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Looking up in amazement as Christ ascends into heaven are the twelve apostles. Kneeling with them is the Virgin, the only one to have a halo. Although few of the men can be identified, John the Evangelist is recognizable. He is the blond, beardless youth dressed in green who solicitously puts his arm around Mary. Surrounding the risen Christ are a group of Old Testament personages who either predicted or foreshadowed events of his life on earth.

The gold background, bright colors, and compact space reveal the lingering influence of the International Gothic. However, a new spirit of visual observation also can be detected. The sharp, angular folds of the drapery evoke the perception of real human forms beneath the material. Further, the faces of the apostles reveal a broad variety of human emotions.

This panel was once part of the high altar in the Cistercian abbey church of Marienfeld at Münster. At its center was a richly gilded sculpture of the Virgin and Child. Folding wings extended from this core with pictures on the fronts and backs. When the shutters were open, eight scenes -- including the National Gallery's painting -- revealed the story of Mary's life. In the closed positions, eight other subjects recounted Christ's Passion.

More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication German Paintings of the Fifteenth through Seventeenth Centuries, which is available as a free PDF


Part of the high altar in the abbey church of the Cistercian Cloister at Marienfeld, near Münster, completed in 1456/1457, installed 6 February 1457, until 1803.[1] Charles Léon Cardon, Brussels, by 1912.[2] Rudolph Chillingworth, Lucerne, Brussels, and Nuremberg; (sale, Galeries Fischer and Frederik Muller & Cie., Lucerne, 5 September 1922, no. 47); acquired by Jacob Walter Zwicky [d. 1956], Freiburg and Arlesheim-Basel;[3] acquired 1955 by (M. Knoedler & Co., New York); jointly owned with (Pinakos, Inc. [Rudolph Heinemann], New York);[4] purchased 1957 by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[5] gift 1959 by exchange to NGA.

Exhibition History

Exposition de la Miniature, Palais Goffinet, Brussels, 1912, no. 2051, as "Anonyme (Ecole de Souabe, XV siècle)".
Gemälde und Skulpturen 1430-1530. Schweiz und angrenzende Gebiete, Kunsthaus, Zürich, 1921, no. 46.
Ausstellung: Altdeutsche Kunst, Julius Böhler, Munich, 1934, no. 38.
Gemälde und Zeichnungen alter Meister. Kunsthandwerk aus Privatbesitz, Kunstmuseum, Bern, 1944-1945, no. 11.
Westfälische Maler der Spätgotik 1440-1490, Landesmuseum, Münster, 1952, no. 57.

Technical Summary

The painting is composed of three boards with vertically oriented grain. Reading from left to right, the boards measure 32.4, 21.65 and 12.5 cm across. The boards have been thinned. The painting has been cradled, and a wax coating applied. A dendrochronological examination conducted by Peter Klein indicated that the boards came from the same tree, which was probably felled 1410 +6/-4. The gold background was applied over a red bole, and various punches were used to form halos, rays, and what seem to be tongues of flame. A faint incised line defines the major contours and the rocks. The figures' draperies were apparently painted before their hands, and there is a certain amount of overlapping paint in these areas. Examination with infrared reflectography reveals underdrawing in what appears to be a liquid medium. In the draperies there are changes between the underdrawn outlines and the paint layer and alterations in the placement of Saint Peter's eye and nose. A painted edge approximately 1 cm wide on the left, top, and right is reddish brown or orange in color; similar edges are found in other panels from the altarpiece.[1]

In general the painting is in very good condition. The gilding has a fine overall craquelure and some restoration at the extreme left. Only a few discrete losses and retouchings are apparent in the painted areas, with the greatest amount of inpainting occurring in the robes of Christ, the Virgin, and Saint Peter. Unspecified restorations of the altarpiece are recorded as having taken place in 1516/1517 and 1533/1534, but there is no indication as to what degree the National Gallery's panel was affected, if at all.[2]

[1] As, for example, on The Presentation in the Temple and Christ and the Virgin Enthroned in Heaven (both Westfalisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Münster), which are also from the inner wing of the altarpiece. The outer wings have orange painted edges with gold floral motifs on the bottom edges.

[2] Sommer 1937, 14, citing the documents in the Staatsarchiv, Münster, Marienfelder Akten, I, 15b, 15d.


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