These wonderfully preserved and vibrant 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, their attribution has been the subject of scholarly debate. Alfred Stange, the pioneer in the research of Early German painting, erroneously attributed them to the so-called ‘Master of the Chur Altarwings’ (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 fifteenth 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 Bavaria at the end of the century. His oeuvre, already partly established by 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 (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 (ibid., 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 (ibid., 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 (letter of expertise, 2002), and more recently substantiated and elaborated by Statnik (op. cit., pp. 132-153, reconstruction p. 279). Consistent with the practice of the day, the central shrine, now 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, and when completely closed four additional scenes could be seen, including the present Ascension and Pentecost, forming the conclusion of the iconographic programme. Meyer gives the present panels a full attribution to The Master of Attel, while Statnik, on the basis of old photographs, suggests some workshop participation, which would have been common practice for such a large and important commission, and dates the panels to circa 1490 (ibid., pp. 153-4).
Vibrant in tonality and expressive in design, these panels convey their narratives in a visually engaging way. The figures are elegantly dressed in timeless attire, with the artist paying particular attention to the drapery and the lining of the mantles. Each disciple’s halo has a unique punchwork design, which is then matched with the design in the other panel, to allow for easy identification. The facial expressions, a mixture of disbelief, awe and reverence, are wonderfully observed. These panels display the artist’s skill at rendering both intricate architectural and naturalistic landscape settings. The treatment of the verdant landscape in the scene of the Ascension is typical of both German and Netherlandish art at this time. The beautifully depicted foliage in the foreground is full of symbolic meaning, which would have been understood by the lay congregation. The wild strawberries surrounding the Virgin, the perfect fruit with no pips or peel, allude to Her purity, while the dandelions, a weed that spreads very quickly, stands for the spreading of the Christian faith (C. Fisher, The Medieval flower book, London, 2007).
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 (ibid., 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, The Mocking of Christ and The Lamentation, were sold to a private collector in these Rooms on 3 December 2013, lot 28 (fig. 1), making them, along with the present panels, the last remaining in private hands.