Although no drawing by Hans Holbein the Elder for this figure has been identified, it seems likely that he and the same silversmith's workshop, possibly that of Jörg Seld, were responsible for this reliquary as well as that of Saint Sebastian. It should be pointed out however, that such a figure would well have taken months, if not years, to produce, and work on the Saint Christopher might well pre-date Holbein's physical arrival in Augsburg. In any event, although there are obvious differences, the feet and foliate scroll braces on the reliquary bases of both Saint Christopher and Saint Sebastian are very similar, and the two figures not only complement each other but are each imbued with the same intense realism. The distinctive detail of the veins portrayed on both figures, which is not present in the Holbein drawing for Saint Sebastian, also suggests that both figures were conceived as a pair in the same workshop. In addition the flowing river through which Saint Christopher wades seems to echo the rockwork base in the drawing for Saint Sebastian.
It has been further suggested that the reliquary figures were originally designed to flank a 54 cm. (21¼ in.) high parcel-gilt statuette of the Virgin made in the workshop of Heinrich Hufnagel in 1482 and ordered by Abbot Kastner's immediate predecessor, Johannes Vischeß, whose arms it bears (Lüdke, loc. cit.). Alternatively they may have been designed for placement on either side of the very large monstrance weighing 30 marks ordered by Abbot Kastner and mentioned in the 1531 Chronicle. The monstrance certainly must have been imposing as, if we assume that this was the Cologne mark used in Bavaria, it weighed approximately 7 kg. or 225 troy ounces (F. Stein, 'Weights on Continental silver', The Silver Society Journal, no. 9, Autumn 1997).
The image of the Saint bearing the Christ Child was a popular one as a subject for reliquaries during the fifteenth century. For example, there is a fine parcel-gilt figure of the Saint on elongated octagonal base, which is now lacking its relic and rock-crystal panels. This dates from circa 1400 and was made in Toulouse for the nearby church of Castelnaudary. It was eventually acquired by the collector, J. Pierpont Morgan, and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (M. E. Frazer, 'Medieval Church Treasures', The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Winter 1985/1986, XKIII, no. 3, pp. 50-51, fig. 57 and illustrated on the cover). Here the serene and remote figure of the Christ Child stands on the Saint's shoulder, holding in His left Hand the orb and cross while His right is raised in blessing. A charming, as well as symbolic touch, is the inclusion of engraved fish in the water at the Saint's feet.
A second superb figure of Saint Christopher, now on permanent loan to the Basel Minster Treasury, was made in Basel, circa 1445 (U. Barth and B. M. Babey, Erlesenes aus dem Basler Münsterschatz, Basel, 1990, p. 56, no. 56, illustrated on the cover). Here the figures are much closer to the present lot, but the Christ Child again holds the orb and cross and sits serenely above the Saint who glances up, suddenly aware of the weight on his shoulder. As with the French figure, Saint Christopher is standing, rather than wading, through the water. Neither of the earlier figures include the dramatic billowing cloak and intense intimacy between the Christ Child and Saint of the Kaiserheim Saint Christopher.
The closest source for the figure of Saint Christopher so far identified is a roundel of the Saint engraved by Master HS. This artist is known to have copied contemporary masters such as Martin Schongauer and, particularly, Lucas Cranach the Elder (Bartsch, VI, p. 387, no. 2).
The Master HS appears to have been working in Nuremberg around 1500, and it is quite possible that his engraving of Saint Christopher is after a now lost drawing by Hans Holbein the Elder, which was the study for this reliquary figure. There are differences between engraving and figure such as the inclusion in the engraving of the Christ Child's halo and the Saint's free arm raised to protect the Christ Child. However the Saint's stance, his simple staff and billowing cloak as well as the unusual detail of the Christ Child holding his hair, are all common to both. The slight changes between flat design and three dimensional silver figure, also present in the Saint Sebastian, are to be expected as the goldsmith works out the practical details of production. The end result is a work of art of quite exceptional beauty that has been rightly described as one of the most important masterpieces of the late Gothic period (Lüdke, loc. cit.).
(We would like to thank Professor E. L. Richter and Philippe Palasi for drawing our attention to some of the literature cited above).