This work and Saint Adalbert and Saint Procopius
) were originally the front and back of a single panel.
Benesch (1945) identified the scene as an episode from the story of Wenceslas, and Kurth (1945), who recognized it as the saint’s entombment in the Cathedral of Saint Vitus in Prague, confirmed that both sides formerly belonged to the Saint Wenceslas Altarpiece. A legend, first reported by Cosmas Pragensis and later written down by Johannes Dubravius in the Historiae Regni Boiemiae
(Prostějov, 1552), relates that Boleslav, the brother and murderer of Wenceslas, transferred his body to the cathedral in hopes that the miracles taking place at the saint’s grave in Stará Boleslav would be instead attributed to Vitus. The background scene showing three haloed corpses lying on a bier—Vitus flanked by his foster parents, Modestus and Crescentia, all of whom were martyrs—is not mentioned in connection with the burial of Wenceslas in any of the known written narratives of that event.
The altarpiece to which the two MMA works belonged comprised an unknown number of paintings depicting scenes from the life of Wenceslas (ca. 907–September 28, 935), Bohemian duke of the Přemyslid dynasty. Six of these are in the collection of the Národni Galerie, Prague: Saint Wenceslas Liberating the Prisoners
, Saint Wenceslas Regaling Pilgrims in Stará Boleslav
, Saint Wenceslas Collecting Firewood for the Poor and Being Tortured by the Gamekeepers
, Saint Wenceslas Led by Angels and Welcomed by King Henry I the Fowler at the Reichstag
, The Martyrdom of Saint Wenceslas
, and The Securing of the Body of Saint Wenceslas
. Two others, Saint James the Minor and Saint Vitus
and Saint Wenceslas and Saint Ludmila
, were sold at auction in April 1997 at Sotheby’s, London, and are now in a private collection in London. The panels of paired saints formed the exterior wings of the altarpiece, while the narrative episodes from the saint’s life were on the interior. Because of the unknown number of missing panels and the compromised state of the existing ones, it is not currently possible to determine whether the altarpiece was composed entirely of paintings or whether the paintings formed the wings of a shrine that had a sculpture of Saint Wenceslas at its center. All the panels have been split front from back, and all those in Prague have been thinned and cradled or backed with a plywood panel. As a result, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to compare their wood grain patterns with those of the existing panels of paired saints in order to identify which are the front and back sides of the same panel.
As early as 984, a feast day for Wenceslas had been established. By the eleventh century he was considered the Bohemian national saint, and he is still venerated today as the patron saint of the Czech Republic. The Saint Wenceslas Chapel in Saint Vitus Cathedral is decorated with an extensive mural depicting episodes from the saint’s life. It was here that the cult of Saint Wenceslas was especially supported by the Bohemian emperor Charles IV. The extant paintings belonging to the same altarpiece as the Metropolitan’s panels all derive from legends of Saint Wenceslas that date from the tenth to fourteenth centuries. The Lexikon der christlichen Ikonographie
provides as many as twenty-nine of these episodes, suggesting that the original altarpiece may have been much larger than indicated by the extant paintings. Unfortunately, no other altarpiece of the life of Saint Wenceslas is known to have survived, only murals and book illuminations.
There is no question that the Museum’s panels belong to the core group of the Master of Eggenburg as established by Benesch (1932). Despite the cohesive but small group of paintings in the Master of Eggenburg’s oeuvre, his origin remains a matter of conjecture. Benesch thought he was an assistant to the Master of Herzogenburg, a late-fifteenth-century artist from northern Lower Austria, who worked in 1491 in Gars am Kamp, Waldviertel. Like Stange, Brinkmann (2002) considered the Master a contemporary of the Master of Herzogenburg but not his pupil. Brinkmann showed the striking similarities, especially in composition, between the Last Supper
by the Master of Herzogenburg (Stiftskirche Heiligenkreuz, Lower Austria) and that by the Master of Eggenburg mentioned above. Although the two artists share tightly edited, heavily populated narrative scenes and straightforward, even naive treatments of figures, theirs is more a general than a specific relationship and supports Brinkmann’s view that the two are contemporaries. The Master of Herzogenburg’s Passion Altarpiece (formerly in Gars am Kamp and today divided between the Stiftsgalerie in Herzogenburg and Heiligenkreuz) is dated 1491; his two altarpiece wings with Saint George and Saint Leonard (Národni Galerie, Prague) also probably bear the same date, although the last digit is damaged and may be a 5 or a 6. As Brinkmann indicated, this provides a likely period of creation for the Master of Eggenburg’s Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
(Städel Museum, Frankfurt). During the same period, the 1490s, the Master must have also worked on the Saint Wenceslas Altarpiece and therefore on the Museum’s paintings.
[2014; adapted from Ainsworth 2013]