In 1501 Matthias Landauer, who had a flourishing business selling the products of his smelter, founded the Zwölfbrüderhaus (“Twelve Brothers House”) in Nuremberg. This was an institution that provided a home for twelve needy artisans in their old age. In 1508 the founder commissioned an altarpiece for the newly erected chapel. Dürer had returned a year earlier to Nuremberg from his second trip to Venice, which had been a revelation to him. He chose the more modern form of the altarpiece rather than the late Gothic winged altar. The chapel was dedicated to all the saints, and this resulted in his choice of subject: the Trinity – the Dove of the Holy Spirit, God the Father and Christ –is the focus of attention. Supported by a band of angels presenting instruments of the Passion to Christ, the group hovers above the crowd arranged in a semicircle around them. Mary leads the group of female saints, among them Barbara(chalice), Catherine (wheel) and Agnes (lamb): behind John the Baptist on the right is a host of prophets and kings of the Old Testament, including David (harp) and Moses (tablets of the Law). The presence at the bottom of a group of members of the sacred and secular Christian community – from popes to a simple monk, from an emperor to representatives of the peasantry (threshingflail) – cannot be explained with All Saints iconography. Their lives have already been weighed in the Last Judgment depicted on the frame, and thus they are members of the “kingdom of God”. This concept is based on the writings of St. Augustine (354–430 AD). Landauer himself, invited to join by a cardinal, is found in the group at the left edge of the painting. As he did in other cases as weIl, Dürer expanded his signature by adding a full-length self-portrait in the landscape at the bottom.
© Cäcilia Bischoff, Masterpieces of the Picture Gallery. A Brief Guide to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna 2010