Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Burial of Saint Wenceslas

Master of Eggenburg (Austrian, Tirol, active 1490–1500)
ca. 1490–1500
Oil and gold on spruce
Painted surface, including black border, 27 1/8 x 17 in. (68.9 x 43.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of William Rosenwald, 1944
Accession Number:
Not on view
This work and Saint Adalbert and Saint Procopius (MMA 44.147.1) 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]
This work and Saint Adalbert and Saint Procopius (MMA 44.147.1) were originally the front and back of a single, vertically oriented spruce panel that was later separated in two. After the separation, the remaining wood supports were thinned and cradled. Modern wooden strips, .5 centimeter wide and painted black, were nailed to the perimeter. On the reverse of Saint Adalbert and Saint Procopius, pieces of wood of various sizes were inserted into the interstices of the cradle, and a wax coating was applied. Between the two saints, there is a split in the panel that extends from top to bottom. The Burial of Saint Wenceslas displays several splits and washboarding of the surface plane because the cradle is restricting the natural movement of the wood support.
Fragments of a barbe, unpainted wood borders at the left and right, and incised lines along the left, right, and top perimeters of The Burial indicate that the white ground preparation was applied when the panel was in an engaged frame. While the left and right edges of both panels are original, the unpainted wood borders at the tops have been trimmed up to the paint. The bottom edges have been cut; here the paint extends out to the very edges and is chipped and irregular. On Saint Adalbert and Saint Procopius a nonoriginal black border approximately 1 cm wide runs around the left, top and right edges. X-radiography of Saint Adalbert and Saint Procopius revealed that, before the ground preparation was applied, fabric was attached to the panel in the area to be gilded. The elaborately patterned, burnished gold background, characteristic of water gilding, is applied to an orange-red bole.
The paintings are generally well preserved. The Burial exhibits large losses at the foot of the open sarcophagus in the background, to the right of the central column, in the knees of Saint Wenceslas, in the altar at the top left, and below the feet of the man standing at the left. There are remnants of later fill material and black paint on the unpainted wood borders. The portion of Saint Wenceslas’s halo that extends onto the border is a restoration. In Saint Adalbert and Saint Procopius losses in the gold background and along the contour of Adalbert’s cope are associated with the central vertical split in the panel. Much of the bole and the white ground shows through the badly damaged gilded background. The damage appears deliberate and may have been done to efface the elaborately tooled background, which has been extensively restored with gold paint.
Infrared photography (see Additional Images, figs. 1–3) revealed an extensive underdrawing, carried out with a brush, that describes the contours and uses hatching to suggest shading and modeling. The facial structures—most notably, the sunken cheeks and rounded eye sockets—were indicated in the underdrawing. When the surface was examined with the stereomicroscope, the dispersed black pigments of the underdrawing were visible in a skip in the paint in the neck of the figure at the right in The Burial.
To establish the pattern of Saint Adalbert’s gold-and-green brocade tunic, the artist used an instrument to score the ground, first laying down the outlines and then filling them in with parallel scoring. Layers of gesso were next added to make the raised-relief floral decoration. The low-relief pattern was gilded, and a brown glaze applied and wiped away, leaving traces in the interstices that created the impression of gold-thread embroidery. The gilded-leaf pattern was glazed with green. Brown glaze was brushed over the completed garment to produce the folds and shadows.
Full-bodied paints have been generously applied in a straightforward manner. The good deal of visible wet-in-wet brushwork implies that the artist worked quickly and with facility. He employed a simple but effective technique to create volume by juxtaposing three to four color or shades of color.
[2013; adapted from German Paintings catalogue]
?Baron von Tinti, Sankt Pölten, Austria; William Rosenwald, New York (until 1944, as Austrian, Tyrolese, 15th century)
Minneapolis. University Gallery, University of Minnesota. "Space in Painting," January 28–March 7, 1952, no catalogue?

Otto Benesch. "Der Meister des Krainburger Altars." Wiener Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte 8 (1932), p. 27, attributes to a student of the Master of Herzogenburg whom he identifies as the Master of Eggenburg an altarpiece dedicated to Saint Wenceslas and comprising eight panels (according to a communication from Prof. Matejcek): "Saint Wenceslas before the Emperor" and "Rescuing the Body of Saint Wenceslas" in the Rudolfinum, Prague (both sold, Galerie Sanct Lucas, Vienna, March 3–4, 1921, no. 7), two panels in the collection of Bishop Podlaha, and four more in private collections [see Refs. Benesch 1945 and 1972; all six panels not in the MMA are now in the Národní Galerie, Prague (see Notes)].

Otto Benesch. Letter to Margaretta M. Salinger. February 15, 1945, attributes the two MMA panels to the Master of Eggenburg, noting that he was active in the last decade of the fifteenth century; suggests that the story depicted might be that of Saint Wenceslas, but does not specifically connect them with the eight panels from the Saint Wenceslas altarpiece [see Ref. Benesch 1932].

Betty Kurth. Letter to Margaretta M. Salinger. March 4, 1945, attributes them to the Master of Eggenburg and identifies them with two of the eight panels of the altarpiece mentioned by Benesch [see Ref. 1932]; identifies the scene as the Burial of Saint Wenceslas, suggesting that the three figures in the background may represent Saints Vitus, Modestus, and Crescentia.

Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 168–69, ill., accept the attribution to the Master of Eggenburg and the connection with the altarpiece dedicated to Saint Wenceslas.

Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 37, Leipzig, 1950, p. 85.

Michael Compton. Letter to Theodore Rousseau. December 11, 1957, notes a resemblance between the two MMA panels and a "Presentation in the Temple" in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool [see William H. Gerdts Jr., "The Sword of Sorrow," Art Quarterly 17 (Autumn 1954), p. 224, fig. 12, as Flemish school, fifteenth century].

Alfred Stange. Deutsche Malerei der Gotik. Vol. 11, Österreich und der ostdeutsche Siedlungsraum von Danzig bis Siebenbürgen in der Zeit von 1400 bis 1500. Munich, 1961, p. 56, attributes them to the Master of Eggenburg and associates them with the panels comprising the Saint Wenceslas altarpiece; refers to the artist as a contemporary or collaborator of the Master of Herzogenburg rather than as his student.

Foreign Schools Catalogue. Vol. 1, Text. Liverpool, 1963, p. 11, under no. 1229, calls the style of Liverpool's "Presentation in the Temple" [see Ref. Compton 1957], attributed to the Austrian School and dated about 1480, close to that of the Master of Eggenburg, giving the two MMA panels as examples of that master's work.

Eva Benesch, ed. Collected Writings.. By Otto Benesch. Vol. 3, London, 1972, p. 209, fig. 232, identifies the MMA panels with two of those mentioned by Otto Benesch in 1932 [see Ref.] as belonging to the Saint Wenceslas altarpiece by the Master of Eggenburg.

Katharine Baetjer. European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Artists Born before 1865: A Summary Catalogue. New York, 1995, pp. 214–15, ill., states that the two pictures were originally probably the obverse and reverse of a single panel; adds that three additional scenes from the same altarpiece are known: one in the Národní Galerie, Prague, and the two formerly in the Rudolfinum, Prague.

Martin Schawe. Staatsgalerie Augsburg: Altdeutsche Malerei in der Katharinenkirche. [Munich], [2001], p. 91, relates the pattern of the gold ground of a panel depicting "The Capture of Saint Barbara," attributed to the Swabian School and dated about 1480, to the panels of the Saint Wenceslas altarpiece, mistakenly referring to both MMA panels as having a gold ground.

Bodo Brinkmann in Deutsche Gemälde im Städel, 1300–1500. Mainz, 2002, pp. 280–81 n. 17, lists six panels in the Národní Galerie, Prague, from the same altarpiece as the two in the MMA [see Notes], attributing them all the Master of Eggenburg; refers to 44.147.1 as the detached reverse of 44.147.2.

Maryan W. Ainsworth in German Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, pp. 201–5, 314, no. 48B, ill. (color) and figs. 165–66 (infrared reflectogram and color details).

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