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The journey of the young Albrecht Dürer to Breisach, where Schongauer had
settled in 1488, became legendary. Embarking on his journey from Basel,
the Nuremberg painter intended to meet his admired colleague but reached the village of Breisach too late: Schongauer had died a year earlier, probably of the plague. Schongauer’s date of birth is disputed: his existence is first documented in 1465 when he was registered for one semester at the University of Leipzig. Giorgio Vasari, the great artists’ biographer of the 16th century, praised Schongauer’s copperplate engravings, which established his reputation by virtue of their technical precision and inexhaustible variety of forms and motifs. In his paintings Schongauer combined the qualities of his drawings with a Netherlandish style of coloration adopted from Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. This small devotional picture is one of only seven paintings clearly attributable to the southern German artist, who began his career in his father’s goldsmith’s workshop.
The intimate scene depicts the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus lost in the deep contemplation of a grape. This symbolic reference to the blood of Christ is seen once more in the basket filled with red grapes at the bottom right. In the small niche above is a water vessel, a simple Madonna attribute symbolising the purity of water. The emphasis on Joseph as the bread-winner of the family – depicted here with a sheaf of wheat, which simultaneously alludes to Christ’s redemption – gained importance in the 15th century. Joseph watches the idyllic scene from the back of the Bethlehem stable and thus reflects the role of the devout viewer.

© Cäcilia Bischoff, Masterpieces of the Picture Gallery, Vienna 2010

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