The Adoration of the Shepherds and Saints Michael and Ursula were first recognised as works by Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder by the great scholar of Northern European art, Max J. Friedländer, who in 1926 identified them as characteristic works by the artist, dating them to circa 1530. By the following year, the paintings had entered the collection of Ottmar E. Strauss, a successful German-Jewish industrialist who was particularly interested in late Medieval and Renaissance German art. Forced to flee to Switzerland in 1933, Strauss had to leave his formidable collection behind, and the present works were auctioned, along with the rest of his collection, in 1935, after which they disappeared from public view. In his 1965 catalogue raisonné of Bruyn’s work, Horst Joks Tümmers included the panels among the authentic works, suggesting a date of circa 1525-1530 on the basis of black and white photographs. More recently, Dr. Tümmers reiterated this earlier assessment, adding that the panels were made ‘during the painter’s best period’ (‘aus der besten Zeit des Malers’) and extolling their excellent condition and high quality (written correspondence based on colour photographs, 17 January 1990).
Dating to circa 1525-1530, the present works derive from an important moment in Bruyn’s career, when he was establishing his reputation in Cologne and at the height of his powers. His early style, from circa 1515, was influenced primarily by that of the painter Jan Joest, a relative from whom he is documented as receiving a bequest. From the early 1520s, however, Bruyn began to show interest in the work of Joos van Cleve, whose splendid garments, rich palette and extensive, finely detailed landscapes became integral to his art.
Although relatively unusual within the context of Bruyn’s oeuvre for their religious subject matter, the present panels also testify to the artist’s great gifts as a portrait painter. In the Adoration of the Shepherds, the wizened and grey Joseph is highly individualised, his hair receding above his wrinkled forehead. The shepherds and angels are uniquely differentiated both physiognomically and in terms of expression, ranging from excitement, to wistfulness, to concern. In the panel depicting Saints Michael and Ursula, the figures are also characterised as unique individuals: the Archangel grips his lance with the force necessary to vanquish the Devil beneath him, while Saint Ursula, her feminine features carefully distinguished from Saint Michael’s robust ones, holds the spear of her martyrdom with delicacy and grace.
The humbly dressed figures in the Adoration of the Shepherds, set within a crumbling building before a winding landscape with a cottage and stream, contrast with those in the Saints Michael and Ursula. The saints are attired in sumptuous brocaded robes, hers lined with ermine, and adorned with precious jewels. They stand within a Gothic ribbed vault before a richly decorated cloth of honour which separates them from the outdoors, obscuring all but the blue sky behind. The Archangel, his bold feathered wings spread behind him, grasps a gold-embellished shield and lance as he vanquishes the snarling Devil at his feet. On the right, Saint Ursula shelters four diminutive female figures, who represent the virgins martyred alongside her. Ursula became Cologne’s most venerated saint as well as its spiritual patron and protector. In the twelfth century, a large graveyard discovered in Cologne was identified as the burial ground of the eleven thousand virgins. Its enormous cache of relics, still today in the Basilica dedicated to Saint Ursula in Cologne, drew pilgrims from across Europe, enriching both the saint’s cult and the local economy. It is thus no surprise that Bruyn would have included Saint Ursula in his painting: to this day, the crest of Cologne displays eleven marks, one for each of the thousand martyred virgins under Saint Ursula’s protection.
Although neither the circumstances of their commission nor the original context of the present panels are known, it is likely they were once joined as recto and verso wings of an altarpiece.
The present work is being offered for sale pursuant to a settlement agreement between the consignor and the heirs of Geheimrat Ottmar Strauss. This resolves any dispute over ownership of the work and title will pass to the buyer.