The Master Returns: Konrad Witz in Basel

Willibald Sauerländer, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer

Konrad Witz

an exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel, March 6–July 3, 2011
Catalog of the exhibition by Bodo Brinkmann, Katharina Georgi, Stephan Kemperdick, and others
Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 392 pp., SFr. 90.00
Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame, Strasbourg
Konrad Witz: Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene in a Church, circa 1440–1445

Twenty years after German reunification a notable aesthetic and emotional shift is under way, a rediscovery of the expressive character that sets Germanic art apart from the more polished, harmonious creations of its neighbors to the west and south. This shift is evident in the reawakened interest in neglected or forgotten German painters and sculptors from the first third of the twentieth century. But the history of older German art is also reemerging from neglect. This summer brings a new show in Naumburg devoted to the once famous “Naumburg Master,” whose sculptures had been almost forgotten in the postwar years. Late medieval German painting, too, has had a great part in this sentimental renaissance. Recently we had the opportunity to marvel at the Gray Passion of Hans Holbein the Elder in a monumental show in Stuttgart. Now comes an even greater sensation: the Kunstmuseum in Basel has mounted an ambitious show of the work of Konrad Witz.

Konrad Witz is one of the most suggestively powerful yet biographically mysterious masters of older German art. We do not know when he was born. He came from the Swabian town of Rottweil where his father is listed as “Hans the Painter” in tax records from 1433. But where did the younger Witz learn his art? Rottweil, on the upper Neckar River between Freiburg and Stuttgart, was not exactly a center of artistic training. By the time he is mentioned in a document from Basel in 1434, he is called “Master Konrad of Rotwil,” which suggests that his apprenticeship was already completed. He was granted Basel citizenship in 1435, was paid for murals in the municipal granary in 1441 and 1442, and by 1443 was sufficiently well-to-do to purchase a house in the center of town for the considerable sum of 350 guilders. In contrast to this documentation of his presence is the unnerving fact that there is not a single surviving work from Konrad Witz’s years in Basel that can be unquestionably attributed to him.

The only piece that is his beyond a doubt resides in western, francophone Switzerland. In 1444 he signed the Saint Peter altarpiece in the Geneva cathedral, “hoc opus pinxit magister conradus sapientis de basilea“—“Master Konrad Witz [“wit,” “reason,” or “understanding” in German] of Basel painted this work.” It was a prominent commission. Saint Peter is the patron saint of the Cathedral of St. Pierre. Cardinal François de Metz, resident bishop of Geneva since 1436, appears as the donor of the retable. It may be that Witz’s work had caught his eye when he attended the Council of Basel in 1431. The Saint Peter altarpiece was a late work of the master; a document of 1447 mentions his wife as a widow.

On the basis of this scant documentary…

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