Brigitte Corley, review of exh. cats. ‘Genie ohne Namen - Der Meister des Bartholomäus-Altars (Cologne 2001)’ and ‘Das Stundenbuch der Sophia van Bylant’, both edited by Rainer Budde and Roland Krischel, in : Kunstchronik, February 2002, pp.49-59.
Cologne celebrated the opening of the new building for the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum with an exhibition dedicated to one of the most fascinating painters of late medieval Europe, the anonymous Master of the St. Bartholomew Altarpiece (pl.1). Unlike the Jubilee exhibition of 1961, which presented the same painter in conjunction with the Master of the Aachen Altarpiece, this show promised to concentrate on a single master's oeuvre, production methods and provenance. In consequence, the extraordinarily weighty catalogue (kg 2.78) of the exhibition was not designed to accompany the visitor, but conceived as a comprehensive reference book, a 'Handbuch zum Bartholomäusmeister' (Budde and Krischel, pp.10-11).
The exhibition presented itself as a beguiling show of late medieval artefacts, a glittering, skilfully lit display of 142 objects, including small paintings, prints, manuscripts, sculptures, bookbindingsdocuments, seals, jewels, vestments, and even a suit of Augsburg armour. Among this visual richess of mainly Netherlandish provenance could also be found 18 paintings attributed to the Bartholomew Master or his workshop and a techniques display. However, of the 9 exhibited paintings that are catalogued as from the master's own hand, only 6 were more than fragments and of undisputed attribution, 4 from the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum (cats 1, 60, 62, 82) and two lent by Nurenberg (cat.47) and Mainz (cat.149) respectively. In view of the fact that no further significant loans could be obtained for the exhibition, not even a wing from the eponymous altarpiece in Munich from which all other paintings are attributed to the artist, it might have been wiser - and more accurate - to characterise the exhibition as a 'work in context' display centred around paintings by the Bartholomew Master from the museum collection. As such, the exhibition could have been designed to engage more than the eye.
To control this large show and achieve the desired focus on the Bartholomew Master, the curator could have used explanatory boards in each room. As it was, the uninitiated visitor was obliged to peruse 142 small labels to identify the 18 attributed works. No guidance was available about the given name and presumed career of the artist. Nor was it always obvious why all the 124 context exhibits were deemed relevant, although many were certainly important and of great scholarly interest. A large wall-board in each room, featuring the Bartholomew Master's work there and pointing to evidence sought from adjacent exhibits, would have allowed the visitors to follow the discussion about the presumed Utrecht provenance of the painter or the suggested sources of his art. Even the problems posed by a magnificent array of manuscripts with diverse styles of illumination yet similar border decorations could have been better appreciated by the visitors, had a display board informed them about the division of labour in manuscript production. Much interest might also have been aroused had the reasons for demotions to the workshop, or for the curator's expulsion of the Portrait of a Man (cat.51; pl.2) from the master's oeuvre, been rehearsed with a small panel display. By means of such information, the exhibition could have stimulated the mind as well as the eye.
However, a dedicated perusal of the large, well illustrated catalogue will reward amateur and scholar alike with some detailed and informed discussion, even though the 24 essays concentrate largely on works from the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. This befits the actual scope of the exhibition, but hardly provides a reference book on the master. For such a publication one would expect at least a technical, stylistic and iconographic analysis of all his autograph works, incorporating research available from other institutions and from salient publications. Moreover, the brief catalogue entries, with photographs for the 30 exhibited and unexhibited works firmly attributed in this volume to the Bartholomew Master or his workshop, are dispersed among the 154 entries in apparently random order, thus rendering this part of the book also of limited use to the scholar.
The Bartholomew Master has hitherto been considered as an artist with a possible provenance from Utrecht, but likely to have served his apprenticeship in Cologne where he was thought to have presided over a workshop from c. 1480 to c. 1510. Instead, the catalogue jacket proclaims the painter as 'one of the last great representatives of that Netherlandish painting style which one connects with the names of Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden' and claims that circumstantial evidence suggests that his workshop was situated in or around Utrecht, - a view supported in the curator's survey essay (p.22). It was also endorsed by the exhibition itself, which juxtaposed mainly Netherlandish artefacts with the Bartholomew master's paintings, eschewing to show any painting from Cologne to test the novel proposition. It is therefore the more surprising that the background essays commissioned for the catalogue exclusively feature late medieval Cologne, its political, ecclesiastical and social conditions, its guild regulations, and its musical life. If the Bartholomew Master's workshop was deemed to be situated in or near Utrecht, apparently obliging even his most prominent Cologne patron, Peter Rinck, to send his panels there for painting (Krischel, p.22), these catalogue essays on contemporary Cologne must be considered irrelevant. Instead, one might reasonably expect to find in this volume a detailed discussions concerning the conditions and habits prevalent in Utrecht at the time, but not a single essay is dedicated to that city.
Nor do the essayists agree with the notion of a Netherlandish workshop, even though an Utrecht provenance has long been suggested for the Bartholomew Master in view of his contribution to the Book of Hours of Sophia van Bylant of 1475 (cat.1), and his depiction of a Netherlandish manuscript in a much later work (cat.149). The Book of Hours is now the subject of a companion volume to the catalogue in which the researchers confirm the artist's presence in Utrecht around 1475. Nonetheless, there is considerable evidence to suggest that he neither trained in that region nor maintained a workshop there after 1480. Kemperdick and Weniger plausibly propose that the undated Utrecht paintings that are said to have influenced the artist are more likely to have been painted by his followers (p.30) and they conclude their perceptive investigation of the early work and style of the artist with the firm assertion that the painter 'is closely connected to the Cologne tradition and can be assumed to have been trained in the cathedral city' (p.40). Nürnberger, investigating the production methods and underdrawing technique of the painter, deduces that his 'meticulous working method undoubtedly has its precursors in Cologne, and is most closely related to that of Stefan Lochner'; she proceeds to suggest two particular workshops that could have provided the Bartholomew Master's training in Cologne (pp. 158-159). Schaefer, Frohnert, Klinkhammer and Steinbüchel conclude their important report on a technical examination of the master's paintings in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum and other Cologne works by declaring the Bartholomew Master an 'exceptionally gifted and accomplished Cologne painter' (p.134).
Nor is this the only discrepancy. In the manuscript volume we are correctly reminded that the date of 1475, inscribed in the Flagellation page, has been 'confirmed by scientific means' (Stundenbuch, Budde and Krischel, p.7), but in his summary of the catalogue the same author considers dating the manuscript to 'the beginning or middle of the 1480s' (Krischel, p.18). He suggests the 'Marian Altarpiece' (cats 29, 33, 39 and 40) as the earliest surviving work, 'possibly produced when still a journeyman' (p.9), despite the fact that Allen and Szafran were able to demonstrate that the panels differ in size, underdrawing style and surface appearance, and are unlikely to have come from one altarpiece (p.142). Nürnberger enlarges on this, stating that the underdrawing style of the Los Angeles paintings (cat.33) points to a different 'hand or even workshop' (p.154). Even then, the Paris Nativity (cat.29: pl.3) and Munich Adoration (cat.39; pl.4) show such differences in the skill of integrating the figures, and in depicting texture and light, that only the Munich panel can be considered a completely autograph work.
Equally confusing is the statement that the Adoration page of the manuscript is 'demonstrably by another hand' (Krischel, p.18). It has long been recognised that the design depends, possibly at the request of the patron, on a Schöngauer print (cat.17) which was copied with subtle changes in the number of figures, figure canon, facial expressions and background design. Such prints frequently provided patterns for miniaturists and among the numerous prints exhibited were a number identified by Mrass as further sources for the same manuscript (Stundenbuch, pp.187-201). Furthermore, close examination had revealed that the Adoration 'differs only by the use of a different punch' [-size] from other miniatures by the Bartholomew Master, 'apart from that, the miniature shows no peculiarities in materials or painting technique' (Oltrogge, Hahn and Fuchs, Stundenbuch, p.10).
The Bartholomew Master's paintings exhibit an ever increasing confidence and precision in his detailed, creative underdrawing and versatile painting style. This enabled Nürnberger to establish a plausible sequence for his oeuvre, placing for instance the Baptism (cat.97) among the earliest surviving works ('shortly after 1485'), the St Thomas Altarpiece (cat.82) among paintings of the early 1490s and the Holy Cross Altarpiece (cat.62) 'around 1500' (Nürnberger 1995 and pp.151-159). This thesis is supported by obvious improvements in design that finally led to a convincing spatial solution in the St. Bartholomew Altarpiece (cat.140). Krischel, however, allows no development in the master's technique and expertise and, contrary to accepted methodology, interprets small corrections in the freehand drawing, or repeated use of patterns, as evidence of the involvement of a workshop hand. This induces him to date the four large altarpieces to within one decade, thus creating 'workshop pressure' that supposedly delayed the completion of the St. Thomas Altarpiece until c.1495-1500, after finishing the Holy Cross Altarpiece and before the 'hurried' underdrawing for the Baptism was undertaken, 'possibly' with the 'help of a journeyman' (pp.20-21). It is difficult to envisage the circumstances that could have induced the meticulous master to 'delay' and 'hastily complete' the large and costly altarpiece destined for the city's most prestigious institution. Nor can one ignore the improved design in the Holy Cross Altarpiece, effected in the wings, for instance, by introducing a more plausible spatial setting for the polychrome figures. On the reverse of the wings, in the St Thomas Altarpiece, a cramped group of grisaille figures (pl.5) imitate sculpture in the traditional Netherlandish manner, whereas in the Holy Cross Altarpiece innovative and complex creations inspired by carved narratives are crafted convincingly (pl.6) and with 'more finely nuanced grisaille' (p. 130). Moreover, the detailed underdrawing of the Baptism (pl.7) shows all the characteristics of the master's own hand (p. 152 and passim), as does - despite the slightly rubbed condition of the painting - the meticulous brushwork. The unusual colour indications in the underdrawing of the large Baptism panel are more likely to have been inserted for the review of the patron than as instructions to a journeyman, particularly as none of the obvious workshop paintings (such as cats 77 and 123) carry any colour indications. Besides, fashions depicted in this painting were replaced around 1490 by those shown in the St. Thomas Altarpiece (Urban, p.207).
The dates newly proposed in the catalogue are not included in the table (pp.186-191) that lists dates suggested for the Bartholomew Master's works by earlier authors. The table helpfully includes the results obtained from dendrochronological examination (Klein, pp. 192-194), but displays a mix of numbers and quotes which is neither helpful nor always accurate.
The propensity to consider works with corrections in the underdrawing as executed either by the workshop or with notable workshop participation has affected a number of works (cats 39, 59, 82, 97, 103, 104, 113, 140). It would have been very helpful to see the visual evidence and reasoning on which these judgements were based. In the case of the Virgin with Saints Adrian and Augustine (cat.104; pl.8), for instance, Nürnberger (pp.152-153) plausibly argues that the underdrawing is likely to be a rapid freehand notation with instant corrections that follows a detailed design drawing. She notes that the underdrawing is similar to that of the Mystic Marriage of St Agnes (cat.47; pl.9), as is the surface appearance. Unaccountably, in the catalogue the Virgin with Saints is attributed to the workshop and linked to an Utrecht painter of different style, tonality and technique (cat.50); the Mystic Marriage is considered an autograph work. In this context, a discussion of the envisaged workshop organisation, together with a translation of the relevant guild regulations of 1449, might usefully have replaced the repetition of the general survey of all surviving guild regulations (Schaefer, pp.108-117), which is available elsewhere.
In the case of the Portrait of a Man (cat.51), an examination of the underdrawing of the panel (Sander, p.172) and observations on the modelling of the hand (Schaefer, Frohnert, Klinkhammer and Steinbüchel, p.122) caused the authors plausible concern about the status of the painting. However, before expulsion of the portrait from the master's oeuvre and unreliable attribution to the painter of cat.50 (Krischel, p.354), contrary indications should also have been considered. Among these are the similarities to the underdrawing style of the Paris Adoration and the Bylant Book of Hours (Nürnberger, p.153), and the fact that paint loss in the hand has revealed a shading technique that is not only used by the Utrecht painter (cat.50) but can be observed in a number of works by the Bartholomew Master - as in the hands of Alexis and the Virgin in the Holy Cross Altarpiece. Here and elsewhere the effects of restorations should also have been brought into consideration. Unfortunately, the announced symposium that might have shed light on some of these problems was cancelled.
Scholars will find the manuscript volume exemplary both in academic scope and in presentation. However, the huge main catalogue fails to fulfil its stated purpose and those who attempt to use it as a reference volume do so at their peril. In trying to get some basic information from the curator's catalogue entries and summary essay, they may remain unaware that the theses presented there are frequently speculative and are not supported by the research findings in the same volume. Through careful examination of the evidence these scholars confirm the Bartholomew Master as a painter who may have originally come from Utrecht but trained in Cologne. He had his own workshop in Cologne from around 1480. He is shown as influenced both by indigenous and Netherlandish models, which he adapted creatively for his idiosyncratic designs, executed in meticulous, yet inventive, technique and in exquisite colours. He showed a perceptive understanding of the human condition that placed his art at the threshold of the Renaissance. But the notion that he cynically 'played with what he did not believe any longer' (Krischel, p.17) in works for a deeply religious patron, and in a town that remained firmly catholic and proscribed any lack of propriety in religious representation (Schmid, p.64, note 70), must rest with the many other unsubstantiated assertions introduced in this volume.