Exhibited during the last decade as the work of Lucas Cranach the Elder, this triptych was sold at Lempertz in 1968 as by 'A Master of the environs of Kulmbach, in the Circle of Lucas Cranach the Elder'. The specificity of this attribution suggests that the previous owner (a Tilburg private collector) may have had record of an Upper Franconian provenance in the vicinity of Kulmbach for the work (see Erichsen, op. cit., p. 164 note 13). By the time of its exhibition in Tilburg in 1948 it had already been transferred into a modern frame (Elsig, loc. cit.). Writing in 1994, Erichsen was the first to propose that it might be an early work by Cranach the Elder's brother, Matthes Cranach, painted in Kronach, Upper Franconia, where Matthes returned after his studies in Wittenberg (op. cit, p. 157, caption to fig. A 102 and p. 164 note 13).
If not Matthes, Erichsen argues that the triptych must be by another pupil or workshop collaborator of Cranch the Elder's, painted to a specific commission. Erichsen was also the first to note the present triptych's similarity to an altarpiece formerly in Möblis and Obergersdorf, and of which the central panel, depicting The Expulsion of the Money-Changers from the Temple, is now in Dresden (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, inv. no. 3861), the wings having perished in a fire at Obergersdorf in 1945. The Dresden panel shares with the Rau altarpiece a similar interest in lively, small-scale groups of people, deposited at even intervals in an understated architectural setting. It also shares the same device of blank tympana in the upper corners of the central panel and the recti of the wings, as though to simulate that both of the triptychs were actually painted on shaped-top panels that closed to form an arch. Such blank tympana also appear on the altar wings which form Cranach's only archivally documented retable, the high altar of Saint Johannis in Neustadt an der Orla (see Erichsen, op. cit., fig. A 99), datable to 1510 or 1511. On stylistic grounds, Erichsen dates the Rau altarpiece to the same period, circa 1510-2, noting Ursula Timann's suggestion that it may in fact be the work commissioned from Cranach the Elder by the celebrated humanist Christoph von Scheurl in 1512. A friend of Martin Luther's and an important patron of Cranach's, Scheurl is known to have donated the result of this commission to the pilgrimage church in Wallersberg, near Weismain (Erichsen, loc. cit., p. 164 note 13, citing Scheurl, loc. cit.). If the unspecified commission were in fact this altarpiece, that would accord with the evidence for an Upper Franconian provenance, as Weismain is about 15 kilometres west of Kulmbach.
In his note to the travelling exhibition of Dr. Rau's collection, Frédéric Elsig (loc. cit.) refers to the unusual iconography of the altarpiece, which, by juxtaposing The Miraculous Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, The Marriage at Cana and Christ Among the Doctors, draws a parallel between bread, wine and The Word. Elsig notes that such a pictorial programme is likely to have been suggested by a humanist, which supports the Scheurl hypothesis. The charming symbolic alignment suggests that The Word, and the words that compose and express it, possess the same nourishing and inspirational qualities as food and wine, while at the same time the equation of the Eucharist with the Scripture speaks to a latent Lutheran philosophy. The unexpected and highly unusual juxtaposition of The Nativity with the alms-giving Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia adds to these sentiments an idea of The Nativity as an act of Divine Mercy, as indeed are Christ's miracles on the open wings - a mercy which brings nourishment, inspiration and salvation. Such a complex, nuanced and meaningful programme could well have been the invention of Scheurl himself, the devout man-of-letters and ally to Luther.
We are grateful to Mr. Ludwig Meyer (on the basis of photographs) and to Dr. Werner Schade (on the basis of first-hand examination) for independently suggesting an attribution to the Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder and a date circa 1515-20. Dr. Schade notes (private communication, 30 October 2008) that the picture displays very accomplished handling, and may well be the work of a pupil in Cranach's studio who might later have become a master in his own right and subsequently changed his style. Certain motifs, such as the putti in the Nativity wing, depend on Cranach but are treated in a highly independent manner. The depiction of the crowd in the Loaves and Fishes wing suggests an awareness of developments in The Netherlands, while the central panel suggests that the artist had seen Dürer's Sorrows of the Virgin altarpiece in Wittenberg; as there is no print of this painting, the artist must have seen it first-hand.
Mr. Meyer (private communication, 22 October 2008) places the Rau altarpiece firmly in the Cranach workshop, attributing it to one of his 'Meisterschüler'. While acknowledging the Matthes Cranach hypothesis, he notes that at the moment too little is known of this artist's work to confirm an attribution to him. He further notes three instances of a direct debt to Cranach in the design of this triptych: 1) the bridegroom in the Marriage at Cana is based on Cranach's Portrait of Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony (Frankfurt am Main, Städel Museum); 2) one of the women in the crowd at the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes is based on Cranach's Portrait of Margaret of Savoy, Stadholder of the Netherlands, daughter of the Emperor Maximilian I (Dessau, Staatliche Galerie); and 3) in the same scene, the woman seated with an infant quotes the figure of Cranach's wife as Mary Cleophas in his Holy Kinship (Vienna, Akademie der Bildenden Künste), long accepted as a self-portrait with members of his family, and which Elsig (loc. cit.) cites on more general stylistic grounds as comparable to the Rau altarpiece. Mr. Meyer proposes that the date of the Portrait of Margaret of Savoy, usually given as circa 1530, must be reconsidered on the basis of its relationship to the Rau altarpiece, proposing a date of circa 1520 for that work.