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Title Altarpiece with 45 Scenes of the Apocalypse
Collection Victoria and Albert Museum
Artist Bertram von Minden (German painter, illuminator and possibly woodcarver, died 1414 or 1415)
Date Earliest probably about 1395
Date Latest probably about 1405
Description Altarpieces with scenes from the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of St John the Divine (the Apocalypse), are rare. The cycle of scenes on this incomplete altarpiece is derived from a manuscript of the Commentary on the Apocalypse by a Saxon friar, Alexander, of c.1242. Internal iconographic and stylistic evidence suggests an origin in Hamburg and to the workshop of Master Bertram von Minden who worked in Hamburg, painting in various churches towards the end of the 14th century.
Museum Number 5940-1859
Subject figure; religion (The Day of Judgement; Apocalypse)
Measurements 137 × 167.6 cm (centre piece with frame); 137 × 83 cm (wings with frame)
Material tempera and gilt on panel transferred to canvas
Acquisition Details Purchased 1859 for £50.
Publications Kauffmann, C.M., Catalogue of Foreign Paintings, I. Before 1800, London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1973, p. 30-34, cat. no. 31; Max Hasse, 'Die Parler und der schöne Stil 1350-1400', Europäische Kunst unter den Luxemburgern, Köln, 1978, p. 530; Max Hasse, 'Der Apokalypse-Altar (Johannes-Altar) im Victoria und Albert Museum zu London', Niederdeutsche Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte, 19, 1980, pp. 125-36; Costaras, N, and Turnbull, R. "Master Bertram's Apocalypse Triptych: To clean or not to clean", in V&A Conservation Journal, London, Autumn VA_PC_2009/10, number 58, pp. 47-49.
Notes See Kauffmann 1973 for a full account. Edited from Kauffman:

'The painting is no longer in its original state. The story of the Apocalypse comes to an end at Chapter 16, leaving Chapters 17-22 untold, which suggest that the painting is no longer complete. This supposition is strengthened by the condition of the inscription, which has been cut at some time. Originally each scene had an inscription, contained in the horizontal and vertical bands dividing the picture surface, at the top and on the right. ... The painted surface was transferred from panel onto several layers of canvas before the painting was acquired by the Museum in 1859. The scenes now on the back, therefore, need not originally have occupied this position, although they may well have done so. ... It is certain that, when the painting was transferred onto canvas, it was cut down and the inscriptions trimmed off at the top and sides. The frame is probably original, though it too was cut down. ... The painting was acquired as Flemish work and it was regarded as Flemish until it was published in Alfred Lichtwark's monograph on Master Bertram in 1904. Lichtwark attributed the scenes of the Virgin and Mary Magdalen on the back of the wings to Bertram's own hand but was doubtful about the authorship of the rest of the work. The attribution to Bertram himself has not been accepted by subsequent scholars, but the difference in style between the front and the back is clearly discernible. It may be that two different hands are involved but it is at least equally likely that this difference in style can be explained by (1) the extent of the 19th century repainting, which appears to have affected the front, especially the centre panel, more than the back, and (2) the fact that the Apocalypse scenes were copied from illuminated manuscripts, which accounts for the reduced scale and overcrowded appearance of the compartments on the font. Whatever the reasons, it is the scenes on the back that are closest to the style of Master Bertram, and in particular they resemble the Buxtehude altar-piece (Hamburg, Kunsthalle). This is now held to be by a follower of Bertram, probably c.1400, and it seems reasonable to date 5940-1859 in the same period.

...The cycle of scenes on the front is derived from an illustrated manuscript of a Commentary on the Apocalypse written by Alexander, a Saxon friar, in c.1242. This Commentary is a thorough attempt to explain the Apocalypse in historical terms. ... The decisive belief animating the Commentary is Franciscan, and at the end the Heavenly Jerusalem is identified with the coming of the Friars.

Both the inscriptions and the pictures on the front of the altar-piece are directly derived from a manuscript of Alexander's Commentary. The most striking characteristic of the Alexander illustrations is provided by the ‘double-headed' figures, each of which represents the relevant character of the Apocalypse, together with the historical personage with whom he was identified in the commentary (scenes 17, 19, 20, 35, 41, 42). Of the five extant illustrated manuscripts of Alexander's Commentary, the altar-piece is most closely related to that in the University Library, Cambridge (MS. Mm. v. 31; Saxony, late 13th century).

... The scenes of the life of the Virgin are closely related to those on the Grabow and Buxtehude Altar-pieces in the Hamburg Kunsthalle, and doubtless derive from a pattern-book of the Master Bertram workshop.

Nothing is recorded of the provenance, but strong internal evidence points to the Friary of Mary Magdalen in Hamburg. The Franciscan nature of Alexander's Commentary indicates that the altar-piece was painted for a Franciscan (or possibly Dominican) foundation. The choice of saints on the back points to a foundation dedicated to either St Giles or Mary Magdalen. Geographically, the evidence of the style, closely linked with Bertram's workshop in Hamburg, and that of the iconography, derived from a Saxon manuscript of a commentary written in Lower Saxony, converges on Lower Saxony. A review of the religious houses in North Germany, from Bremen and Hanover to Lübeck and Kiel, enables one to exclude the Dominicans and the foundations dedicated to St Giles, and leaves the evidence pointing to Hamburg, which contained the only Friary in the whole of Western Europe dedicated to St Mary Magdalen.'

See also Lara Wilson, 'Master Bertram attr., The Apocalypse, Museum no. 5940-1859', interim conservation report, 1 July 2006, V&A Department of Paintings Conservation.
Rights Owner © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Author Ana Debenedetti
 

 

 

 

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