Saturday, January 21, 2012

Hans Multscher - Wings of the Wurzach Altarpiece

Hans Multscher, Wings of the Wurzach Altarpiece, 1437
(Gemaldegalerie, Berlin)

To the uninitiated, a visit to an art museum can be anything from a pleasant interlude to an excruciatingly painful experience but for a lover of art, visiting a great collection is analogous to being handed a piece of heavenly splendor.   I have been lucky enough to find many opportunities to go exploring to my heart's content through some great collections in New York, Istanbul and London but visiting any city for a limited amount of time and having to prioritize among what to survey, always leaves me in a state of panic. During our recent two day trip to Berlin, however, instead of my usual gluttonous approach to absorbing as much as possible, I tried to be present in the moment and relished the little details I came across in the small amount of time I had.

In Art as in Life, beauty and meaning can be found in the little details which can enchant, amuse and enlighten  even the most skeptical individual.  It is one thing to study a work of art methodically and know all there is to know about it but , as a viewer, I believe, we must also be able to interact with it on a more personal level.  Afterall, why do we prefer one work of art over another? What makes one artist more fascinating to us personally than another? What is the secret appeal of art that has some of us in a state of ecstasy while leaving others comatose from boredom?  I hope to reveal my personal insights and experiences as I venture into different museums and special exhibits, in hopes of sharing my joy of art and   what makes it so special and relevant for us all.  I will start with the treasures I recently discovered at the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin...

The Wings of the Wurzach Altarpiece by renowned German sculptor Hans Multscher, which are considered to be one of the most important works of German painting in the first half of the 15th century, are in the first room of the Gemaldegalerie.  Since the lighting in the galleries were not ideal, it was impossible to take good quality photographs; Google Art Project has wonderful visuals of these panels that are definitely worthy of close inspection. 

The wings of the altar piece depicting scenes from Christ's Passion and the Life of Mary, are striking for their Flemish influenced realism and brilliant colors. The intricate detailing reminiscent of  manuscript illuminations  is amazing given the size of the altarpiece.  The artist has started to give the protagonists unique characteristics and use perspective as well as finding charming solutions to problems he was not advanced enough to solve, like Christ's left leg that is supposed to be coming out of the tomb in The Resurrection of Jesus Christ which is concealed beneath the drapery.

The first scene on the upper left of Christ's Passion start with 'Christ on the Mount of Olives'. The disciples  on the left are asleep in varying poses while Christ is praying amidst a field full of flowers.  In the background Judas is leading a group of Roman soldiers towards Christ.  

The next scene on the upper right is 'Christ before Pilate' where Christ is being led towards Pilate by a big crowd.  Pilate is shown washing his hands to signify he is not responsible for the execution.  The figures crowded into the front of the  picture plane all bear different facial expressions.

On the lower left is 'Christ Bearing the Cross' in which Christ bent under the weight of the cross dominates the lower right of the panel.  Virgin Mary, Saint John and the women stand in the back totally powerless while little children throw rocks at him.  There are bones and a skull on the ground foreshadowing Jesus's death.

On the lower right is the scene of the 'Resurrection.'  Jesus ascends from a sealed sarcophagus.  The rocky cave it is supposed to be set in, is alluded to by the rock formations around the tomb. The guards are sleeping on the ground around the tomb.  Christ 's right hand is raised in blessing and he holds a banner of the cross in his left hand as a sing of victory. Christ's left leg is conveniently hidden under the drapery.
Detail of the flowers in Resurrection

The first scene from Mary's life in the upper left is 'Birth of Christ' where Mary and Joseph are kneeling and worshipping the child beneath the roof of the stable.The angel announcing the Lord's birth to the shepherds can be seen in the back while a crowd of men and women are watching from behind a fence with varying expressions.

On the upper right is the 'Adoration of the Kings'. Kings from different age groups and races are all gathered here to present the baby Jesus  with gold and gifts. Joseph seen behind Mary holding a frying pan with their meal brings a dose of pedestrian charm into the picture.

On the lower left is 'The Pentecostal Feast' where Mary sits in the center of a circle with the twelve Apostles in a chapel-like room. The Holy Spirit is depicted hovering over them as a dove, and the its rays are depicted as tiny flames above the heads of the figures.
The last scene on the lower right is 'The Death of Mary' in which Mary is lying at the center, surrounded by the apostles and Christ holding a miniature of his mother as a symbol of her soul. The remarkable realism of the little details and the characteristic of individual figures is especially apparent in this panel. 
Detail from The Death of Mary
Hans Multscher is primarily known as a sculptor and there is some speculation that this one of the reasons this work contains two signatures by him, to ensure its correct authorship.  The altar piece was owned by Count of Waldburg Zeil in Schloss in Wurzag, which is where it gets it's name; the original location is unknown and the central altar that was probably carved, is lost as well.  But what is left of this wonderful work is still incredible to encounter.  


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