Altarpiece with 45 Scenes of the Apocalypse
- Place of origin:
Hamburg (city), Germany (painted)
ca. 1400 (painted)
Master Bertram (probably, maker)
- Materials and Techniques:
tempera and gilt on panel transferred to canvas
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Medieval and Renaissance, room 10, case WS, shelf EXP
Master Bertram von Minden worked in Hamburg, painting in various churches towards the end of the 14th century. Altarpieces with scenes from the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of St John the Divine (the Apocalypse) are rare. This panel, one of 45, illustrates the beginning of chapter eight. In St John's vision, at the moment of the opening of the seventh seal, the angels stand prepared: 'And I saw the seven angels which stood before God, and to them were given seven trumpets.'
Place of Origin
Hamburg (city), Germany (painted)
ca. 1400 (painted)
Master Bertram (probably, maker)
Materials and Techniques
tempera and gilt on panel transferred to canvas
Height: 123.4 cm centre piece with frame, Width: 167.6 cm centre piece with frame, Height: 137 cm wings with frame, Width: 83 cm wings with frame, Depth: 6.8 cm central piece with frame
Object history note
Bought by the Museum in 1859 for £50.
Altarpiece with 45 scenes of the Apocalypse
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Max Hasse, 'Der Apokalypse-Altar (Johannes-Altar) im Victoria und Albert Museum zu London', Niederdeutsche Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte 19, 1980, pp. 125-36.
Lara Wilson, 'Master Bertram attr., The Apocalypse, Museum no. 5940-1859', interim conservation report, 1 July 2006, V&A Department of Paintings Conservation.
Discusses the arguments surrounding the attribution to Master Bertram, and includes a comprehensive technical analysis, bibliography and photographic details, including infrared reflectograms.
Max Hasse, 'Die Parler und der schöne Stil 1350-1400', Europäische Kunst unter den Luxemburgern, Köln, 1978, p. 530.
Kauffmann, C.M. Catalogue of Foreign Paintings, I. Before 1800. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1973, p. 30-34, cat. no. 31
The following is the full text of the entry:
"Master BERTRAM (active 1367; 1415)
German (Hamburg) School
He is recorded in Hamburg from 1367, but his home appears to have been Minden in Westphalia. In 1379-83 he painted the altar-piece for St Peter's Church, Hamburg (Kunsthalle, Hamburg). The only painter to receive official commissions between 1367 and 1387, he was the sole outstanding artist in Hamburg in the second half of the 14th century.
Lit.(chronology of his life) J.C. Jensen in Zeitschrift des Vereins für Hamburgische Geschichte, xliv, 1958, pp. 141-203; M. Hasse in Norddeutsche Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte, iii, 1964, p. 285 ff.; J.K. von Schroeder in Westfalen 43, 1965, pp. 191-200.
ALTAR-PIECE (triptych) WITH 45 SCENES OF THE APOCALYPSE.
On the back: left wing - 3 SCENES OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST: (I) PREACHING AND BROUGHT BEFORE DOMITIAN, (2) PLACED IN A CAULDRON, ST JOHN FINDS THE BOILING WATER REFRESHING, (3) CONDEMNED TO EXILE ON PATMOS; AND 3 SCENES OF THE VIRGIN: (I) ANNUNCIATION, (2) DEATH, (3) CORONATION.
Right wing - 3 SCENES OF ST GILES: (I) WOUNDED WHILE PROTECTING THE HIND, (2) THE MASS OF ST GILES; THE KING'S UNSPEAKABLE SIN IS FORGIVEN, (3) ST GILES RECIEVES THE PAPAL PRIVILEGE AND A GIFT OF TWO TABLETS CARVED WITH APOSTLES FOR HIS MONASTERY; PLACES THEM IN THE TIBER AND PICKS THEM OUT OF THE WATER ON THE RHÔNE NEAR HIS MONASTERY AT S. GILLES; AND 3 SCENES OF ST MARY MAGDALEN AS A HERMIT IN PROVENCE AFTER THE CRUCIFIXION: (I) AN ANGEL BRINGS HER FOOD AND SHE IS TAKEN TO THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN SO THAT SHE CAN HEAR THE CHOIR OF ANGELS SINGING, (2) SHE RECEIVES THE LAST COMMUNION FROM ST MAXIMIN, (3) HER DEATH.
In the cornice: 12 MEDALLIONS WITH MALE AND FEMALE HEADS.
Tempera and gilt on panel transferred onto canvas
Centre piece 54 X 66 (137 X 168) incl. frame
Wings, each 54 X 33 (137 X 84) incl. frame
The painting is no longer in its original state. The story of the Apocalypse comes to an end at Chapter 16, leaving Chapters 17-22 untold, which suggest that the painting is no longer complete. This supposition is strengthened by the condition of the inscription, which has been cut at some time. Originally each scene had an inscription, contained in the horizontal and vertical bands dividing the picture surface, at the top and on the right. Where this is extant and legible it reads from the upper line at the top to that on the right, followed by the second line at the top and on the right. Along the top of the whole paintings and down the right side of each wing the inscriptions are now missing. This means that the inscriptions to the scenes at the top and on the right of each wing are incomplete and make no sense in their present condition.
The painted surface was transferred from panel onto several layers of canvas before the painting was acquired by the Museum in 1859. The scenes now on the back, therefore, need not originally have occupied this position, although they may well have done so. The question whether Chapters 17-22 of the Apocalypse were originally illustrated on the alter-piece, either in a fifth register or in a predella, must also remain unsolved. It is certain that, when the painting was transferred onto canvas, it was cut down and the inscriptions trimmed off at the top and sides. The frame is probably original, though it too was cut down. The saw-tooth edge cornice had a 19th century appearance, but, as the medallions are original, it may well have been made to replace a similar cornice on the original alter-piece.
The painting was acquired as Flemish work and it was regarded as Flemish until it was published in Alfred Lichtwark’s monograph on Master Bertram in 1904. Lichtwark attributed the scenes of the Virgin and Mary Magdalen on the back of the wings to Bertram’s own hand but was doubtful about the authorship of the rest of the work. The attribution to Bertram himself has not been accepted by subsequent scholars, but the difference in style between the front and the back is clearly discernible. It may be that two different hands are involved but it is at least equally likely that this difference in style can be explained by (1) the extent of the 19th century repainting, which appears to have affected the front, especially the centre panel, more than the back, and (2) the fact that the Apocalypse scenes were copied from illuminated manuscripts, which accounts for the reduced scale and overcrowded appearance of the compartments on the font.
Whatever the reasons, it is the scenes on the back that are closest to the style of Master Bertram, and in particular they resemble the Buxtehude altar-piece (Hamburg, Kunsthalle). This is now held to be by a follower of Bertram, probably c.1400, and it seems reasonable to date 5940-1859 in the same period.
Altar-pieces with series of scenes from the Apocalypse are exceedingly rare. The cycle of scenes on the front is derived from an illustrated manuscript of a Commentary on the Apocalypse written by Alexander, a Saxon friar, in c.1242. This Commentary is a thorough attempt to explain the Apocalypse in historical terms. Each vision is related to an event in the history of the Church, and every character in the Apocalypse is seen as prefiguring an historical personage. Thus the four horsemen are identified with four Roman emperors: Gaius, Nero, Titus, Domitian; the horned beast with Mohamet, and the angel of the vintage with Charlemagne. The decisive belief animating the Commentary is Franciscan, and at the end the Heavenly Jerusalem is identified with the coming of the Friars.
Both the inscriptions and the pictures on the front of the altar-piece are directly derived from a manuscript of Alexander’s Commentary. The most striking characteristic of the Alexander illustrations is provided by the ‘double-headed’ figures, each of which represents the relevant character of the Apocalypse, together with the historical personage with whom he was identified in the commentary (scenes 17, 19, 20, 35, 41, 42). Of the five extant illustrated manuscripts of Alexander’s Commentary, the altar-piece is most closely related to that in the University Library, Cambridge (MS. Mm. v. 31; Saxony, late 13th century).
The scenes of the life of St John, on the back – as well as the first compartment on the front – are derived from the pictures of St John which prefigured the 13th-14th centuries Anglo-French Apocalypse manuscripts (e.g. Trinity College Cambridge, MS. R.16.2; Bodleian Library, Auct. D.4.17; Brit. Mus., Add.35166). The scenes of the life of the Virgin are closely related to those on the Grabow and Buxtehude Altar-pieces in the Hamburg Kunsthalle, and doubtless derive from a pattern-book of the Master Bertram workshop.
Nothing is recorded of the provenance, but strong internal evidence points to the Friary of Mary Magdalen in Hamburg. The Franciscan nature of Alexander’s Commentary indicates that the altar-piece was painted for a Franciscan (or possibly Dominican) foundation. The choice of saints on the back points to a foundation dedicated to either St Giles or Mary Magdalen. Geographically, the evidence of the style, closely linked with Bertram’s workshop in Hamburg, and that of the iconography, derived from a Saxon manuscript of a commentary written in Lower Saxony, converges on Lower Saxony. A review of the religious houses in North Germany, from Bremen and Hanover to Lübeck and Kiel, enables one to exclude the Dominicans and the foundations dedicated to St Giles, and leaves the evidence pointing to Hamburg, which contained the only Friary in the whole of Western Europe dedicated to St Mary Magdalen.
Condition.The front, especially the centre panel, has suffered considerably from damage and extensive repainting.
Prov.(?)Friary of Mary Magdalen, Hamburg (dissolved in 1529; used as a Lutheran church 1584-1808).
Lit.:A. Lichtwark, Meister Bertram, 1904, pp. 394-403; A. Rohde, Das Hamburger Petri (-Grabower-) Altar und Meister Bertram von Minden, 1916, pp. 34-51; G. Heubach in Jahrbuch des Kunsthist. Inst. der K. K. Zentralkommission für Denkmalpflege,x, 1916, pp. 134-37 (V. & A. Museum altar-piece by two of Bertram's assistants); V. C. Habicht, Niedersächsische Kunst in England, 1930, p. 50 f. (V. & A. Museum altar-piece by three different hands); ibid. in Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft; lii, 1931, pp. 181, 183, 189; M. R. James, The Apocalypse in Latin (Dyson Perrins MS. 10), 1927, pp. 39-41; ibid., The Apocalypse in art, 1931, p. 19, no. 85, p. 66 ff.; M. Huggler 'Der Bilderkreis in den Handschriften der Alexander Apokalypse' in Antonianum, ix, Rome, 1934, pp. 269-76; F.A. Martens, Meister Bertram, 1936, p. 28 f. (V. & A. Museum altar-piece by three different hands); A. Dorner, Meister Bertram von Minden, 1937, p. 46; A. Stange, Deutsche Malerei der Gotik, iii, 1938, p. 197 f.; H. Rensing, Meister Bertram, unpublished thesis, Munich, 1952, pp. 92-5; H. Platte, Meister Bertram, Bilderhefte der Hamburger Kunsthalle, i, 1960, p. 20; A. Wachtel, ed., Alexander Minorita Expositio in Apocalypsium, Mon. Germ. Hist., Quellen zur Geistesgeschichte des Mittelalters, i, 1955, p. xlv; M. Janssen, Maria Magdalena in der Abendländischen Kunst, unpublished thesis, Freiburg im Breisgau, 1961; C. M. Kauffmann, in Jahrbuch der Hamburger Kunstsammlungen, 12, 1967, pp. 59-70; ibid., An altar-piece of the Apocalypse, from Master Bertram's Workshop in Hamburg, V. & A. Museum, Monograph, 1968."
Costaras, N, and Turnbull, R. "Master Bertram's Apocalypse Triptych: To clean or not to clean", inV&A Conservation Journal Autumn 2009/10, number 58, pp.47-49.
The following is the full text of the article:
"Chosen for a prominent position in the planned Medieval & Renaissance Galleries which opened
in December 2009, the late fourteenth-century north German Apocalypse triptych (5940-1859) was re-examined (Figure 1). The altarpiece consists of a central panel with double-sided Wings, surmounted by kronunq. The outer panels present scenes from the lives of St. John, the Virgin Mary, St. Giles and St. Mary Magdalene; with the Wings open, 45 scenes of the Apocalypse are presented. The scallop-edged kronunq panels are painted and gilded with foliage motifs foliage motifs and contain small roundels with painted heads. In the early twentieth century, Alfred Lichtwark, the first director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, included the V&A altarpiece in the oeuvre of Master Bertram of Minden, but this attribution was brought into question in the late 1960s due to its perceived lesser quality. This article will examine the ethical, cultural and contextual considerations involved in the decision of whether or not to clean the altarpiece.
The altarpiece, which was bought in 1859, had undergone major conservation and restoration treatment prior to its acquisition, including the transfer of the paintings from their original panels onto canvas. The original engaged frame had been refitted around the canvases and repainted. Through technical examination it was possible to discover a great deal about the original construction and the present condition of the altarpiece. X-ray images of the panels indicated the position of paint losses. In the lower centre of the central panel there were several large areas of loss. Two campaigns of filling are discernible: the older show light, the later dark on the X-ray image. These losses had been retouched during the previous restoration; the layers of dirt and discoloured resin varnish on the paint surface gave it a generally brown appearance and made it difficult to distinguish between the original paint and the later reconstruction.
The results of the technical examination were discussed with the curators of paintings. Building on the information gathered in a technical report produced by Lara Wilson (Paintings Intern) in 2005, the discussion centred around the question of whether or not to remove the non-original varnish and retouching. How should the value of the medieval original be weighed against the value of the restoration with its accumulated history? It was apparent that in the event of our removing the later restoration comprising as much as 80% or 90% of certain scenes, that there would not be sufficient information to enable us to reconstruct them; it would be unethical. Due to the large areas of loss and previous reconstruction, taking the decision to clean the altarpiece was far from straightforward. In broad terms, both the value of the previous restoration and the more practical and visual implications of leaving or removing it had to be considered.
For us to place a value on the previous restoration, it was important to understand when, where and why it had been done. We felt that any treatment that had occurred while the altarpiece was still a devotional object in its original setting, and that had been done to maintain religious meaning, would have more, or at least a different value than that done by a restorer in the antiques trade to make it more saleable as a decorative object.
All the evidence points to the restoration having been carried out in the trade, probably in the mid-nineteenth century, not long before it was purchased by the Museum. Its provenance before this is not known. We also had to consider whether the restorer knew more than we do today about what was missing. The iconography is based on illustrations in a thirteenth-century manuscript,' it was possible that the same source had been used to inform the reconstruction. However, we can see from inaccuracies in the reconstruction, both pictorial and textuaI, that the restorer was not aware of the source of the text and compositions.
Having established that the reconstruction was likely to have occurred in a restoration studio rather than within the altarpiece's original context, we must still consider the value we place on it. Over its six hundred year history it has undergone several treatments. Each restoration was a product of the understanding and fashion of its own time and each superseded its predecessor. That the object has aged and will never be as it once was is a given, but by leaving the nineteenth-century restoration in place, we might preserve something of its story and acknowledge that all later interventions, being part of its history, have their own value. Nevertheless, we should be aware that whatever our decision is today, it becomes part of the same story, even if we should choose to do nothing. Undoubtedly, the notion of uncovering and presenting as much as possible of the medieval original without reconstructing missing passages is a product of the ideas of our own time.
Ultimately the question is whether retaining this particular historicaI restoration outweighs the potential to regain more of the colour and quality of the surviving original paint. Although it is not possible to have both restoration and original in a physical sense, it would be possible to fully document the nineteenth-century intervention, and reveal what does survive by the hand of Master Bertram and his workshop.
It was felt that we needed a better understanding of the condition of the original paint surface. In order to get a sense of the potential gain, as well as loss, in carrying out any treatment it was decided to carry out a cleaning test. The result was startling, revealing the excellent condition of the surviving paint with intact, unfaded glazes and fascinating subtleties of colour and technique. It enabled close comparison with surviving altarpieces in Germany and confirmed the original attribution to Master Bertram. Removing the later restoration revealed substantial areas of original paint that had been covered by the filling and retouching and also showed that there had been many inaccuracies in the reconstruction. What we had lost in the process was the nineteenth-century interpretation of the medieval scene and an integrated whole; what we had gained was 90% of the original paint surface in astonishingly good condition, and a firm attribution (Figure 3).
It should be pointed out that only cleaning the original, leaving the nineteenth-century restoration intact, was not an option. The tonality of the reconstructed areas matched the colours distorted by discoloured varnish and dirt layers. The many inaccuracies in the reconstruction meant a partial approach would give a confusing result, in terms of both mismatched form and colour. If the altarpiece was cleaned it would change from being an integrated object, albeit discoloured, to one clean but incomplete.
After weighing up all of the considerations described above, the decision was taken to clean the altarpiece. In the context of the new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries the choice was made to privilege all that survived of the medieval altarpiece, around 90%, in preference to an antiquarian interest in the object as evidence in the history of taste.
The display of the triptych with scenes from the Apocalypse, in the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries, has been supported by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Sir Thomas R. Moore, New York.
1. M.R. James first noted that the composition of the scenes was closely related to illustrations in a thirteenth-century manuscript commentary on the Revelation of St. John by Alexander of Bremen of which a few copies survive. James, M.R., The Apocalypse in Art, (London, 1931) pp.66-8"
Costaras, N, and Turnbull, R.
Canvas; Gilt; Panel; Tempera