Truth in packaging. This book, based on the author’s 2001Habilitationschrift, delivers what its title promises. Beginning with a sketch of Altdorfer historiography as well as period religion, it claims to rehabilitate the basic purpose of the artist’s religious paintings within their moment, in contrast to recent scholars who have seen Altdorfer as either the founder of landscape painting or even of the modern artist’s self-assertion. Perhaps such interpretive disputations ultimately come down to scholarly temperament – theorist or historicist, seeking origins or finding contexts, even choosing landscape or religious figures as an object of study. Bushart’s viewpoint comes clear at the outset: to offer a strong case for the value of trying to recover Altdorfer’s own religious purposes – her version of the artist’s “way of seeing” (Bob Scribner) or of Baxandall’s “period eye” through a lens of spirituality at this problematic transitional moment of religious imagery.
Unlike Dürer’s theoretical treatises, Altdorfer left no documentation to show his attitude about art-making. Bushart argues for an enduring symbolic presence in these religious works over any goal of naturalism. She defines these images as physical manifestations of spiritual conceptualization (Gerson’s imagines for mental imaginationes) in ongoing response to Reformation-era challenges to religious imagery. Discussing the process of moving from visual Sehen to conceptualSchauen, she distinguishes between formats and subjects of each kind of picture and studies every separate category: small-format devotional imagery; affective epitaphs and altarpieces; and inventive prints. She makes the larger claim that these images stress a meditative encounter with the religious subjects by the pious beholder, and she pays particular attention to the viewer standpoint relative to the depictions, e.g. unconventional spatial arrangements in Crucifixions or in the massive building with multiple scenes, the 1526 Susannah and the Elders (Munich).
The first chapter analyzes the artist’s social-climbing ambitions and intellectual pretensions within his creative roles for varied patrons, including local scholars and the Emperor Maximilian. Bushart critically reviews earlier chronologies and hypotheses of origins and asserts the presence of a larger Altdorfer workshop (e.g. the older Historia Master) as well as distinctive procedures for each commission. The second chapter analyzes Altdorfer’s use of avant-garde models (Dürer, Mantegna), especially for private images in prints, but it argues that such naturalism also often upheld religious imagery, including famous icons (Madonnas ascribed to St. Luke) and religious experience of narratives. Bushart devotes extended attention to the subjective experience of Altdorfer’s small woodcut series, the Sin and Salvation of Humanity (ca. 1513) and to religious effects in the St. Florian Passion Altarpiece, through both its meaningful use of light as well as close adherence to prophetic texts. Significantly, she is the first scholar to offer systematic analysis of Altdorfer’s contribution with leading peers to Maximilian’s Prayerbook, finding it comparable to, and aware of Dürer’s own inventive dialogue with the texts. She also reminds us of how uncertain are the “facts” surrounding even Altdorfer’s most celebrated works, notably the St. Florian Passion Altarpiece, for which (using Czerny’s research of the 1880s) she recalls a connection of Maximilian to the monastery and to the Sebastian cult of its provost (Propst), Peter Maurer.
Altdorfer also used contemporary devotional literature, and his versions of Passion or Infancy narratives provide a dialogue with interactive pious adepts, a parallel process to verbal texts, such as Ulrich Pinder and Geiler von Kaysersberg and the rich Gospel retelling by Ludolph of Saxony. Bushart steeps herself in this material as she posits essentially late medieval images by Altdorfer. This makes her scholarship a summa of our understanding of such purposes, following Suckale and Hamburger. One could argue that in the process Altdorfer’s virtuosity and self-consciousness get downplayed, but Bushart also indicates how much his awareness of other leading artists (including older ones, esp. Schongauer) shows their common religious enterprise.
Within her larger vision, important new investigations of particular works or religious figures emerge. Particularly fascinated by Altdorfer’s matchless Birth of the Virgin (Munich), she notes the important role of St. Joseph (using Gerson) and the ring of angels within the novel church interior (rejected as Hieber’s planned church of the Schöne Maria in favor of a symbolic ecclesia, but these references are mutually compatible) and the related woodcut, Holy Family by a Fountain. She also notes the conceptual overlap between Susannah’s palace garden and the medieval Marian symbolic paradise, drawing traditional allegorical connections of chastity and ultimate judgment, but she goes further to argue for the process of viewing all of the narrative details of the Munich panel as a kind of theatrum mundi, imbedded in the temptations and deceptions of worldly senses. Discussing the Magdalene as a model of affective piety in several later Passion paintings, Bushart compares her conversion to that of the good thief (they even align in the Nuremberg and Berlin Crucifixions), even as she also foregrounds the good thief as a recurrent image of the choice of virtue and reception of grace. She also sensitively brings out implicit, if persistent, attitudes of anti-Semitism in the Passion imagery and slippage between biblical Jews and contemporary Turks as the enemies of the faith. Bushart even discerns in the distant background of several religious paintings a few tiny donor figures, included like pious epitaphs but nearly invisible (and unremarked by earlier scholars). Finally she revisits several other paintings that demand viewer (connoisseur-collector) competence and close inspection (Allegory, 1531, Berlin), emphasizing Altdorfer’s use of astrological prognostications, and she considers how his erotic imagery, like Baldung’s, implicates (courtly) viewer concupiscence.
Bushart concludes by considering the illusionism and originality of the artist’s late works against transformation of the nature and roles of art, criticized by Reformers of the era. But in her view Altdorfer’s landscapes should not be viewed anachronistically as the prelude to modernity and art’s autonomy, but rather as a basic allegorical component of religious content (a view that this reviewer also espoused earlier). She insists that close inspection of each religious image only reinforces her conviction, despite his innovations, that Altdorfer’s images cannot be viewed as autonomous art. This mature, systematic investigation of both artworks and contemporary religion makes her case powerfully persuasive.
University of Pennsylvania