From the Holbein's to Cranach: Pictures from Basel at the National Gallery

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THE respect which the National Gallery has won abroad was confirmed in 1997, when the Copenhagen Museum for Kunst sent its best Cranachs there during its renovation. Now the Basel Kunstsammlung, also under reconstruction, has placed fifteen of its most valuable sixteenth-century German and Swiss paintings in its care. It may be churlish to wonder why it did not add the loveliest of them all, Cranach's Judgement of Paris of 1528. The pictures were formally exhibited from March to May under the eye-catching title, Grunewald and his Contemporaries, which was misleading since only one is, questionably, the work of Mathis Neithart, known as Grtinewald. These pictures will remain at the National Gallery until early September, although one hopes that this will not delay the return from the gallery's basement of Cranach's exquisite and whimsical Caritas, which by far outdoes them all.

The narrative pictures are, for the most part, by no means cheerful; least of all the horrific exaggerations of the Crucifixion attributed to the much-forged Grunewald, in which hysteria is a surrogate for religious feeling. Grunewald's Crucifixion at Colmar, a shudder in paint, came from the lazaret at Eisenheim for the plague-ridden, the leprous and the syphilitic, set up by compassionate Antonine monks. It may be justified by the need to comfort the severely diseased with the message that their God Incarnate had shared and survived their wounds and their suffering: Is there any grief like mine? The small private altarpiece from Basel, with its visually offensive hyperboles -- the tortured and degraded, slumped and rickety body flecked with blue and green abrasions -- illustrates not the nobility of heroic patience in a redeemer of mankind, but only the savage temperament of the painter.

Hans Baldung was working at Freiburg-in-Breisgau, not far from Eisenheim, soon after Grunewald completed his polyptych there. Baldung may have been influenced by the older painter. Certainly he had an affinity with Grunewald in his obsession with the gruesome and the weird, as may be seen in his Death and the Maiden and Death and the Matron, completed whilst he was in Freiburg. The skeleton Death in Holbein's woodcuts of The Dance of Death is a rumbustical grinning trickster, almost affable in his 'chuckle spread from ear to ear'. Baldung's Death is a wolfish cadaver who drags the plumply tearful maiden towards her grave by her lush blonde hair, and presses a frantic kiss upon the matron's mouth as she tries to struggle out of her shroud. Both women have the chalky flesh-tones, the lank pelt of body-hair, and the deep folds of embonpoint characteristic of Baldung's unenticing nudes.

The ineptitude of Baldung's drawing and design even in his thirties is unexpected in a supposed pupil, or at least an imitator, of Durer. His small picture of The Trinity with the Virgin and St Giles for a private patron in Freiburg (a Canon of the cathedral where Baldung was at work) is a weak compromise between the natural and the symbolic. The nun-like Virgin with a sword in her breast to represent her sorrows, the stiff body of Christ held up by God in monarchial regalia, and St Giles with a small animal half-deer and half-hare, stand in a straight line across the picture. St Giles is there as the tutelary saint of Baldung's patron, Canon Giles Haas, and may be a portrait of that dignitary, carrying his staff of office although dressed as a friar. This private altarpiece says little for the modesty of the canon, whose coat-of-arms with a hare (since Haas means hare) is blazoned at the hem of the Virgin's robe in the corner of the picture. The Holy Ghost wings through frothy glaucous clouds among which th e four haloes radiate like lamps in a fog: the one imaginative touch in a commonplace painting.

The Swiss narrative pictures start with two stolid and inappropriately ornamental works, The Martyrdoms of the two Saints John, by the Basel master Hans Fries. …