Names are one of the things that separate historical and archaeological thinking from each other. History is full of people of whom little is known beyond their names and perhaps a royal or ecclesiastical title, yet still they are considered to be historical personages. Meanwhile, a dead person found in a nameless prehistoric grave can never attain the same historical stature regardless of the objects preserved with the body and the scientific data extracted from the bones.
This fixation with names was once a characteristic of art historians as well. One of the differences between Medieval and Renaissance art is that in the latter era, much more art can be attributed to named artists. But still, there are a few named Medieval ones too. And they have acted as magnets for attribution of anonymous masterpieces.
Medieval art in Sweden is largely synonymous with church art, of which we have unusually large amounts preserved because our Reformation was not strongly iconoclastic. And there are two huge names: Albertus Pictor (that is, “Albert the painter”, born ~1440
1480) from Immenhausen in Germany and Bernt Notke from Lübeck, also in Germany (born ~1435). Both were painters, both died in 1509, both have left signed preserved pieces of work, and the vibrant style of Albert and his workshop is unmistakeable. I recently learned that though he oversaw the frescoes in more than 30 churches, he died at about age 29. He painted those churches at the typical age of an art history undergrad!
But Bernt Notke, it turns out, is a different kind of guy entirely. Reading the new book by one of Sweden’s best Medieval art historians, Peter Tångeberg (whom I like to call an archaeologist of sculpture, which is intended as a compliment), I learned that Notke is one of those attribution magnets. And a hollow one to boot.
One of Sweden’s finest pieces of Medieval art is St. George and the Dragon in Stockholm cathedral. It is an anonymous work. In 1901/06 influential art historian Johnny Roosval attributed it to Bernt Notke. This attribution stuck: it’s part of a good Swedish education to “know” that Notke sculpted St. George. And since that time, innumerable fine anonymous pieces of art have been attributed to the genius behind St. George — Notke.
But, Tångeberg points out, there are in fact only three pieces of work that are known to be Notke’s either through signatures or church archives. They are a triumphal crucifix in Lübeck Cathedral from 1477, a reredos (altarskåp) in Århus cathedral from 1479 and a reredos in Tallinn’s All Saints’ Church from 1483. And when you look at them you find some interesting facts.
- Notke’s three works are very dissimilar from each other and must have been made by a group of artisans under his direction. (Hardly surprising, as Notke never claimed to be a sculptor.) This means that it is impossible to identify and characterise Notke’s style.
- All three works are rather mediocre pieces, far below the level of mastery seen in St. George in Stockholm.
Peter Tångeberg masterfully shows that St. George was not made by Notke or any other artist from Lübeck. Its only real parallels are found in painted religious sculpture from the Burgundian area in the southern Netherlands, where extremely little art of this period survives. In fact, a previously discounted 17th century author reports that the sculpture was ordered from Antwerp.
In any case, there is no longer any good reason to put a name to the people who created St. George and the Dragon. And the genius Bernt Notke, a central figure in North European art history, has simply evaporated, poor fellow.
Update same evening: Forget everything I said about Albert’s age. All wrong! Thanks for setting me straight, Ismene.
Check out Peter Tångeberg’s paper on re-worked Madonna sculptures with updated faces. And read his new book, Wahrheit und Mythos — Bernt Notke und die Stockholmer St.-Georgs-Gruppe. Even if you don’t read German, get it for the pictures.