Category Archives: Mediæval

An Incomplete History of Medieval Art XV


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.



The devil’s ass is hell’s gateway.
Netherlandish Proverb

To mark the 500th anniversary of Hieronymus Bosch’s death, Het Noordbrabants Museum has mounted Jheronimus Bosch, a survey exhibition of the Netherlandish master’s career.

The exhibitions brings together 16 of the 25 surviving paintings and 19 of the 20 known drawings by Bosch. The curators secured unprecedented loans for the show, including the Prado’s Haywain, which has not left Spain for 450 years, the Ship of Fools from the Louvre and Death and the Miser from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, recently re-attributed to Bosch, comes from as far as the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. The show is all the more remarkable because Het Noordbrabants Museum, while located in Bosch’s natal city of ’s-Hertogenbosch, has no works by the artist in its own collections.

The Surrealists saw Bosch as an anti-clerical madman visualizing his dark unconscious; in the 1960s, the counterculture embraced Bosch as a proto-hippie celebrating free love and hallucinations. Both of these self-serving theories are wrong: Bosch appears to have been a religious ascetic who firmly supported official church dogma concerning the fallen nature of humanity, the transience of human desires and, his great theme, the afterlife. Phillip II of Spain was an enthusiastic patron of both Bosch and the Inquisition.

As seen in these details, even by the lurid standards of the Late Middle Ages, Bosch had an exceptional ability to imagine the horrors of eternal damnation,  which were obsessively rendered in oil paint in order to convince the viewer to repent and abjure sin. If we find them unnerving or repellent, then we are having an orthodox 15th-century response, which is perhaps the greatest testimony to Bosch’s skill as an image maker.

Jheronimus Bosch is on view at Het Noordbrabants Museum from 13 February – 8 May 2016. More information.


Happy Holidays

AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIÆVAL ART XIV: The Norman Churches of St Etienne and La Trinité

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Although the proposed marriage of William, Duke of Normandy and, later, King of England, to his distant cousin, Mathilde, Countess of Flanders, was opposed by Pope Leo IX on the grounds of consanguinity, it nevertheless took place in 1053. Lanfranc, the abbot of Bec, obtained a papal dispensation for William only in 1059. While the pope forgave that sin, he charged the couple with contumacy, or stubbornly resisting his will, and required that, as an act of penance, each found a church and fund its construction and operation pro remedia animae suae—for the salvation of their souls.

Caen, the Norman administrative center and largest city in lower Normandy (département Calvados), was chosen as the location of the two new Benedictine foundations, which were begun in 1062, just prior to the invasion of England. St Etienne, William’s abbaye aux hommes, lay on the west side of the city, while La Trinité, the abbaye aux dames, founded by Mathilde was situated on the eastern edge of town. Upon their deaths in 1087 and 1081, Duke and Duchess were buried before the high altars of their respective foundations, where their souls would benefit from the constant cycle of prayers of the Divine Office chanted daily by the monks and nuns.

Norman ecclesiastical architecture of the 11th century was far in advance of building traditions of northern France and England at the time. The Norman dukes were great supporters of the monastic reforms emanating from Cluny in Burgundy, and part of that reform entailed the construction of large churches that expressed the glory of the deity and the magnificence of his church. Being eminently practical, the reform movement also favored buildings that were durable, resistant to fire (a constant threat in an era of candle and torch lighting), large enough to accommodate crowds of pilgrims and acoustically suited to the performance of the extended and elaborated plainsong of the Divine Office, for which Cluny was famous. All of these needs were satisfied by the use of stone—massive walls of ashlared masonry supporting rubble and concrete vaults over the nave and aisles.

The Roman technology for stone vaulting and dome construction had been lost during the early Middle Ages and was revived only in the 11th centuries when Europe began a long period of economic, territorial and cultural growth. The second abbey church at Cluny, known as Cluny II, begun around 948, was barrel-vaulted entirely in stone, which encouraged Norman masons to experiment with larger and more daring buildings, such as the abbey church of Jumièges.

St Etienne has a west façade with three portals that correspond logically to the aisles and nave of the interior, surmounted by to tall bell towers. The nave elevation comprises an arcade, a large gallery level and a clerestory with a passage way. The nave consists of four bays, each clearly demarcated by collonettes that rise from the floor and continue across the ribs of the vaults. The Roman round-headed arch is used through the elevations but pointed arches were used for the the vaults as an optical correction: true round-headed groin vaults appear to sag at the intersection; the point compensates for that illusion making them appear to be round.

The elevation of La Trinité is more modern, doing away with the gallery level, substituting a purely decorative triforium instead. The same type of sexpartite ribbed vaults were employed, although the original ones over the centuries became unstable and were completely rebuilt in the 19th century. Mathilde’s foundation features another art form not seen since the collapse of the western Empire: architectural sculpture. This take the form of carved, historiated capitals, based on the Corinthian order, depicting biblical subjects chosen with a monastic audience in mind, including the Jacob Blessing his sons and Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Other capitals depicting monstrous and grotesque beasts tangled in decorative bands defy easy interpretation. On the west front of La Trinité, over the lintel of the central portal is a carved tympanum, dating from the 1130s, when the building was nearing completion, showing the three persons of the Holy Trinity flanked by the symbols of the four evangelists.This image concisely expresses a complex theological issue and its mode of dissemination, while at the same time serving as a street sign identifying the building. This ability to speak equally clearly to both learned, Latin-literate and uneducated, common audiences is one of the distinguishing features of medieval art.

Both St Etienne and La Trinité are masterpieces of engineering, stone cutting and formal innovation. The forms and technologies used in both—including the tripartite west front surmounted by towers; the simplified nave elevation; the bay system expressed by collonettes; the ribbed, groin vaults; the pointed arch; and the carved tympanum are all characteristics we associate with the Gothic style of a hundred years later, but seen here in the mid 11th-century, fully-developed and expertly handled by the precocious Normans, who only a hundred years earlier had been living in temporary encampments and burning and pillaging the churches of the same region.


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.


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.


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



Cappadocia is situated on the Anatolian plain in what now eastern Turkey. The region is well-known for its bizarre topographical formations created by water erosion of the soft volcanic stone, called tufa. Like the Roman catacombs, the tufa is very easy to carve, thus giving the region its second claim to fame: troglodytes. Early Christians fleeing Roman persecution exploited the softness of the stone, at first digging out simple warrens of interconnected hideouts and after the establishment of Christianity, corridors, houses, markets and places of worship, and finally whole cities, some descending 8 stories beneath ground level.

The images here show two churches in Goreme, the largest city in Cappadocia. They both are designed according to the standard church plan of the middle Byzantine period: an equilateral cross inscribed in a square surmounted by a circular dome; one entered the church from the narthex, a transverse vaulted area preceding the nave. The vaults and domes were either decorated in mosaic or with wall paintings, the iconography of which was dictated by the liturgical calendar. The Cappadocian churches (and monasteries) follow this formula, with some local deviations.

What is unusual about these structures is not so much their design, but their method of construction: unlike a free-standing building, where pre-cut or pre-formed elements such as bricks, masonry, columns, and capitals are assembled, the Cappadocian churches are created, like sculpture, by a subtractive process of removing the amount of tufa equivalent to the desired volume of the church, or more accurately, the church space. Features like blind arcades, columns and capitals are not cut and fit into place — they are continuous with the vaults and domes, with no breaks in the living stone at any point. The columns are not decorative—the support not only the weight of the vaults and domes, but the entire mountain above, and one imagines that the number of load-bearing supports required was often discovered when too few columns were left in place, causing the cave to collapse in on itself, which meant finding a new location and starting all over again. Given this danger, the churches spaces in the Cappadocian caves range from intimate to small —the largest nave is only 25’ 22’ long.

Twenty-five years ago, Cappadocia was a remote site, visited only by adventurous archaeologists and architectural historians, driving Land Rovers and equipped with flashlights. Now, the region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in the wake of that designation, which was intended to preserve the cave cities, came developers who promptly carved luxury hotels with swimming pools, malls, restaurants, and parking structures into the tufa and on the surface, roadways, which brought cars and exhaust, which now threaten the region’s fragile eco-system. Like the caves at Lascaux and the Roman catacombs, the number of breathing, perspiring tourists in the cave churches caused the humidity to spike, which makes the tufa erode and the wall paintings to flake. Lascaux is now closed permanently to visitors, as are the frescoed areas of the catacombs, so if you want to see Goreme, you may wish to book your seats now.