Suffering of the BodyJanuary 24, 2012

New York in late January is a veritable marathon of Old Masters, from the big auctions at Christie's and Sotheby’s to smaller dealer shows. Especially notable is the exhibition of 22 late-15th-century panel paintings from Northern Europe and especially Germany -- made outside of the better-known centers in Italy and the Netherlands -- presented at Richard L. Feigen & Co. on East 69th Street by Sam Fogg, a leading London dealer of medieval manuscripts. Many of the paintings emphasize the suffering of Christ and the Saints with considerable intensity. The show opened last fall, but remains on view through the rest of January 2012.

Most of the artists represented are anonymous, known simply by their “Master of the. . ." sobriquets, names recognized only by truly obsessed Late Gothic Painting geeks (personally, I was rather humbled that I had never heard of the Master of the Regensburg Hostienfrevel). The majority of these artists are scantly represented in American collections, and those museums that do possess examples usually and unfortunately relegate them to storerooms or “study collections.”

As the literature on these artists is overwhelmingly in German, the accompanying exhibition catalogue in English by leading scholar Susie Nash (with contributions by Till-Horger Borchert, Emma Capron and Jim Harris) is especially welcome. The authors place each picture in historical context with discussions on iconography, guild practices and restrictions, and the functions of altarpieces, copiously illustrated with high-resolution magnified details, infra-red reflectograms of underdrawings and comparative examples. The authors are not shy about noting that several of the pictures were made with cost-cutting practices geared for the devout-on-a-budget. A pair of Polish panels of sweetly doll-faced saints from ca. 1480, for instance, has faux-gold backgrounds, made of silver-leaf covered with a thin gold glaze usually composed from ground amber and linseed oil.

Throughout the exhibition, the viewer is confronted by images of a startling monumentality and rough-hewn bold beauty, lucky survivors of the depressingly thorough iconoclasm which claimed thousands of German and especially Swiss paintings in the aftermath of the Reformation. One of the most notable pictures in the show is a small horizontal altarpiece of The Trinity With The Virgin, Saints John, Stephen and Lawrence and a Donor (dated 1476) by the “Master of the Drapery Studies,” a Strasbourg master best known for his drawings of draperies (naturally).

The Master of the Drapery Studies seems to have been primarily a designer of stained glass, and the present panel is the only painting that can be attributed to him. Possessing a particularly graphic sensibility, its vigorously and confidently drawn figures are clothed in a rich palette of deep crimsons and greens and placed before a dark blue sky enlivened by large gold stars that recall the foil-paper stars affixed to a particularly good school report-card. With the exception of the pseudo-Pugin embroidered cloth covering the Lords throne, which is a 19th- or early-20th-century alteration, this masterwork is in exceptionally fine condition, and was snapped up by the Getty (for a sum in “the low seven figures”) shortly before the exhibition opened.

Another striking rarity is The Torture of the Maccabean Brothers (ca. 1517) by the anonymous Cologne painter dubbed “The Master of the Holy Kinship” after a large altarpiece in his hometown Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne. Most of his rare works remain in Cologne or other German cities, though the Metropolitan Museum owns a fine, if worn, double-sided panel of The Adoration of the Magi and The Holy Trinity with Angels, which it has inexplicably never been placed on public view in over 30 years.

The Cult of The Maccabean Brothers -- Jewish martyrs whose agonizing deaths prefigured the Passion of Christ -- was particularly strong in Cologne, as the city owned their bones which were prized, miracle-working relics and the Fogg panel was probably painted for Helias Mertz, a local priest responsible for encouraging the cult and veneration of Brothers in the early 16th century. The finely detailed and delicately rendered scene depicts the torture of five of the seven Maccabees condemned to death by King Antiochus for their refusal to eat pork. While their tearful mother Salmona was forced to witness the grisly scene, she encouraged them to hold on and not betray their faith.

The claustrophobic composition with grisly, almost expressionistically graphic renderings of the youths -- scourged, crushed in a wine-vat, roasted on a grill, dismembered and broken in half -- are rendered even more horrific by the Master's typically Easter Egg-colored palette of candy pinks, daffodil yellows, pale greens and violet and sky blue. One can well imagine Otto Dix or George Grosz finding inspiration in its unsettling beauty, and indeed, the picture was bought by a collector of modern and contemporary art for a price “in the high six figures.”

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