This rare example of an intact portable triptych from the late fifteenth century is further enhanced by its superb state of preservation. On the exterior wings are two of the most popular saints in Western art, Saints Barbara and Catherine, who represent the active and the contemplative life, respectively. Saint Barbara holds a ciborium above which floats a wafer of the host; she was often invoked as protection against sudden death without benefit of Communion. A brilliant philosopher, Saint Catherine stands upon a broken wheel, a reference to her attempted martyrdom, and holds a sword, which was used to behead her.
Opening the triptych reveals one of the earliest depictions of the Raising of the Cross, a subject that began to appear in northern Europe in the late fifteenth century. An account of the attachment of Christ's body to the cross and its elevation does not occur in the Gospel narratives. Rather, it grew out of late medieval piety, in particular, the religious movement known as the Devotio Moderna (Modern Devotion), which amplified the narrative of Christ's Passion and urged its followers to empathize with Christ's pain and suffering. Here, the event is spread over the three interior panels, unified by a continuous landscape. In the center panel a jeering crowd watches and gestures angrily as the cross is raised. For the contemporary viewer the tattered blue garments and the striped robe and red cowl worn by the men at the right would have identified them as disreputable and marginal members of society. Two very different groups of onlookers are found on the wings. On the left wing are the holy women: Mary Magdalene kneels in the foreground, Saint Veronica holds the sudarium bearing an imprint of Christ's face, while the weeping Virgin dries her tears with her light blue robe. On the right wing in the foreground the bad thief, identifiable by his shaved head and ragged clothing, awaits his crucifixion. At the top are dark ominous storm clouds that have begun to move into the center panel.
The Raising of the Cross was first owned by a member of the Starck family of Nuremberg, as indicated by the coat of arms at the bottom of the center panel. The altarpiece was used for private devotion in an ecclesiastical or, more likely, a domestic setting. The artist also can be firmly associated with the city of Nuremberg and in particular with two of that city's leading painters, Hans Pleydenwurff and Michel Wolgemut. When Pleydenwurff died in 1472, Wolgemut was quick to marry his widow and take over the workshop. The anonymous artist was almost certainly trained in this atelier, and the clear, vibrant colors, firm draftsmanship, and dynamic composition of The Raising of the Cross demonstrate his skill and importance. To the Gallery's already formidable collection of German art, this triptych adds a superb work from Nuremberg at the moment when Albrecht Dürer, who also apprenticed with Wolgemut, began his ascendancy.
(Text by John Oliver Hand, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
upper right, center panel, on sleeve of man in striped costume: OHAIR[W?]
Marks and Labels
Member of the Starck family, Nuremberg. John (Talbot?), 16th Earl of Shrewsbury [1791-1852], Alton Tower; gift 1839 to St. Mary's College, Oscott, England; sold through (Julius H. Weitzner [1896-1968], London) to (French & Co., New York), by 1976; purchased 1997 by NGA.
- Art Treasures of the United Kingdom: Paintings by Ancient Masters, Art Treasures Palace, Manchester, England, 1857, no. 501, as by School of van Eyck.
- Kunst & Tradition. Meisterwerke bedeutender Provenienzen, Bernheimer, Munich, 1989, unnumbered, as Workshop of Michael Wolgemut.
- Lucas Cranach. Ein Maler-Unternehmer aus Franken, Festung Rosenberg, Kronach; Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig, 1994, no. 98, as Master of the Stötteritz Alter.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Van Eyck to Dürer, Groeningemuseum, Bruges, 2010-2011, no. 222, repro.
- The Art of Empathy: The Mother of Sorrows in Northern Renaissance Art and Devotion, The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Jacksonville, 2013-2014, unnumbered catalogue, figs. 15, 16 (detail of left panel).
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 66-67, no. 49, color repro.
- Suckale, Robert. Die Erneuerung der Malkunst vor Dürer. 2 vols. Petersberg, 2009: 1:77-81, 458, figs. 106, 108-112; 2: no. 56, 77, 173-176, figs. 915, 916.
- Pergam, Elizabeth A. The Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857: Entrepreneurs, Connoisseurs and the Public. Farnham and Burlington, 2011: 313.
- Areford, David S. The Art of Empathy: The Mother of Sorrows in Northern Renaissance Art and Devotion. Exh. cat. The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, , 2013. London, 2013: 22-23, 63, color fig. 16, 17.