After Tobias Stimmer (1539-1584) and the early death of Wendelin Dietterlin the Elder (1550/1-1599), Friedrich Brentel was the most important painter, draughtsman and printmaker in Strasburg. Brentel is well known for his extremely detailed and colourful miniature copies after earlier masters and his contemporaries. Like those of his most important pupil, Johann Wilhelm Baur (1607-1642), these were sometimes used as gifts by royal and princely courts. Two albums with copies after artists like Rubens, Jordaens, Van Dyck and Drer were acquired by King Louis XVI from the heirs of the Prince de Conti, who had apparently bought them in Strasburg for 6,000 livres (now in the Bibliothque Nationale, Paris).
The present series is based on the series by Jacques Callot (1592-1635) of twelve etchings of The Small Passion (Lieure 537-48), which is generally dated to circa 1623. While Brentel maintained the very small size of the prints, he added small (architectural) details along the edges, and slightly enhanced the compositions. Henri Bouchot has commented that it is hard to believe that the artist could have worked out his complete programme in a space of seven by five centimetres, and that one could find nothing missing (H. Bouchot, Jacques Callot, sa vie, son oeuvre et ses continuateurs, Paris, 1889). Brentel's present series, with its additional colours and details, most certainly deserves the same praise. It may well have been used to adorn the walls of a small private chapel or an oratory.
Callot, who worked and died in his native Nancy, the capital of Lorraine and close to Strasburg, was the most famous French printmaker of his age. The fact that Brentel's series was produced only very shortly after Callot's death may indicate that it was commissioned as a tribute to the artist, who himself also copied famous pictures by others. Equally, it is interesting to note the differing dating in this group, which may indicate that the comission was suspended between 1636 and 1638.
The sequence of the scenes in the Passion cycle varies slightly through the centuries; the numbering on the backing of the frames of the present series differs from the usual sequence based on the Scripture. Those in Drer's Small Passion, for instance, also appear in a different order to Callot. The sequence here presented follows that of Drer.
A set of four bodycolour drawings by Brentel, based on engravings by A. Sadeler, was sold at Christie's, New York, 12 January 1995, lot 216. A landscape with Susanna and the Elders, partly based on two engravings by Sadeler from the same series, was sold in these Rooms, 11 November 1996, lot 238.
The present lot is part of a large collection of paintings made by Ferdinand, Graf von Plettenberg (1690-1737), who came from a family long influential in the affairs of the prince-bishoprics of Westphalia and Lower Saxony. To counter threats from neighbouring powers in Germany, von Plettenberg's policy was to bring the states together and to seek the protection of the house of Bavaria. Between 1719 and 1728 the prince-bishoprics of Mnster, Paderborn, Cologne, Osnabrck and Hildesheim united under Clemens-August (1700-1761), the son of Prince Elector Maximilian Emanuel of Bavaria. Plettenberg was his chief minister.
The Graf's official residence was in Bonn, while his family residence was at Nordkirchen, some miles from Mnster. Construction of the latter, modelled on Versailles, was begun in 1703. In 1723, Johann Conrad Schlaun was commissioned to complete the work. Following the example of his ally, Prince Elector Max Emanuel, Graf von Plettenberg acquired whole collections of paintings, drawings and porcelain in Germany, Holland and elsewhere. He is known to have visited Munich several times, and could have even been to Brentel's hometown of Strasburg on the way. It may be assumed that he acquired the present series in Germany, while the late 17th Century frames are closely comparable to some larger frames in the Munich Residenz.
Graf von Plettenberg was dismissed from his post in 1732; he then entered the service of the Emperor in Vienna, and died as he was about to leave for Rome as the Imperial Ambassador. At the end of the 18th century, part of the collection passed by inheritance to another noble family from the Mnsterland. The present series was part of that inheritance, and has remained in the family to the present day.