Gallery acquires medieval triptych

Cologne was a flourishing city throughout the period 1400-1520, when its artists achieved great fame and distinction, especially for their elaborate multi-panelled altarpieces.

Cologne School paintings are renowned for their magnificent colours, rich and indeed extravagant decoration, and brilliant narrative skills. Paintings of the post-1500 period such as the Triptych of the Virgin and Child with Saints, show the complex artistic absorption of Renaissance classicism and humanism while holding tightly to the Gothic passion for detail and decoration.

The influence of sculptural forms is evident, the static facial expressions and generous draperies harking back to a time of greater religious certainty. The Triptych is a splendid example of the late flowering of the German Gothic altarpiece at the height of the Italian Renaissance.

Cologne School c.1510-20
Cologne School c.1510-20 Triptych of the Virgin and Child with Saints oil on panel: 126.5 x 350.5 x 6.0 cm National Gallery of Australia purchased with the assistance of James O. Fairfax AO and the Nerissa Johnson bequest 2001
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The painting celebrates the important role of saints, not just as protectors and patrons, but also as mediators interceding with God on behalf of the devoted believer.

The altarpiece depicts the Virgin and Child enthroned within an enclosed garden, flanked by musical angels and six female martyr saints; to the left of the Virgin, St. Agatha (feast day 5 Feb; attribute of breast and pincers), St. Katherine (f.d. 25 Nov., attributes of sword & broken wheel; receiving a ring from the Christ Child) and St. Dorothy (f.d. 6 Feb., attributed of chaplet and child with basket of flowers), and to the right of the Virgin, St. Barbara (f.d. 4 Dec., attribute of tower); St. Cecilia (f.d. 22 Nov., playing portative organ) and St. Agnes (f.d. 21 January, attribute of lamb). Above, angels carry the crown of the Virgin and support a canopy, and the dove of the Holy Spirit descends from a bust-length figure of God the Father towards the Christ Child. In the left background are small figures of a female saint (St. Katherine?) before the Virgin and Child, and a man fishing at a pond.

On the inner left shutter appears St Henry (f.d. 15 July, attribute of crown, sceptre, imperial eagle and a church) and St. Helena (f.d. 18 August, attribute of crown, sceptre and cross), with a donor figure. The latter wears armour and a mantle with the device of the cross, and kneels at a prie-dieu (decorated with a carving of The Fall of Man) next to an angel supporting a coat of arms surmounted by a crested helmet (the same arms recur on shields supported by lions on the arm-rests of the Virgin’s throne). The inner right shutter depicts St. Peter (f.d. 29 June, attribute of key) and St. Margaret (f.d. 20 July, attribute of dragon). The extensive townscape in the background of the right half of the central panel and the right shutter is a view of Cologne, extending from the tower of St. Heribert in Köln-Deutz to that of St Gereon.

Provenance: Presumed to be one of the two triptychs presented to the Church of St Katarina, Cologne, by Ludwig, Commander of the Teutonic Order, c.1515 (inventory in the Benzelrath Archive); Jacob Johann Lyversberg (d.1834); by descent following marriage of his great granddaughter to Dr W Virnich (d.1890), Bonn; part of Virnich Collection had been dispersed by 1927, but the remainder of the collection including this work, sold at Matthias Lempertz auction house, Cologne, 26 May 1971 (Lempertz auction 516); Trustees of the British Rail Pension Fund; private collection, sold to NGA through Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, London, 2001

Exhibitions: Dusseldorf, Art Historical Exhibition, 1904, no 82 (attributed by E Firmenich-Richartz to an unidentified follower of Bruyn); Cologne, 1926, Year Exhibition, no 86; London, Thomas Agnew & Son Ltd, London, Thirty-Five Paintings from the Collection of the British Pension Fund, 1984, no 18 (attributed to the Master of the Legend of St Ursula).

Literature: Catalogue of the Lyversberg Collection, Cologne, 1837, nos.18, 19 and 20; F.Kugler, Rheinreise, 1841, Vol. II, p312 (described as a fine example of the Cologne School from the early sixteenth century); A Springer, Köln Handbuch, 1855, p351; E Firmenich-Richartz, Bartholomaeus Bruyn und seine Schule, 1891, p83; H Reiners, Die Kolner Malerschule, Bonn, 1925, p254-5 and fig. 284, note 282 (as Cologne master, first half 16th century); P Clemen, Kunstdenkmahler der Stadt Köln, 1937, pp 107, 111; Hjorst-Johs Tümmers, Die Altarbilder des alteren Bartholomaus Bruyn, 1964, pp 127-8