Conrad von Soest (c1370-c1422), a native of Dortmund, Germany, was one of the most significant artists of his time. The capital of Rhine-Westphalia, Dortmund was a prosperous city and as a member of the Hanseatic League. Founded by north German towns and merchants abroad, the League dominated commerce in Northern Europe from the 13th Century until the 15th Century. Conrad von Soest had a flourishing workshop, and he was a member of the elite social circles of Dortmund. Art historians credit him with introducing to Germany the International Gothic style of painting that had been developed by French and Italian artists.
The “Annunciation” (1403) (28.9’’ x23.8’’) (tempera on wood) is part of the large winged “Crucifixion Altarpiece” painted by von Soest for the parish church of St. Nicholas in Bad Wildungen. The left wing contains four scenes from the life of Mary, the large middle section is a scene of the Crucifixion, and the right wing contains four scenes of events in the life of Christ. The “Annunciation” is the first scene in the story. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and delivers God’s greeting. It is written in Latin on the white scroll: “Hail Mary, Gracious One, the Lord is with you!” The International Gothic style that von Soest introduced to Germany is well represented. The setting is a lavishly decorated private chamber with embossed leather on the back wall, a decorative wooden roof, and green brocade drapes with fringe. Courtly settings, ornamental details, richly dressed persons, and rich colors and gold are components of the elegant International Gothic style.
Mary kneels at her prie-dieu (prayer desk) in the private chamber of her house. She reads from a book. To signify her intelligence, von Soest includes several other volumes on the wooden shelf behind her. A delicately wrought silver vase holds three white lilies, symbolic of the Trinity. However, the third lily is behind the curtain since Christ is not yet born. Hanging over the edge of the prie-dieu is a patterned cloth with a crest containing a tower and double eagles, symbols of Germany.
The scene includes the dove of the Holy Spirit and the gold winged angel Gabriel, who kneels beside Mary. Gabriel holds a staff bearing a crest with a fleur-de-lies (lily) on top. Mary, dressed in red brocade with a blue cloak lined in green, listens to the Angel’s message. Both figures wear gold halos, indicating their holiness. The figures are intentionally elongated to give them a royal presence, most clearly seen in their gestures and elongation of their fingers. Mary wears a red crown decorated with white pearls that spell her name, an unusual addition. Von Soest signed the painting on the underside of the page in the book that Mary holds.
The “Nativity” scene is next on the panel. Mary has given birth to the Christ child and holds him gently in her arms. As was typical of Nativity scenes, the baby was not ordinary, able to sit up by himself and respond as an adult to others. Although the scene is set in a stable, the roof is in unusually good repair. Mary has several pillows; one is red with gold crisscross braid. She is kept warm by a large red cover with a gold braid edge. The wattle fence separates her from an ensemble of red winged seraphim.
The ox and the ass/donkey are at the manger. The ox represents strength and service and is identified with the people of Israel. The ass/donkey represents pagans, those who will not accept Christianity. At the upper right corner of the scene, an angel announces to the shepherds that they should go to Bethlehem to see the Christ child.
Joseph, often portrayed as being asleep or at a distance in the Nativity scene, is placed prominently in the foreground. He blows on the fire as he prepares food for Mary. The Bible tells us that Joseph was a widower with children and much older than Mary. Von Soest has depicted him with white hair and beard.
The prominence of Joseph in the scene is tied to the German tradition of celebration on Christmas Eve, December 24. In the Middle-ages, German families gathered in their homes on Christmas Eve to wait for the first star to appear in the evening sky. This event meant Christ was born, and the family then could prepare and eat a feast.
The third scene “Adoration of the Magi” (1403) is set in an elegant Gothic Church, not in the stable. Mary wears the same red gown, blue and green cloak, and crown as depicted in the “Annunciation.” Joseph stands behind her at the left and holds a cane. The emphasis here is on the Magi/Kings. The oldest Magi kneels before Christ child and kisses his hand. His crown has been removed and set on the ground, a symbol that Christ is the new King. Elegantly dressed, the middle-aged and the young Magi look on with respect. Both carry gold vessels containing their gifts for the child. Of note are the heavy gold belts worn by two Magi.
According to the Law of Moses (Mosaic Law) the circumcision of a male was to take place eight days after his birth. In the “Presentation” scene, Mary has come to the Temple in Jerusalem to keep the Jewish covenant that a firstborn male was to be consecrated to the Lord. She offers the gift of two white doves, held in a basket by the woman dressed in red, to redeem her son. Mary holds the child and stands at the altar. The mohel (a Jewish person specifically trained to perform circumcisions) prepares to take hold of the child and perform the circumcision. He is well dressed in a gold and blue brocade gown. The red bag hanging from his belt holds the instruments of the circumcision. The blue peaked hat identifies him as a Jew, a common tradition in painting. The Christ child receives his name, Jesus.
In this scene, the Temple of Jerusalem has the round arches of a Romanesque church. Frequently, scenes of the early life of Christ use a Romanesque church to represent the old law of Moses, and as in the “Adoration of the Magi,” a Gothic church represents the new law. The four additional figures witnesses the circumcision; perhaps they are the donors of the altarpiece.
Von Soest’s “Crucifixion Altarpiece” remains in the parish church of St. Nicholas, Bad Wildungen today, and it is a tribute to the artist and his talent. Few works by von Soest remain, but those that have survived are as remarkable as they were in 1403.
Happy Holidays to one and all.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.