I am starting and finishing this blog piece with apologies. I realise that some of my more recent musings have tended to be long-winded and rather detailed and just perhaps a tad too nerdy for the tastes of some of my more laid-back followers. So if you’re the sort who comes to the Random Treasure blog looking for a couple of hundred words and some pretty pictures, it’s possible that you might think I expect too much from you.
Some readers do persevere to the end every time, and I’m very grateful to them. Others, I know, do their best to keep going out of a sense of loyalty, but they soon start skimming, their eyes glaze over, and they nod off. It’s OK. I understand. I’m sorry if sometimes, due to over-enthusiasm for the subject of my research, I go on and on and on.
So be warned. On this occasion, it will be even tougher than usual, because this piece is a lengthy one, and is full of long names and detailed comparisons between similar-seeming images. In the following paragraphs I’ll be working you hard.
If, in spite of everything, you have remained a faithful reader of this blog, you might recall that for my 2017 Christmas piece I wrote about a carved oak panel showing a nativity scene. In the very unlikely event that you have forgotten any of the details of what I wrote, I recommend that you read it again here. But if turning back to my previous piece feels too effortful, here’s a summary of the story so far.
Previously, on the Random Treasure Blog . . .
This carved panel came to me cheaply from a local auction in Edinburgh, and now hangs on the wall in my kitchen. It is made of oak, just 27.6 cms tall and 23.7 cms wide, with a maximum thickness of 2.5 cms. It’s carved in relief with a Nativity scene. The central figure is the Virgin Mary, with halo, kneeling serenely beside the baby Jesus (also with halo) who is lying uncomfortably on some drapery representing the manger. Joseph looks on, apparently from behind a screen or partition, and the Ox and the Ass observe the proceedings from their stall. Above to the right is the roof of the stable, and in the background to the left behind the Virgin’s shoulder there is a distant view of the Little Town of Bethlehem with hills beyond.
It is a simple tableau, crudely carved, and it may have been made by a local artisan for use in a modest domestic setting or possibly as part of an altarpiece or retable for a small country church. My thinking two years ago was that it might be Flemish and was perhaps carved in the second half of the 16th century or early in the 17th century.
And now for an update . . .
I’ve recently been doing some research on this panel and this new blog piece is about my findings. But please don’t get excited. If you’re thinking after the build-up that there’s going to be a big revelation, and that I have discovered that the panel is a priceless lost work by a master sculptor of the late Gothic period, then sadly you are in for a disappointment. In fact I am just as sure now as I was before that it’s a minor work by an unknown and undocumented artisan.
But for all that, I now believe I know quite a lot more about this carving than I did two years ago. It turns out that for all its simplicity and the crudity of its making, it is a sophisticated object showing clear influences in its style and composition from other and much greater artists. And it might also have been made rather earlier than I had thought.
I’ll tell you the story in three sections, each headed by a big name, and not merely big in terms of the number of letters in each name. They are Martin Schongauer, Tilman Riemenschneider and Adriaen van Wesel.
Martin Schongauer (c.1450/3 – 1491) was from Colmar in Alsace. Wikipedia describes him as “the first German painter to be a significant engraver”, and Albrecht Durer, who was born some 20 years after Schongauer, was a great admirer and a collector of his engravings.
Two of the 116 engravings known to have been made by Schongauer show simple Nativity scenes. They are reproduced below. The one on the left (simply known as The Nativity) is thought to date from around 1480, the one on the right (sometimes called The Little Nativity) is from a few years later.
Anything look familiar? In both pictures, the Virgin kneels facing right over a recumbent naked Christ Child. In both, she wears voluminous robes with stiff angular folds to the skirt. In both, the Ox and the Ass look on adoringly. In one, Joseph is present, standing over the Child; in the other, Joseph doesn’t appear, but the Virgin wears a large halo. Both tableaux are set in a half-ruined stable.
Yes, there are clear similarities between both of these engravings and the composition of the Nativity scene in my oak panel. There are of course differences too. My panel doesn’t contain the subsidiary figures which appear in both of the engravings, and it has a village scene in the left background which doesn’t appear in either engraving. In my panel, the Child is elevated (levitated?) on His manger, but in the engravings He’s near the floor.
But can there be any serious doubt that the carver of the panel has seen at least one, and probably both of the Schongauer engravings?
Well, yes, there might be some doubt. You might think that any artist given this particular set of conventional ingredients (Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, Ox, Ass, the stable and the manger) would come up with a picture looking pretty much like this one. You might think that it would be no coincidence if two or more artists independently placed the participants in the same poses and the same relative positions.
Alternatively, your scepticism might take a different form. How likely was it (you might think) that an unknown village peasant woodcarver in Flanders would have access to a print made by a fashionable and well-connected artist hundreds of miles away in Alsace?
Now look closer. Compare side-by-side the central figure of the kneeling Virgin in the two Schongauer engravings and in my carved oak panel. Look at her posture, her long wavy hair, her round face with pointed chin, the position of her arms, the folds of her skirt. No further room for doubt. The influence of the engravings is definitely present in the panel.
Even after seeing this evidence it might be that you’re not yet convinced that sculptors of the 15th and 16th centuries commonly derived their inspiration from printed engraved images. If so, would it help if I showed you an absolutely incontrovertible instance of where one of the Schongauer Nativity engravings has been copied by a woodcarver?
The next big name is the biggest of all in woodcarving in the late Gothic style.
Unlike the obscure carver of my little oak panel, Tilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531) gained a huge reputation during his lifetime in and around his adopted home town of Wurzburg in Franconia, now part of Northern Bavaria. Although he was largely forgotten for a few hundred years after his death, his fame has now been restored and a beautiful figure of Saint Catherine by him was sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2008 for more than $6 million. If you look at the quality and refinement of his carving, you can see why.
But when it came to looking for inspiration for at least one of his subjects, the famous sculptor happily turned for his model to the Nativity engraving of his contemporary Martin Schongauer. Riemenschneider’s limewood carving of the Geburt Christi (Birth of Christ), dating from around 1510, is currently in the Museum for Franken (Franconian Museum) in Wurzburg. Below you can see the Schongauer engraving on the left and the Riemenschneider wood-carving on the right. It’s clearly a free adaptation by the sculptor. The hair and beards are bushier. The figures of the shepherds are larger. Mary’s neckline is lower. The Child lies on His side and not on His back. The animals are tucked further behind the pillar to the right. But there’s nothing coincidental in the composition.
So if one of the greatest sculptors of the Northern Renaissance copied and adapted a Schongauer engraving, maybe one of the least great did so too when he carved my oak panel?
Or, there’s another possibility. Could it be that the carver of my panel was not copying directly from one or other of the two Schongauer Nativity engravings but instead used the Riemenschneider panel for his original? I don’t buy this idea, for four distinct reasons.
- The first reason is that if an inferior carver was going to copy a Riemenschneider, we know exactly what it would look like, and it wouldn’t look like my panel. Below are more images for you to compare. On the left, the Riemenschneider work from the Wurzburg museum, on the right, a version from the “circle of Riemenschneider” which was sold at Sotheby’s in London in 2007 for £66,000 . You can see that this highly-coloured copy incorporates elements from the Schongauer engraving and also from the Riemenschneider carving, but it has none of their elegance and warmth. It is obviously made by a vastly less competent and more naïve artist – but an artist whose work is very much in the Franconian style.
- The second reason is that the carver of my panel used oak, while Riemenschneider and his Wurzburg school used limewood. Oak was much used by Flemish sculptors, and I have other evidence (which we’ll get to a little later) that my panel is from the Low Countries and not from several hundred miles away in Franconia. While the maker of my panel could possibly have seen one or both of the Schongauer engravings, copies of which were in wide circulation, it is inconceivable that he could have directly seen the Riemenschneider carving, which was in Wurzburg.
- The third reason is that while Riemenschneider in his carving clearly shows the influence of Schongauer’s first Nativity engraving, the composition in my panel appears to have been influenced by both the Nativity and the Little Nativity engravings. This is particularly evident in the halo worn by the Virgin, which is present in the Little Nativity engraving and in my panel, but absent in the Nativity engraving which was used as the model for both of the Wurzburg carvings shown above.
- The fourth reason is that my panel is in an entirely different carving style from that of Riemenschneider and his Franconian school. If you now compare my panel with the “circle of Riemenschneider” version, you can see that while both are quite crude, and while both use the Schongauer-influenced composition, they are enormously different from each other in terms of both material and style.
So we have established – to my satisfaction if to no-one else’s – that my oak carving of the Nativity is influenced by both of the Schongauer Nativity engravings, but not influenced at all by the limewood productions of Riemenschneider and his Franconian followers. It’s a start, but doesn’t really get us all that far.
Is it possible, then, to place my panel within any other kind of carving style? After further research, my answer is yes, I think it is indeed possible. I have another big name for you.
Adriaen van Wesel
Adriaen van Wesel (c.1415-c.1490) was a sculptor from Utrecht in the Netherlands. He carved mainly in oak, and gained a high reputation in his day, but only a small number of his works are known to have survived. Many of these are thought to be elements from an altarpiece in St Jan’s Cathedral in Den Bosch. The majority of van Wesel’s surviving works are held in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, but from time to time newly-discovered carvings are attributed to him by authoritative art historians.
One such discovery was offered very recently for sale in an auction in Paris. Lot 48 in the Pierre Bergé auction of 18th December 2019 was an oak panel showing the Annunciation . Mary is kneeling at an altar facing the angel of the annunciation. Above, behind some drapery, a group of half-length angels look on. The lot sold for €8,060.
The attribution of this beautiful carving to Adriaen van Wesel and the dating of 1470/80 were given by Mme Laurence Fligny, a very highly qualified art historian who acted as the official expert adviser to the auctioneer. If you have read my book Random Treasure – Antiques, Auctions and Alchemy you will already know about Laurence Fligny, because it was she who identified an old statue which I had bought locally in Edinburgh as a long-lost work from around 1430 by the Burgundian sculptor Claus de Werve. The resulting sale of my statue in Paris in 2013 was one of the highlights of the Paris auction year. But that’s another story, which I have told elsewhere.
The key point to emphasise here is that I, along with many others infinitely better qualified than me, place implicit trust in Laurence’s opinion when it comes to identifying and attributing Gothic carvings. The next point is to show you some comparisons between the Annunciation oak panel sold in the auction and the Nativity oak panel hanging in my kitchen.
Compare the stiffly crumpled folds in the lower parts of the robes. Compare the oddly cut-off bodies of the angels looking over the drapery with the oddly cut-off body of Joseph looking over a wall or screen in the stable. Compare the vertical folds in the curtain below the right-hand angel with the vertical folds in the cloth upon which baby Jesus is lying.
Above all, compare the right-kneeling Virgin in the Nativity panel with the left-kneeling Virgin in the Annunciation panel.
There are clear differences, of course, and not only in the quality of the carving. The Annunciation panel at 41.5 cms by 30.7 cms is a bit bigger than my Nativity panel, and most importantly it is much thicker, with a depth of 9.5 cms compared to just 2.5 cms for my Nativity panel. This means that the carving on the former is in enormously higher relief than in mine.
But despite all that, you can forget about the Riemenschneider style from Franconia. My panel has to be in the van Wesel style from Utrecht. I’ve convinced myself.
That doesn’t mean, however, that I think my panel was carved by Adriaen van Wesel himself. No way. Art historians and dealers differentiate attributions of works of art in a conventional way. If they are not certain a work is by a particular artist, they use a hierarchy of terms which calibrate their opinion of the distance of the work from that of the original artist. Christie’s use the following definitions :
- ‘“Attributed to”: in our opinion, probably a work by the artist or maker in whole or in part.
- “Studio of”/“Workshop of”: in our opinion, a work executed in the studio or workshop of the artist, possibly under his supervision.
- “Follower of”: in our opinion, a work executed in the artist’s style but not necessarily by a pupil.
- “Circle of”: in our opinion, a work of the period of the artist or maker and showing his influence.
- “Manner of”: in our opinion, a work executed in the style of the artist or maker but of a later date.
- “After”: in our opinion, a copy of any date of a work of the artist or maker.’
Using this scale, I now claim my oak panel to have been made by a Follower of Adriaen van Wesel. Which means my opinion is that it was carved in the late fifteenth century by someone with infinitely less talent than the master but with a close contemporary knowledge of his style. It’s highly possible that any expert dealer or auctioneer or curator would downgrade it to Circle of or Manner of, but I don’t care. My mind is made up.
Many years ago when I was writing a dissertation for my MBA degree at Edinburgh University, I recall being given a helpful tip: if you want to look like a proper academic, make sure you state all the counter-arguments to your central hypothesis. I did that and my supervisor gave me a good grade. So I guess I should say something here about the weaknesses in my theory that my little panel was:
- carved in the late fifteenth century
- in or near Utrecht
- by an inferior follower of Adriaen van Wesel
- who had also seen not one but two engravings of the Nativity by Martin Schongauer.
Firstly, the date. Late fifteenth century? – possibly. Or, frankly, any other date in the next 100 or more years. Location? – yes, probably Utrecht or thereabouts in Flanders. Follower of Adriaen van Wesel? – yes, I think we can say that the carver was indeed a follower, but perhaps following from some considerable distance.
And finally, the Schongauer question. While it is difficult after having made the comparisons to doubt that the composition in my panel owes a significant debt to one or both of the Schongauer Nativity engravings, it doesn’t prove, of course, that the carver of my panel was directly influenced by having physically seen the two paper prints. He might, for instance, have been indirectly influenced by copying the composition from a carved wood relief made by another and more competent sculptor who had seen the prints.
The clincher for this would be if I could produce for you a Nativity carving by van Wesel which shows that he was influenced by Schongauer in Utrecht in the same way that Riemenschneider was influenced in Wurzburg. Sadly, I can’t show you any such work, even though it’s virtually certain that a Nativity relief carving by van Wesel did exist. It is known that he executed a series of scenes from the life of the Virgin, and in evidence of this we have the Annunciation panel illustrated above and also a Death of the Virgin panel which is in the Rijksmuseum . But the scene depicting the Nativity episode hasn’t survived, so I can’t show it to you.
It would also be helpful if I could demonstrate from the surviving van Wesel carvings that he used contemporary prints by Schongauer and/or others as sources of inspiration for any of his other compositions. Unfortunately I can’t do this either, because I simply don’t have the expertise or resources to compare all of his surviving works with all known Northern European prints of the late fifteenth century. As far as I can tell, there has been nothing published about this, so if any reader of this blog is looking for a topic for an art history dissertation or thesis, here is an excellent and wide-open subject of study for you.
You might remember that at the beginning of this piece I said I was going to start and end with apologies. Here we are at the end, and – assuming that any readers have reached the end – I’m afraid that I am leaving you without coming to a conclusion. I have provided you with some comparisons of slight relevance, some dubious hypotheses, some inconclusive speculation, some long Germanic names, and possibly a headache. If you don’t consider this to be much of a reward for your perseverance, I’m sorry. I’ll try my best to make my next blog piece a little more lightweight.
 Image sourced from: https://www.lempertz.com/en/catalogues/lot/1057-2/1812-a-carved-limewood-high-relief-depiction-of-the-nativity-from-the-workshop-of-tilman-riemenschne.html
 Quoted from: https://www.christies.com/pdf/onlineonly/ECOMMERCE_CONDITIONS_OF_SALE_CINC_Jan_2018.pdf, page 33