Dominated by the figure of Albrecht Dürer in his hometown of Nuremberg, German art of the sixteenth century is often discussed through its urban centers. Recently, however, the return to scholarly prominence of Lucas Cranach at the Saxon court (esp. in the 2009 Berlin exhibition, cited, Cranach und die Kunst der Renaissance unter den Hohenzollern, reviewed in this journal November 2010) has helped to redress this emphasis and has sparked needed attention to court artists in the language region. In addition, this thoughtful exhibition and its informative catalogue essays consider such court culture more broadly across northern Europe – they take note of strong Habsburg linkages that connect the principal German rulers and their own capitals to Netherlandish courts (see especially essays by Dagmar Eichberger on Margaret of Austria and by Ariane Mensger on Jan Gossart, whose concurrent New York-London exhibition prevented cross-references). Moreover, the Venetian artist Jacopo de’ Barbari freely ranged among all of these courts, as the much-needed essay by Beate Böckem reminds us. One crucial shaping element is missing here, however: the court in Buda of Matthias Corvinus (d. 1490), complete with important Italian artists and humanists (cf. Péter Farbaky, Enikö Spekner, Katalin Szende, András Végh, eds., Matthias Corvinus, the King. Tradition and Renewal in the Hungarian Royal Court, 1458-1490, exh. cat, Budapest, 2008).
The name in the title refers, of course, to the learned conceit of Apelles, court painter to Alexander the Great, a complimentary comparison bestowed on many of the artists featured at Coburg. The introductory essay by Ulrich Pfisterer addresses the learned discourse on the artist in the North, which began around 1500 in the circles of Dürer and poet laureate Conrad Celtis. The essay also measures both Dürer and Hans Burgkmair against the model of Apelles in their respective roles as court artists. In addition, their designation as a “second Apelles” reinforced confident self-assertion by German artists and sometimes inspired self-portraiture, especially Dürer’s renowned image in 1500.
As Pfisterer notes, Apelles (with Zeuxis) even appeared in the lunettes of the Italian Salon of the Residenz of the Bavarian dukes at Landshut (c. 1542/43; cf. Brigitte Langer and Katharina Heinemann, “Ewig blühe Bayerns Land”. Herzog Ludwig X und die Renaissance, exh. cat. Landshut, 2009, pp. 120ff.). Böckem’s Barbari essay also establishes how much the model of Apelles helped to shape that artist’s appeal (cf. his letter of 1500/01; cat. no. 2.3.06) to his several princely patrons: Emperor Maximilian, Archduke Frederick the Wise, and (in Eichberger’s complementary essay) Margaret of Austria. Thomas Schauerte, building on his own wonderful earlier exhibition, Albrecht Dürer. Das grosse Glück (Osnabrück, 2002), reinforces the role played in the humanist circles of both Maximilian and Dürer by Conrad Celtis, imperial poet laureate, in promoting a new nationalism at the outset of the new century. Schauerte also notes – as previous neglect of this topic shows through its very silence – how narrow were those circles and how separate from the dominant mass of contemporary religious art in Germany.
Another major learned tribute to patrons, scholars, and artists alike in the period was the portrait (often a profile) medal, particularly in the oeuvre of Hans Schwarz in Augsburg but also the Vischer workshop in Nuremberg, complemented in woodcuts by Hans Burgkmair (e.g. of Celtis) in Augsburg. Artists, too, were sometimes honored: Schwarz fashioned a medal of Burgkmair in 1518; Dürer also received a profile woodcut tribute by Erhard Schön (ca. 1528; woodblock, Princeton Art Museum). Additionally, Jeffrey Chipps Smith’s essay publishes later (c. 1535-44) court medals in Saxony by Hans Reinhart, which show imagery to promote the Lutheran faith of that court.
The real center of this exhibition remains Cranach, whose tasks and honors are discussed by Ruth Hansmann, and whose religious art, along with the Munich Wittelsbachs, informs the essay by Gabriele Wimböck. Cranach’s portraits, a surprisingly neglected topic, often cemented princely alliances; Matthias Müller focuses on their tension between likenesses and stylized costume pieces. Portraits also form the first main segment of the catalogue of works on display.
Much of the remainder of the imagery of the exhibition concentrates on court life and activities, such as hunts and tournaments. Promotion of learning, including history and genealogy, and references to classical topics also prompted several display topics. This more general approach to courtly assignments, tied to the status of the court artist, is discussed in the final essay by Juliane von Fircks, who traces the status, titles, and roles of artists at varying courts, reaching back to Bohemia of Charles IV in the fourteenth century and the dukes of Burgundy across the fifteenth century.
Epitomizing all these converging concerns of portraits, courtly actions, and symbols of these court roles, the final image in the exhibition, Hans Daucher’s 1522 Berlin relief (no. 2.3.11) shows two main profile portraits within a staged allegory. Within his camp, the late (d. 1519) Emperor Maximilian, dressed in robes and wearing the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece, witnesses a jousting victory of a militant Albrecht Dürer, as the artist vanquishes the male personification of Envy. While unlike Apelles, Dürer did not have exclusive rights to portray his sovereign, he did memorably take a 1518 chalk portrait drawing, which served as the basis of both paintings and a memorial woodcut of the emperor (colored; no. 1.1.07). Along with Frederick the Wise (also the subject of Dürer portraits in paint and engraving, besides those by Cranach) and their respective political networks, Maximilian stands at the center of these displayed images.
Taken together, this catalogue offers many synoptic visions and insights, though some essays are tantalizingly brief and not fully coordinated in their potential dialogues. They also vary widely in their ambitions and in their documentation – from the focused study by Chipps Smith to the broad historical sketch of von Fircks. The bibliography has already proved useful to this reader; however, as a few of the citations added above reveal, some notable recent scholarly omissions (including Anglophone studies) could have enhanced the already great value of this wide-ranging, ambitious contribution.
University of Pennsylvania