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University of Basel

The cathedral treasury’s golden altar frontal

Barbara Schellewald

The emergence of medieval art history in Basel is closely associated with Wilhelm Wackernagel (1806–1869), Professor of German at the university from 1835. In some of his works, he explored medieval topics such as the cathedral treasury’s golden altar frontal, only copies of which remain in Basel.

One of two copies in Basel: The golden altar frontal from the cathedral treasury (image: Basel Historical Museum, P. Portner).
One of two copies in Basel: The golden altar frontal from the cathedral treasury. © Basel Historical Museum, P. Portner

If we explore the origins of medieval art history in Basel, we find that one of the leading figures was a Germanist, Wilhelm Wackernagel. Born in Berlin in 1806, Wackernagel studied in Berlin and Breslau. In 1833, he accepted a position at the Pädagogium (now a school, the Gymnasium am Münsterplatz) in Basel, shortly after securing a doctorate in Göttingen with the help of some influential friends. In Basel, the newcomer quickly proved to be a success; in 1835, he was offered a full professorship in ‘German language and literature’ at the university. Although Wackernagel’s career path may seem unusual to us, this was not so at the time, prior to the introduction of the postdoctoral ‘Habilitation’ and senior academic assistantships. His ascent up the social scale was further assisted by his two marriages, to Karoline Louise Bluntschi and later to Maria Salome Sarasin. In 1837, he was made an honorary citizen of Basel. In 1841, 1855 and 1866, he held the office of rector of the university; he also served as a member of the Great Council.

Involvement with collections

Wackernagel enjoyed an excellent reputation as a Germanist. We see this from his network of intellectual contacts; he was in regular correspondence with the brothers Grimm, Karl Simrock and others. Writing in the Deutsche Biographie in 1896, Edward Schröder lamented the fact that an academic of his stature had stayed confined to such a narrow sphere of influence. In fact, the universities of Munich, Vienna and Berlin had tried to lure Wackernagel away, but he had resisted these enticements and remained loyal to Basel. Although he was a philologist, Wackernagel engaged in a range of activities that attest to his keen interest in art and its history.

Besides Wackernagel’s publications, his involvement with collections of ‘antiquities’ deserves mention in this context. There is no doubt that he was the prime mover in creating the predecessor to what is now the Historical Museum. Like that of the later Museum of Art, the collection exhibited in the cathedral’s St Nicholas chapel from 1856 (and in the council chamber from 1880) was under the institutional control of the university. At that time, art history had no university presence either in Basel or elsewhere; not until 1860 was Anton Springer appointed to the first professorship of art history, at the University of Bonn. It should therefore come as no surprise that for a substantial period (1853–1866) Wackernagel was responsible for the collection later subsumed into the Museum of Art. In any case, it is clear that over the years he built up some expertise in the field, which was also reflected in publications.

In 1855, Wackernagel published Die Deutsche Glasmalerei (on “German Stained Glass”), based on two major lectures. He had first become acquainted with the subject back in the 1820s. Although his work can hardly be described as a pioneering – a comprehensive Geschichte der Glasmalerei (“History of Stained Glass”), by the jurist M. A. Gessert had appeared as early as 1839 – as a Germanist he was obliged to give particular attention to literary sources containing references to stained glass. Wackernagel discusses chronology and developments within the genre, as well as its producers and their status. However – and this was by no means untypical – the work was produced entirely without illustrations.

What attracted Wackernagel to the subject is also clear from his short study on Basel’s medieval collection (1857), which includes an appendix featuring a series of documents of interest to him as a Germanist. In the text, he sets out the purpose of such a collection – to reflect medieval life back to us through original works or reproductions. The fact that he accords equal status to originals and copies is significant, as it provides an insight into approaches to museum design during this period, which involved setting aside a lot of space for reproductions. They filled in the gaps, as it were, in order that the full sweep of artistic development might be depicted.

Wackernagel demonstrates a sound understanding of periodization, in that he wants to see the early history of the Middle Ages represented on an equal footing with the later phase, on the threshold of the early modern period and the Renaissance. For him, doing justice to the period’s ‘cultural historical significance’ means ensuring that all of its phases are represented, even those for which hardly any artifacts survive in Basel. This brings him to describe an artifact that was originally a centerpiece of the cathedral treasury but was represented here only by a copy, produced at the behest of Colonel Victor Theubet: the golden altar frontal. Wackernagel devoted an entire monograph to this work.

A turbulent history

First, some words on the altar frontal’s previous history. Measuring 1.20 m by 1.77 m, its original function was to adorn the front of the high altar in Basel cathedral on major feast days. In the center it shows Christ, flanked by three archangels and St Benedict. Portraits of the donors in miniature can be made out kneeling at Christ’s feet. The Latin inscription reads in translation: “Who can compare to God as a powerful physician and blessed savior? Gentle mediator, take care of human beings.” The arabesques are inset with four medallions depicting the four cardinal virtues. Following the iconoclastic riots in Basel, the panel, as with all other artifacts, was hidden away, an arrangement formalized in 1559. In 1827, the treasury was moved to the city hall. In 1833, when the city canton of Basel-Stadt was forced to cede 64 percent of its assets to the countryside canton of Basel-Landschaft, the latter took possession of the altar frontal.

What followed was determined mainly by economic interests. The historical significance of the artifact, as a separate endowment donated by Emperor Henry II and his wife Cunigunde, was completely overshadowed by its material value. When the cathedral treasury was exhibited to the public in 1834, one city councilor, Jakob Christoph Pack, noted disparagingly that all he could see was “a goldsmith’s shop” and that he had no idea what it was supposed to portray. On the other hand, it made quite an impression on the grammar school pupil Jacob Burckhardt, who included a sketch of it in his booklet “Some items from the Basel cathedral treasury, drawn from memory immediately after seeing them”. His interest in the subject was probably kindled by his father, Antistes (church president) J. Burckhardt, who is credited with a short work entitled The golden altar frontal of Emperor Henry II, 1019. The anonymous author of this text praises the artifact as “a landmark in the history of art” and suspects that its creator may have been a Byzantine artist from Constantinople.

The altar frontal was then put up for auction at the Schlüssel inn in Liestal. Those present included some Berlin antiquarians working on behalf of a leading art historian: Franz Theodor Kugler, professor at the Berlin Academy of Arts from 1835, one of Jacob Burckhardt’s university teachers and the advisor to the King of Prussia’s collection. However, Berlin decided against purchasing the panel, which was acquired by Johann Jakob III Handmann for 9,050 francs. Some Baslers had also come up with a rescue plan. A member of the Freiwillige Akademische Gesellschaft (Voluntary Academic Society), Peter Vischer-Passavant, wanted to bid for the panel at the Liestal auction, but his representative, Heinrich Schreiber, chose not to compete against Handmann as he thought the latter was also seeking to acquire it for Basel.

Eventually, in 1852, the altar frontal ended up in the Musée national du Moyen Age (Musée Cluny) in Paris, where it is still held today. Prior to that it was taken on ‘tour’ all over Europe; its image also featured in publicity brochures in English, French and Italian produced by Colonel Victor Theubet. In 1843, for instance, the panel was exhibited in London, for Theubet had acquired the original from Handmann in 1838 and was looking for a prominent buyer.

Wackernagel was due to present his findings on the panel at the Pädagogium’s graduation ceremony in 1857. A cast of the work was needed to make up for the loss of the original. On Theubet’s instructions, a mold was taken from the original to allow casts to be made; this resulted in the production of two casts. The gilded version (see image on the right), which is now in the Historical Museum, was initially retained by Theubet and later acquired by the museum (the arrangement became permanent in 1881). The second cast, coated only in a clear glaze, was soon put on public display as part of Wackernagel’s collection; currently it is housed in the Kleines Klingental Museum. Other partial casts ended up in various European museums.

Original and cast

For his study of the panel, Wackernagel went back to the second, ungilded cast. He emphasized the advantages of this approach, arguing that the cast was in fact better suited to detailed examination and analysis than the original work as there were no metal reflections to deceive the eye. The study goes well beyond a simple description of the object. In painstaking detail, Wackernagel describes the origins of the antependium as an artistic form and its material qualities; he also makes a careful attempt to define its iconographic characteristics and to identify those depicted in the donor portraits. At the auction in 1836, one image was still described as depicting a female ‘Benedicta’ – despite the presence of a bishop’s crook and beard and the accompanying inscription – but Wackernagel rightly notes that the imperial couple had strong ties to Bamberg, where devotion to St Benedict was particularly intense. (Current research suggests that the panel was originally intended for Bamberg.)

Wackernagel also has a particular interest in possible written sources. Like the author of the earlier anonymous study, he emphasizes the importance of the small sheet of parchment attached to the panel, which gives a clear description of the panel’s function and the fitting out of the high altar on particular feast days. As a philologist, he was familiar with the small number of sources that provide information on, for example, production processes and pictorial techniques, such as the Schedula diversarum artium discovered by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. He also gives due attention to the inscription. In seeking to reconstruct exactly how the cathedral’s high altar may have looked, Wackernagel mulls over the possibility that it was fitted out at the sides with sandstone panels depicting the apostles or the life of St Vincent. His dating of the panel relies not just on the identification of the two donor figures as Henry II and Cunigunde but also on paleographical evidence, which he enlists in support of his arguments.

Wackernagel concludes by rejecting Kugler’s report on the work, in which he had repeatedly proposed a date of around 1200, based purely on stylistic criteria. In light of arguments arising from the context of the work’s donation, which made a plausible case for dating it to the time of Henry II (around 1019), Kugler was later forced to fall back on the position that the panel was a stylistically modified copy of the original work. At first glance, Wackernagel’s objection that Kugler – as opposed to the art dealers he had sent to Liestal – had never seen the original is surprising, given his own praise for the merits of the copy. However, whereas he regarded the copy as being on a par with the original, the same did not apply to the lithograph print, which he did not consider a suitable basis for an academic study. Until today, the gilded copy of the altar frontal in the Historical Museum continues to fill the significant gap left in Basel by the loss of the original.

Professor Barbara Schellewald holds the Chair in Early Art History at the University of Basel.

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