Although a relatively unfamiliar and little studied artist, Jörg Breu was a major figure in the leading economic center of Germany along with Dürer’s Nuremberg. Breu presents many fascinating issues, some of which were explored by Pia Cuneo in a 1991 dissertation and a 1998 monograph, Art and Politics in Modern Germany. Jörg Breu the Elder and the Fashioning of Political Identity ca. 1475-1536 (Leiden: Brill). Thus we can not only assess Morrall’s contribution but can also compare and contrast it with a similar and prior study on the same artist. Cuneo’s study concentrates on social issues and the politics of the city in the early Reformation era. Morrall has the advantage of going second, incorporating Cuneo’s insights within his own vision, but in fact his approach to the material is fully complementary to hers. Morrall’s Breu is subtle and complex. His interaction with figures whom he would normally be expected to condemn from Cuneo’s Augsburg social struggle account here becomes more understandable (e.g. the noblesse oblige virtues of wealthy patrician Raymond Fugger, p. 149). Even though Cuneo made the first serious discussion of Breu’s ‘chronicle,’ she again assessed it chiefly in terms of class tensions in Augsburg, while neglecting its frequent evangelical expressions. Morrall instead places that verbal index of the artist’s interests against his emerging religious environment of the nascent Reformation in the city, placing it in his longest and most sensitive chapter, on Protestant images and contrasting Breu’s goals of social reform with Rychssner’s radical Church reforms. Cuneo sees the artist chiefly through a social lens, whereas Morrall suggests that the social commitments of Breu interact with and reinforce his spirituality, an evangelical faith founded on what this individual took to be the social message of Christ among the people.
Morrall’s Breu is more than a painter; he makes woodcuts and drawings as well, particularly for stained glass, and this visual analysis is invariably sprinkled with enlightening comparisons to other Augsburg artists, especially Burgkmair, as well as Dürer and other appropriate comparisons. Morrall emphasizes Breu’s versatile, eclectic utilization of style in accord with his visual theme, as he explores the reasons for this Augsburg artist to employ Italian forms in a largely domestic German city art world. Sometimes the reason is patronage, well stressed already by Cuneo, especially from the upward-striving Fugger patrons, whose Chapel is the site of the major commission of the organ wings and their music subjects. Morrall also interrogates Breu’s Italian visual sources, chiefly prints, along with earlier visual sources in German woodcuts. Thus his work deftly combines traditional monographic focus on issues of documentation and style (though not development, since style so often is conditioned by a commission’s requirements), while also noting the contingent circumstances and ideological thrust of each particular assignment.
Typically, this book begins with art works and draws its conclusions from careful analysis of their form and content, gauged in comparison with their sources, comparable contemporary images with similar forms or themes, as well as a larger sense of the cultural significance of such works in a German Reformation-era context (one particularly subtle section is Morrall’s sorting of the various connotations and symbolic valences of German imperial infantry soldiers, sometimes praised patriotically but sometimes excoriated for their license, pp. 154-73, all in the service of understanding the unconventional choice by Breu to clothe the unrepentent thief on the cross as such a soldier). Further to this, one should see the article by Cuneo on Breu’s roundels, designs for stained glass at Maximilian’s Lermos hunting-lodge, in her recent anthology (Leiden: Brill, 2002), Artful Armies, Beautiful Battles. Art and Warfare in Early Modern Europe (where Morrall has his own stimulating article on “Soldiers and Gypsies”). These are not rival scholars!
Morrall’s work is always learned and careful, well-researched and clearly argued, but it also is especially well grounded. His monograph builds work by work, assembling a cumulative structure out of component parts. In Morrall’s book the artworks themselves reveal the range of the artist’s interests, audiences, and situations of particular commissions. Morrall’s Breu is an artist who adjusts to requirements of an assignment, including adopting of a given style to suit a particular subject and a patron’s individual expectations. Breu remains a committed Protestant and champion of the poor like Cuneo’s Breu, someone who is also engaged with domestic decoration, altarpieces and devotional imagery, and historical subjects for princes and locals alike. His sources and cultural notions are localized in a wonderfully rich range of materials, including lay drama, meditational handbooks, typography and musical notation, religious polemics, and other literature.
This book on Breu is far more than a case study, despite its insight on such little-studied material. It becomes a study of Reformation-era art in its social setting with the rare voice of a maker here to amplify this contribution. It also is one of the very first examples of ‘stylistics’ as a tool to understand the use of different styles for different purposes. Italian ornament in particular is usually assumed to spread by inevitable diffusion, displacing with its cultural prestige the native and naive styles of Germany, the Netherlands, or France; however, Morrall gives us critical tools for assessing either the choice or the rejection (Breu does both) of Italian forms as discursive elements in an artwork, and as part of content. Scholars outside this period and place may find instructive method and comparable situations to their own artistic choices.
University of Pennsylvania