Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence; (reverse) Giving Drink to the Thirsty

Master of the Acts of Mercy (Austrian, Salzburg, ca. 1465)
Oil on fir, (obverse) gold ground
Painted surface 29 x 18 3/8 in. (73.7 x 46.7 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of The Jack and Belle Linsky Foundation, 1981
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 537
This panel was orginally part of an altarpiece to which two panels in the Städtisches Museum at Trier—Beheading of John the Baptist (with Harboring the Pilgrim on the reverse), and The Feast of Herod (with Feeding the Hungry on the reverse)—also belonged. When the altarpiece was closed, the Acts of Mercy could be seen while the opened altarpiece showed the gold-ground paintings with scenes from the life of John the Baptist and Saint Lawrence. Since the Acts of Mercy depicted in the art of this period commonly numbered six, three panels are probably missing from the wings of the altarpiece, one with the Baptism of Christ, and two other scenes from the life of Saint Lawrence. There is no indication of the contents of the central panel. An altarpiece by the same hand is in the Nonnberg at Salzburg, where this panel may also have been painted.

The aggressive realism and formal simplicity found here are characteristic of works made in Salzburg in the second half of the fifteenth century. Hatch marks to indicate shadows on Lawrence's grill suggest that the artist was familiar with the techniques of engraving and woodcutting, newly discovered art forms which probably originated in the Upper Rhine region.
This work is a fragment of an altarpiece shutter, in which the Saint Lawrence scene on a gold ground would have been oriented to the interior, visible in the altarpiece’s open state. Stripped and bound to a gridiron, Lawrence is roasted over a fire that one of his tormentors stokes with a bellows. The figure wearing a long gray beard and a bejeweled robe and a holding scepter is the Roman emperor who ordered the execution. Although Lawrence is understood to have perished in 258 during the joint rule of Emperor Valerian (reigned 253–60) and his son Gallienus (reigned 253–68), the thirteenth-century Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, the most common source for details of the saint’s life, describes Lawrence’s demise as having taken place under Decius (reigned 249–51), and it is thus probably as Decius that this painting’s original viewers would have identified the emperor figure.

According to the Golden Legend, the martyrdom of Lawrence, a deacon of the Roman Church in charge of the treasury, was prompted by his refusal to surrender the treasury to the emperor and by his distribution of some of that wealth to the poor. Although the legend describes Lawrence’s calm in his final moments, Jacobus de Voragine’s commentary points out the extraordinary suffering involved in death by fire, an aspect that this painting emphasizes through Lawrence’s tormented expression and the bite of the rope beneath his rib cage.

The scene on the other side of a woman tending to a man’s thirst represents one of the six so-called acts of mercy named in the description of the Last Judgment in the Gospel of Matthew (25:35–36): feeding the hungry, offering drink to the thirsty, providing shelter to strangers, clothing the naked, tending the sick, and visiting the imprisoned. Early Christian authors added a seventh, burial of the dead, thus establishing the group of seven as standard during the Middle Ages. At the upper left corner, the hand of God emerges from a stylized cloud to bless the act. Underneath the cloud, visible with infrared reflectography (see Additional Images, fig. 4), is an as-yet-indecipherable inscription that appears to be in German, probably a preparatory notation related to the design or subject matter. The source of this composition could be the Ars Moriendi series of engravings by the Master E.S. (about 1445–50), which features a similarly emaciated man in a bed set diagonally in the picture plane. Although the woman’s gold nimbus is suggestive of sainthood—and saints Elizabeth of Hungary, Hedwig, and Erentrudis of Salzburg have been considered possible subjects—the lack of attributes prevents a definitive identification. It is altogether possible, especially in light of the secular costume, that the figure is not a saint but rather a personification of charity, the halo indicating not the sainthood of a particular person but rather the traits of saintliness and benevolence. Both scenes on the MMA panel demonstrate the painter’s talent for bold design which fully exploits the expressive potential of tightly compressed space. The vitality of his handling is detectable also in the free, direct underdrawing.

When first published in 1954, the panel was, on the advice of Ernst Buchner, localized in Salzburg and dated about 1460. By 1959 Buchner recognized it and two panels in the Stadtmuseum Simeonstift, Trier, as belonging to the same ensemble; the works in Trier depict the Beheading of John the Baptist and the Feast of Herod, and the back of each shows another of the acts of mercy—Giving Shelter and Feeding the Hungry, respectively—administered by the same female figure in a green dress and red cape. Buchner named the anonymous painter the Master of the Acts of Mercy (Meister der Barmherzigkeiten). Given the customary grouping of six biblical acts of mercy, Buchner reasoned that the panels in the Metropolitan Museum and the Stadtmuseum Simeonstift constituted half of the total wing scenes from a dismantled altarpiece. To the same hand he attributed a small Marian altarpiece, the so-called Nonnberg Crypt Altarpiece, in the Nonnberg convent in Salzburg, and a double-sided panel with The Adoration of the Magi and The Presentation in the Temple in the Staatsgalerie Burghausen, for which a pendant has recently been identified in The Death of the Virgin in the Musée Anne-de-Beaujeu, Moulins. For the 1972 exhibition "Spätgotik in Salzburg," Rohrmoser endorsed Buchner’s localization of the painter in Salzburg and slightly shifted the dating of the New York and Trier panels from about 1460 to 1465, figuring that they show a stylistic progression from the Nonnberg Crypt Altarpiece, which circumstantial evidence may date before 1463. In 2011 a fourth panel of the Acts of Mercy ensemble emerged on the art market; now in a private collection, it shows Saint Lawrence before the Emperor and the act of Clothing the Naked, thus allowing a less fragmentary reconstruction of the altarpiece.

A plausible reconstruction, as proffered by Buchner and Rohrmoser, assumes a total of six acts of mercy, according to the biblical number and by reason of symmetry, and arranges the wing scenes in two tall columns, displaying the Acts of Mercy in the closed state, and three scenes each from the lives of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Lawrence in the open state. It is possible that a seventh act of mercy, burial of the dead, was depicted on the lost predella. This would have resulted in an especially narrow structure, whose center, a painting or a sculpted shrine, would have been somewhat more than twice as tall as it was wide. Though unusual, such a narrow format should not be ruled out as a possibility, for the art of Salzburg and neighboring regions offers examples of works of comparable dimensions. The altarpiece to which the Museum’s panel belonged plausibly had a Crucifixion or a Virgin of Mercy (Schutzmantelmadonna) at its center, both subjects adaptable to a narrow format and compatible with the iconography of the Acts of Mercy.

Although Rohrmoser’s proposal that the Saint Lawrence scenes occupied the left wing and the John the Baptist scenes the right has remained unquestioned, the opposite arrangement not only creates a more favorable composition in the closed state, with the hands of God establishing a visual rhythm down the center and the repeated female figure girding the combined scenes along the far left and right, but also makes sense chronologically in the open state, with John the Baptist, who came before Lawrence, on the left rather than the right. This new arrangement also offers a logical sequence of the acts of mercy, according to their order in the Gospel of Matthew, if they are read from left to right, beginning from the bottom. This suggests that the two missing acts, tending the sick and visiting the imprisoned, were shown at the top left and right.

The chronology of the Master of the Acts of Mercy’s oeuvre proposed in 1972 and maintained ever since, with the Nonnberg Crypt Altarpiece falling before 1463, the Acts of Mercy panels about 1465, and the Marian panels in Burghausen and Moulins about 1470, rests on scant evidence. The dating of the Nonnberg Crypt Altarpiece derives from its representation of the Nonnberg church, held by Saint Erentrudis of Salzburg, in a form that probably predates major renovations begun in 1463. This assumes that the altarpiece’s patrons required the painted church to correspond to the concurrent structure of the actual church. But it cannot be ruled out that the work dates later, after the renovations were begun, and that the patrons wished Erentrudis (died 718), the convent’s first abbess, to be shown with what is effectively an ancient form of the church. Moreover, with regard to style, although the Nonnberg Crypt Altarpiece lacks the vigor and expressiveness of the Acts of Mercy panels and the Marian scenes, this is not necessarily reflective of an artistic evolution that would place it at the beginning of the known oeuvre. The more fundamental difference is that the Nonnberg retable is non-narrative; its row of standing saints by nature looks more austere and archaic than the other, narrative subjects. Here, subject matter and type, rather than date, may have been more determinative of appearance. The treatment of space adds a further complication, for although the background of the Nonnberg Crypt Altarpiece consists of a flat expanse of patterned gold, which probably contributed to its being assigned an early date, the very low horizon creates the convincing illusion that the figures actually stand on the ledge below. Comparison with the Burghausen Presentation in the Temple, with its absolutely vertical floor and virtually floating figures, demonstrates the comparative spatial incongruity of a supposed later work.

These considerations suggest that the chronology of the Master of the Acts of Mercy’s works is not as clear-cut as previously presumed. Indeed, in the absence of a larger, more stylistically varied oeuvre and dendrochronological data, it seems premature to align the works in a coherent succession. For that reason, while the traditional bracket dates of approximately 1460–70 are retained here, the sequence proposed in 1972 is abandoned in favor of assigning the oeuvre—including, of course, the Acts of Mercy panels—to the whole decade, until more conclusive evidence appears.

[2014; adapted from Waterman 2013]
The panel support is composed of three fir boards with the grain oriented vertically. X-radiography (see Additional Images, fig. 2) confirmed that on the reverse the joins are reinforced with strips of cloth and the whole of the obverse is prepared with cloth below the ground-preparation layer. The whole panel displays a slight convex transverse warp. Examination of the perimeter was hindered by a nonoriginal attached frame. Examination of small losses revealed that the ground preparation on both sides is white.

On the interior sides the outlines of the figures were incised in the ground preparation before gilding and painting took place. The burnished gold leaf that forms the background was laid down on a layer of bright orange bole using the water-gilding technique. The decorative pattern was created by incising its outlines in the gold and then filling them with a zigzag design by stamping with a V-shaped tool. The thicker passages in the flesh of Saint Lawrence display a pebbly or stippled texture, suggesting that the paint was tamped with a blunt brush to create a subtle texture. Visible in the reds of the emperor’s robe and hat is the imprint of the fabric the artist used to distribute the red lake glazes as he created depth and form. Those glazes appear to have faded somewhat in areas where it was thinly applied. Examination with the stereomicroscope revealed the remnants of a red lake glaze painted on top of the blue in the leggings of the henchman kneeling at left. The patchy dark brown glaze on the tunic of the henchman at right may originally have been a transparent green that discolored when copper-containing green pigments in the paint degraded (a common occurrence). Inscriptions on the henchmen’s clothing are abraded, as is the painted hatching on the grill. The gilding is moderately abraded.

The painting on the exterior side displays a wide-aperture craquelure throughout and is less well preserved than the painting on the other side. Widespread abrasion allows the underdrawing to show through quite clearly in some passages. The fragmentary remains of the faded red lake glazes in the woman’s robe have a spotty appearance attributable to the artist’s manipulation of the glaze with a piece of cloth. Examination with magnification revealed that the original background was blue. That paint darkened and was covered with restoration.

In both scenes the paint was applied with an active brush, methodically worked up in progressive phases. A transparent brown paint was used to emphasize some of the final contours. The lively, direct underdrawing on both sides of the panel, visible with infrared reflectography (see Additional Images, figs. 1, 3) as well as in normal light, was executed with a brush in a black liquid medium. In addition to the contours of all the figures, the underdrawing describes facial features and folds as well as details of some pieces of clothing with hatching in selected areas to indicate shading. There are several minor deviations from the underdrawing in the painted images, primarily in the details of the garments. On the reverse, there is a line of what appears to be indecipherable script in the clouds at upper left.

[2013; adapted from German Paintings catalogue]
Inscription: Inscribed (obverse, on hats of executioners) in pseudo-Greek and pseudo-Hebrew
[Paul Lindpaintner, Berlin, by about 1952–55; sale, Lempertz, Cologne, November 23, 1955, no. 37, as by a Salzburg Master about 1460, for 10,000 marks to Linsky]; Mr. and Mrs. Jack Linsky, New York (1955–his d. 1980); The Jack and Belle Linsky Foundation, New York (1980–81)
Munich. Bayerisches Nationalmuseum. "Unbekannte Kunstwerke im Münchner Privatbesitz," October 10–?, 1954, nos. 493, 493a (as Salzburg school, about 1460).

Salzburger Museum Carolino Augusteum. "Spätgotik in Salzburg: Die Malerei, 1400–1530," May 26–October 1, 1972, no. 92 (as by the Master of the Acts of Mercy, lent by Jack Linsky, New York).

Hans Buchheit, ed. Unbekannte Kunstwerke im Münchner Privatbesitz. Exh. cat., Bayerisches Nationalmuseum. Munich, 1954, p. 58, nos. 493 (obverse), 493a (reverse), pl. 65 (reverse), based on the opinion of Ernst Buchner, attributes it to a Salzburg painter and dates it about 1460.

Ernst Buchner. Zur spätgotischen Malerei Regensburgs und Salzburgs. Munich, 1959, pp. 11–15, figs. 17–19 (overall, obverse and reverse; detail, reverse), attributes it to a Salzburg artist he calls the "Meister der Barmherzigkeiten" (Master of the Acts of Mercy) and dates it about 1460; states that at the time it was sold in Cologne in 1955, Walter Dieck, director of the Städtisches Museum Simeonstift, Trier, identified it as from the same altarpiece as two works in his museum [see Notes]; mentions that there are at least three missing panels of the altarpiece, and that at that time six acts of mercy were usually depicted rather than seven; notes that the female saint depicted on the reverse of the MMA panel and on those in Trier is probably Elizabeth, but could also be Hedwig or Erentrud, founder of the Stift Nonnberg, a convent in Salzburg; calls these panels the artist's best works; assigns to the same painter an "Adoration of the Magi" with a "Presentation in the Temple" on the reverse (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich) and a triptych of the Virgin and Child with Saints (Stift Nonnberg); calls the artist contemporary with Master ES (active ca. 1450–67)], not Martin Schongauer (born 1435–50, d. 1491).

Alfred Stange. Deutsche Malerei der Gotik. Vol. 10, Salzburg, Bayern und Tirol in der Zeit von 1400 bis 1500. Munich, 1960, p. 96, identifies the MMA panel and the two in Trier as from the same altarpiece; attributes it to an unknown artist from the Bavarian Oberland and dates it to the sixteenth century based on the costumes; identifies the saint on the reverses as Elizabeth.

Albin Rohrmoser in Spätgotik in Salzburg: Die Malerei, 1400–1530. Exh. cat., Salzburger Museum Carolino Augusteum. Salzburg, 1972, pp. 79–81, 115, 117–18, no. 92, attributes the Trier and MMA panels to the Master of the Acts of Mercy and dates the altarpiece to which they all belong to about 1465; in a proposed reconstruction of the altarpiece, mistakenly places "Giving Drink to the Thirsty" in the middle on the left, but "The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence" at the bottom on the left; suggests that the three missing panels are "The Scourging of Saint Lawrence," "Saint Lawrence Distributing the Treasures of the Church," and "The Baptism of Christ"; reads the letters on the cap of the torturer at lower right as "MESTE" for Master, and suggests that the inscription on the second torturer's head covering may give the Master's name; relates the work of the Master of the Acts of Mercy to the Regensburger Altar by Rueland Fruehauf the Elder, concluding that the Master preceded Frueauf and may have been his teacher; describes the style of the Master as a late phase of mid-century realism.

Joshua Waterman in German Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, pp. 184–89, 311–12, no. 44, ill. (color), figs. 155–56 (obverse and reverse, infrared reflectogram details), 158 (color, altarpiece reconstruction).

This painting was originally part of an altarpiece to which two panels in the Städtisches Museum Simeonstift, Trier, also belonged: The Beheading of John the Baptist (reverse, Harboring the Pilgrim) and The Feast of Herod (reverse, Feeding the Hungry). When the altarpiece was closed, the Acts of Mercy would be visible, and when open, the scenes from the lives of Saints John the Baptist and Lawrence. At that time, most depictions of the Acts of Mercy included six, not seven, scenes, so three panels are probably missing from the wings of the altarpiece, one with the Baptism of Christ, and two with additional scenes from the life of Saint Lawrence. The central panel is also lost.

An altarpiece by the same artist is in the Stift Nonnberg, a convent in Salzburg, and the altarpiece to which the MMA panel belongs may also have been painted there.

The female saint on the reverses of the MMA and Trier panels has been identified as Elizabeth of Hungary, Hedwig, Erentrud, and Hildegard of Bingen (see Buchner 1959 and Nickel 1981).
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