AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART XIII: The Klosterneuburg Altar


The names of hundred of artists, along with information about their legal status, families, places they lived, income, commercial dealings, civic and religious activities and clients are preserved in medieval account rolls, censuses, contracts, guild records, chronicles, and legal proceedings. However the majority of them cannot be associated with any of the hundreds of surviving, unsigned and unattributed objects with any certainty. In the case of metalwork, one of the most prestigious and costly of all the medieval arts, an estimated 95% of which was melted down for its metallic value, the number of known works by a documented artist is much smaller, and the number of surviving works even smaller. Therefore, the fact that the name of the aurifrex Nicholas of Verdun is firmly associated with two surviving, monumental, well-preserved examples of 12th-century metalwork is a testament to the artist’s renown and importance in his own time, and among later generations. 

Verdun is located in the lands bounded by the Rhine and Meuse rivers, at the extreme western end of the Germanic empire, in the duchy of Lotharingia. In the 12th-century, the region was known for its metalwork production, particularly champlevé enamels, and complex, often diagrammatic, iconographical programs. When the Augustinian canons of Klosterneuburg, a foundation near Vienna at the extreme eastern end of the empire, wanted to commission an gilded, copper, enameled ambo for a pulpit, they chose the master goldsmith Nicholas of Verdun,¹ his reputation outweighing the difficulties that would be caused by the great distance between patron and artist.

Nicholas probably made the 45 enameled copper panels depicting Old and New Testament scenes at his workshop, which were mounted on the pulpit in three rows and 15 columns, either by an assistant from Nicholas’ shop or a local metalworker, or once they arrived in Klosterneuburg.

As the lengthy dedicatory inscription explains, the ambo’s three rows represent biblical epochs: the first is the time before the Mosaic law (tempus ante legem); the third is the time under the Mosaic law (tempus sub lege); the second is the Christian dispensation of the New Testament (sub gratia). The scenes of the second, New Testament, row depict the life of Christ, from the Annunciation through the Last Judgement, arranged in narrative sequence. The scenes from the Old Testament are arranged asynchronously; their choice and being determined by their figurative or allegorical relationship the New Testament events. This is a visualization of the Christian exegetical mode known as biblical typology, which interprets the events of the Old Testament as allegorical prefigurations of the New Testament, thereby binding the Hebrew Bible to Christian revelation in a mystical, symbolic manner. 

An example of biblical typology that appears frequently on medieval works of art, and appears in the central column of the Klosterneuburg Altar, would be the Sacrifice of Isaac, which was read as the prefiguration of the Crucifixion. This typology was derived in the patristic period from the parallel structures of the stories in which fathers willingly sacrifice their son to fulfill God’s wishes.

Many Mosan enameled liturgical objects including portable altarpieces, candle holders, crosses, pyxes and reliquaries have typological iconographies that pair Old and New Testament scenes to bring out their atemporal, symbolic dimensions ; The program of the Klosterneuburg Altar more ambitiously aligns two Old Testament events for every one New Testament event. To accomplish this, the programmer often was forced to choose many obscure, rarely-depicted Old Testament events, with no iconographical traditions to provide guidance. While the program had to have been devised by a very learned cleric, the figural compositions were surely developed by Nicholas of Verdun. In order to create the 45 individual compositions that use visual rhyme and echo to render the formal structure of the typologies visible, the artist had to have a good working knowledge of biblical typology, an erudite, exegetical practice conducted entirely in Latin by a social and spiritual elite.

Nicholas of Verdun was obviously something of a prodigy, even a star, in the twelfth-century artworld, a better-educated craftsman producing enormously expensive, spectacular works for wealthy patrons.³ He career disproves the still-prevalent stereotype of the medieval artist that sees him as a humble, illiterate artisan who merely carries out the learned programs dictated to him his intellectual and social superiors.

Notes

1.  The dedicatory inscription records the date (1181) and name of the ambo’s patron, Prior Wernher. It also states that following a fire in 1320, which necessitated the refurbishing of the church, the ambo panels were removed from the pulpit and re-fashioned in their current form as an altarpiece. In order for the tripartite structure to fit on the altar, two new columns of typological imagery (8 and 10) had to be devised and produced. While their work is clearly of the 14th-century, the later artists attempted to recreate the distinctive figure style of Nicholas of Verdun in the interests of visual consistency.

2. Columns 5, 9, and 11 of the Klosterneuburg Altar are represented above. The entire work can be viewed in high resolution files here. The images were scanned from Helmut Buschhausen’s authoritative-and rare—monograph, Der Verduner Altar (1980).

3. The catalogues of two monumental museum exhibitions, The Year 1200(New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1970) and Rhein und Maas (Brussels, Musée Royale des Beaux Art and Cologne, Schnütgen Museum, 1972) remain indispensable overviews of the art of the Mosan region in the twelfth century.

AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART:

I: Saint Denis and Gothic Art

II: The Carolingian Renovatio

III: The Monastic Scriptorium

IV: Grisaille, or The Abstention from Color

V: The Social and Material Contexts of Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna

VI: Beauvais Cathedral and the Limits of Gothic Verticality

VII: The Harrowing of Hell

VIII: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

IX: The Art of the Dark Ages

X:  Simone Martini’s Saints

XI: Sainte-Foy de Conques

XII: The Cave Churches of Cappadocia

XIII: The Klosterneuburg Altar

XIV: The Norman Churches of St Etienne and La Trinité

XV: Konrad Witz

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