MASTER of the St. Bartholomew Altar
(active 1470-1510 in Cologne)
Oil on oak, 75 x 47 cm
National Gallery, London
The outstanding painter in Cologne at the turn of the century, this unknown artist is named after the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece now in Munich, and is also the author of a much larger version of the Deposition, now in the Louvre. In both the Paris and the National Gallery pictures the scene appears to take place within a carved and gilded shrine, mimicking the sculpted German tabernacles of the fifteenth century with their Gothic tracery and painted statues.
The theme is by these means set before our eyes in Cologne (or so it would have seemed to a contemporary viewer, kneeling before this picture in private devotion). The rocks and skull of the foreground, however, specify the historic location of the Crucifixion: Calvary or Golgotha ('place of a skull' in the languages of the Gospels). Like a medieval schoolmaster, the artist sets out to teach us the steps to Christian spirituality. Attracting us by pattern, gold and rich colour, he leads us on to sensory empathy, first of a pleasurable kind, with the rich textures of the worldly Magdalen's brocade and the gorgeous pearls and tassel of old Joseph, the 'rich man of Arimathea' (Matthew 27:57). Then he takes us beyond pleasure, to the hard wood of ladder and cross, to physical pain and mortal sorrow. Huge beads of blood spring from the open wounds of Christ, and oversize tears glisten on the cheeks of the other figures. Their eyes are red-rimmed from weeping. Christ's arms are locked in rigor mortis and his body is turning grey with death. As the vivid devotional manuals of the time taught, we must impress his message on pur hearts, reliving in meditation this most sorrowful moment of the Passion. Only then can we succeed in the mystics' goal of the Imitation of Christ and his saints.
The figures are carefully differentiated: Nicodemus on the ladder lowers the body of Christ to Joseph of Arimathea, who has donated his own tomb for Christ's burial. Saint John supports the fainting Virgin. Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross clutches her head, almost doubled up with grief. A young helper has hooked his leg around the cross piece, and the two other Maries stand in the back, the one praying, the other contemplating the crown of thorns as she comforts the Magdalen. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor, find their place before their crucified Saviour.