Description & Technical information
In this outstanding representation of the Seated Madonna and Child, Mary sits upright, her gaze slightly downward. Her youthful, exceptionally beautiful, face is framed by long flowing curls which are held in place with a delicate red ribbon and cascade down both shoulders and arms. In her left hand she holds an apple, symbolic of her status as the new Eve. She is draped in a heavy red, blue-green and gold coat, the fabric billowing to fall in sharp deep folds to the floor, revealing the toe of one shoe. On her right knee sits the naked Christ child. With tightly curled hair and spherical belly, he appears cheerful, almost mischievous. Both hands are outstretched as if he seeks to touch the viewer conveying the intimacy of the scene. Mary, carved with hollowed back, and the Christ child were made separately as was the original base. The group almost certainly stood originally as an altarpiece.
This work is a hitherto unknown and important sculpture by the Master of the Schongauer-Altärchens, an artist so named after a small altarpiece in the Ulmer Münster (Miller, op. cit., fig. 2, cat. no. 50). This artistically and technically supremely gifted sculptor was influenced by Nikolaus Gerhaert (known also as Nikolaus Gerhaert von Leyden) (active 1460 – 1473) and likely trained under his successor Hans Kamensetzer (active 1471 – 1487). He is known to have been active between 1480 and 1490 in Ulm which at the time was one of the most important centres for Southern German carving. He also worked in the Diocese of Passau and in 1499 produced the sculptures for the high altar of the famous pilgrimage church of Großgmain (Miller, op. cit., figs. 40-42, cat. no. 12). Miller argues convincingly that the Master of the Schongauer-Altärchens can probably be identified as Diepold Böser from Haguenau in Alsace. Böser is recorded in the inventories of the Ulmer Münster in 1490 as having deposited high value works. Shortly after this, he left Ulm wandering from town to town working for a variety of sculpture and, perhaps, painting workshops. His somewhat itinerant existence goes some way to explain why he failed to achieve clearly deserved recognition as a master during his lifetime and the unusually large area of distribution of his output.
This object is a typical superb quality example of the carving skill of the Master. Characteristically, it reflects the fusion of Upper Rhineland and Swabian stylistic features. It is comparable to a standing Madonna and Child in the Ulmer Museum (Miller, op. cit., fig. 17, cat. no. 52; Inv. no. 2004, 9653) whose proportions, profile and physiognomic details are very similar to those of our Mary and Christ child. Mary has a small oval face, domed high forehead, narrow nose, high cheeks and a strong spherical chin. The Christ child has a round belly and 'greasy' legs with tightly wound small mounds of curled hair. Reference should be made also to a second work by the Master (the Christ child now lost) also housed in the Ulmer Museum which has analogous facial and other features, especially the folds of drapery (Miller, op. cit., fig. 14, cat. no. 51, Inv. no. AV917). Strikingly similar too is the Seated Madonna and Child created in 1502 in the church of Kájov (Gojau) in the South Bohemian region of the Czech Republic (Miller, op. cit., figs. 49-50, cat. no. 18). The garments worn by the Mary in that group are arranged in near identical fashion to those of our example – but in reverse. The strongly undercut drapery is a prominent feature of both works. Again, the Christ child sits at knee height and with comparable movement. The similarities between the Mary in our group and that in Kamensetzer’s Birth of Christ (under whom, as noted, the Master of the Schongauer-Altärchens likely trained) created between 1480 – 1485 and now housed in the Rijksmuseum (Inv. BK-16985) are readily apparent. The influence of the great Ulmer master Michel Erhart (1440 – 1522) can also be seen. The vivid slightly pot-bellied Christ child is reminiscent of the figure in Erhart’s Seated Madonna and Child created around 1470 formerly in the Georg Schuster Collection in Munich and now lost.
The high artistic and technical merit of this group and its excellent original condition combine to make it a rare museum quality example of South German masterly sculpture of the late 15th century.
We are grateful to Dr. Manuel Teget-Welz, former curatorial fellow, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, Department of Art History, Universities of Augsburg and Erlangen-Nüremberg, for confirming the attribution to the Master of the Schongauer-Altärchens based on first hand examination of the work.
Date: 1480 – 1490
Period: 1400-1600, 15th century
Origin: Germany, Ulm
Medium: Limewood, Original polychrome, Traces of gilding
Dimensions: 92.5 x 57.5 x 28 cm (36³/₈ x 22⁵/₈ x 11 inches)
Provenance: Carl Collection, Zurich, Ascona
Private collection, Zurich
Literature: G. Otto, Die Ulmer Plastik der Spätgotik (Gryphius Verlag, Reutlingen, 1927)
H. Rott, ‘Quellen und Forschungen zur südwestdeutschen und schweizerischen Kunstgeschichte im 15 und 16 Jahrhundert’ in Alt-Schwaben und die Reichsstädte, Band 2 (Strecker und Schröder Verlag, Stuttgart, 1936)
G. Jasbar und E. Treu, Bildhauerei und Malerei vom 13 Jahrhundert bis 1600: Katalog 1 (Ulmer Museum, Ulm, 1981)
A. Miller, ‘Der Meister des Schongauer-Altärchens in Ulm und Passau’ in Zeitschrift des Deutschen Vereins für Kunstwissenschaft, Band 63 (Deutscher Verlag für Kunstwissenschaft, Berlin, 2009), pp. 138–198
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