansepolcro

Niccolò di Segna, c. 1340-50, tempera and gold on panel, 374.5 cm wide, Duomo, Sansepolcro

Giovanni del Biondo, Rinuccini Polyptych, Florence, S. Croce, detail showing buttress

Giovanni del Biondo, Rinuccini Polyptych, Florence, S. Croce, detail showing buttress

Di Segna’s monumental altarpiece consists of a large panel with a depiction of the Resurrection in the center and four panels showing saints in three-quarter length on the sides. The panels are all the same height and have trapezoidal tops, but the central panel was twice as wide as the side panels. The original slender, rectangular, gilt pilasters adorned with blue paint survive with those framing the central scene are slightly thicker than those at the sides. In the upper tier, which was painted on the same planks of wood as the main section are depictions of pairs of saints under double arches. The altarpiece would have been wider than the altar on which it stood and framed on the sides by vertical buttresses, necessary to distribute the weight of such a large altarpiece. In addition, such buttresses provided space for the representation of a large number of additional saints. The existence of similar buttresses for the San Francesco altarpiece is confirmed in the commission of 1426 and the documents of 1439: the carpenter was to use a piece of iron “to sustain the necessary columns”.

When Antonio d’Anghiari was commissioned to paint the double-sided altarpiece for San Francesco in 1430, the wooden structure had already stood empty on the high altar for four years. Work still did not begin until two years later when Antonio, with the young Piero della Francesca as his assistant, started to prepare the front face. But they never actually seem to have begun painting and Antonio eventually lost the commission, perhaps because he had not been able to complete the work in the required time-span of three and a half years. He seems to have suffered from chronic poverty and may not have been able to pay the expenses of the altarpiece: the gold and pigments, among which the expensive azurite stipulated in the contract. Due to his financial distress he may also have taken on various other jobs such as repair work which meant that any progress (if at all) on the altarpiece was slow. It seems to have been left to young Piero, then about 15 years old, to gesso (ground with gypsum) the wooden structure installed on the high altar, a time-consuming and laborious task.

Anonymous fresco, ...., Sant'Andrea, Siena

Anonymous fresco, trompe l’oeil of a wooden polyptych, 1370s, Sant’Andrea, Siena

It should be noted that it was by no means unusual for a wooden structure to stand on an altar unpainted for a long period. An illustration of this phenomenon is a fresco in the church of Sant’Andrea, Siena, showing bare wood with no figures. To assume that this fresco is unfinished is not correct: it merely reflects a reality found in several Italian churches of the period. In one case, in Rome, it took as much as twelve years until a painter was commissioned to paint a bare wooden structure standing on a high altar. Possible reasons for this phenomenon could be that the patrons, after paying for the carpentry, needed ample time to gather enough funds to hire a painter. Often such funding was co-dependent on private donations and the sale of properties or land. In the case of the Franciscans in Borgo the process, due to its exceptional circumstances, would even take eighteen years from the initial carpentry commission in 1426 to the installation of the altarpiece in 1444.

Choosing Sassetta

Why, after D’Angiari’s and Piero’s failed enterprise, did the friars of Borgo turn to Siena and in particular to Sassetta? For one thing, Sienese artists such as Taddeo di Bartolo and Niccolò di Segna had, in the previous century, worked frequently on distant commissions as the latter’s altarpiece for the abbey and another, now lost, altarpiece for Borgo attested so that there would have been a predilection for Sienese art in Borgo. They may have known his work from Borgo citizens traveling to Siena or from works in nearby Cortona where the painter was born. Another factor may have been the painter’s association with Bernardino from Siena, the Franciscan order’s most celebrated preacher. As Machtelt Israëls suggests, Sassetta very likely painted a large Assumption of the Virgin for the Osservanza convent church in Siena in the 1430s (previously thought to post-date the Borgo altarpiece) while the celebrated and influential Franciscan preacher Bernardino was in residence.

Sassetta, Assumption of the Virgin surrounded by agnels, mid-1430s, tempera and gold on panel, 332x224 cm. Formerly Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin (destroyed in 1945)

Sassetta, Assumption of the Virgin surrounded by angels, mid-1430s, tempera and gold on panel, 332×224 cm. Formerly Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin (destroyed in 1945)

It is, however, not likely that Bernardino himself had anything to do with a Franciscan commission for a small conventual convent in the back waters at Borgo San Sepolcro although his association with the painter may have helped: any control of the subject matter and the execution of the altarpiece was after all the responsibility of the Borgo convent as its commissioner. Certainly, by commissioning the Sienese painter who was then at the height of his artistic powers, conveys the ambitions of the Franciscans of Borgo and possibly a conscious intent to compete with and even outshine the older altarpiece in the town’s abbey.

What made Sassetta especially suitable for this ambitious undertaking was his ability to translate spirituality into intimate imagery, something that would have appealed especially to the Franciscans: colour pitched to the subtlest intensity, figures that are almost flimsy, almost naive, set in fluid, intricate architecture. He had also proved that he was immensely versatile and could adapt his style when a commission demanded it. His Wool Guild (Arte della Lana) altarpiece (1423-25) was an ingeniously movable, highly elaborate gothic altarpiece used by the guild for its outdoor celebration of the Feast of Corpus Domini and otherwise stored in the guild’s palazzo. Although today only a few fragments survive, these are indicative of Sassetta’s artistic ambition and the stylistic and aesthetic aims he sought to achieve.

Sassetta’s art is unmistakably Sienese in its mysticism and refinement rather than analytical such as Florentine art of the period. He made constant reference to his great Trecento predecessors such as Duccio, Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti but he did so in such a way that it emphasised his “modernity” at the same time: his heightened flat colours and abstracted space are closer, perhaps, to Bonnard and Matisse than Masaccio. His indebtedness to Pietro Lorenzetti’s altarpiece for the Carmine in Siena of a century earlier is evident in the astonishingly complex architecture of the Wool Guild panels. Although these do not yet demonstrate a full understanding of perspective, the interiors are completely coherent and innovative.

Sassetta, predella panel of the Arte della Lana altarpiece: St Thomas Aquinas at prayer, 1423-25, tempera and gold on panel, 24x30 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Sassetta, predella panel of the Arte della Lana altarpiece: St Thomas Aquinas at prayer, 1423-25, tempera and gold on panel, 24×30 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

For instance, in the scene depicting Saint Thomas Aquinas at prayer, the figure of the Saint kneeling in front of an altar surmounted by a splendid polyptych is minimal; nothing more than a black pedestal surmounted by a haloed egg. The real emotional vehicle is the spatial setting which juxtaposes interior and exterior, inviting us out into the cloister garden with its fountain as well as deep into the monastic library with its terraced rows of desks lit by stained glass windows. All is precisely and independently envisioned and subtly illustrative of the Saint’s monastic life. Only when we notice the grey dove of the Holy Spirit descending does this space take on full significance. Aquinas’ writings provided the foundation of the liturgy of Corpus Christi and here, kneeling before the altarpiece of the Virgin, he receives divine inspiration. The natural beauty, the waters of the well, the books on their reading desks: on all this Thomas has turned his back to embrace instead devotional solitude.

Sassetta, Madonna della Neve, 1430-32, tempera on panel, 240×216 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The frame of Sassetta’s Madonna della Neve (Madonna of the Snow) altarpiece for a chapel in Siena’s Duomo (1430-2) has survived intact so that it is possible to understand Sassetta’s ingenuity and use of historical reference. The main picture plane brings together the Virgin and Child, angels and saints in a unified space marked off by a patterned carpet. This unity is emphasised by the poses, gestures and positions of the figures, while the upper part of the altarpiece harks back to the tripartite divisions of a Gothic polyptych and is framed accordingly. As for the frame itself, Sassetta introduced a unique cassetta-type moulding which frames the bottom and continues to four-fifths up the sides to fit it into its shallow niche in the Duomo.

Upper panel of Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1433–35, Tempera and gold on panel, 21.6x29.8 cm, Metropolitan Museum

Upper panel of Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1433–35,
Tempera and gold on panel, 21.6×29.8 cm, Metropolitan Museum

In his Adoration of the Magi (c. 1435), a painting that was sadly cut in two, the upper part shows a concentrated attention to landscape we will see again in the Borgo San Sepolcro polyptych. The cavalcade depicted here is typical of the international Gothic courtly style reminiscent of Gentile da Fabriano, whose majestic Adoration of the Magi in Florence Sassetta may have seen there, and who he must have met when Gentile visited Siena. Everyone in Sassetta’s procession is decked out in the most extravagant contemporary court dress and the two magpies are, as are the two tall birds on the crown of the hill diagonally opposite, beautifully observed. Yet all this finery moves through a wonderfully still and sparse winter landscape, among bare trees. The riders, led by the star suspended against the white hill, pick their way along a path of bright stones and pass the pink gate of Jerusalem – unmistakably Siena’s Porta Camollia with the tower raising above.

Sassetta’s challenges

When Sassetta accepted the commission for the San Francesco altarpiece in Borgo, the challenge the painter faced was two-fold: not only was he facing the architectural constraints imposed by the wooden structure on the altar which, his contract stipulates, he was to follow, but he also needed to find a visual equivalent for the “poetics of Franciscan spirituality” (as Keith Christiansen called it) within the constraints of the iconographic programme.

Sassetta’s professionalism asserted itself immediately when he refused to accept the existing wooden structure and insisted on having a replica made in Siena where he would have the necessary facilities in his workshop. None of the documents relating to the altarpiece suggest substantial alterations of the 1426 structure which he must have followed closely. It is therefore the original carpenter who may be credited with combining two different traditional altar types: a tall gothic polyptych and a 13th century Umbrian vita-retable. For the front, as stipulated in the contract, Di Segna’s altarpiece was taken as a model while for the back possibly an earlier dossal format was adapted, an early version of which is still preserved in Assisi, consisting of double narrative tiers in each lateral panel so that biographical episodes flank the figure of Saint Francis.

The first, simple vita or dossal retables, were adapted to existing altar widths. It is the subsequent rapid growth in height, and therefore of overall size and width that required support systems such as buttresses anchored in the pavement at each side of an altar. The earliest example of a buttressed altarpiece, and also a prime example of a later complex dossal retable was extremely well-known to Sassetta: Duccio’s Maestà in Siena’s Duomo.

Buttresses were initially an architectural device, invented by gothic architects to permit them to construct buildings of soaring heights. In the same way the buttressed altarpiece permitted much loftier compositions. At the height of this development, the great gothic altarpiece essentially resembled gothic cathedrals. In the same way the internal structural organisation of the polyptych frame came to resemble church architecture itself. The most eloquent surviving example in stone of this phenomenon is the marble polyptych on the high altar of San Francesco, Bologna: a veritable church within a church.

Pierpaolo and Jacobello della Masegne, high altar ensemble, 1388-1392, marble, approx. 521 cm wide, San Francesco, Bologna

Pierpaolo and Jacobello della Masegne, high altar, 1388-1392, marble, approx. 521 cm wide, San Francesco, Bologna

Sassetta who, as we have seen, was a master at adapting his style when a commission’s constraints demanded it, while harking back to revered older models, nevertheless asserted his “modernity” in the Borgo polyptych by adding Sienese refinement in its visual language and by applying richly gilded pastiglia (raised decorative patterns applied to wooden moldings) and polychromy to the framework. Emulating his great predecessors, Sassetta achieved a near-miraculous technical and artistic unity for his double-sided altarpiece, thereby rising triumphantly to the challenges of iconographic and structural constraint.

It is all the more deplorable that the frame for Sassetta’s double-sided altarpiece has suffered the fate of many altarpiece frames and has not survived. Reconstructions based upon the 1439 iconographic programme (the scripta) and the surviving twenty-seven (out of sixty) panels, give an indication of what it must have looked like in its mounted form on the altar of San Francesco. In the next post a closer look at the scripta and how Sassetta artistically interpreted the prescribed iconography as well as a discussion of some aspects of Sassetta’s painting technique.

Selected sources

  1. Enzo Carli: “Sassetta’s Borgo San Sepolcro Altarpiece”, The Burlington Magazine, 1951
  2. C. Gardner von Teuffel, “The Buttressed Altarpiece: a forgotten aspect of Tuscan fourteenth century altarpiece design”, Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, 1979
  3. Keith Christiansen et al, Painting in Renaissance Siena: 1420-1500, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988
  4. Henk van Os, Sienese Altarpieces 1215-1460, Groningen, 1988 and 1990
  5. Donal Cooper, “Franciscan Choir Enclosures and the Function of Double-Sided Altarpieces in Pre-Tridentine Umbria”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 2001
  6. James Banker, The Culture of San Sepolcro during the Youth of Piero della Francesca, University of Michigan, 2003
  7. David Franklin, “A Contract Drawing for the Church of S. Francesco in Sansepolcro”, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, 2004
  8. Machtelt Israëls, Sassetta’s Madonna della Neve, Leiden, 2003
  9. Machtelt Israëls et al, Sassetta, the Borgo San Sepolcro Altapiece, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence, Leiden, 2009

Zest for life: The Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet (2) – the prints

Apart from a few woodcuts ascribed to him (although far from unanimously) the surviving prints by the 15th century Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet are executed in drypoint. They are tentatively dated between 1470 and 1490. The 91 prints known today, of which 78 are listed as unique impressions, formed part of the collection of Pieter Cornelis, Baron van Leyden (1717-1788). Nothing is known about their provenance prior to the 18th century. Today, 82 prints are held by the Rijksmuseum which is why, in spite of the likely German origins of the Master, he is also known as the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet.

Drypoint technique – advantages and limitations

1. Blades of grass, detail from “Fighting Peasants”, Rijksmuseum

The Master in all probability used a soft metal plate such as tin which allows the burin to be more easily and sketchily pushed through the plate’s surface. The burin digs a furrow in the plate turning up curls of metal on either side of the engraved furrow. These curls, known as the burr, hold a quantity of ink and create a rich velvety or blurred effect when printed (fig 1). The burr wears away after only a few impressions which could be the reason why so few of the Master’s prints have survived and so many of those exist as unique impressions.

Early prints

The Master’s early prints are characterised by their small size. Lines are rather hesitantly drawn and the images show simple compositions that are mostly restricted to one or two figures. The prints are nevertheless surprisingly original as shown in three small prints depicting children at play, two of which are illustrated below (figs 2 and 3).

With great tenderness and humour the Master depicts the toddlers as they discover the world around them. Standing on your head, trying to get up while holding a toy, crossing your legs; the first experiences of a small child. They may have served as models for marginalia in illuminated manuscripts which seems to be corroborated by their small size. An example would be a delightful depiction in the Hours of Catherine of Cleves of the Christ Child and St John playing together as children (fig 4).

4. Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, ca. 1440, Pierpont Morgan Library

Stylistic developments

The Master’s style evolved from its hesitant beginnings into a style showing a larger format and more careful hatchings. One of his most surprising and original prints is that of a young hunting dog scratching himself (fig 5). Again, the only parallel would be marginalia where such free and playful images are often found, although the print’s relatively large format indicates that the image probably did not serve as a model for a miniaturist. It is a strikingly realistic portrayal: the dog is so well observed, his fur and his pose so convincingly rendered that there can be little doubt that the Master depicted him from life. Only years later, when Albrecht Dürer began to draw animals, do we find such detailed and natural depictions.

5. Unique impression (ca. 1475), 11.3 x 11.2 cm, Rijksmuseum.

Saint Martin on horseback (fig 6) can also be placed within the artist’s middle period. Certain similarities in clothing and in the way the cross-hatchings have been executed indicate that the Master could have been familiar with Martin Schongauer’s slightly earlier version (fig 7). In Schongauer’s print the saint shares his mantle with a beggar who functions as an attribute of the Saint rather than as a participant in the drama. The Master is more successful in integrating the beggar into the story and in establishing an emotional relationship between him and the Saint.

The “court period”

Gradually, we see a development towards a stronger spatial suggestion, more refinement and a more confident execution as well as more complex compositions. The Master reached his artistic peak in prints where he worked with a very fine hard-pointed needle, especially in his renderings of courtly life. As we have seen in the previous post, the court of Frederick III in the German Middle-Rhine region is thought to have been the environment where the Master may have worked, at least for some time. An intriguing print is The Card Players (fig 8).

8. The Card Players (ca. 1485), 13 x 12 cm, Rijksmuseum

A pretty young woman is surrounded by three young men dressed in the latest court fashion. She has just played her trump card. The expressions on the young men’s faces show how much she has beguiled them. Images of (prospective) lovers playing games are not unusual in this period and are usually placed in a garden of love setting. The Master gives an original twist to the theme by predicting the outcome of the game: we see a love couple disappearing into the forest on horseback. But who will she choose? She allows one of the young men to see her remaining cards, but the fool is looking over his shoulder – has he been dealt the Fool? Observe also the two dogs, symbols of fidelity: one sits upright and is alert, the other lies fast asleep at the woman’s feet. It seems this card game could go either way.

A comparison of two hunting scenes shows how the master’s style further developed. The first is still related to the court environment. In Departure for the Hunt (fig 9) a fashionably dressed aristocratic group of men and women are preparing to go on a hunting party.

9. Detail: Departure for the hunt (ca. 1485-90), 12.5 x 9.2 cm, Rijksmuseum

Judging by the wreaths around their heads two participants are engaged. The hunt was traditionally associated with courtly love and in contemporary literature serves as a metaphor for a lover conquering his beloved. Fidelity and perseverance play an important role.

Several years later, another hunting scene print by the Master seems removed from courtly ideals. The deer hunt (fig 11) is one of the earliest and most surprising depictions of outdoor life, chronologically preceded by marginalia such as a hunting scene in the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves (fig 10).

10. Hunting scene, Hours of Catherine of Cleves, ca. 1440, Pierpont Morgan Library

11 The Deer Hunt (ca. 1485-90), 9.3 x 8.3 cm, Rijksmuseum

In the Master’s print, light and dark contrasts play an important part in suggesting space and distance. Blowing the horn signals the start of the hunt, the dogs are running after deer fleeing into the forest and a rabbit runs away on the right, a humourous touch. While the aristocratic group in Departure for the Hunt is more interested in each other than in the hunt, here a realistic hunt is depicted. Elements such as the dead tree with the crow’s nest, the grave along the roadside and the lonely traveller seen in the background are possibly meant as reminders of death, man’s constant companion in life: a memento mori.

The Master’s sense of humour and originality is evident in various prints showing heraldic shields (fig 12). Their precise meaning is unclear. In the 15th century social positions were shifting and heraldic shields were no longer the exclusive privilege of the nobility: rich citizens could consolidate their status by means of a family weapon. But instead of angels or lions we are presented with farmers and gipsies as supporters. The irony with which some figures are depicted points to the prints possibly being intended as satires on the aristocratic pretences of common citizens.

12. Heraldic shield with farmers (ca. 1485-90), 13.7 x 8.4 cm, Rijksmuseum

A farmer standing on his head is seen from behind. He leans his hands on two pieces of rock. The shield’s helmet is crowned by a farmer who is literally crushed by the weight of his wife sitting on his back. Although he screams in protest it doesn’t help him and she has found a way to make him assist her as she spins her yarn. The meaning is clear: just as the man standing on his head gets a distorted view of the world, the farmer and his wife represent the normal social order turned upside down.

Late period

A new element is the greater freedom with which the late prints are executed. Lines become more nervous and energetic. The two versions of Saint Christopher, the first executed in his riper style and the later version interpreted with greater artistic freedom, are our final examples.

The story of Saint Christopher is told in the 13th century Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend). He is a giant who carries travellers across a turbulent river. One night a child asks to be carried across. Lit by a hermit’s lantern they reach the other side of the river but with great difficulty because the child is none other than Christ, who “carries all the burdens of the world” and becomes heavier with every step. Only the next day does Christopher realise the true identity of his passenger when his staff, planted in the earth at the request of the child, sprouts into a date palm. In a 14th century German manuscript green leaves already sprout from the staff while Christopher and the child are crossing the river as shown in the Master’s print.

15. Israhel van Meckenem, copy in reverse, engraving, 16.2 x 10.5 cm, British Museum

The first version by the Master, called the “large version” (fig 13), is possibly loosely based on an earlier print by Schongauer (fig 14), but more convincing in that the weight of the child is more effectively distributed over the staff and the giant’s legs. How difficult it is for Christopher to keep his balance is illustrated by a wonderful detail: the Saint has wrapped his hand in his mantle to secure his grip on his staff. The print was apparently popular as can be seen from a slighty later copy by Israhel van Meckenem (fig 15).

The irises, symbols of Christ’s suffering, seen in the foreground in Schongauer’s print, only appear in the second version by the Master which is tentatively dated ca. 1490 and executed in his late style (fig 16). The world’s burdens carried by the Christ Child are symbolised by the globe he carries, the church points to Christopher’s servitude to Christ and the giant himself is dressed as a pilgrim. The regular hatchings influenced by Schongauer seen in the earlier version here make way for a lively, more dynamic treatment of light and shadow. The water, while imaginatively indicative of movement in the earlier print, in the second print is verging on the abstract.

16. St Christopher “small version”, unique impression (ca. 1490), 12.3 x 7.2 cm

A Master without an identity

Several of the Master’s prints were copied by contemporary artists and some are thought to have influenced the young Dürer, yet his name has not come down to us. An explanation could lie in his association with the nobility which appears so clearly from the self-assured way in which the Master depicts their interests and ideals. He must have worked closely with one or several aristocratic patrons and for his altarpieces with the highest church authorities. As their protégé the artist enjoyed a secure position and livelihood – a luxury Dürer never knew – and it was therefore unnecessary for his name to be known outside these circles. But this means, alas, that the Master’s name was lost forever when his last patron died.


  1. All prints shown in this post are by the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet unless stated otherwise.
  2. The most helpful study for the chronological and stylistic grouping of the prints remains the article by Curt Glaser, “Zur Zeitbestimmung der Stiche des Hausbuchmeisters”, in Monatshefte für Kunstwissenschaft 3 (1910).
  3. I am indebted to the catalogue of the 1985 exhibition in the Rijksmuseum’s Prints and Drawings Gallery: ‘s Leven’s Felheid: de Meester van het Amsterdamse Kabinet of de Hausbuch-meester, ca. 1470-1500, K.G. Boon et al, published by Uitgeverij Gary Schwartz, Maarssen for the Rijksmuseum, 1985.

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.


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.


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.


  • 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.