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Master of Frankfurt

Saint Christophe

Panel: 46 x 30,4 cm
Circa 1495

introduction

Like a giant crossing a river, carrying Christ on his shoulders, St. Christopher is a figure anchored in the tradition of Flemish iconography. This astonishing painting is the result of the Master of Frankfurt’s talented brushwork and was exhibited on the walls of the Mauritshuis in The Hague for several decades. Enjoyed and commented on by numerous historians, this work dated circa 1495, showing a man of a prodigious size, illustrates the style of a painter whose renown was established thanks to monumental bodies and caricatured features.

The legend of St. Christopher originates in his name; the story is told by Jacopus de Voragine in his Golden Legend. In reality, he was called Reprobus (the Reprobate) and offered his great strength to serve the person he believed to be the most powerful in the world. When he learnt that the king he was serving feared the devil, he left in search of the latter and decided to serve him instead. But when he saw his new master avoid a wayside cross and discovered that the devil feared Christ, he left him and enquired from people where to find Christ. He met a hermit who told him about the existence of Christ, and Christopher decided to assist poor people to cross a dangerous river. The story tells us how one evening, the giant was carrying a child on his shoulders who became heavier and heavier. The child then confessed that he was Christ and told him that the unbelievable weight on his shoulders was that of the sins of the world. To prove that he was the creator of the universe, he told Christopher to plant his staff in the ground and out of it sprouted leaves and dates. Reprobus then became “Christophoros”, which means “carrier of Christ” in Greek.

Placed in a panoramic landscape, like in the version in the Wallraf Collection in Cologne, St. Christopher has an imposing stature and his marked features, probably the result of his former oriental cynocephalus portrayals, are very coarse. He is wearing a turban and a red cloak over a blue tunic. Of particular note is the saint’s hunched position, emphasising his gigantism; it is the result of an almost clinical portrayal of this phenomenon by our painter. Furthermore, this devoted ferryman is endowed with solid feet, powerful hands and a massive neck, which his red beard vainly attempts to hide. The Child appears to be firmly installed on his shoulder and the softness of his complexion contrasts with the giant’s tanned skin. Finally, the hermit who told the saint of his noble vocation can be seen at the mouth of a cave. The river leads our gaze to the background where we can perceive beautiful examples of Gothic architecture.

The Master of Frankfurt was famous for his religious paintings, which drew inspiration from the great Flemish Primitives. Purchased from an Austrian collection in 1919 by a Jewish antiquarian, Otto Mayer (1875-1964), this painting was confiscated by the Gestapo in Berlin in October 1933. It passed through the hands of the Amsterdam dealer, Paul Cassirer, and reached the Netherlands at the end of the 1940s before appearing on the prestigious walls of the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Returned to the heirs of Otto Mayer in recent years, the story of this painting is indeed exciting; well-documented today, it would appear to be a fundamental work in the corpus of our artist.

Provenance :
Otto Mayer, Berlin (in 1919);
Confiscated by the Gestapo in October 1933;
Paul Cassirer Gallery, Amsterdam (1942);
The Generalverwaltung der Oberrheinischen Museen, Strasburg (1942);
Stichting Nederlands Kunstbezit, Holland;
Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague (on loan 1948-1960, transferred to Mauritshuis in 1960);
Returned to the heirs of Otto Mayer in 2011.

Littérature :
F. Winkler, Die Altniederländische Malerei, Die Malerei in Belgien und Holland von 1400-1600, Berlin 1924;
G. J. Hoogewerf, De Noord-Nederlandsche Schilderkunst, vol. 3, The Hague 1939, p. 24;
D. Angulo, 'Saint Christopher by Hieronymus Bosch' in The Burlington Magazine, vol. 76, 1940, p. 3;
A.B. De Vries, 'Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen (Mauritshuis)' in Verslag's Rijks Verzameling Geschiedenis en Kunst, vol. 70, 1948, pp. 58-60;
A.B. De Vries, Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague 1968, no. 872;
M.J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Paintings, vol. VII, Brussels 1971, p. 79, reproduced plate 114, no. 115;
U. Hoff and M. Davies, National Gallery, Melbourne. Primitifs Flamands I, Brussels 1971, p. 4;
G. Benker, Christopherus. Patron der Schiffer, Fuhrleute, und Kraftfahren. Legende, Verehnung, Symbol, Munich 1975, p. 118;
Mauritshuis, The Royal Cabinet of Paintings. Illustrated General Catalogue, The Hague 1977, no. 872;
S. Goddard, The Master of Frankfurt and his Shop, Brussels 1984, p. 162, cat. no. 121, reproduced fig. 21.