This Ascension of Christ into heaven is emphasized by depicting him as leaving the pictorial space. Only his feet and lower legs, engulfed by clouds, appear at the top, while on the ground the twelve apostles and the Virgin Mary witness his departure. Kulmbach, who trained with Dürer, adapted the composition from a woodcut in his teacher’s Small Passion series. This painting and eight others (now dispersed among various museums) once comprised the wings and predella panel of an altarpiece devoted to the life of the Virgin. A sculpted Coronation of the Virgin (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg) was the centerpiece.
This painting shows Christ rising to heaven above a compact group of the twelve apostles and the Virgin Mary. Only his feet and lower legs are visible. This Ascension iconography, which emphasizes Christ’s departure by showing him leaving the pictorial space, emerged in art about the turn of the first millennium. Its biblical source is the Acts of the Apostles (1:9): "While they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight."
Since 1921, when the Metropolitan acquired this work, scholars have noted that the composition borrows from Albrecht Dürer’s Ascension in the Small Passion woodcut series. The general stylistic debt to Dürer is undeniable. Also, the low angle of vision, which creates a dramatic upward lift appropriate to the subject matter, and the strong foreshortening of the apostles’ upturned heads appear to have their source in Dürer’s woodcut. However, the Museum’s Ascension departs from Dürer and returns to an earlier tradition in the symmetrical placement of Peter and Mary in the central foreground, a common feature of fifteenth-century depictions. In a divergence from both Dürer and earlier examples, the Museum’s panel omits the standard central mound marked with impressions of Christ’s feet, which alludes to the Mount of Olives, where the event occurred.
That the painting is a fragment of a dismantled altarpiece is indicated by the remains of a gray fictive molding at the top, which originally marked the boundary with another scene above. In addition, saw marks across the back suggest that the panel was originally decorated on both sides, and was therefore part of a movable wing. When the altarpiece was taken apart, the larger panel to which this scene belonged must have been sawn apart vertically, to split the front from the back, and then cut horizontally through the fictive framing element.
When first published (Helbing 1919), the painting was attributed to Hans Süss von Kulmbach, and all subsequent scholarship has confirmed his authorship. Indeed, the physiognomic types, drapery styles, generally thin application of paint, and graphic approach to form are typical of Kulmbach. Proposals for the reconstruction of the altarpiece to which the panel belonged were proffered by Buchner (1928) and Stadler (1936), and further clarification came when the picture was exhibited among related works in Nuremberg in 1961. But a real breakthrough in the reconstruction occurred when Brandl (1983 and 1984–85) credibly connected the painting to an altarpiece formerly in Nuremberg’s castle (the Burg) that had been described and published by Christoph Gottlieb von Murr (Beschreibung der vornehmsten Merkwürdigkeiten in des H.R. Reichs freyen Stadt Nürnberg und auf der hohen Schule zu Altdorf: nebst einem chronologischen Verzeichnisse der von Deutschen, insonderheit Nürnbergern, erfundenen Künste, vom XIII Jahrhunderte bis auf jetzige Zeiten, Nuremberg, 1778). Murr wrote of a Marian altarpiece in the Walburgis Chapel that displayed a carved Coronation of the Virgin at the center, a Visitation and a scene of "saints ascend[ing] a stairway" toward "a person . . . holding a book"—surely a Presentation of the Virgin—on the wings, and a Death of the Virgin on the predella. Murr noted that the latter was painted by Kulmbach in 1513, information he probably gained from inscriptions on the frame in the predella area.
Murr’s description led Brandl to identify this altarpiece’s shrine as the tabernacle relief of the Coronation of the Virgin by a pupil of Veit Stoss that is preserved in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg. Brandl furthermore proposed that the wings described by Murr are Kulmbach’s narrow panels of the Meeting at the Golden Gate and Presentation of the Virgin now in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, which are currently attached as wings, falsely it appears, to a Heavenly Rosary by Kulmbach. Murr’s apparent misidentification of the Meeting at the Golden Gate as a Visitation is attributable, Brandl maintained, to the compositional similarities of the two subjects. Building on ideas already proposed by Buchner and Stadler, Brandl considered the altarpiece’s predella to be Kulmbach’s Death of the Virgin in the Staatsgalerie Bamberg and the exterior wing decoration the Annunciation in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg; the Nativity in the Staatsgalerie Bamberg; the Adoration of the Magi in the Allentown Art Museum; and the Ascension in the Metropolitan. With its sculpted shrine, Brandl’s reconstruction decisively rejected the idea, proposed by Stadler but doubted in subsequent literature, of the Kulmbach Coronation of the Virgin in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, as the altarpiece’s center. Problematic, however, was Brandl’s exclusion on stylistic grounds of the four scenes of the Birth of the Virgin, Visitation, Appearance of Christ to His Mother, and Pentecost in the Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig, which Stadler had proposed as belonging to the ensemble. Without the Leipzig panels, the iconographic program in the closed state jumped abruptly and implausibly from scenes of Christ’s infancy to his ascension with nothing in between.
A clear idea of the exact distribution of scenes was lacking until Lübbeke (1991) proposed a solution. Noting that the Leipzig scenes are stylistically consistent with the other paintings, she deduced a convincing arrangement based on crucial technical evidence about the states and relative thicknesses of the wood supports. Whereas four of the panels—the Annunciation, Visitation, Appearance of Christ to His Mother, and Ascension—are between .5 and .8 centimeter thick and show saw marks on the backs, which indicate that they were split from their reverses, the other four—the Birth of the Virgin, Nativity, Adoration, and Pentecost—are between 1 and 1.5 centimeters thick and show no signs of having been split. The latter, thicker panels must have constituted stationary wings, undecorated on the reverse. The four thinner panels with saw marks on the backs were the exteriors of the movable wings and had been split off the Madrid Meeting at the Golden Gate and Presentation of the Virgin. This is confirmed by the existence of a vertical crack in corresponding positions on the Meeting at the Golden Gate and the Annunciation and a knot that aligns on the Presentation of the Virgin and the Ascension (visible beneath Mary’s shoulder in the x-radiograph; see Additional Images). The eight exterior scenes were separated from one another by cutting along the fictive gray framing element whose remnants are found alternately at the panels’ bottoms (Birth of the Virgin, Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity) and tops (Adoration, Appearance of Christ to His Mother, Ascension, Pentecost). This technical evidence perfectly supports Lübbeke’s arrangement of the exterior scenes in two rows of four, running chronologically from the top left to the bottom right. Lübbeke noted further that the presence of stationary wings allows a better fit for the Bamberg Death of the Virgin as the predella, as it is wider than the central section above. That the Bamberg panel indeed belongs to this ensemble is corroborated by the fact that it, the Allentown Adoration, and the New York Ascension remained together in private collections until 1919. Additional support for the connection is found in the heads of two apostles in the Death of the Virgin, both situated to the right of center, one shown in profile, holding the aspergillum and situla, and the other shown frontally, reaching for the aspergillum. While the head of the clean-shaven profile figure appears in reverse on the kneeling figure at the left edge of the Ascension, the head of the figure shown frontally, bald on top with a wide forehead, broad beard and long mustache, matches that of the figure just right of center in the background of the Ascension, tilted in the opposite direction. They probably derive from common model drawings used for the commission.
Even before Brandl linked these paintings to the altarpiece described by Murr, most authors had dated them within the range 1511–13, based on stylistic comparison to dated works by Kulmbach. This lends credibility to the date of 1513 cited by Murr. As Lübbeke pointed out, we cannot expect Murr to have deduced an attribution and a date based on his own knowledge of Kulmbach, and it is therefore most likely that the artist’s name and the date were displayed on the case or frame near the predella. Thus 1513 can be accepted as the most plausible date for Kulmbach’s paintings for this altarpiece.
[2014; adapted from Waterman 2013]
The support is composed of two fir boards with the grain oriented vertically; dendrochronological analysis indicated an earliest possible fabrication date of 1496. Saw marks on the reverse indicate that this painting was originally one side of a double-sided work that was cut apart. X-radiography (see Additional Images, fig. 1) revealed that a knot beneath Mary’s shoulder and the slightly diagonal join are reinforced with tow. A barbe and an unpainted wood border along both sides and the bottom indicate that an engaged frame was in place when the white ground preparation was applied. The panel has been reduced at the top, and it displays a moderate convex lateral warp. In 1936 a thick coat of wax was applied to the verso. The condition of the painting is overall fairly good. There are only minor abrasions and losses and some darkening—most apparent in the sky—along the wood grain. The very graphic technique used throughout the composition demonstrates that it was painted by an accomplished draftsman. Fine individual strokes of fluid paint in several hues describe contours, and crisply hatched brushstrokes produce shadows and volume. Those linear touches were made over blended base tones, and the result is a tightly rendered figural group. The many vibrant colors were produced by mixing as well as by applying transparent glazes over opaque underpainting. In some areas the glazes were applied with parallel hatched strokes. The dark green cloak worn by the disciple standing in the center of the composition was painted with a bright yellow underpaint and glazed with a highly saturated green. The lighter portion of his cloak was originally a more vibrant shade of green; it now appears yellowish brown, perhaps because of a degeneration commonly seen in glazes containing copper-green pigments. When the surface was examined with the stereomicroscope, a warm, yellowish priming was visible on top of the ground. Infrared reflectography revealed faint hatching and some lines of underdrawing in the red garments. With the stereomicroscope, in normal light, it was possible to see both the underdrawing and the finely painted lines and hatching that were applied as final touches to define contours and forms. [2013; adapted from German Paintings catalogue]
Frau Professor Dorner, Schweinfurt (in 1884 [or 1824]); government assessor Dorner, Amberg (in 1918); Herr Stallforth, Wiesbaden (until 1919; sale, Galerie Helbing, Munich, October 1, 1919, no. 109); [Julius Böhler, Munich; sold to Beskow]; [Axel Beskow, New York, until 1921; sold to MMA]
Nuremberg. Germanisches Nationalmuseum. "Meister um Albrecht Dürer," July 4–September 17, 1961, no. 161d.
Little Rock. Arkansas Arts Center. "Five Centuries of European Painting," May 16–October 26, 1963, unnumbered cat. (p. 12).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Gothic and Renaissance Art in Nuremberg, 1300–1550," April 8–June 22, 1986, no. 166b.
Nuremberg. Germanisches Nationalmuseum. "Nürnberg 1300–1550: Kunst der Gotik und Renaissance," July 24–September 28, 1986, no. 166b.
"An Ascension by a Follower of Dürer." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 16 (June 1921), pp. 133–34, attributes it to Hans von Kulmbach, "probably Dürer's most accomplished pupil and assistant"; notes the excellent condition of the panel; states that the work is close to Dürer "in handling if not in spirit" and that the composition "strongly recalls Dürer's woodcut of the subject in his Little Passion, engraved about 1509–11"; explains that the practice of depicting Christ almost out of view as he ascends to Heaven had been a tradition in ivories and miniatures since the fourteenth century and also mentions an example in stained glass from the mid-thirteenth century.
Hans Bermann. Hans Süß von Kulmbach. PhD diss.Leipzig, 1925, pp. IV–VI, 61, 66 [see Ref. Stadler 1936], dates it about 1513.
E[rnst]. Buchner inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 22, Leipzig, 1928, pp. 93–94, calls it a wing from a Marian altarpiece of the early 1510s, along with an Annunciation in the Germanisches Museum, Nuremberg; a Nativity in the Staatliche Gemäldegalerie, Bayreuth (now Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich); and an Adoration of the Magi with the dealer A. S. Drey (now Allentown Art Museum, Allentown, Pa.); identifies a Death of the Virgin sold at Helbing in 1919 as the predella (now Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich).
Charles L. Kuhn. A Catalogue of German Paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in American Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1936, pp. 55–56, no. 207, pl. XL, dates it about 1510 and calls it "similar in style to the series of panels in the Uffizi, Florence"; does not connect it with the Allentown Adoration of the Magi, which he dates about 1515.
Franz Stadler. Hans von Kulmbach. Vienna, 1936, pp. 19–20, 116, no. 63f, pl. 24, agrees that the MMA, Nuremberg, Munich, and Allentown panels originally formed parts of the same altarpiece, which he dates 1511–13, and adds four more panels to the work: Birth of the Virgin, Visitation, Christ Appearing to His Mother, and Pentecost (all Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig); suggests that a Coronation of the Virgin in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, was the central panel; does not associate the Munich Death of the Virgin with this altarpiece.
Eberhard Lutze and Eberhard Wiegand. Die Gemälde des 13.–16. Jahrhunderts. Vol. 1, Beschreibender Text. Leipzig, 1936, p. 76, under no. 1112, concur with Stadler's [see Ref. 1936] reconstruction and dating.
Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 189–90, ill., accept Stadler's [see Ref. 1936] reconstruction.
Friedrich Winkler. Hans von Kulmbach: Leben und Werk eines fränkischen Künstlers der Dürerzeit. Kulmbach, 1959, p. 69, considers the four panels in Leipzig to be from a different, earlier altarpiece than those in the MMA, Allentown, Nuremberg, and Munich.
Peter Strieder inMeister um Albrecht Dürer. Exh. cat., Germanisches Nationalmuseum. Nuremberg, 1961, pp. 100, 102–3, no. 161d, dates the MMA, Allentown, Nuremberg, and Munich panels about 1512–13; noting that the Nuremberg and Munich panels both come from the Landauer Brüderhaus in Nuremberg, states that the altarpiece must have been made for a Nuremberg church; calls these four panels stylistically more developed than the four Leipzig panels, which he dates about 1510–11 and assigns to a different altarpiece with the Munich Death of the Virgin as the predella.
Friedrich Winkler. "Meister um Albrecht Dürer." Kunstchronik 14 (October 1961), p. 266, changing his earlier opinion [see Ref. 1959], states that the MMA, Allentown, Munich, and Nuremberg panels are from the same altarpiece as the four Leipzig panels, since all eight pictures have a painted grey border at either the top or bottom; doubts that the Vienna Coronation of the Virgin was the centerpiece.
Karl-Adolf Knappe. "Meister um Albrecht Dürer." Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 24, no. 3/4 (1961), p. 252, states that the exhibition established that the MMA, Allentown, Nuremberg, and Munich panels and the four Leipzig panels are from the same altarpiece, which must date from about 1512–13.
Konrad Oberhuber. "Meister um Albrecht Dürer." Christliche Kunstblätter 100, no. 2 (1962), p. 65, notes that the exhibition established that the MMA, Allentown, Nuremberg, and Munich panels, the Leipzig panels, and the Munich Death of the Virgin are all from the same altarpiece.
P[eter]. Strieder inKindlers Malerei Lexikon. Vol. 3, Zürich, 1966, p. 776, rejecting his earlier opinion [see Ref. 1961], considers the MMA, Allentown, Nuremberg, and Munich panels, the four Leipzig panels, and the Munich predella all part of the same altarpiece, which he dates about 1512–13.
Colin Eisler. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. Vol. 4, European Schools Excluding Italian. London, 1977, p. 31, believes that the MMA, Allentown, Nuremberg, and Munich panels could have belonged to the same altarpiece as the four Leipzig panels only if the work originally included additional scenes now lost; doubts that this altarpiece included either the Vienna Coronation as the centerpiece or the Munich Death of the Virgin as the predella.
Rainer Brandl inVeit Stoss in Nürnberg: Werke des Meisters und seiner Schule in Nürnberg und Umgebung. Ed. Rainer Kahsnitz. Exh. cat., Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg. Munich, 1983, pp. 137–39, fig. 93 (reconstruction of altarpiece with wings closed), proposes the reconstruction of an altarpiece with the MMA, Allentown, Nuremberg, and Munich panels as the exterior wings, a Meeting at the Golden Gate and a Presentation of the Virgin (both Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) as the interior wings, the Munich Death of the Virgin as the predella, and a carved Coronation of the Virgin (1513; Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg) as the centerpiece; identifies this altarpiece with one described in 1778 in the church of St. Walburgis in Nuremberg [see Notes]; does not associate the four Leipzig panels with this work.
Rainer Brandl. "A Marian Altarpiece by Hans von Kulmbach: A Reconstruction." Metropolitan Museum Journal 19/20 (1984), pp. 39–62, figs. 13, 19 (reconstruction of altarpiece with wings closed), repeats his proposal of 1983 [see Ref.], although suggesting a different arrangement of the four exterior wings.
Barbara Rosalyn Butts. "'Dürerschüler' Hans Süss von Kulmbach." PhD diss., Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., 1985, pp. 73–75, fig. 49, accepts Brandl's [see Ref. 1983] reconstruction of the altarpiece, also accepting the four Leipzig panels as part of the same altarpiece.
Kurt Löcher inGothic and Renaissance Art in Nuremberg, 1300–1550. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1986, pp. 348–50, no. 166b, ill. [German ed., "Nürnberg, 1300–1550: Kunst der Gotik und Renaissance," pp. 348–49, no. 166b, ill.], believes that the MMA, Allentown, Nuremberg, and Munich panels comprised one side of the wings of an altarpiece, and the four Leipzig panels the other; accepts the inclusion of the two Madrid panels; states that the centerpiece was probably a Coronation of the Virgin; argues that the various subjects portrayed indicates that the altarpiece was devoted to the Mysteries of the Rosary or the Joys of the Virgin rather than to the Life of the Virgin.
Isolde Lübbeke. Early German Painting, 1350–1550: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. London, 1991, pp. 282–83, 286–87, fig. 2 (reconstruction of altarpiece with wings closed), accepts the date of 1513 passed down from von Murr [see Notes]; proposes that the MMA, Allentown, Nuremberg, and Munich panels, together with the four Leipzig panels, comprised the outer wings of the altarpiece and that the two Madrid panels formed the inner wings, accepting the carved Coronation in Nuremberg as the centerpiece and the Death of the Virgin in Munich as the predella; mentions that "government assessor Dorner of Amberg" offered the MMA and Allentown panels and the Munich predella to the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, in a letter in 1918.
Peter Strieder. Tafelmalerei in Nürnberg, 1350–1550. Königstein, 1993, pp. 135, 259–60, no. 132, fig. 531, accepts Lübbeke's [see Ref. 1991] reconstruction of the altarpiece and dates it about 1513.
Alexander Löhr. Studien zu Hans von Kulmbach als Maler. Würzburg, 1995, p. 42 n. 119, pp. 44–47, fig. 27 (reconstruction of altarpiece with wings closed), accepts Lübbeke's [see Ref. 1991] reconstruction and identifies it with the altarpiece mentioned by von Murr [see Notes].
Kurt Löcher. Die Gemälde des 16. Jahrhunderts. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany, 1997, pp. 293–94, summarizes the various reconstructions of the altarpiece.
Peter Klein. Letter to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. April 28, 2006, identifies the wood from which the panel is made as fir; writes that dendrochronological analysis reveals that the earliest felling date for the tree from which this panel is made is 1494, adding that a minimum of two years for seasoning means that the earliest possible execution date for the painting is 1496.
Joshua Waterman inGerman Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, pp. 172–76, 309–10, no. 41, ill. (color) and figs. 147–48 (altarpiece reconstruction and x-radiograph).
This work is one of eight panels forming the outer wings of an altarpiece of about 1513. The other panels are: The Adoration of the Magi (Allentown Art Museum, Allentown, Pa.), The Annunciation (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg), The Nativity (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich; on loan to the Staatsgalerie und Städtische Gemäldesammlungen, Bamberg), and The Birth of the Virgin, The Visitation, Christ Appearing to His Mother, and Pentecost (all Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig). The inner wings are The Meeting at the Golden Gate and The Presentation of the Virgin (both Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid). The predella is The Death of the Virgin (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich; on permanent loan to the Staatsgalerie und Städtische Gemäldesammlungen, Bamberg). The centerpiece is a sculpted Coronation of the Virgin by a pupil of Veit Stoss (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg).
Christoph Gottlieb von Murr (Beschreibung der vornehmsten Merkwürdigkeiten in des H. R. Reichs freyen Stadt Nürnberg, Nuremberg, 1778, p. 32) describes an altarpiece in the church of St. Walburgis, Nuremberg, which may be this one. He does not mention the MMA panel specifically, but does describe two scenes that correspond to the panels now in Madrid and notes that below the centerpiece of a sculpted Coronation of the Virgin was a Death of the Virgin by Hans von Kulmbach of 1513. Kulmbach adapted the composition from a woodcut in Dürer's "Small Passion" series.
Artist: Hans Süss von Kulmbach (German, Kulmbach ca. 1480–1522 Nuremberg)Date: ca. 1510–15Medium: Pen and brown ink with traces of black chalk and brush and grey inkAccession: 53.112On view in:Not on view