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Christ Blessing, Surrounded by a Donor Family

German Painter (probably active Hamburg and Lower Saxony, 1560s–80s)

Date:
ca. 1573–82
Medium:
Oil on wood
Dimensions:
Central panel 31 3/8 x 37 5/8 in. (79.7 x 95.6 cm); each wing 32 x 14 5/8 in. (81.3 x 37.1 cm)
Classification:
Paintings
Credit Line:
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
Accession Number:
17.190.13–15
  • Gallery Label

    This triptych, formerly attributed to Ludger tom Ring the Younger, was painted by an anonymous northern German painter. The donor family remains unidentified, but they surely hailed from Hamburg, the city whose church spires are shown on the orb in Christ’s hand. The verses on salvation and afterlife inscribed on the tablets above the figures are in Low German, the vernacular of much of northern Germany. They were taken verbatim from a Low German edition of Martin Luther’s Bible translation. Christ’s presence in the midst of this domestic gathering bespeaks a deeply Lutheran understanding of Christ’s direct accessibility to believers.

  • Catalogue Entry

    This triptych depicts a family of seven gathered closely around Christ; the group is engaged in a dialogue on salvation and the afterlife through the biblical verses inscribed overhead. Four tablets on the walls bearing invocatory verses from the Book of Psalms are aligned with the four eldest family members, and on the central tablet appear Jesus’s words from the Gospel of John, 14:19, "Because I live, ye shall live also." These texts are in Low German (Niederdeutsch), the vernacular of much of northern Germany. Their verbatim source is Johannes Bugenhagen’s (1485–1558) Low German edition of Martin Luther’s Bible translation.

    The Christ figure here is the Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World). Although the family remains unidentified, they surely hailed from Hamburg, for, as comparison with contemporary printed, drawn, and painted views confirms, the churches depicted on the orb are those of the great Hanseatic city. Shown in a topographically accurate view from the east, the churches are, from left to right, Saint Catherine (stepped gable at far left), Saint Nicholas, the Cathedral, Saint James, Saint Peter, and Saint John (small building with ridge turret).

    The double-gabled roof of the tower of the church of Saint James, at the very center of the orb, existed in this form only until 1582. In addition, dendrochronological analysis of the triptych’s oak panels derives a plausible date of creation of the painting of 1573 upwards. This combined evidence supports an approximate date of about 1575 to 1580 for the work, a dating that is corroborated by the painting’s style and costume types.

    The former attribution of this triptych to Ludger tom Ring the Younger (1522–1584; Hölker 1927, Kuhn 1936, Wehle and Salinger 1947, Gmelin 1996) does not withstand close comparison with authentic works by that artist, and the attribution to Peter Spitzer (d. 1571) put forth in some of the literature (Pieper 1954, Riewerts and Pieper 1955, Lorenz 1996) fails on chronological as well as stylistic grounds. The unknown artist at work here achieves an extraordinary psychological penetration in the sitters’ resolute gazes and the sensitive treatment of youth and old age. He builds up flesh tones in an idiosyncratic but highly effective way, applying an intricate network of crisscrossed, feathery brushstrokes. The only other known work that is probably by the same hand is the 1579 portrait of Ernst von Reden in a private collection. Von Reden was steward (Statthalter) of the ducal residence of Celle under Wilhelm the Younger of Braunschweig-Lüneburg (1535–1592), and, in fact, the painted wings of the altarpiece in the castle chapel in Celle (before 1576?), showing donor portraits of Duke Wilhelm and his wife, Dorothy of Denmark, are comparable in style to the Metropolitan Museum’s triptych. It is thus conceivable that the Hamburg family in this triptych had some connection to the ducal court in Celle. The associations of the unknown artist with Celle (not far from Hanover) and with Hamburg to the north place his sphere of activity in and around the region of modern Lower Saxony.

    Highly unusual in an image of this sort is the intimate, shoulder-to-shoulder proximity of the sitters to Christ and the complete lack of prayer gestures. The closest iconographical antecedents are depictions of Christ flanked by the Twelve Apostles, commonly found in pre-Reformation altarpieces. The Lutheran donors of this work may well have known that precedent and wished to associate themselves with the apostles, as believers who experienced Christ’s everyday and real presence in their lives. Indeed, the triptych evokes biblical passages that underscore Christ’s presence among his followers, such as John 1:14, "And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us," or Matthew 18:20, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." The question of function and original display context remains unanswered. Though the work adopts the common triptych format of an altarpiece, it certainly was not used as such. The emphasis on salvation in the inscriptions and the Salvator Mundi Christ type suggest a memorial function, perhaps as part of a family epitaph in a church. In that case, the cut flowers on the table would symbolize the fleeting nature of earthly life.

    [2011; adapted from forthcoming Ainsworth]

  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings

    Inscription: Inscribed on central panel: (central plaque) ICK LEVE. VND GŸ SCHO- / LEN OCK LEVEN, IOH[ANNES]: 14· ([Because] I live, ye shall live also, John 14[:19]); (left plaque) HERE LATH MIJ DI NE / GNADE WEDERVAREN, / DINE HVLPE NA DI- / NEM WORDE, / PSAL. 118 (Let thy mercies come also unto me, . . . even thy salvation, according to thy word, [sic for Psalms 119:41].); (right plaque) HERE. WENN ICK / MEN DŸ HEBBE / SO FRAGE ICK NICHT / NA HEMEL VNDE / ERDE, PSALM. 73· (Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee, Psalms 73[:25].); (over sitters' heads, left to right) ÆTA. / TIS / 21; ÆTATIS 54; ÆTATIS·6·; ÆTATIS 52.; ÆTAT: / 16. Inscribed on left wing: (over sitter's head) ÆTATIS 33; (on plaque) EINS BIDDE ICK VA DE / HEREN DAT HEDDE ICK / GERNE, DAT ICK IM HV- / SE DES HEREN BLIVEN / MOGE MŸN LEVE / LANCK, PSAL: 27 (One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, Psalms 27[:4]). Inscribed on right wing: (over sitter's head) ÆTATIS 18.; (on plaque) HERE WENDE MŸNE / OGENN AFF DAT SE / NICHT SEHEN NA VN- / NVTTER LERE. SODER / VERQVICKE MY VP DINEM / WEGE. PSAL 119 (Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity; and quicken thou me in thy way. Psalms 119[:37])

  • Provenance

    J. Pierpont Morgan, New York (by 1908–d. 1913; his estate, 1913–17)

  • Exhibition History

    New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "German Drawings: Masterpieces from Five Centuries," May 10–June 10, 1956, suppl. no. 201.

  • References

    Catalogue of the Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1911 [under Addenda to the 1905 Catalogue, January–February 1908, unpaginated], as by "Antonis Mor (?)," lent by J. Pierpont Morgan.

    "The Pierpont Morgan Gift." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 13 (January 1918), p. 17, as by Ludger tom Ring.

    Karl Hölker. Die Malerfamilie tom Ring [Beiträge zur Westfälischen Kunstgeschichte, Heft 8]. Münster, 1927, pp. 49, 86, no. 90, pls. XXIV–XXV, attributes it to Ludger tom Ring the Younger.

    Max Geisberg in Westfälische Lebensbilder. 2, 1931, p. 48, attributes it to Ludger tom Ring the Younger.

    Karl Hölker in Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. 28, Leipzig, 1934, p. 364, as by Ludger tom Ring the Younger.

    Charles L. Kuhn. A Catalogue of German Paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in American Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1936, p. 34, no. 73, attributes it to Ludger tom Ring and dates it about 1575.

    Emil Waldmann. "Deutsche Kunst in amerikanischen Museen." Der Türmer: Deutsche Monatshefte 39 (January 1937), p. 300, ill. p. 297, states that the city reflected in the orb is Soest.

    Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 229–31, ill., describe this altarpiece as "one of the rare religious paintings by the younger Ludger tom Ring" and note that "In the close proximity of the very human figures to Christ it demonstrates one of the chief tenets of Protestantism, the easy and direct approach of man to God"; add that the chief families of Münster (home to the Ring family of painters) were loyal Catholics and suggest the family portrayed here were rich burghers in Protestant Brunswick; observe that the ages of the sitters are provided, but their names are not, perhaps an indication that the triptych was installed in a chapel known by the family name; identify the man on the left wing as the donor, with his wife on the right, and his parents and unmarried siblings on the central panel; state that the city reflected in Christ's orb cannot be identified with a particular place.

    Millia Davenport. The Book of Costume. New York, 1948, vol. 1, p. 413, no. 1104–6, ill.

    Kjell Boström. "De oorspronkelijke Bestemming van Ludger tom Rings Stillevens." Oud-Holland 67 (1952), p. 54, suggests that the flowers on the table symbolize almighty God.

    Paul Pieper. "Diskussion zum Vortrag Zimmermann [comments on the paper delivered by Heinrich Zimmermann, see Ref. Zimmermann 1954]." Kunstchronik 7, no. 10 (1954), p. 290, suggests that our triptych, in addition to the Celle wings [both traditionally ascribed to Ludger tom Ring the Younger], might be given to Peter Spitzer.

    Heinrich Zimmermann. "Vorträge am 31. Juli 1954, Heinrich Zimmermann (Berlin): Peter Spitzer [this issue is devoted to the "Fünfter deutscher Kunsthistorikertag, Hannover, 28.–31. Juli 1954"]." Kunstchronik 7, no. 10 (October 1954), pp. 289–90, constructs an oeuvre for the artist Peter Spitzer on the basis of his 1547 engraving of Brunswick in the Herzog-August-Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, and includes, along with three epitaph paintings in the Wittenberg Stadtkirche, the altarwings with donor portraits in the schlosskapelle at Celle; notes that he had also considered including the MMA triptych in Spitzer's oeuvre but rejected it.

    Theodor Riewerts and Paul Pieper. Die Maler tom Ring: Ludger der Ältere, Hermann, Ludger der Jüngere. [Munich], 1955, pp. 48–50, 120–21, no. 138, pls. 121–24 (overall and details), describe our triptych as a representation of the Biblical text, "For where two or three are assembled in my name, there am I in the midst of them" [Matthew 18:20]; remark that in comparison with Ludger's "usual communicativeness," this work does not bear the artist's monogram, and tentatively support an attribution to Spitzer; note that the face of Christ looks somewhat empty and almost saccharine to us now, but was intended to posess an idealized, impersonal beauty; Riewerts identifies the young woman on the right wing as the oldest daughter of the family in the center panel, noting her resemblance to the mother, and, still more, her sister and oldest brother; Pieper, however, supports Wehle and Salinger [Ref. 1947] in identifying the man on the left wing as the oldest son in this family.

    Hubertus Schwartz. "Profane Denkmäler." Soest in seinen Denkmälern. 1, Soest, 1955, pp. 54–56, ill. (detail of orb), identifies the city reflected in Christ's orb as Soest, observing however that the representation is not very exact.

    Friedrich Winkler. Letter to Elizabeth Gardner. June 7, 1956, observes that he and his colleague [Heinrich] Zimmermann reject attribution of the triptych to Ludger tom Ring the Younger and find it "better in many regards"; suggests that our picture could be by Peter Spitzer, a court painter in Brunswick that Zimmermann is interested in, noting that Sptizer's best work seems to be the wings of an altar in the chapel of Celle Castle; adds that he is "not yet convinced, your paintings could be by another north german artist, but surely they are not by the stiff—notwithstanding artistic and original—Ludger tom Ring".

    Carla Gottlieb. "The Mystical Window in Paintings of the Salvator Mundi." Gazette des beaux-arts, 6th ser., 56 (December 1960), p. 332 n. 40.

    Fred Brauen. "A Late Sixteenth Century German Devotional Triptych." Master's thesis, New York University, 1964, pp. 1–93, figs. 1a–1c (overall and details), proposes that the wings of this altarpiece were not part of the original composition; identifies the language of the inscriptions as Low German and the city reflected in the glass orb as Soest; doubts that our altarpiece and the Celle wings are from the same hand; calls our frame contemporary with the painting, noting that the frames for the Celle wings are similar.

    Fred Brauen. Ludger tom Ring's Devotional Triptych in New York: Further Evidence Toward Its Dating and Identification. 1965, pp. 1–26, figs. 1, 2 (overall and detail), assumes that the city reflected in the orb is Soest and identifies the family as the von Kleppings of Soest, based on an inscripton on a grave recorded in Ref. Schwartz (vol. 3, p. 43) that is similar to one on a plaque in our painting.

    Heinrich Zimmermann. Letter to Claus Virch. March 2, 1970, notes that the wings of the Celle altarpiece show the same kind of flowers that appear in our painting, and that this very individual arrangement of the cut flowers is otherwise unknown; adds that Spitzer [to whom he attributes the Celle altarwings] has included a vase with similarly handled flowers in Marten de Vos's Celle panel representing the angel of the Annunciation; mentions a view of Hamburg in an article by [Carl] Schellenberg [Eine Hamburger Stadtansicht aus dem 16. Jahrhundert, published in Ehrengabe des Museums fuer Hamburgische Geschichte, 1939, ill. p. 119] that seems to him to be related stylistically to the cityscape on the glass orb in our painting.

    Fred Brauen. Ludger tom Ring and the Kleppings of Soest: The New York Triptych. 1974, pp. 1–80, figs. 1, 2 (overall and detail).

    Gerhard Langemeyer in "Das Stilleben als Attribut." Stilleben in Europa. Exh. cat., Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte. Münster, 1979, p. 226, ill. p. 224, describes it as a cross between an allegory and a portrait and notes that the individual flowers on the table are juxtaposed with the entire world, in the form of Christ's orb.

    Hans Ost. "Ein italo-flämisches Hochzeitsbild und Überlegungen zur ikonographischen Struktur des Gruppenportraits im 16. Jahrhundert." Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch 41 (1980), pp. 131, 137–38, fig. 6, notes that our triptych, like the Italo-Flemish "Wedding at Cana" that he publishes (ca. 1580, private collection, Cologne), integrates two levels of reality in combining a figure of worship with contemporary portraits.

    Diane Owen Hughes. "Representing the Family: Portraits and Purposes in Early Modern Italy." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 17 (Summer 1986), p. 36 n. 38.

    E. de Jongh. Portretten van echt en trouw: Huwelijk en gezin in de Nederlandse kunst van de zeventiende eeuw. Exh. cat., Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 1986, pp. 36, 63 n. 5, fig. 31, notes that as in double portraits or pendants, in which the man appears on the heraldic right of his wife and she on his left, the men in this altarpiece are depicted on Christ's right, and the women on his left; comments on the moral and religious symbolism linking the right with life, light, God, and Christ, and the left with unluckiness, death, and the devil; also remarks that the men do not wear hats, while the women do, a custom that was in place into the seventeenth century, especially among the strictly religious, and which derives from 1 Corinthians,11:5, "But every woman that prayest or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head . . . ".

    Sophie McConnell. Metropolitan Jewelry. New York, 1991, pp. 26, 82, ill. pp. 27, 82–83 (in color, overall and detail), discusses the fashion in the early sixteenth century of wearing large, heavy chains, noting that in Flanders and Germany they were mostly worn by women, as is the case in our triptych.

    J. G. Links. Letter to Katharine Baetjer. September 13, 1993, describes the fur worn by the young man in the left wing as "a serious but . . . [judging from a photograph] not very skilled attempt to portray marten of some kind" and notes that "the longer rump hair and shorter hair at the neck are clearly shown, also the dark stripe at the mane"; calls the fur worn by the older man in the central panel "various pieces, probably waste, of fur . . . joined to make an attractive collar. Probably different parts of squirrel pelts but fancifully painted and without serious attempt at realism".

    Hans Georg Gmelin in The Dictionary of Art. 26, New York, 1996, p. 408, mentions this triptych as an oustanding work from Ludger's time in Brunswick, along with his portraits of Reinhard and Gese Reiner (1569, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Brunswick).

    Birgit Hahn-Woernle. Sebastian Stoskopff: Mit einem kritischen Werkverzeichnis der Gemälde. Stuttgart, 1996, pp. 79, 81 n. 25, ill. (central panel), as by "Peter Spitzer?"; states that the flowers refer to the Passion and to Paradise.

    Peter Klein. Letter to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. July 5, 1996, notes that all the boards of the left and right wing come from one tree, and those from the middle panel come from a second tree; gives an earliest creation date for the painting of 1563, but a more plausible creation date of 1573 upwards.

    Die Maler tom Ring. Exh. cat., Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte. Münster, 1996, vol. 2, pp. 644–45, no. 202, ill., due to family resemblance believes the man on the left wing is the son of the couple in the central panel; notes that K. H. Kirchhoff of Münster suggests the city reflected in Christ's orb could be Bremen, Braunschweig, or Lüneburg.

    Sam Segal in Die Maler tom Ring. Exh. cat., Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte. Münster, 1996, vol. 1, pp. 134, 147 nn. 128–29, notes that the handling of the flowers on the table before Christ has nothing in common with those of Ludger, and that Hermann tom Ring, who was Catholic, could not have painted this very Protestant painting; identifies the flowers depicted here.

    Jutta Held. Letter to Maryan Ainsworth. November 13, 2000, states that the inscriptions in the painting are written in Niederdeutsch and that their probable source was the "Bugenhagen-Bibel"; observes that Bugenhagen, a colleague of Martin Luther, translated Luther's Bible into Niederdeutsch (a dialect that was used in the region between Sauerland and Pommern).

    Ingrid Schulze. Lucas Cranach d. J. und die protestantische Bildkunst in Sachsen und Thüringen: Frömmigkeit, Theologie, Fürstenreformation. Bucha bei Jena, 2004, p. 186.

    Gisela Jaacks. E-mail to Joshua Waterman. August 5, 2005, agrees that the city reflected in Christ's orb is Hamburg seen from the east, identifies the various church towers and notes that the facade of St. Katharine's looked like this only between 1569 and 1596, and thus provides termini post and ante quem; also remarks that the costumes, especially those of the women, reflect those of four Hamburg women that appear in a drawing by Melchior Lorichs (Evelyn Collection, Stonor Park); notes that Lorichs was in Hamburg only between 1568 and 1575, but she doubts the drawing was made before 1570; observes that the jewelry of the women reveals that they were from Hamburg's upper class, adding that such luxury would only have been conceivable in its uppermost strata.



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