In presenting VIENNA 1450 - The Master of Lichtenstein Castle and his Time, the Belvedere
is the first museum to devote an exhibition to this outstanding Vienna-based artist who was given the invented name Master of Lichtenstein Castle a great anonymous painter who numbered among the most important Central European artists of his generation. Hardly known to the broad public, the artist is considered one of the pioneers during a period of transition in fifteenth-century European art, when a new attitude towards reality made itself felt everywhere. Besides the famous Albrecht Altar, originally installed in the church Am Hof (today in Klosterneuburg Monastery), the master's works number among the most accomplishments that have survived from the period of early realism in the German-speaking area. The worldwide dispersal of the oeuvre of this late medieval master is an exemplary case of the dislocation of Gothic polyptychs, many of which were taken apart to be offered for sale on the art market and entered private collections in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The precious panels by the Master of Lichtenstein Castle are now reunited for the first time and displayed in the context of important comparable works from international collections.
The unidentified painter went down in the annals of art history as the Master of Lichtenstein Castle, named after the knight's castle near Reutlingen in Baden-Württemberg. The presentation of two monumental altar panels, which in the mid-nineteenth century ended up in Lichtenstein Castle, built by Count William of Württemberg and accommodating a rich art collection, rapidly contributed to the fame of the works, Since then, the oeuvre of the anonymous painter has grown to the impressive number of 23 panels, which were literally torn apart and widely dispersed before 1825, so that the knowledge about their original context got lost. Preserving as many as six panels, the Belvedere now owns the largest holdings of works by this master. They have been examined and restored according the latest scientific methods within the framework of a research project. The exhibition VIENNA 1450 - The Master of Lichtenstein Castle and his Time is the first effort to reunite the precious panels from Lichtenstein Castle and museums in Augsburg, Basel, Esztergom, Moscow, Munich, Philadelphia, Stuttgart, Tallinn, Vienna, and Warsaw and introduce a documentation of the reconstructed altar. Only one panel, namely that preserved in Philadelphia, was too fragile to travel and was therefore replaced by a reproduction; the same holds true for the two paintings that burned in Berlin in the final days of the Second World War.
A Central Work of Viennese Painting Regained
Recent research has made it possible to regain a dually reversible retable more than six metres in width. The reunion of the pictures, which have never before been displayed in this form, offers an unprecedented opportunity of viewing the group of works in their original ensemble. "The insights gained put an end to all previous speculation whether the individual paintings actually belong together. All of the surviving panels by the master derive from a single monumental polyptych, which takes on concrete shape in the exhibition. In the face of considerable losses of late medieval retables, the reconstruction of such a comprehensive and superb picture cycle conceived for a Late Gothic altar is a rare piece of luck. Thanks to the successful reunion, a central work of Viennese painting has been recovered that can be placed on an equal footing with the famous picture cycle of the Albrecht Altar in Klosterneuburg Monastery," Agnes Husslein-Arco, director of the Belvedere, says. According to her, the superior quality of the panels is further underscored by the exhibition's second pillar, a selection of works of Viennese painting, draughtsmanship, and sculpture from the period in question. In a direct juxtaposition with the oeuvre of the Master of Lichtenstein Castle, the artist's roots and environment become clearly visible.
Unfolding and Crossover
"Originally it was only possible to always look at a single view at a time out of the altogether three differently conceived configurations, depending on the chronology of the liturgy and its requirements. Within the framework of this exhibition in the Orangery it is now possible for the first time to present the Master of Lichtenstein Castle's comprehensive pictorial ensemble simultaneously by displaying the individual versions side by side, so that they are literally unfolded," Verosimultaneously by displaying the individual versions side by side, so that they are literally nika Pirker-Aurenhammer, curator of the exhibition, explains. The show is introduced with the two large panels of the view that only used to be displayed on certain holy days, followed by the cycles of the Life of the Virgin Mary and of the Childhood of Jesus Christ, while the third part, depicting the Passion, was formerly only presented when the altar was completely closed. In this way, the various views of the retable are exposed in the opposite direction, starting with the opened altar. "Due to the loss of the elaborately gilded altar architecture and sculptural components, the altar's once-overwhelming impression can only be recreated to a certain extent. In addition, a true-to-scale reconstruction is meant to visualize the retable's original dimensions. The way in which the work is displayed allows us to study the exhibition's highlight, the altarpiece by the Master of Lichtenstein Castle, panel by panel," the curator adds. At the same time, this spatial expansion also establishes refrences to certain other objects in the sense of a visual crossover: works executed in all kinds of media, such as panel paintings, drawings, book illuminations, and sculptures provide a context for the conceptual, thematic, and functional aspects of the monumental altarpiece. Ultimately it is owing to the nineteenth century's great appreciation of such works that only three panels of this monumental altar ensemble by the Master of Lichtenstein Castle, which originally seems to have comprised 26 paintings, are now lost.
The diversity of and interdependencies between the objects on display attest to the great wealth of art production in Vienna, which, by the mid-fifteenth century, had already developed into a metropolis. Starting out from the period around 1450, by which time the shift in perspective towards a new understanding of realism-a pan-European phenomenon having originally emanated from the Netherlands -had already been accomplished, the exhibition looks back on aspects of earlier Viennese painting. It is examined how the reorientation of artistic generations had actually been brought about and how the Master of Lichtenstein Castle harked back to established motifs and experimented with novel solutions, or how older retables had created a standard to which more progressive artists responded. The Lichtenstein Master's stylistic and, above all, iconographic references to earlier and less advanced works illustrate that generations or epochs were by no means separated by a straight line.