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South German or Austrian School (ca. 1610)

A trompe l’oeil of an open liturgical book

To be sold at Uppsala Auktionskammare’s Important Sale: Classic & Asian 9-11 December 2020

Lot 304. South German or Austrian School A trompe l’oeil of an open liturgical book. Oil on pine wood, 42 x 54.5 cm.

A dendrochronological analysis by Prof. Dr Peter Klein is available upon request.


300.000 – 400.000 SEK
€ 29.000 – 39.000


A Swedish noble family.

In context

A perfect illusion of an open liturgical book

The present painting is a new addition to the group of paintings of similar open liturgical books, of which A. Schneckenburger-Brosheck, Altdeutsche Malerei: die Tafelbilder und Altäre des 14. bis 16. Jahrhunderts in der Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister und im Hessischen Landesmuseum Kassel, 1997, pp. 269/84, nos 1-13, figs. 215/26 was the first to draw up a list. Besides the present painting, the group now totals fifteen and include the paintings formerly in the Bentinck-Thyssen Collection, Castagnola; present whereabouts unknown; in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Schloss Ambras, Innsbruck; the Gemäldegalerie, Kassel, inv. no. GK 1044 and the as yet unpublished painting which appeared from a private collection in the US and was offered at Bonhams London on the 4th of December 2019, lot 8.

As in the other paintings, the present painting shows an illusionistic view on an open liturgical book against a neutral dark background. By the floating pages and the belt with clasp on the right it appears as if the book has just been opened. The liturgical purpose of the book follows the alternate blocks of script and music scores spread over two columns on the pages, although they are not meant to depict any precise passage from the Bible or a psalm. Both texts and music scores are just fictional, as much as the eleven illuminated initials too are not to be meant to be further linked to existing books. The as yet unknown painter has aimed here at a perfect illusion of the type of book used in the late Middle Ages for veneration and cult.

Central panel of the Annunciation Triptyck (Merode Altarpiece) from ca. 1427-32, Workshop of Robert Campin in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum (accession number 56.70a-c). The Cloisters Collection, 1956.
Central panel of the Annunciation Triptyck (Merode Altarpiece) from ca. 1427-32, Workshop of Robert Campin in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum (accession number 56.70a-c). The Cloisters Collection, 1956.

The trompe l’oeil effect of the composition has been further enhanced by the steep perspective under which the book is presented. This perspective, which is slightly different in each painting, has lead Schneckenburger, op. cit., p. 227 to suggest that the panels were once probably meant to be mounted on lectern pulpits, in order that when no liturgical gathering took place the book would at least give the illusion of such ceremonies. Thus they would foremost have been commissioned by religious institutions. The 15th century intarsia pulpits in Benedictine abbeys in Italy, such as by Fra Giovanni di Verona in S. Maria di Organo in Verona and in Monte Olivieto Maggiore, would strengthen this hypothesis.

While authorship of the group is as yet unknown, the fact that they are all painted on pine suggests a production in South Germany or Austria. Dendrochronological research of the present panel on the basis of a photograph by Peter Klein has revealed that the panel is of ‘pinus sylvestris’ and consists of two boards, of which one contains 134 growth rings, the youngest of these rings dating from 1607. Taking into account that the manufacturing of pine generally sees no loss of wood and that two years were needed for seasoning, the earliest possible creation of the present painting is 1609.

While a precise dating of the present painting is thus clear, this does not count for the other paintings of the group, with the exception of the painting in Burg Eltz, Mayen-Koblenz, which bears the coat of arms of Adam Peetz, who was bishop in Strasburg from 1605-1625 (Schneckenburger, op. cit., p. 283/4, no. 10) and the one in a private collection in Austria, which is inscribed and dated 1618 (Schneckenburger, op. cit., p. 284, no. 11) and are thus to be dated to the early 17th century. For those in the former Bentinck-Thyssen collection and the one in Kassel, early 16th century dates have been suggested on the basis that the motif originated in early Flemish paintings such as the Merode triptych by Robert Campin (see illustration) and that it must have been isolated as independent pictorial motif during the pioneering years of the independent still life painting at that time. More likely however is that the entire group follows the date of the present painting and that they were produced for the kunstkammer. Indeed, trompe l’oeil painting became highly popular at courts in central Europe around 1600. The choice for a liturgical manuscript as motif would thereby be possibly explained by the veneration these illuminated books held at the time. The book paintings created a double sensation, first for the book and then for the illusion.

Based on Schneckenburger’s precise analysis of the various qualities of the paintings in the group, the present painting is likely to come close to that in Schloss Ambras. With that painting it shares its steep perspective – steeper than the Bentinck-Thyssen painting – and the form of the belt and clasp; different however are the musical scores and the flower borders. Its frame appears to be original and confirms an independent use.

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