This work and another double-sided panel, Saint Remigius Replenishing the Barrel of Wine
; (interior) Saint Remigius and the Burning Wheat
(The Met, 71.33ab
), must originally have formed the folding wings of an altarpiece.
The first side of the Agapitus panel shows the saint seated in a walled enclosure, surrounded by lions and bears. His persecutors observe from the balcony at the upper right. According to legend, Agapitus, a youth of fifteen, was martyred at Praeneste (modern-day Palestrina) under Emperor Aurelian (reigned 270–75). Thrown to lions as punishment for not renouncing his Christian faith, Agapitus was spared by the beasts. The scene on the Museum’s panel is augmented with bears not mentioned in the hagiography.
The saint’s beheading outside the walls of Praeneste appears on the other side of the panel. The executioner wears the tight, striped garb typical of contemporary depictions of this occupation. At the left, a crowned, bearded man, probably meant to be Aurelian, stands before his retinue, his tilted scepter signifying the order to kill.
The appearance together of Saint Agapitus and Saint Remigius allows a general determination of the location and patronage of the lost altarpiece to which these panels belonged. The relics of Remigius were conserved at the basilica of Saint-Remi in Rheims, and its abbey (defunct since the French Revolution) was a major Benedictine foundation. The main relics of Agapitus are held at the great Benedictine abbey of Kremsmünster, Austria, having been transferred there probably by the end of the ninth century, and Agapitus is that monastery’s patron saint. Given the association of both saints with important Benedictine houses, it is plausible that the former altarpiece was commissioned for a Benedictine monastery church.
That the Museum’s panels are gilded on both sides suggests that they were not the only set of wings on the former altarpiece. The aesthetic and liturgical inner hierarchy of winged retables required that they progress toward greater lavishness in the movement from exterior to interior. A display of gilding equally sumptuous in the fully closed and open states, as would be the case were the Museum’s panels the sole wings, would have been unusual. Thus the lost retable probably had yet another, outermost pair of folding wings without exterior gilding, which equipped the altarpiece for two openings. Fully closed, it might have displayed paintings of standing saints, as is common for exteriors. The first opening would have revealed four painted narrative scenes, all united by a shimmering gold sky: from left to right, an earlier scene from Agapitus’s martyrdom, the extant Agapitus in the Arena
, the extant Remigius Replenishing the Barrel of Wine
, and then a subsequent Remigius scene. In the altarpiece’s second opening, the Beheading of Agapitus
and Remigius and the Burning Wheat
would have flanked the lost center, which might have consisted of a sculptural shrine. This more elaborate configuration has the further advantage of filling in the somewhat abbreviated extant narrative program.
When The Met acquired the Agapitus and Remigius panels in 1871, they were attributed to Jacob Walen, a fictitious personality purported to have been the teacher of Michael Wolgemut. The Museum later considered the paintings Austrian, a designation accepted by Kuhn (1936). Based on the opinions of Fischer (1935), Ganz, and Benesch (unpublished opinions in departmental archives), Wehle and Salinger (1947) published the panels as late-fifteenth-century Swiss, relating them to works by Hans Fries, Hans Leu the Elder, and the Carnation Master (Nelkenmeister) group. Stange (1955) dated them instead to the early sixteenth century and assigned them to a group he assembled around what he called the Master of the Legend of the True Cross (Meister der Kreuzlegende), ostensibly active in Zürich. Konrad (1989) rightly recognized the pronounced stylistic heterogeneity of the True Cross group and dismantled it, connecting The Met's panels instead to works associated with Bern about 1500, namely, four small scenes from the lives of the emperors Trajan, Frederick II, and an unidentified emperor, and the wings of an All Souls Altarpiece of 1505 (all Kunstmuseum Bern). To this Bern group, Konrad later added panels from an altarpiece of Saint Fridolin of Säckingen (private collections), which display striking similarities to the paintings in New York.
Indeed, the Fridolin scenes, four in all, are so close to The Met’s that they are surely by the same workshop. Saint Fridolin and Urso Appearing in Court
offers several points of correspondence: the comparable palette, the similar hand shapes, the frequently overlong arms, the tendency to extend the brow across the temple with a prominent shadow, and the drapery creases that branch off one another and terminate in gentle curves. The face of the figure at the far left of the Beheading of Saint Agapitus
nearly matches that of the standing figure (Landolf) at the center of the court scene, except in reverse, as if the same workshop pattern had been used for both. Moreover, the brocade pattern of the gold background appears to correspond exactly. In the two scenes showing Fridolin in a landscape, the types of rock formations and fanlike depiction of leaves are the same as those found on the Museum’s panels. The Fridolin cycle’s likely date of 1503 (inscribed on the lectern in the court scene but hard to read) is good reason to date The Met’s pictures about 1500–1505.
The very subject matter of the Fridolin panels is evidence for the workshop’s location in northern Switzerland, since the saint is historically associated with the area. The same regional assignation is suggested by the general stylistic affinity with northern Swiss painting of the final decade of the fifteenth century in various centers, including works of the later Carnation Masters active in Bern, Zürich, and Baden. Further supporting the attribution is a probably somewhat earlier depiction of Saint Hubert and Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1490, private collection), putatively of northern Swiss origin, on which has been discovered the exact same brocade pattern in the gold background. That panel is by a distinctly different hand; thus possibly the master of The Met's panels was successor to the earlier painter’s workshop and inherited the pattern, or there was simply an exchange of patterns between associated workshops. The general resemblance of the Agapitus, Remigius, and Fridolin panels to the Bernese works cited by Konrad, and to other paintings associated with Bern, certainly raises the possibility of an origin in that city; however, in light of the still uneven state of knowledge about painting in northern Switzerland about 1500, the parallels for now seem too approximate to support such a precise localization.
[2014; adapted from Waterman in Ainsworth and Waterman 2013]