DÜRER, Albrecht
(b. 1471, Nürnberg, d. 1528, Nürnberg)

Paumgartner Altar

c. 1503
Oil on lime panel, 155 x 126 cm (central), 151 x 61 cm (each wing)
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

The altar has the traditional shape of a winged altarpiece. The outside, the weekday side, displays a workshop production of an Annunciation and the former standing figures of saints Catherine and Barbara. When opened, the magnificent colours of the Nativity are visible, framed by saints George and Eustace.

This triptych was commissioned by the brothers Stephan and Lukas Paumgartner for St Catherine's Church in Nuremberg. It may well have been ordered after Stephan's safe return from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1498. The main panel depicts the Nativity, set in an architectural ruin. The left wing shows St George with a fearsome dragon and the right wing St Eustace, with both saints dressed as knights and holding identifying banners. A seventeenth-century manuscript records that the side panels were painted in 1498 and that the two saints were given the features of the Paumgartner brothers (with Stephan on the left and Lukas on the right). This is the earliest occasion on which an artist is known to have used the facial features of a donor in depicting a saint. The exteriors of the wing panels were of the Annunciation, although only the figure of the Virgin on the left panel has survived.

On stylistic grounds, the Nativity was painted a few years later than the wings, probably in 1502 or soon afterwards. The tiny body of Christ is almost lost in the composition, surrounded by a swarm of little angels. Peering out from behind the Romanesque columns on the right are the ox and the ass, while opposite them on the left side are the faces of two shepherds. The composition, formed by the ruins of a palatial building, draws the eye towards the archway. Two other shepherds step up into the courtyard, the red and blue of their clothes echoing the colours of Joseph and the Virgin Mary. In the sky, an angel descends to reveal news of Christ's birth to another pair of shepherds tending their flock on the distant hillside. Although traditionally a night-time scene, it is brightly illuminated by a ball of light in the sky.

The small figures at the bottom corners of the central panel are the Paumgartner family with their coats of arms. They were painted over in the seventeenth century, when donor portraits went out of favour, and were only uncovered during restoration in 1903. On the left behind Joseph are the male members of the family, Martin Paumgartner, followed by his two sons Lukas and Stephan and an elderly bearded figure who may be Hans Schönbach, second husband of Barbara Paumgartner. On the far right is Barbara Paumgartner (née Volckamer), with her daughters Maria and Barbara.

In 1988 this painting was seriously damaged by a vandal, along with the Lamentation for Christ and the central panel of The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin depicting the grieving Mary. Restoration of the Paumgartner Altarpiece and the Lamentation for Christ was completed in 1998 and work then began on the panel of the Virgin.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.