Brigitte Buberl (ed.), Conrad von Soest. Neue Forschungen über den Maler und die Kulturgeschichte der Zeit um 1400(Dortmunder Mittelalter-Forschungen. Schriften der Conrad-von-Soest-Gesellschaft. Verein zur Förderung der Erforschung der Dortmunder Kulturleistungen im Spätmittelalter, ed. by Thomas Schilp and Barbara Welzel, 1). Bielefeld: Verlag für Regionalgeschichte, 2004. 208 pp, 5 color plates, 85 b&w illus. ISBN 3-89534-521-0.
Barbara Welzel, Thomas Lentes, Heike Schlie (eds.), Das “Goldene Wunder” in der Dortmunder Petrikirche. Bildgebrauch und Bildproduktion im Mittelalter (Dortmunder Mittelalter-Forschungen. Schriften der Conrad-von-Soest-Gesellschaft. Verein zur Förderung der Erforschung der Dortmunder Kulturleistungen im Spätmittelalter, ed. by Thomas Schilp and Barbara Welzel, 2). Bielefeld: Verlag für Regionalgeschichte, 2004. 264 pp, 42 color plates, 70 b&w illus. ISBN 3-89534-522-9.
Thomas Schilp and Barbara Welzel (eds.), Dortmund und Conrad von Soest im spätmittelalterlichen Europa(Dortmunder Mittelalter-Forschungen. Schriften der Conrad-von-Soest-Gesellschaft. Verein zur Förderung der Erforschung der Dortmunder Kulturleistungen im Spätmittelalter, ed. by Thomas Schilp and Barbara Welzel, 3). Bielefeld: Verlag für Regionalgeschichte, 2004. 328 pp, 31 color plates, 84 b&w illus. ISBN 3-89534-533-4.
The three titles reviewed here constitute the proceedings of three conferences, published over only two years by the Verlag für Regionalgeschichte in its series, “Dortmunder Mittelalter-Forschungen. Schriften der Conrad-von-Soest-Gesellschaft. Verein zur Förderung der Erforschung der Dortmunder Kulturleistungen im Spätmittelalter,” edited by Thomas Schilp and Barbara Welzel. Volumes 1 and 3 contain important contributions on Conrad von Soest, an artist whose life and work remains to be investigated in detail. Volume 2 is dedicated to the Eucharist Altarpiece, the so-called “Goldenes Wunder” [golden miracle] in the Petrikirche in Dortmund, the largest surviving Antwerp retable of the early sixteenth century.
Conrad von Soest, who most likely resided in Dortmund, is certainly the most famous and independent Westphalian painter in the fifteenth century. His key works are the signed and dated altarpiece in the city parish church of Bad Wildungen (1403), and the Marian altarpiece of c.1420 in the Marienkirche in Dortmund. A surviving contract of 1394 records that the wealthy couple, Conrad von Soest and Gertrud van Münster, married in Dortmund, witnessed by the city’s most distinguished burghers. The “Goldenes Wunder” was commissioned in 1521 by the Franciscans of Dortmund for the high altar of their Klosterkirche, situated close to the city walls. Since 1809, following the destruction of the Franciscan church, the altarpiece has been in the Protestant Petrikirche in the center of Dortmund, receiving far too little recognition. These volumes of conference proceedings set themselves the ambitious task of considering new areas of research through a continuous discussion of interrelated themes, and of opening up new perspectives. All three contain excellent color plates and black-and-white comparative illustrations.
Volume 1, Conrad von Soest, contains the proceedings of the conference held in Dortmund on November 9, 2001, at the initiative of Arthur Engelbert, founder of the Conrad-von-Soest-Gesellschaft. Brigitte Buberl’s Introduction is in the form of a status questionis, while the nine essays that follow concern themselves with the religious structures of late-medieval and eighteenth-century Dortmund, with artistic practices and techniques, stylistic development and grouping, as well as with issues such as what constitutes “ideal” and “real” in visual representation. What emerges is a multifaceted image of the artist, his world, and reception – a varied package further developed in the third volume of the series.
The historian Thomas Schilp focuses on forms of religious and spiritual thought in the late-medieval town. He suggests that it was primarily the commemoration of death and dying that provided the conception for groups of donors, who competed with each other for appropriate space in the church. Even the ecclesiastical institutions surrounding the donors were in competition. This leads Schilp to interpret the hidden inscription in the open book on the lectern in Conrad’s Death of the Virgin not as the signature of a self-confident artist, but as a reflection of his concern for the salvation of his soul. The author goes on to suggest that the Marian altarpiece was likely commissioned by the congregation of the parish church and the city council, and not – as Brigitte Corley believes – by the Marian Confraternity, which was dominated by patrician families.
Based on his examination of almost all of the works by Von Soest with infrared reflectography, the restorer Ingo Sandner comments on the artist’s working procedure. Among his conclusions are that the painter did not make detailed underdrawings, but set down his main forms with “bunches” of lines, the final surface precision being achieved in the paint layers. It remains to be seen, according to Sandner, whether this free transference of design was common practice, or whether methods of tracing were applied as early as the first half of the fifteenth century. He suggests that the underdrawings were executed with a pointed brush or a metal stylus, rather than charcoal – a practice likely derived from manuscript illumination.
Rather than following the common assumption that Conrad’s art was dependent on that of the Limbourg brothers, Brigitte Corley – based on previously published research – recognizes a relationship to the miniatures in the Très belles heures of the Parement Master, with which Conrad only could have become acquainted as a member of the miniaturist’s Parisian workshop. In light of more recent discoveries, Barbara Welzel stresses the “dense intertwining of artistic contacts between Flanders and France in the years before and after 1400,” as well as the traveling habits and marriage politics of the courts, which contributed to territorial interlinking. Thus, Welzel argues, Conrad’s presence in a specific Parisian workshop is a mute point. Comparison of his works with miniatures in the Limbourg brothers’ Très riches heures demonstrates the high quality and international position of the Dortmund painter. Welzel proceeds to outline the close connections between Dortmund and Paris, the former being a trading city, as well as Hansestadt and imperial city, which had regained its self confidence after the Great Feud of 1388-1390. Conrad’s stylistic idioms, ideal of beauty and sense of courtly fashion thus derive from Franco-Flemish court art, familiar to the artist from sketchbooks, among other sources.
Uta Hengelhaupt takes issue with the view, as expressed by Wilhelm Worringer in 1924, that it was Conrad’s essential achievement “to have introduced a foreign element of French-Burgundian art into Westphalian provincial art.” Hengelhaupt presupposes that “the transmission of stylistic developments” in Europe at the time of the international Gothic was achieved not by individuals, but at a much broader level – “a phenomenon difficult to recognize today, influenced as we are in our view by the accident of survival.” She convincingly demonstrates the significant impact of Sienese painting on Westphalian art during the fourteenth century – an influence she also claims for Conrad von Soest.
Annemarie Stauffer establishes an Italian connection in Conrad’s depiction of fabrics, focusing on their topicality and change in the course of the artist’s career, as well as on their documentary value and symbolic meaning. While Conrad depicts traditional, heraldically inspired fabrics in the Wildung Altarpiece, the Dortmund Altarpiecedisplays fashionably sumptuous silks from Lucca or Venice – a choice, Stauffer suspects, made by the patrons.
Volume 2 on Das “Goldene Wunder” documents the conference held in Dortmund in May 2003, under the auspices of several institutions. The varied approaches of the eleven essays are designed to stimulate further research on the “Goldenes Wunder.” The contributors analyze questions of cultural history and religious topography of late-medieval Dortmund, as well as documentary sources on the retable (the name of the carver of the shrine is recorded), issues related to workshop cooperation and working techniques of different studios, and involvement of the patron. Several essays serve to decode the iconography of the astonishing and complex pictorial program. Among its discoveries, the conference revealed that the figures of Peter and Paul, as patron saints of the Franciscan monastery, were part of the original altarpiece. The volume also reproduces for the first time photographs that trace the transformation of the retable, as well as the text of the contract in modern German.
Barbara Welzel discusses the history of the Dortmund altarpiece whose function and meaning are difficult to reconstruct after the secularization of 1803. The main altar apparently was the product of the efforts of many individuals – minor as well as prominent donors. Welzel evokes the social unity that was created between the parties, and emphasizes the importance of shared ownership of images in the coherence of groups. In a similar vein, Thomas Schilp argues that Reinoldus, the city’s patron saint, was instrumental in establishing a common identity. In medieval Dortmund, which saw itself as a religious community where ecclesiastical and charitable institutions competed with each other, the Eucharist Altarpiece can thus be understood as the Franciscans’ response to the Dominicans’ retable by Derik Baegert of the 1470s. Schilp further argues that both altarpieces were situated behind roodscreens, thus fully visible only to members of the convent, though he assumes that congregants were able to see parts of them through the roodscreens. This leads him to suggest that it may have been the “remoteness” together with “the possibility of partial visual perception” that made the retable into the “Golden Miracle” of Westphalia, the name by which it is still known.
We owe our knowledge of the identity of the carver of the altarpiece, Jan Gillisz Wrage, to Nils Büttner. Wrage, Büttner reveals, had a large workshop and adequate financial resources to procure materials for the project on advance. The carved components of the retable were considered the most important, liturgically as well as artistically. Surprisingly, only two other Antwerp carvers are known by name: Jan de Molder and Jan Genoots. According to Godehard Hoffmann, Jan Gillisz Wrage and the painter of the altarpiece, Adriaen van Overbeke, were contractors who, due to their iconographic knowledge and innovative approach, were able to attract and advise patrons. Hoffmann stresses the importance of the altarpiece beyond its liturgical function, since the pictorially relevant texts were not only accessible to the Franciscans but also to the literate public (in the vernacular). Because of this broad potential use, Hoffmann considers the original location of the altarpiece as yet unresolved. Though the retable originates from the beginning of the Reformation, its iconographic program, Hoffmann points out, does not address the heated debate over the meaning of the Eucharist, but rather expresses a “lavish summation of traditional, ecclesiastic perceptions with a demonstrative gesture.”
Using the carefully thought-out program of the Franciscan altarpiece in Dortmund-Kirchlinde, Elisabeth Tillmann questions the often derogatory assumptions made about serial manufacture and mass production of Antwerp carved retables, whereas Ulrich Schäfer focuses on the division of labor in Antwerp carving workshops. Esther Meier and Heike Schlie both address the centrally depicted Mass of Saint Gregory, while Susan Marti discusses the function of the Mass in women’s convents and the adaptation made to pictorial formulae according to the recipients. Finally, Thomas Lentes offers new objectives for future research, arguing against the traditional concept of visual piety (Schaufrömmigkeit).
Volume 3, Dortmund und Conrad von Soest, contains the proceedings of the conference, organized by several German institutions, held in Dortmund in January 2004. Picking up on the approach initiated in Volume 1, Thomas Schilp, Barbara Welzel and their fellow contributors aim to place Conrad von Soest in a European and interdisciplinary context. Especially welcome among the diverse historical and art historical offerings is an examination of Conrad’s place within the social-historical milieu, and of the position of journeymen within the painting profession. The volume also publishes the marriage contract between Conrad von Soest and Gertrud van Münster, with transcription and translation.
The book opens with a discussion by Otto Gerhard Oexle on the culture of memory, which aims to reveal something about our own culture and that of the medieval past. In “Von Winckelmann bis zur Berliner Schule,” Gabriele Bickendorf examines and criticizes the inner dichotomy of German art historians – between the Germanization of the discipline on the one hand and an artistic ideal committed to Italy on the other. While the Italian origin of art history has been denied, she argues, the attempt to create a consistent history of German art has failed. Robert Suckale focuses on Cologne painting of the second half of the fourteenth century, demonstrating that an artistic transformation took place around the 1360s through the processing of Franco-Flemish models. This Cologne school, in which Suckale places Conrad von Soest as its most independent master, together with the art of Bohemia, stimulated the “ascent” of painting in Germany.
Going beyond Thomas Schilp’s contribution to the second volume here under review, Wilfried Ehbrecht discusses the holy city of Jerusalem as the model and goal of medieval urban society. Using Master Bertram’s altarpiece for the high altar of Sankt Petri in Hamburg (now Hamburger Kunsthalle), Iris Grötecke discusses the relationship between biblical narrative and the experiences of the viewer. Wilfried Reininghaus addresses the question of painters’ and craftsmen’s journeys, strengthening the previously expressed suggestion that Conrad traveled to Paris. Birgit Franke discusses French art around 1400 through the themes of magnificence and the virtue of splendor.
Nils Büttner considers the signatures and subtle references to Conrad von Soest in the opened books in the Wildung Annunciation andPentecost, as well as in the Dortmund Death of the Virgin, not so much as explicit provisions for the hereafter, as Schilp suggests (in Volume 1), but as simple memorials. Comparison between Conrad’s signature on the frame of the Wildung altarpiece and Jan van Eyck’s authenticated signatures leads Büttner to question the authenticity – as others have before – of the inscription on the frame of the Ghent altarpiece.
Martin Büchsel broadens the discussion to analyze the artistic interconnectedness of Dortmund, Prague, Bruges, and Tournai. In her social-historical study, Monika Fehse, contrary to Brigitte Corley, excludes (with considerable certainty) the possibility that Conrad von Soest married a second time. She presents the image of a Dortmund burgher who may have been already advanced in years when, in 1394, he married Gertrud van Münster, who originated from the Münster nobility. With his considerable wealth, which could have been acquired only through trade – possibly international trade of pigments, and, consequently, with the ability to make large donations, Conrad should be seen, Fehse asserts, as a person elevated to the patrician circle. Thomas Schilp analyzes the political and urban culture of medieval Dortmund. Finally, in her discussion of the function of Conrad’s Marian images, Barbara Welzel refers to her essay in Volume 1, as well as to Oexle’s opening contribution in this volume, thus for the present closing the circle.
Happily, the publication of two more volumes is planned for November 2005, which should offer valuable discoveries, as well as pose new questions in the investigation of German art and culture around 1400.
Freie Universität Berlin
(Translated from the German by Kristin Belkin)