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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.



Representations of church architecture are ubiquitous in 15th-century Flemish panel painting. The intricacy and wealth of finely-wrought detail of Gothic architecture, in particular, drew the attention of painters like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, as it provided them with an opportunity to hone—and show off—the hyper-realistic simulation of optical reality they had achieved through the mastery of the oil-glazing technique. The interiors of the churches seen in Jan’s Virgin in a Church and Rogier’s Seven Sacraments Altarpiece are fitted out with painstakingly-realized niches, sculpture, stained glass, hanging crucifixes, candles, liturgical objects and architectural decoration that clearly reflects a deep familiarity with actual churches such as the cathedrals and parish churches of Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels, and other centers.

Despite this high degree of exactitude in the rendering of details, only rarely do Flemish painters depict actual, built monuments or record the appearance of a real structure at a given historical moment. Instead, motifs, proportions, decorative elements and formal arrangements seen in the various churches of the era are selected and combined to create a virtual Gothic that is, and is not, of our world. To put it another way, these are buildings are familiar, but not known.

Furthermore, what transpires in these buildings does not correspond to customary uses of real ecclesiastical architecture. Both Jan and Rogier’s churches are occupied by the Virgin and Christ, who lived over 1000 year prior to the development of Gothic architecture, and they are of a scale wholly disproportionate to their settings (Panofsky wryly commented that the Virgin in a Church could easily have be referred to as the Virgin is the Church).

An indication of how one should interpret this seemingly paradoxical combination of realism and anachronism, of observation and imagination, can be found in a late 15th-century illuminated prayerbook owned by Mary of Burgundy, the consort of the emperor Maximillian. A full-page illumination shows Mary perusing her book of hours, seated next to a glazed window that opens not on to the outdoors, but on to the choir of a vast Gothic cathedral. Seated in that choir are the Virgin and Child, before whom Mary and her ladies in waiting kneel in prayer. The image within the image is not meant to replicate any reality—Mary cannot be watching herself have an audience with the Virgin. Instead, it is a visual metaphor, used to illustrate the spiritual realm, to which Mary gains access by means of the image she sees in her book. The architectural setting is therefore a visionary space, and the generalized forms of real ecclesiastical buildings designate that space as religious, other-worldy and sanctified. The experience is not limited to Mary alone—a vacant stool sits next to her, inviting the viewer to join her.

In Rogier’s Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, the Crucifixion takes place in the nave of a Gothic church, while contemporary figures enact the administration of the sacraments in the aisles of the church. Here, the focus is more institutional than personal: the architectural setting indicates that the salvation made possible by the crucifixion and attained through the sacraments takes place, figuratively speaking, within the church, which is both a material reality and a religious concept. Jan also makes use of the distinction between aisles and nave in the Dresden Madonna, which places the Virgin and Child at the end of a nave, in place of the high altar where the sacrifice of Christ is re-enacted, while saints and the donor appear in the aisles–secondary places for secondary figures.

Jan’s Virgin in a Church is the left wing of a devotional diptych, the right wing of which is lost. The overall appearance of the original is preserved in a copy of the work made by Quentin Massys in the early 16th century. The missing right wing showed the donor in an outdoor setting facing the Virgin and Child, who are rendered in proportion to him. The difference in setting is clear: the donor exists in the world, whereas the divine realm is signified by an idealized version of Gothic architecture.

These distinctions make other works such as Rogier’s Miraflores Altarpiece or his Virgin and Child seated in a Niche more intelligible—the Gothic arches mark out a sanctified space and what goes on beneath them is not part of the material world we inhabit despite the proliferation of details that suggest it might be.

AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIÆVAL ART IV: Grisaille, or the Abstention from Color


Lent is observed for the 40 day leading up to Easter. The first day of lent is Ash Wednesday, which falls on March 5th this year. During the Lenten period, it is customary for Christians to purfy themselves by practicing austerity and abstaining from sensual pleasures in an effort to imitate and therefore identify with the suffering Christ endured in his Passion.

In the later Middle Ages, a taste emerged for images purged of color and rendered in a restricted grayscale palette. The modern term for this technique is grisaille. No contemporary descriptions of this mode survive, so its cultural valence can only be inferred from the works themselves. Modern discussions of the purpose or meaning of grisaille have focused on two issues: 1) the possibility of a metaphorical or symbolic value for grisaille, seeing the mode as a religiously-motivated negation or abstention from color and 2) on the relationship of painting and drawing to sculpture, grisaille being seen here as the painters attempt to imitate the effects of the more prestigious medium of sculpture in two dimensions.

The purpose of grisaille appears to be straightforward in some cases. In second half of the thirteenth century, the clerestory windows of the great gothic cathedrals began to be glazed with patterned grisaille glass, instead of the deeply-saturated, colored glass previously in favor. This decision was probably, in part, practical: grisaille glass admits more light (and heat) into the church interior and costs much less than colored or stained-glass windows. However, due to technical limitations, it was not possible at the time to make purely clear transparent glass, and grisaille glass was the closest to clear available and admitted the brightest light. The decision to glaze the upper or heavenly reaches of the church with the brightest light possible suggests that a symbolic interpretation of the choice is possible.

Perhaps the best-known example of the grisaille technique is the so-called Parement de Narbonne (c. 1375), a long silk textile with scenes from the Passion executed in black outline and shades of grey. Donated by Charles V to the cathedral of Narbonne, it probably functioned as kind of altarpiece or retable. This liturgical setting of the parement surely influenced the patron’s choice of grisaille. In the 14th century, that setting often included altar frontals of unpainted, relief sculpture, such as the group from the convent at Maubuisson . When placed in this context, the Parement invites the viewer to compare the illusion of three-dimensional relief effected by the two-dimensional, grisaille modeling of its figures, against sculptor’s ability to create depth. In doing so, the painter makes a conspicuous demonstration of his technical mastery of his medium, which can appropriate the representational capacities of another. This accomplishment is all the more striking because it is achieved not by the heaping of painterly effects, but by a reduction of visual effects. Voluntarily denying himself the use off color is the equivalent of a boxer tying his hand behind his back and still winning.

Jean Pucelle, the illuminator of the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (c. 1325), shows a similar awareness of relief sculpture. In images where he creates an illusion of three-dimensionality by setting exquisitely-modeled grisaille figures against deeply saturated red or blue pattern backgrounds, his work recalls high relief sculpture programs found in the interior of churches such as Nôtre-Dame, Paris. To further the church analogy, the illuminations are framed by gothic architectural forms. The interest displayed throughout the book in the rendering if interior spaces suggests that in some respects the prayer book places the experience of liturgical space of an ecclesiastical building in the hands of the patron, a spiritual exercise enabled indirectly by grisaille.

In the 15th century, several of there great Flemish altarpieces depict fictive statuary, painted in grisaille on their exterior. Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (1432) shows the husband and wife donors kneeling before their intercessor saints, who turn their heads back towards the donors while their bodies turned in the other direction, indicating their role as intermediaries between the secular realm of the donors and divine one above. This life-like postures of the saints, who seem to react in time to their surroundings is confounded by there fact that what we see are representations of statuary standing in gothic niches on plinths, with grisaille creating the impression of stone. The significance of this visual conundrum is further complicated by these facts: 1) the donors, executed in full color are also placed in sculptural niches 2) the Annunciation, seen above, takes place in a realistically-depicted, domestic interior, which includes color, but the divine actors are draped in stony, grisaille garments, whose folds resemble the “carved” folds of the saint statues below; 3) as Panofsky reminds us in Early Netherlandish Painting, medieval sculpture was always polychromed to appear life-like, so the only context in which stone sculpture could have been seen in its true, grey unpainted state would be the sculptor’s workshop.

Later in there 15th century, Hugo van der Goes would further complicate the issue on the exterior of the Portinari Altarpiece by representing the Archangel and Virgin Annunciate in grisaille, which we might initially read as fictive sculpture. However, the images appear to be in motion— Gabriel looks like he’s landing on a short runway and the dove of the holy spirit, also represented as stone, swoops in, talons spread as if it’s about to land in the Virgin’s hair. The anxiety and oddity of the two images aside, note how Hugo’s dove has no signs of a support and the figures do not stand on plinths as they do in the Ghent Altarpiece, so here we can assume the the artist is not raising sculpture as a topic, but using grisaille to represent figures that are otherwise naturalistic in their actions, volume and narrative engagement.

Flemish altarpieces were kept closed for most of the year, being opened only for the red-letter days of the liturgical calendar. It has been suggested that the use of grisaille on the exterior of these monuments, which would have been seen most of the year, had symbolic connotations—during Lent, one saw grisaille figures and statuary stripped of color, but on the triumphant feast of Easter, the wings would open to reveal a vision of the Last Judgement bathed in brilliant, saturated color. Similarly, the Parement de Narbonne, being an easily displayed and stored textile, may have functioned as a Lenten altarpiece, drained of color, which would be removed at Easter to reveal some other, now lost, altar decoration that was presumably polychromed or otherwise colored.

Whether or not people gave up color for Lent is open to debate. It is clear, however, that in the later Middle Ages, grey was the new black.