Schongauer scholars should be forewarned: despite its ample visuals, this tome definitely is not a life-and-works monograph, like the exemplary 2004 study by Stephan Kemperdick. Instead, as a Habilitation thesis (Bochum), it bears the suitably complex subtitle, “Art and Science under the Primacy of Sight” (Kunst und Wissenschaft unter dem Primat des Sehens). To summarize such a learned study is not easy; readers will want to know that the focus on seeing chiefly emphasizes the paintings of the Colmar master (1445-91) but also his training as a pictor doctus.
Heinrichs characterizes Schongauer as a proto-humanist and reasserts his primacy in the German-speaking art world of the late fifteenth century. His entry at the University of Leipzig in 1465 provides a bit of evidence. Certainly his knowledge of nature, already underscored by Fritz Koreny in his study of the Schongauer Peony (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; plate 8), offers an artistic foundation, carried on by Dürer. Heinrichs lays out further claims about the contemporary intellectual setting for this art, using the printed Schatzbehalter(Nuremberg, 1491) by Franciscan Stephan Fridolin as an exemplary structured memory system, which united religious picture theory with visual and verbal aesthetics. She invokes both Aristotle and Hugh of St. Victor to establish the ways that image logic – “seeing” – could provide both learning and contemplation for an adept late medieval beholder. She also claims that these ambitions informed the artist’s achievements in light and color in his paintings as well as the perspective illusion in his prints. Certainly she discounts the importance of any linear artistic development, except to note improvement in his illusion and control of natural details.
The bulk of the book focuses on individual works as case studies of this larger argument. Particularly noteworthy chapters: the 1473 Colmar Madonna in the Rose Bower (121-58; plate 10 ff.) for the use of color in natural allegory; the climactic 1491 Breisach Last Judgement mural (419-58; plate 44 ff.) as an image to move spiritual emotions and insight through its experience within the physical space of the viewer; and a case study of light as spiritual metaphor in small-scale Andachtsbilder, using the small Madonna and Child in the Window(259-90; plate 2, Peter Moores Foundation, Warwickshire; a good comparison image is now in the Getty). For the most part, these close analyses are augmented with associations to the learning and religious experience conveyed by these works of art. Among the prints, both individual works – Flight into Egypt (210-20), Madonna with the Parrot (259-62), Death of the Virgin (313-23) – and print series receive attention. But for the most part these are considered within the framework of color, naturalism, or their function as devotional images and freely admixed with the general arguments. A final glance at the Censer and the Crozier (389-418) views those engravings within the concept of the beautiful object.
Yet to this reader, while the contemporary intellectual arsenal of religious thought can be enlightening, Heinrichs’s insistence on its direct pertinence for these several visual experiences still seems tendentious. The relevance of the theological background often seems to be free-floating, unconnected to the imagery, and the purported humanism often seems marginal. A similar arsenal of religious learning and pious practice was argued as the basis of Altdorfer’s religious prints in another recently published Habilitationsschrift (Göttingen): Thomas Noll, Albrecht Altdorfer in seiner Zeit (Munich/Berlin, 2004; reviewed in this journal November 2006). Under the pressure of some German art history institutions or advisers the remarkable learning necessary to get beyond mere iconographic or pictorial analysis threatens to overwhelm the experience of the objects themselves. While Heinrichs does attend to pictorial traditions and thematic precedents of these images, she often seems to reify their pictorial goals, using such concepts as (for the prints) “perspective and movement as variatio-motifs” or “movement and variety as artistic categories.” As noted, the distinction between prints and paintings dissolves within this overall approach.
Thus Heinrichs’s title does not mislead: this is indeed Kunst-wissenschaft that applies the same theoretical ambitions of German art history from a century ago, even though grounded here in a more historicized intellectual universe of late medieval religion. Primarily this study still deals in abstractions, such as the subtitle’s “primacy of seeing,” and such concepts seem to work better (and perhaps more convincingly) in German than in English. Schongauer the intellectual artist seems to be less in view than Heinrichs the learned scholar. One is still left to marvel about the fact (already noted by Vasari) that Schongauer’s great engraving of The Tribulations of St. Anthony (fig. 88) would go on to become the first experiment in painting (recently rediscovered; now Kimbell Museum, Fort Worth) by the young Michelangelo.
(As a reviewer, I apologize to both author and publisher for the lateness and the brevity of this review, but this is a dense and complex book, very difficult to summarize, although rich in specific insights and, as noted, impressively erudite.)
University of Pennsylvania