Apart from the collections devoted to medieval Burgundy, the museum has a fine collection of works from the 14th and 15th centuries, both in Italian and Nordic painting.
Until the end of the 13th century, painting in Italy was dominated by the Byzantine tradition as can be seen in the busts of saints, painted by Niccolo da Segna around 1340.
The characters, hieratic and motionless, are close to the icons. They are images made to pray. The golden background refers to the divine world. There is no depth and the faces are inexpressive. The painter does not try to represent reality. He evokes, through conventions, a supernatural world.
After 1250, painting gradually moved away from Byzantine conventions, thanks to the Florentine Cimabue and above all to his pupil Giotto, who laid the foundations for a revival of painting. These innovations can be seen in a panel by Taddeo Gaddi, one of Giotto’s pupils.
This is the predella of an altarpiece, i.e. the lower part of the retable. It serves as a support for the large panels, hence its horizontal format. In this small panel, Taddeo Gaddi seeks to represent the real world. He suggests depth by giving volume to the characters and by placing a house behind the stable to create space. Although the golden background is always present and the natural elements are very stylized, the painter shows a real talent for observation in his work of foliage or sheep’s fleece. He also has the will to give expressions and emotions to these characters (Joseph’s meditative position, the devotion of the kneeling shepherd and the shepherd’s gesture of surprise at the appearance of the angel in the upper left corner).
While in Florence, the main centre for the renewal of painting in the 14th century, research on composition based on ancient influences developed (Giotto went to Rome), the other major Tuscan centre, Siena, under the impulse of the painter Duccio, was more marked by a Gothic influence coming from northern Europe and from which he took up the refined lines and colours.
Pietro Lorenzetti’s triptych is representative of this style.
Pietro Lorenzetti is little interested here in depth, apart from the perspective of the carpet under Our Lady’s throne. The saints and angels remain staggered vertically around the throne. The painter develops the characteristics of the Sienese style with sinuous lines (drawing of Mary’s mantle) and precious bright colours mixed with broken tones (mauve, pink etc…).
Outside Italy, the museum has an important collection of German and Swiss Primitives, which are quite rare in French museums. The German and Swiss schools displayed great inventiveness in the 15th century despite very strong Flemish influences. One of the main artists represented in the museum is Konrad Witz, a German painter from Swabia, who broke with the international Gothic style to draw inspiration from the research of Flemish painting.
According to tradition, the emperor had come to consult the prophetess about whether he should accept to be divinized. The scene takes place precisely on the day of Christ’s birth. For any answer, the Sibyl shows him the apparition of the Virgin and Child in heaven, a vision that is here simply suggested by the gestures of the protagonists. This panel was part of a large altarpiece, now dismembered, called the Mirror of Salvation. It was commissioned from the artist in 1435 to adorn the church of St. Leonard in Basel. Witz was influenced by Flemish painters in his very realistic way of painting materials, especially fabrics and jewellery. The heavy drapes betray an influence of Claus Sluter’s sculpture. The painter retains some archaisms: the figures are frozen with rather inexpressive faces. The main quality of Konrad Witz will be to synthesize a still gothic abstraction and the realism of Flemish painting. This makes him one of the main German painters of the 15th century.
The Darmstadt Passion Master is in Witz’s entourage.
This panel is a fragment of the Altarpiece of Saint Baindt which was in the convent of the Cistercian nuns of Baindt, near Ravensburg. The saints are depicted standing on a tile floor in perspective before a gold background worked with a punch, imitating a brocade. The painter still retains the sinuous lines and bright colours of the International Gothic, while trying to bring something new to the treatment of the tiles.
A large number of artists from this period could not be identified, so many altarpieces are attributed either to a painter who is only recognised through his way of painting, or to an anonymous painter. This is the case of the altarpiece by Pierre Rup, made by a Swiss painter.
Its name comes from its donor, Pierre Rup, represented kneeling, praying at the feet of his patron saint. We know that he died in 1469, thanks to the inscription at the top of the frame. It also indicates that Pierre Rup was a merchant and citizen of Geneva. The altarpiece probably comes from St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva.
Anonymous also is the author of the Altarpiece of Saint Margaret, known only as Master of Drapery Studies or also Master of the Coburg Rounds.
The altarpiece is said to come from the former church of the Madeleine convent in Strasbourg. It tells the story of Marguerite’s martyrdom: her arrest, her flogging, the attack of the dragon, her immolation, her bath in ice-cold water and, finally (!), her beheading.
The museum also holds a series of works attributed to an artist known as the Baden Carnation Master.
The altarpiece, when closed, shows the Last Supper, Christ in the Garden of Olives, Christ before Caiaphas and the Flagellation. The artist regularly paints a carnation on his paintings, perhaps as a signature. The altarpiece comes from the Chapel of the Magi in Baden (Switzerland). This artist possesses great narrative skill, restoring all the nuances of the emotions of his characters. His vivid drawing is accompanied by brilliant colours.
We find the carnation at the feet of Saint Otmar.
To finish our overview of medieval art, a very beautiful sculpture showing a Saint John.
It is probably a fragment of a composition representing Prayer on the Mount of Olives. The figure shows the characteristic pose of a St John carved by Veit Stoss, one of the most important sculptors of the time, for St. Sebald’s Church in Nürnberg in 1499.
(to be continued…)