These vibrant, brightly-coloured and wonderfully preserved panels are a rare testament to the achievements of late Gothic painters active in Germany before the time of Dürer. Due to the general lack of extant documentary evidence from this rich period, the attribution of the two panels has been subject to some debate. The pioneer in the research of Early German painting, Alfred Stange, erroneously attributed them to the so-called Master of the Chur Altarwings (Stange, op. cit., 1970, p. 73) on the basis of reproductions. Ernst Buchner, former director of the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, was the first to ascribe them to the Master of Attel, whom he believed to have been active in Bavaria at the end of the 15th century in Wasserburg and in the vicinity of Munich (written correspondence, 17 January 1956). The attribution to the Master of Attel has since been firmly established and confirmed by Ludwig Meyer (written correspondence, 14 August 2002).
The Master of Attel name stems from a winged altarpiece formerly in the collegiate church in Attel, a village in Lower Bavaria (parts now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich). Along with his contemporaries Jan Polack and Gabriel Mäleßkircher, he can be seen as one of the most important, influential and original painters active in Lower Bavaria at the end of the century. His oeuvre, already partly established by Stange (Stange, op. cit., 1969, p. 113), has been expanded over the last decades and has most recently been the subject of an extended study by Björn Statnik (Statnik, op. cit.). Statnik notably associated the oeuvre of the Master of Attel with Sigmund Gleismüller, court painter to George the Rich, Duke of Bavaria-Landshut (loc. cit., pp. 176-9). Gleismüller, who trained under his father in Munich, moved the workshop to Landshut in the 1470s, and remained there until his death after 1515 (op. cit., p. 182).
These panels were part of a magnificent Passion altarpiece with two sets of wings formerly in the Canonical Augustinian monastery of Rottenbuch, as established by Ludwig Meyer and more recently substantiated and elaborated by Statnik (letter of expertise, 2002; and Statnik, op. cit., pp. 132-153, reconstruction p. 279). Consistent with the practice of the day, the central shrine, now unfortunately lost, would have been sculpted, while the outer and inner wings showed, when opened completely, scenes from the Life of the Virgin in relief. When the inner set of wings was closed, eight panels depicting scenes from the Passion were visible, including the present Mocking of Christ and Lamentation, and when completely closed four additional scenes could be seen, forming the conclusion of the iconographic programme. Whilst Meyer gives the present panels a full attribution to the Master of Attel, Statnik, on the basis of old photographs, sees some workshop involvement, which would have been common practice for such a large and important commission, and he further dates the panels to circa 1490 (Statnik, op. cit., pp. 153-4).
During the Napoleonic re-organisation of Europe in 1803, when the property and territories of the Church in the former Holy Roman Empire were being secularised, the Dukes of Bavaria, so as to avoid losing the most precious works formerly in clerical possession, sent Johann Georg von Dillis out to the disbanded churches and abbeys. On 26 April 1803, upon his visit to Rottenbuch, he listed a total of eight panels depicting the Passion of Christ as objects of interest for the electoral palatine art collection which, according to the dossiers of the local Secularisation Commission of Rottenbuch, were described as having belonged together (Statnik, op. cit., p. 132). The inventories of the three panels (now in the archives of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich) are listed as having come from Rottenbuch in 1803. The other remaining panels are now in the collections of the Staatsgalerie, Burghausen; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; the Musée Grobet-Labadie, Marseille; and two survive in a private collection.
Both panels, vibrant in their tonality and deeply expressive in design, convey the Passion narrative in a visually engaging fashion. The figures are elegantly dressed in a blend of courtly attire and exotic paraphernalia. The artist has furthermore paid particular attention to the differentiated punchwork in the haloes, where only the design of Christ’s remains the same in both. The flagellated figure of Christ sits still, majestic and humble, enduring the insults. He is clothed in the customary scarlet mantle, unusually embroidered with roses, possibly alluding both to decorations on regal robes such as the fleur-de-lys, but also to the rose as a symbol of love and the Virgin as ‘a rose without thorns’. While the architectural setting and the landscape through the window openings is reminiscent of Netherlandish paintings of the period, the figures refer to the widely circulated prints of Martin Schongauer’s Passion cycles: the figure behind Christ, raising his hand, and the one kneeling and presenting Him with the Reed appears in Schongauer’s print of the same subject (Bartsch 13), while the figure on the left – probably Pontius Pilate – appears in his Ecce Homo (Bartsch 15). In contrast to the print, however, the artist uses the motif of the crossed rods pressing down the Crown, popular in German art since the 13th century, and dresses the mockers in contemporary attire.
In the Lamentation, however, there is a noticeably stronger Netherlandish influence in the figures. Mary Salome is portrayed in Burgundian costume similar to that which appears in Portrait of a young girl by Petrus Christus (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie). The pose of Mary Cleophas comes from Schongauer’s Christ carrying the Cross (Lehrs 26), was probably also inspired by Rogier van der Weyden’s Magdalen in the Crucifixion (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum). Furthermore, the Master of Attel may also have been aware of the Miraflores Altarpiece (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie) in which the Virgin is similarly dressed in red – rather than her habitual blue – to emphasise the Passion of Christ.
The grass strewn with flowers is a characteristic feature of both German and Netherlandish works of this time, the symbolic meanings of which would have been understood even by laypeople. The plants balm and melissa would have been used in the ointments for the embalming of His body; carnations are associated with both the tears of the Virgin and the blood of Christ; the wild strawberries, as the perfect fruit with no pips or peel, symbolise the Virgin and the notion of martyrdom; the violets growing beneath the Virgin allude to both her humility and her sorrow; and the red clover with its trefoil leaves can be seen as a symbol of the Trinity (C. Fisher, The Medieval flower book, London, 2007).