Just over a century ago the German-educated Swedish art historian Johnny Roosval attributed the famous sculpture in the Church of St. Nicholas in Stockholm of St. George Slaying the Dragon to the Lübeck artist Bernt Notke (Johnny Roosval, “Die St. Georgs-Gruppe der Stockholmer Nikolaikirche im Historischen Museum zu Stockholm”, in Jahrbuch der Königlich Preussischen Kunstsammlungen 27, 1906, 106-117). It was partly due to this masterpiece that Notke’s star rose to great heights, and claims that Notke was the Veit Stoss or even Michelangelo of the North quickly followed. Until recently, Roosval’s assumption was repeated with hardly any critique from art historians. In 2009, the city of Lübeck celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of Notke, “one of the most outstanding painters and sculptors of the Baltic region” (www.unser-luebeck.de). In the same year, an international conference was devoted to Notke at the University of Tallinn, which celebrated him as “one of the most well known and innovative artists in the late-medieval Baltic Sea region”. In his most recent book, Peter Tångeberg, Sweden’s leading specialist in medieval wooden sculpture, has convincingly shown, however, that Notke cannot have created the famous sculpture in Stockholm. All evidence, Tångeberg argues, points to the origins of the sculpture being in the Netherlands. Given the monumentality and outstanding quality of the piece, this conclusion has serious implications for the history of Netherlandish art: a lost masterpiece has finally been retrieved.
Tångeberg does not jump to conclusions. He devotes the first chapter to a critical review of earlier literature on Bernt Notke and the Stockholm statue. Tångeberg cautiously debunks the arguments of art historians of the distant and closer past by showing that these were all based on an ill-founded twofold premise, namely that 1) Lübeck was the most prominent centre of art production in the medieval Baltic Sea region, and 2) a work of such outstanding quality as the Stockholm St. George statue must naturally have been created by the most important artist of medieval Lübeck, Bernt Notke. The only author who stood up to these arguments was the Dane Erik Moltke, to whom Tångeberg has dedicated his book. In 1967, Moltke wrote that Bernt Notke “als Künstler ist er uns unbekannt” (“as an artist he is unknown to us”; Erik Moltke, “Der Totentanz in Tallinn (Reval) und Bernt Notke”, in Nordisk medeltid. Konsthistoriska studier tillägnade Armin Tuulse, Uppsala 1967, 321-327). Established art historians in Germany vehemently opposed Moltke’s scepticism because they wished to preserve Notke’s genius. They hardly addressed Moltke’s arguments, however. Tångeberg has now taken Moltke’s side by questioning the basis for our knowledge of Notke as an artist. Existing documentary evidence highlights Notke’s role as an entrepreneur in the art market. It remains uncertain whether he even picked up a pencil or chisel at all. Due to Tångeberg’s patient and well-chosen formulations, the first two chapters of his book read like a piece of “investigative journalism”: not only is the artist Bernt Notke demythologized but so is the research on Notke and, by extension, art history as a scientific discipline.
After his demolition of the house of cards of assumptions and attributions, Tångeberg builds his own argument in chapters 3, 4 and 5, which form the art-historical core of the book. The focus here is on the sculpture itself, which the author enthusiastically describes as “wahrhaftig ein merkwürdiges und großartiges Kunstwerk” (“truly a remarkable and outstanding work of art”, p. 50). Tångeberg is systematic and detailed in his analysis of the sculpture in terms of style (faces, hairstyle, pleating), forms and motifs (dragon, lamb, princess) and materials (gems, polychromy, gilding and applied objects). A comparison to the few works in which Notke was in some way involved leads Tångeberg to the conclusion: “So spricht nichts dafür, dass Bernt Notke irgend etwas mit der St.-Georgs-Gruppe der Stockholmer Nikolaikirche zu tun hatte – weder archivalische Belege, noch stilistische, formale, motivische oder technische Eigenschaften des Werkes” (“Nothing speaks for Notke having had anything to do with the sculptural group of St. George in St. Nicholas’s church in Stockholm – neither documental nor in any stylistic, formal, or technical characteristics of the work, or in the use of motifs”, p. 89). Tångeberg then shows convincingly that the style, composition, forms, motifs and fashions are most closely related to the art of the Netherlands, including the Lower Rhine area. An origin in this region is also suggested by a record from 1629, in which the Swedish Renaissance scholar Jacobus Messenius states that the St. George sculpture was ordered from the most suitable artist in the city of Antwerp. Although this might not be conclusive proof in a legal sense, it is a convincing conclusion to Tångeberg’s case. The author is patient and restrained throughout the book. This is illustrated in the way he stresses that one should keep in mind that, despite a great deal of material evidence, direct parallels in preserved Netherlandish art are lacking.
Peter Tångeberg’s study of the Stockholm St. George group is an important book. His critique of the method and ideology of – primarily German – art history makes this book relevant beyond its status as a monographic study. His conclusions, furthermore, lead to several far-reaching new insights. Most importantly, the Stockholm St. Georgeshows that Sweden’s position in European cultural history was not marginal, as is so often (implicitly) assumed. According to this assumption, in the Middle Ages, the barely Christianized Baltic Sea region would have been civilized from Lübeck. Tångeberg’s book suggests, however, that it was social position, and not geographical location, that defined the art that was produced and much more than geographical location, it was the social position and purchased in a specific place. Around the year 1500, the Swedish ruling class knew perfectly well, as did the French and English – and Lübeck! – elite where the most outstanding art works in Northern Europe were to be found: in Antwerp. This revelation deepens our appreciation of the city’s role and of the Netherlands in general in the production and reception of art. The book is written in German but it has an extensive summary in Swedish (pp. 125-133). It is to be hoped that an English translation will follow soon, so that Tångeberg’s important conclusions can find their way to an even broader audience.
Justin E.A. Kroesen
University of Groningen