The Crucifixion tempera on shaped panel 144 x 142.5cm (56 11/16 x 56 1/8in).
PROVENANCE Dr. Frederick Campe, Nuremberg. The Rev. J. Fuller Russell, Eagle House, Enfield; his sale, Christie's, London, 18 April 1885, lot 141 (sold for 79 guineas, as attributed to Wohlgemuth). Hon. Mrs Meynell Ingram, and thence by descent to Col. F. Meynell, Burton-on-Trent, by 1934, and thence by descent to Col. Hugo Meynell, Hoar Cross, Derbyshire, by 1953, and thence by descent to Mrs Hugo Meynell, by 1961, and by whom loaned to the Manchester City Art Gallery. Sale, Christie's, London, 7 July 1972, lot 60.
EXHIBITED London, Royal Academy, 1877, no. 163 (as attributed to Wohlgemuth or Dürer). Birmingham, City Museum and Art Gallery, Art Treasures of the Midlands, 1934, no. 281 (as attributed to Wohlgemuth). Birmingham, City Museum and Art Gallery, Works of Art from Midland Houses, 1953, no. 148. Manchester, Manchester City Art Gallery, German Art 1400-1800, 1961, no. 52. Remagen, Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck, Kunstkammer Rau: Horizonte Landschaften von Fra Angelico bis Monet, 18 March18 September 2011, no. 6.
LITERATURE G.F. Waagen, Treasures of Art in Great Britain, II, London, 1854, p. 463 (as Wohlgemuth). E. Abraham, 'Eine verlorene Kreuzigung von Michel Wohlgemut', Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft, XXXV, 1912, pp.159-162. N. Pevsner, 'The Birmingham Exhibition of Midland Art Treasures', Burlington Magazine, LXVI, 1935, p. 30. E. Wiegand, 'Die böhmischen Gradeinbilder', Anzeiger des Germanischen National-Museums, 1936, p.143. A. Stange, Deutsche Malerei der Gotik, vol. IX, Liechtenstein, 1958, p. 97, fig. 205. M. Warnke, Geschichte der deutschen Kunst: Spaetmittelalter und Fruehe Neuzeit 1400-1750, Munich, 1990, p. 136. S. Blöcker, Kunstkammer Rau: Horizonte Landschaften von Fra Angelico bis Monet, Bielefeld, 2011, p. 26, ill. p. 27, no. 6.
On stylistic grounds the present Crucifixion may be dated to the 1470s. The grouping of the figures, moreover, is very similar to the structure of the Hersbrucker Altar (the altar for the Stadtkirche St. Marien in Hersbruck, which in 1961 was returned to its original location, having been divided between the original Church and the National Museum in Nuremberg). Although in the past there have been a few attempts to identify the master behind this work, he remains elusive. It is nonetheless clear that his model was the work of Hans Pleydenwurffs (his Crucifixion in Munich), the Nuremberg painter who established a new style of realism, influenced by Northern Renaissance painters. The Master was possibly from the Franconian city of Bamberg, where he was active early in his career, as a few works testify. Hans was probably the son of Kunz Pleydenwurff, a painter who was also mayor of Bamberg. He moved to Nuremberg, where he had a workshop. Another artist, Michael Wohlgemut (1434-1519) married Pleydenwurff's widow, took over his studio and collaborated with his son Wilhelm Pleydenwurff. Among Wohlgemut's pupils was the young Albrecht Dürer. A few noticeable links to Flemish painting are evident, although it is not known whether the painter visited the Netherlands. Primarily the present altarpiece should be seen in the context of the intense religious feeling of the German-speaking lands that gave rise to the Reformation.
The authors of both the present work and of the Hersbrucker Altar still employ the stylistic language of the Late Gothic, as seen in the representation of animals which comes out of the mediaeval preoccupation with encyclopaedic knowledge. But, compared with their contemporaries, they show a very particular ability to convey volume and both show a strong interest in gesture and expression. It is this attempt at realism that links their work to a more modern tradition, which looked to the later southern European Renaissance.
The crucifixion can be considered one of the central themes in early Christian iconography and during the 15th century its representation became populated by numerous figures, often set before an open landscape, in contrast with the much more stylized and simplistic depictions of the gold-ground era. In the present work, the foreground is filled with figures relating to different episodes of the Passion; but all bear witness to the climactic event. The cross fills the central space, with the Magdalen at its foot. The group on the left displays the Virgin Mary, together with John the Evangelist and Mary Cleophas, while on the right there is a group of soldiers gathered around Pilate, with a figure from the Mocking of Christ and Saint Veronica visible in the background. The construction of the space, the plastic rendering and the strong colouring all concur to set the divine episode in a realistic environment.