An Incomplete History of Medieval Art XV

KONRAD WITZ

The German painter Konrad Witz (German, 1400 – 1447) transferred his workshop to Basel to seek work among the wealthy bishops, abbots and cardinals who had converged on the Swiss city to participate in Church Council of 1431-45. While in Basel, he received important commissions to paint the wings for large, sculptural altarpieces, none of which survive intact today. After his death he fell out of memory until 1901, when the curator of the Basel Kunstmuseum, Daniel Burckhardt-Werthemann, linked a panel painting in Geneva signed Konrad Witz to similar works in the Basel collection, hitherto attributed to an unbekannte Maler. The municipal archives of Basel from the period yielded several references to Witz, which allowed for the dating of some works and identified the patrons of others.

Witz’s most important work produced in Basel is the now-dismembered Heilsspiegel altarpiece, probably created for the church of St. Leonard. The iconography is based on the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, a popular 14th-century typological compendium. The 11 surviving panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament and pagan Antiquity bear a formal resemblance to events of the New Testament that they prefigure. Witz has a magic touch when it comes to depicting sumptuous garments and exotic head gear, particularly in the Heilsspiegel Altarpiece.

Despite Witz’s long association with Basel, the greatest commission of his career took him to Geneva, in the western, French-speaking part of Switzerland, to paint the high altarpiece for the Cathedral of St Pierre. The work was donated by Cardinal François de Metz, resident bishop of Geneva since 1436, who probably became acquainted with Witz’s work while at the Council of Basel. Witz took measures to insure he would remembered as the creator of this major civic monument, adding an inscription to the frame of the Miraculous Draught of Fishes, that reads, hoc opus pinxit magister conradus sapientis de basilea MCCCCXLIV (Master Konrad Witz of Basel painted this work 1444). His surname, Witz, which means wit or mental sharpness in Middle High German, is rendered in Latin as sapientis or wise.

In the paintings that survive, Witz, like his contemporary Jan van Eyck, shows a serious interest in developing ways to represent certain types of visual experience in two-dimensions. In both the Miraculous Draught and the St Christopher panel, he pays a great deal of attention to effects of refraction of light in water, as well as to color changes and different degrees of sharpness among submerged bodies, including stones and the lower body of St Peter.

On land, Witz experimented with different devices for creating the illusion of three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional surface. Reflecting a knowledge of Italian trecento paintings, the interior spaces of Sts Catherine and Mary Magdelene and the Annunciation are well ahead of Witz’s Geman contemporaries. In an outdoor scene such as Joachim and Anna Meeting at the Golden Gate, Witz compensates for the flat gold backdrop by having the dramatically foreshortened wooden gate project directly into the viewer’s space. Nothing in the narrative requires the gate to be so assertively present, and late medieval artists, on the whole, do not take liberties with religious iconography. The gate must have been of special importance, perhaps as a way of compensating for viewing angle, for Witz to have taken the liberty of foregrounding it.

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