According to the oldest known version of the story, the Passio acaunensium martyrum
(The Passion of the Martyrs of Agaunum), dating to about 450 and based on the writings of Eucherius, bishop of Lyons, Maurice commanded a Roman legion in Thebes, which was an early Christian territory. When he and his African soldiers were ordered by Emperor Maximian to persecute the Christians in Gaul, they refused and were martyred near Agaunum (present-day Saint-Maurice-en-Valais) on September 22 in 280 or 300. The cult of Saint Maurice, most widespread in the Late Middle Ages, was first associated with the royal house of Burgundy and thereafter with Saxon and Ottonian kings. One of the main centers for the veneration of Saint Maurice was the archdiocese of Magdeburg, particularly the eastern German city of Halle, where as early as 1184, an Augustinian convent and monastic school were founded and dedicated to him. From 1484 to 1503, during the rule of Archbishop Ernst of Wettin, the Moritzburg—the seat of the ruler—was built in Halle. Ernst was among the most notable art patrons of the period, surpassed only by his successor, Albrecht of Brandenburg.
The youngest son of a family of Wettin and Habsburg descent, Albrecht was elected archbishop of Magdeburg and bishop of Halberstadt in 1513. He quickly rose in the church hierarchy, and in 1518 he was made cardinal and succeeded as high chancellor primate, becoming one of the most influential and wealthy individuals within the Holy Roman Empire. Albrecht made the Moritzburg his main residence and endowed the Dominican church nearby with special privileges upon its dedication in 1523 as the Neues Stift (New Foundation). The church, with Saints Maurice, Erasmus, and Mary Magdalen as its patrons, became Albrecht's showplace. From 1520 to 1525, he commissioned sixteen altarpieces from Lucas Crananch and his workshop; these exist today only in fragmentary state, although their original placement is known from a detailed inventory.
The Neues Stift also housed the most important collection of relics in northern Europe, which had been initiated by Ernst of Wettin. The first inventory of the collection appeared in 1520; in 1526–27, a second inventory, called the Liber ostensionis
and generally known as the Halle Heiltumsbuch
(Halle Book of Relics), was produced for Albrecht's personal use. It described 353 reliquaries, all but three of which were illustrated (probably by a Cranach pupil). Approximately seventeen of the images in the Hallesches Heiltumsbuch
depict Saint Maurice and the relics associated with him. The most important of these was a lifesize silver reliquary statue produced about 1520–21, the designer of which remains unknown. This work was the prototype for the Museum's painting and for another that forms the left wing of a 1529 polyptych attributed to Simon Franck (Marktkirche, Halle).
In the reliquary statue, and the two related paintings, Maurice is depicted as the patron saint of the empire and not, as had been more common from the twelfth century on, as the patron of the Magdeburg archdiocese. The armor worn by both the statue and the figure in The Met's painting clearly refers to Emperor Charles V. The symbol of the Burgundian Golden Fleece is attached to the cuirass, the Saint Andrew's Cross appears between sparking flint stones on the pauldrons, and the banner bears the imperial eagle as well as Charles's emblems. The sword denotes Maurice's role as a soldier saint as well as the instrument of his decapitation. It may also represent the gilded-silver ceremonial sword presented to Emperor Maximilian I by Pope Leo and passed on to Albrecht at his investiture as cardinal. Installed in a place of honor near the high altar and bearing the insignia of Charles V, the reliquary thus symbolized the close relationship between the emperor and Albrecht.
The Museum's painting follows the Saint Maurice illumination of the full-length reliquary statue in the Hallesches Heiltumsbuch
quite closely while masterfully adjusting the figure and his massive armor to fit the narrow format of a side wing of an altarpiece. Since Maurice faces to the right here, this panel probably formed the inside left wing of an altarpiece, the remainder of which has not been identified and may no longer exist.
The armor is a type known as Feldküriss
(field armor) and dates about 1510–20. It is thought to have been based on that worn by Charles V for his coronation in Aachen in 1520, which was subsequently given to Cardinal Albrecht as a present; however, documentary proof of this theory is lacking.
The authorship of the painting has been addressed infrequently, as it has not been available for firsthand study. The sixteen altarpieces that Albrecht commissioned from Cranach between 1520 and 1525 comprised more than 142 separate panels. Cranach and his shop were accustomed to handling large commissions, and by this time he had adopted an increasingly streamlined painting technique that permitted rapid execution by both himself and his assistants. It is not always easy to distinguish Cranach's own hand from that of his assistants, but clues concerning authorship have been derived through infrared reflectography. In this work, Cranach's hand is most likely seen primarily in the design stages and only to a restricted degree in the paint layers. The sense of assurance and directness in the handling of the saint's face is found in works most reliably attributed to the master, including The Martyrdom of Saint Barbara
(The Met, 57.22
). Certainly, the detailed rendering of the face and the masterful treatment of the landscape reflect a level of execution above that displayed in the treatment of the armor, the tedious, painstaking execution of which was surely turned over to an assistant. Which assistant was given the task may become clearer with continued investigations of the Cranach workshop.
[2013; adapted from Ainsworth in Ainsworth and Waterman 2013]