The Pfullendorf Altar

A 16th Century Masterpiece
21 November 2017 to 8 April 2018

Nothing was left to chance, nothing was done rashly. Every brush stroke, every fold and every colour scheme was meticulously planned. The panels of the Pfullendorf Altar that have survived and are now being presented in a special exhibition at the Johanniter Church, on loan from the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main and the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, are characterised by their creator’s outstanding painting culture. Apparently without effort, he succeeded in translating the still valid Gothic formal ideals into convincingly contemporary images of great narrative force and already clearly leaning towards the 16th century.

Until further notice, and by way of improvisation, the anonymous Master of the panels on show in the exhibition is called after the altar that is probably from the parish culture of Saint James in Pfullendorf. So far, it has always been assumed that he was a disciple or collaborator of Bartholomäus Zeitblom, who was active in Ulm between 1482 and 1520. Recently, however, the Master has been increasingly discussed as being identical with Zeitblom. One reason for this is to be found in the attribution debates of the 19th and 20th centuries, which were based on assumptions other than those used in arguments supported by topical material research and X- and IR-rays. Whereas prior to that, terms such as Master and Imitator, or Inspiration and Genius, were used in the argumentation, the focus now is more on insight into a possible division of labour during production and the associated working process. In addition to the classical-style art criticism of comparative viewing, “workshop research” is gradually casting light on issues related to composition or also to parts painted by an artist’s own hand and parts delegated to assistants.

Of the altar’s original twelve devotional images, eight have survived and are preserved today in the Städelsche Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt am Main and the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. They address important episodes in the life of Mary, the Mother of God, and are expressive of the veneration of the Virgin Mary, which was still very considerable around 1500. Formerly arranged in two rows, the panels depict moving scenes of a luminous colourfulness: the meeting between Joachim and Anna, parents of the Mother of God, at the Golden Gate, the birth of Mary, Mary’s presentation in the Temple, her engagement, the annunciation, the visitation, the birth of Christ and finally Mary’s death. As the Gospels scarcely elaborate on the life of the Mother of God, authors and artists in the late Middle Ages tended to fall back on apocryphal sources not contained in the biblical canon. Their truthfulness was corroborated in the Pfullendorf Altar by eight depictions of prophets, which are also housed today in the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. These are holding scrolls in their hands and they accompanied the Marian scenes to the right and left as parts of the wing panels.

The presentation of the Altar is complemented by two further panels from other altars which today are part of the Würth Collection. These have depictions of Saint Mary Magdalen and Saint Ursula on the one hand, and Mary’s visit to Elisabeth on the other. They are verifiably early works by Bartholomäus Zeitblom and give visitors to the exhibition the opportunity to themselves make a stylistic comparison and form their own opinion on this exciting attribution question.

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