(b. ca. 1430, Colmar, d. 1491, Breisach)


c. 1480
Oak panel, 37,5 x 28 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

In the porch of a house the Virgin kneels beside the Child lying before her on a tattered blanket spread over a bundle of straw. Shepherds approach from the right to worship the Child. Between the wooden posts supporting the roof of the stable we have a glimpse of a hilly landscape with a river flowing through it.

In Schongauer's paintings, as in Dürer's, draughtsmanship is all important. This is, well exemplified by the small Berlin panel, which may once have formed part of a small altar and which, for fine detail, could hardly be surpassed. It was natural, therefore, that as early as the sixteenth century, Rogier van der Weyden should have been regarded as Schongauer's teacher. Although this is most unlikely, as Rogier died in 1464, it is nevertheless relevant to the Netherlandish training which Schongauer received. About 1469/70 he visited both Burgundy and the Netherlands, where as his early works show, he made a particularly close study of the works of Rogier, including the Bladelin Altar, which was then in Middelburg and is now in Berlin.

Martin Schongauer was the most important German painter and copper-engraver before Dürer. In the latter capacity in particular, he won a reputation that extended beyond the frontiers of Germany. The young Dürer was one of his admirers and was anxious to meet him, but their paths never crossed. Schongauer, who came from Colmar in Alsace, was, like Dürer, the son of a goldsmith, and the skills they inherited undoubtedly contributed to the fact that both artists became masters in the art of copper-engraving.

In 1471, Schongauer settled in his native town, Colmar. It was here, in 1473, that he produced his major painting, the Madonna of the Rosehedge, for St Martin's Church in Colmar. The small Berlin panel must have been painted fairly soon after and may have helped to earn him the affectionate nickname, which his own contemporaries converted into a proper name: Martin Schön or Hübsch Martin.

Of the early history of this picture, which was acquired for the Berlin Gallery from a London art-dealer in 1902, nothing is known.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 22 minutes):
Guillaume Dufay: Hymns