Although the town of Strasbourg was a thriving centre in the late 15th century and had a strong sculptural tradition, it underwent an intense period of iconoclasm beginning in 1521 which resulted in the destruction of the majority of its sculpural monuments (Recht, op. cit, pp. 77-80). The present relief therefore represents a rare survival of an almost vanished artistic school.
In a letter written in 1956, the director of the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich, Theodor Müller, discussed the present relief when it was still in the collection of the collector, scholar and dealer Otto Wertheimer. He said 'I can only underline that it is obviously a highly impressive and very significant sculpture' ('so kann ich nur betonen, dass es sich offenbar um eine höchst wirkungsvolle und sehr bedeutende Skulptur handelt') and continued by noting the astonishing clarity of the composition and the highly individualistic characterisation of the carving of the faces, which gives the impression that they are portraits of actual people.
At the time the letter was written, Wertheimer postulated that the relief might be the work of the celebrated South German sculptor Erasmus Grasser, and that the initials on the thigh of the young nobleman to the right of the relief might be a signature in the form of the letters 'E G'. However, for a number of reasons, this cannot be correct. The first is that, stylistically, the relief is not directly comparable to any documented works by Grasser. Perhaps more importantly, the prominence of the letters and the inclusion of a crown in the insignia surely indicate the owner or donor of the relief, who must have been from a high ranking - probably princely - family in South Germany or the Rhineland. The noble youth would therefore represent the donor himself, included as an onlooker at the Crucifixion.
Although, as has been noted above, there is little sculpture from the school of Strasbourg with which to compare this relief, there do exist works in a variety of art forms which confirm the origin of the present piece, including a sheet of drawings by an upper Rhenish master of the late 15th century, which depicts seven female heads from a crucifixion, all of which are closely related to the figures here (Karlsruhe, loc. cit.). However, the most relevant works are perhaps two alabaster groups in the Musée de l'Oeuvre Notre Dame in Strasbourg (see comparative illustration). These groups, which also originally formed two clusters at the foot of a Crucifixion scene, follow the same iconographic formula, with the Virgin and St. John surrounded by female figures on the left, and the centurion Longinus surrounded by male figures on the right. As with the alabaster groups, the left hand group of the relief portrays the Virgin and St. John in non-date-specific clothing, while the other figures are all wearing contemporary costume particular to the time and location of the creation of the relief. The group to the right shows Longinus - here gesturing to the now-lost figure of Christ - in contemporary armour surrounded by highly individual male figures, also in contemporary dress.
Numerous other parallels exist between the alabaster groups and the present relief, most notably when one compares the two figures of the Virgin. In both figures one has the delicate facial features with the long nose and pointed chin, the elongated fingers, the high waist and the voluminous drapery falling in generous folds at her feet. However, there are also significant differences. Some of these are to do with the different materials being used. The alabaster groups are more compact and the patterns of drapery folds are less complex, and to a certain extent this may be accounted for by the limitation of the alabaster itself. However, the sculptor of the Crucifixion group appears to be more interested in the disposition of the figures in the space around them. The groups are more open, and there is a greater sense of interaction between the different characters. In this way, the compostion is closer to another wood relief, this time of the Nativity, in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which is also catalogued by Recht as originating in Strasbourg, although possibly dated a few years later than the alabaster groups (op. cit., no. V.11, pp. 215-216, fig. 134).
Perhaps the most striking feature of the present Crucifixion is the artist's originality. The characterisation of the faces has been noted above but his inventiveness extends to the inclusion of the seated figure with an infant at the lower left, and the weeping figure at the extreme left who turns her back to the viewer. Even the landscape, dotted with fortified villages above and punctuated by bones and skulls underfoot, is executed in a highly individual manner.