Previously unpublished, this unusually well preserved and refined panel can be dated on stylistic grounds to the beginning of the 16th century with a number of features placing it in the Augsburg school. The narrow-beamed haloes recur in many works by painters active in that city, for example in Hans Holbein the Elder's Kaisheimer Kreuzaltar (Augsburg, Staatsgalerie) and in Jörg Breu's Adoration of the Magi (Koblenz, Mittelrheinisches Landesmuseum). The landscape with rising terrain and varied focal points is reminiscent of Breu's signed and dated work, Departure of the Apostles, of 1514. One of the fastest growing cities in the Empire, Augsburg had a growing patrician class with high demand for arts and crafts, fostering artists such as Breu, Holbein the Elder and Hans Burgkmair, all of whom ran busy workshops at the turn of the century.
Ludwig Meyer suggests that the present panel is closest to the work of Hans Burgkmair and proposes that the donors depicted could be Hans Peutinger, an Augsburg merchant and humanist, with his family. Dr. Bernd Konrad and Andrew Morrall have pointed out stylistic affinities with the work of Jörg Breu -- the distinctive drawing of the head of Christ with his drooping eyes, elongated nose, narrow face and highlights in the stylized broad curls, recall Breu's figure of Saint Joseph in the Adoration of the Magi in Koblenz.
The subject of Christ taking leave of His Mother in this unusually refined panel does not illustrate a Biblical passage, but rather derives from the Pseudo-Bonaventura's Meditations on the Life of Christ from circa 1300, a popular source among Northern artists of the 15th and 16th centuries. The painting relies predominantly on Dürer's print of the same subject (fig. 1; Bartsch 92, Hollstein, Meder 204), published as part of the cycle The Life of the Virgin in 1511, which he conflates with a figure from a Crucifixion from his engraved Passion Cycle dated 1508 (Bartsch 24, Hollstein 23). The cycles were printed and spread widely beyond Nuremberg. Christ taking leave of His Mother was an especially popular subject and was used by a number of painters in mostly small panels though very few combine different models as effectively and skillfully as here. The re-working of a known composition was common practice and often dictated by the patron. The infrared image (fig. 3) reveals the underdrawing of the figures executed with a liquid medium by a confident hand. Colour notations have become visible, for example on the green arm of one of the Marys and a 'b' (=blau/blue) on the cloak of the Virgin.
Hans Holbein the Elder's Votive panel for Ulrich Schwarz and his family, (fig. 2; Augsburg; Städtische Kunstsammlungen), commissioned in 1508 provides information for dating the present panel and gives clues as to its possible donor. The low-cut green dresses seen in this panel are also found in the donor frieze of Holbein's panel, dating it to the first decades of the 16th century. Furthermore, the distinctive physiognomy of the male donor on the left bears a striking resemblance to the figure beside Ulrich Schwarz in the Augsburg votive panel, particularly notable among the more generic figures surrounding him. Ulrich Schwarz (1448/9-1519) was a wine merchant and owned the inn 'Die Krone' in Augsburg. The Augsburg panel shows him with his three wives and 31 children, a number of whom can be identified by inscriptions on the panel. The figure inscribed 'HANS' must be his eldest son, whose crooked nose, lightly drooping mouth and double chin recall those of the donor in the present panel.
In fact, the donor of this panel could be identified as either one of Ulrich Schwarz's sons, both named Hans (it was not uncommon to give the same name to more than one child). The elder Hans Schwarz (b. 1474) was married twice and only the name of his first wife, Dorotha Egelhöffer, is recorded (A. von Hämmerle, Die Hochzeitsbücher der Augsburger Bürgerstube und der Kaufleutestube bis zum Ende der Reichsfreiheit 1381-1806, Munich, 1936, p. 256). The younger Hans (b.1492-after 1522) was a well-known sculptor and medal maker (Kastenholz, Ein Augsburger Bildhauser und Medailleur der Renaissance, Munich and Berlin, 2006, pp. 19-22). Four other Augsburg citizens called Hans Schwarz are recorded between 1510 and 1530 (R. Kastenholz, p. 334.) further complicating the secure identification of the donor.
The castle in the background has been identified by Ludwig Meyer as Veste Oberhaus in Passau. Breu is known to have travelled through Bavaria, remaining in Passau for a short period of time (O. Benesch, 'Der Zwettler Altar und die Anfänge Jörg Breus', in E. Buchner and K. Feuchtmayr, ed., Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Kunst, Augsburg, 1928, p. 270). He would no doubt have seen the castle Oberhaus, which was recorded in Schedel's Weltchronik in 1490, with its idiosyncratic wall running down the hill (fig. 4). The artist has taken liberties with details of the background, indicating that he may have been working from memory. A connection between the Schwarz family and Veste Oberhaus has yet to be established.
We are grateful to Dr. Bernd Konrad, Dr. Kurt Löcher and Ludwig Meyer for their assistance in cataloguing this lot, on the basis of photographs.