Attribution and date
The National Gallery panels were attributed to Hans Holbein the Elder when in the Campe collection before 1827 (see Provenance) and later in the nineteenth century to Altdorfer. The Dresden panels were briefly associated with Martin Schongauer in 1835, but in 1837 they were catalogued as the work of Lucas Cranach the Elder, while the separated inner shutter was catalogued as the work of Hans Baldung Grien when in the Campe collection with the National Gallery panels.32 The National Gallery panels were first catalogued as the work of Cranach in 1906 when they were exhibited at the Burlington Fine Arts Club and dated around 1516 (see Exhibitions), but Friedländer in his review of the exhibition compared them to the Saint Catherine altarpiece and in 1911 drew attention to the Fritsch copy of 1586 at Wörlitz.33 Modern critical opinion (from the Dresden catalogue of 1905 onwards) has agreed that 'The St Catherine Altarpiece' is the work of Cranach.
The quality of most of the painting of the inner faces of 'The St Catherine Altarpiece' is very high indeed. This is particularly evident in the detail of the hat and jewellery, for example, that is worn by Saint Cunigunde, or the damask and jewelled bodice and sleeves worn by Saint Ursula, as well as in the many details of plants, animals and landscape. However, less care has been taken in parts of the figures on the inner faces: for example, the damask band trimming Saint Margaret’s dress as well as other details of her bodice,34 the head of the long-nosed bald man in the central panel, or the arms of Saint Dorothy and of Johann Friedrich. The damasks in the National Gallery panels are simpler in design than most of those shown in the inner faces of the altarpiece and they are painted in a less elaborate, less painterly manner. They are created by simple outlines of red and green (now black) paint over gold leaf, whereas the damask of Saint Ursula’s skirt, for example, is painted with well-defined black outlines and areas filled in with red or blue paint. Paint rather than gold is used to create the glittering effect of her bodice. The figures of the National Gallery panels are also slightly more elongated; generally they appear flatter, and lack the colourful opulence and three-dimensional effect of those in the inner faces, as well as the hesitancy and delicacy evident in the painting of parts such as Saint Catherine and her jewels.
Examination of the underdrawing made visible with the aid of infrared reflectography serves to illuminate some of the methods of production of the altarpiece. It can be deduced, for example, that the heads of all the female saints in the altarpiece were based on stock patterns or drawing which were copied or transferred to the panel, and subsequently adjusted. The head of Saint Ursula on the inner face of the altarpiece was underdrawn turned to the right, her head inclined and eyelids lowered. The underdrawing is similar to the finished head of Saint Christina, also bent to the right with downcast eyes. The contour of Christina’s left cheek, as originally drawn, is narrower, but has been adjusted to become slightly wider. A similar outline is used for the head of Saint Ottilia, but in reverse. Similarly, the painted head of Saint Ursula resembles the underdrawing for Saint Apollonia: the outlined shapes of the open eyes of the pattern lie in the underdrawing of Apollonia just above the closed eyes with which it has been decided to provide her, the original contours being partly reused in the outlining of the closed position. Again, a similar stock pattern has provided the basis for the heads of both Saint Barbara and Saint Genevieve: the adjustments to the contours of Genevieve’s mouth show that the lines indicating the first, slightly more upwardly curving, positioning of the mouth used for Saint Barbara were adjusted in the case of Genevieve to create slightly more horizontal lips. There is also some similarity between the patterns used for Saint Genevieve and Saint Margaret, although in reverse, with the latter shown slightly more in three-quarter view. Saint Dorothy is similar to Saint Christina in reverse, both having the same large ear visible in the underdrawing. Saint Apollonia resembles Saint Agnes with an adjustment made to her nose. The National Gallery shutter panels do not show major changes to figures on the inner faces such as Saint Ursula, originally drawn in profile, or the small boy with Saint Dorothy, also shown at first in profile. Only small adjustments were made between underdrawing and painting (see Technical Notes).
Some scholars have suggested that Cranach was assisted in the making of the altarpiece, and that the National Gallery panels might be the work of assistants.35 Heydenreich has noted adjustments to Saint Margaret’s headdress and argued that this represents Cranach himself correcting the work of an assistant.36 Cranach employed workshop assistants at the time of the painting of 'The St Catherine altarpiece': in 1505 he paid a ‘Christoph Maler’ from Munich, as well as an unnamed journeyman.37 Studies of the techniques of Cranach’s paintings have suggested that on occasion the painting of the whole of the exteriors of the shutters of large altarpieces may have been delegated to assistants, and that there are also instances of collaboration on single panels.38 Christoph may well have assisted in the painting of the National Gallery panels. Schade observed a disparity in quality between the left and right faces of the shutters.39 There is certainly some compositional disparity: saints Genevieve and Apollonia are placed further away from the viewer and hence higher up the panel than Saints Christina and Ottilia; the feet of the former pair of saints are visible but not those of the latter.40 The figures of Saints Christina and Ottilia are perhaps painted with slightly more vigour and refinement than Saints Genevieve and Apollonia, although the underdrawing of all four heads is of equally high quality and is probably by Cranach himself. It is conceivable that the shutter with Saints Christina and Ottilia received more attention from Cranach himself than the other, but the differences in quality are not great. The painting of both National Gallery panels can be plausibly attributed to Cranach himself with workshop assistance.
'The St Catherine Altarpiece' is dated 1506.
33.Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft, Bd XXIX, 1906, p. 588; Friedländer 1911, p. 25.
34.Heydenreich 2007, pp. 292–3.
35.Schade 1974, p. 382, note 266; Marx 1996, p. 33 and further comments on the unusally elongated figures and their placing, ibid., p. 34.
36.Heydenreich 2007, pp. 292–3 and 308–9.
37.Ibid. p. 310 and p. 406, document no. 5, September 1505.
38.Heydenreich 2007, pp. 289–98.
39.Schade 1974, p. 382, note 266; also Schade, oral communication at the National Gallery, confirming his opinion.
40.Marx 1996, p. 34; Kolb 2005, pp. 386–7.