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

The Jabach Altarpiece

c. 1504
Oil on panel, 94 x 51 cm (each)
Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt and Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne

The central panel of the altarpiece is lost and only the wings survive, depicting the story of Job on the outside panels and four saints on the inside. The triptych was probably commissioned by Frederick the Wise for the church at his Wittenberg Palace to mark the end of the plague in 1503. Most of the painting is by Dürer, although some may have been done by his assistants.

The exteriors of the wings tell the story of Job, the upright man who refused to abandon God in the face of grave misfortune. Job's afflictions were the outcome of an argument between God and Satan over whether his faith was strong enough to survive adversity. In Dürer's panels, the body of the elderly Job is covered with boils, which made it a particularly appropriate subject for an altarpiece commissioned to mark the end of the plague. Job sits on a dunghill, in a pose of weary contemplation, and is drenched with slops which his wife pours from a wooden tub. In the upper left corner, Job's house and crops are on fire and the tiny figure of the Devil flees the destruction. The right panel depicts the figures of a piper and a drummer, who bears Dürer's own features. In the distance, behind the drummer, Job's flock of animals has been stolen and is being led away.

The insides of the wings (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) depict four saints, set against shimmering gold backgrounds. On the left wing is St Joseph, leaning on a staff, and St Joachim. On the right wing is St Simeon and St Lazarus, with his bishop's crosier and mitre.

The altarpiece was later acquired by the Jabach family, who kept it at their family chapel in Cologne until the end of the eighteenth century. The wings were then sawn apart to separate the two sets of paintings. The exteriors, with the story of Job, were later reduced in size at the top and along the edges where they originally met. The panels are now dispersed and are unfortunately divided between three German museums. Because the central panel is lost and its subject-matter is unknown, it is more difficult to determine the significance of the wings.