German artists other than Dürer have only recently begun to emerge from his shadow. Suddenly the Regensburg master, Albrecht Altdorfer, receives two important new books from the very same year and same German publisher (cf. Magdalena Bushart, Sehen und Erkennen: Albrecht Altdorfers religiöse Bilder, reviewed in this journal November 2005; both books unfortunately remained independent of each other). Until now, the principal work on Altdorfer has comprised catalogue work on his virtuoso, often miniature paintings, drawings, and prints, or analysis of his inventive landscapes (Christopher Wood, 1993). This tome, a habilitation publication, attempts a survey of content in the artist’s works and favorite themes, an “iconographic style” of presentation, beginning with religion and ending with amorous subjects, neglected by Bushart. But it remains selective as it attempts to reconstitute contexts for viewing that varied content.
Like Bushart, using theological treatises, Noll begins with extended consideration of late medieval piety and the process of prayer as a progress towards a vision of the divine. Sacred images play a role in this process, not just as the bible of the illiterate but also as a stimulus to affective devotion through pious compassion for (especially the crucified) Christ, Mary, and the holy figures, who also exemplify piety. Often specific accompanying prayers either direct or assist meditation in these Andachtsbilder; sometimes the combination of prayer and image (e.g. the Holy Face) could activate an indulgence. While little of this material is truly new, Noll offers an admirable and useful synthesis (but not a summary – a hundred pages!).
He then turns to Altdorfer at last: another long chapter (70 pages) on the virtuoso miniature woodcuts (40) of the cycle entitled The Fall and Salvation of Humanity, a work that clearly responds to Dürer’s Small Woodcut Passion. Noll works through the devotional content of this work, including its depiction of the Fall and the featured role of the Virgin, and he also assesses its artistic achievement through comparisons to both contemporaries and predecessors. Another chapter goes on to consider the sequence of painted Crucifixions by Altdorfer, considering their functions (donor epitaph, didactic staging within an altarpiece sequence), again in relation to visual traditions for this event. This kind of comparative method provides the strength of Noll’s analysis. It leads him to discern both the distinctive character (“expressive form”) of each Altdorfer image as well as to situate that work in relation to its precedents (usually prints) as well as the wider use context of late-medieval Christian art, including typology and other theological under-pinnings. As Noll duly notes the tense balance in Altdorfer’s art between private, personal devotion and virtuoso miniaturist display for connoisseurs, he also points to the retrospective revival of visual traditions imbedded in Altdorfer’s pictures. He notes, for example, how Altdorfer’s Kassel Crucifixion reprises older models from the “Soft Style” of around 1400, arguing that such figuration, like copies made after venerated icons, implies a sacred vision of the cross. Or how the Budapest Crucifixion, originally a private chapel image for the provost of St. Florian (here redated ca. 1520, after the Sebastian Altarpiece), deliberately uses archaic compositions and figure types, a phenomenon that period scholars are beginning to investigate for paintings (e.g. Katharine Kruse on Hans Holbein the Elder) but had already noted for cult sculptures.
Late medieval period fascination with the Virgin also gave rise to distinctive Altdorfer imagery, often in dialogue with Dürer models, particularly the Madonna in Glory (c. 1522/25: Munich) and various graphics of the Virgin in a landscape-subject of the next chapter by Noll. A final coda is provided by graphic images of St. Christopher under the heading “from devotional image to collector’s item.”
As a concluding section, Noll finally shifts to “earthly love,” mythic subjects by Altdorfer – a topic neglected by Bushart. His method remains the same – to find literary analogues wherever possible, principally for the passionate tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. Noll also addresses another cluster of themes, biblical as well as mythological, from the Power of Women ensemble (“The Ambivalence of Sexual Relations”) as well as anonymous couples, including “ill-matched pairs.”
Deutscher Kunstverlag are to be congratulated on continuing to produce important art historical monographs on German Renaissance artists with generously plentiful, high quality images. In this particular case, it is regrettable that two simultaneous books by the same press about the same artist could not be put into greater dialogue. Each has its virtues and focuses on different artworks. The student who wishes to use original religious texts to establish the content of Altdorfer religious works or who wants to follow thematic sequences of his representation of favorite subjects will derive much from Noll’s well-researched study, even if his interpretations sometimes lack the bold, critical interpretive ventures of American scholarship, a contribution that seems to run counter to his own more solidly grounded temperament. In addition, his careful attention to Pyramus and Thisbe as well as other admonitory images of earthly love offers a major new addition to the Altdorfer literature.
University of Pennsylvania