MASTER Bertram
(b. ca. 1345, Minden, d. 1415, Hamburg)

St Peter (Grabow) Altarpiece

1379-83
Tempera on wood, 266 x 726 cm
Kunsthalle, Hamburg

When the first wings of the altarpiece are opened, twenty-four painted panels, a solid screen of colour, are displayed with narratives placed in two rows, one over the other.

In the top row on the left, the story of the Creation begins with the Separation of Light and Darkness, and it continues through the top twelve panels to the to the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Paradise and the Labour of the First Parents on the right. The lower register resumes the drama of Genesis across six panels with the stories of the Offering of Cain and Abel, the Murder of Abel, the Building of the Ark, the Sacrifice of Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and Jacob's Blessing. The final six paintings are dedicated to the Infancy of Christ, from the Annunciation to the Rest on the Flight into Egypt in the lower right.

The attention to realistic detail, as well as the thematic scope of the altarpiece, which embraces the whole of the biblical spectrum, from good to evil and obedience to violence, point to a private patron, identified as Wilhelm Horborch, a member of an old patrician family in Hamburg. It was presumably he who was responsible for the iconographic program. His brother, Bertram Horborch, was mayor of the city from 1366 to 1396 and maintained close relations with Emperor Charles IV in Prague and the pope in Avignon. The work may have been commissioned by both brothers.

The connection with Bohemia is significant. Master Bertram may have spent his apprenticeship with a Bohemian master in Prague. This would certainly explain the Bohemian colouring of his work. The commission for the Hamburg altarpiece may well have reached him when he was still working in Prague.




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