The Gruziadz Retable, Passion cycle (closed wings)

The altarpiece from the chapel of the no longer existing Teutonic Knights castle at Grudziądz is certainly the most magnificent example of Pomeranian Gothic panel painting 1. This huge structure consists of the central part and two pairs of movable wings. Each of those parts is composed of two panels arranged one above the other; thus the retable comprises together eighteen paintings which can be shown in three distinct aspects. The completely open work reveals the »festive« mariological cycle. Two great central panels present the Coronation of the Virgin and the Dormition. The obverses of the four smaller wing panels depict the history of Christ coming into the world: The Annunciation, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi and the Presentation at the Temple. When the first pair of wings is closed the eight paintings of equal size show the Passion cycle: The Agony in the Garden, the Betrayal of Christ, Christ before Pilate, the Flagellation, the Crowning with Thorns, the Road to Calvary, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Christ. After closing the second pair of the wings, the Last Judgment appears laid out on the reverse sides of the four panels.

Since the turn of the nineteenth century the Grudziądz altarpiece has been arousing scholarly interest. Numerous hypotheses have been coined regarding its dating and stylistic origin 2. The last decade of the fourteenth century is the most often proposed time of the making of the retable, though the slightly earlier or later dates are also put forward. The most widely held opinion about the genesis of its artistic style derives it from Czech painting of the end of the fourteenth century. The work of the Master of the Třeboň Altarpiece is usually regarded as the nearest source of inspiration, as was most distinctly stated by Jaroslav Pešina 3. Though we share the view of the generally Czech origin of the style of the Grudziądz paintings, as well as of their iconography and the structure of the whole retable, different propositions should not be neglected. Such authorities like Alfred Stange and Carl Heinz Classen called attention to the western stylistic features of the paintings 4. Beside, these authors are the foremost supporters of the »two-masters-theory«. They distinguished two main groups of different authorship among Grudziądz paintings. One of them consists of the panel of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary and the four wing scenes from the history of Christ's childhood, the other includes the painting of the Coronation and the cycle of the Passion. According to Stange, the master of the Dormition - coming from Lower Germany but trained in the Czech milieu - was the head of the workshop. It was only through him that his partner, the Master of the Passion Cycle, who came from Lower Saxony, was influenced by Czech art.

Clasen rejected the possibility of the direct relation of Grudziądz altarpiece to Czech painting. Both masters, in his opinion, were of western provenience. He saw the stylistic idiom of the master of the Dormition as parallel to that of the Třeboň Master as they both stemmed from West German art of the period; Clasen did not accept the continuity of the internal evolution of Czech Gothic art.

Both Clasen and Stange admitted the co-operation of less distinguish able hands at the altarpiece. It was to them that the Last Judgment panels, which are of relatively inferior value, were attributed.

The present research has been undertaken in order to throw new light on the problems presented above. The technological investigation of Pomeranian Gothic paintings were as yet rarely published 5. The technique of Czech painting of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is much better known, thanks to the long lasting efforts of Czech restorers and scholars 6. The continuity of the workshop tradition and its internal development was demonstrated. The possibility was thus made to state the problem if the stylistic similarities between the Grudziądz retable and Czech art have their counterparts in the painting techniques. The »two-masters-theory« may also be examined from this point of view.

The confused history of the Grudziądz altarpiece bore upon its state of preservation. Clasen in his monographical paper on the subject discussed the matter extensively 7. Since then only minor conservation work, was carried out on the altarpiece.8 The present condition of the paintings makes it possible to assume that either Clasen exaggerated the damage made by the ancient restorations or the subsequent renovation under the supervision of Carl Steinbrecht in Malbork in 1907 -1916 successfully got rid of the modern additions. Nevertheless, the retable still bears numerous traces of damage and old repairs. Most of them are easy to detect under careful scrutiny.

The four paintings of the Last Judgment are the most damaged. It results probably from the fact that they constitute the »everyday aspect« of the retable; so they are the cheaper works of the assistants, yet the most often exposed to external agents. On the whole, the most common damage and alternation hindering the examination of the original technique of painting are the old abrasions, cracks and small chips of colour and ground layers, splits and blisters fixed with different kinds of glue. There are numerous retouches but also larger restorations. The gilded and silvered grounds are repaired in many places. The precise borders of the damage are often blurred, the repairs overlap one another, retouches are hidden under the varnish.

Since the present research was not connected with the renovation works and carried out without moving the object from its usual place in the gallery, only limited examination with the use of scientific methods was possible. A few microsamples were taken from the edges of damaged or repaired spots 8. X-ray photograph were taken only from a few conspicuous places 9. The present report has thus only a preliminary character; further observations will doubtlessly complement or correct the current results. Some of our findings are, however, certainly positive and possibly interesting, so we decided to present them to public discussion.

The two central panels of the Grudziądz altarpiece measure 123 cm per 204.5 cm each. The wing panels have 123 cm per 93 cm on the average. Their supports are made up of white fir wood (Abies Al-ba) 10. Each panel is about 1,5 cm thick and consists of several parallel quarter - sawed boards. The boards in the two central panels are arranged horizontally: the panel of the Coronation consists of 11 such boards, from c. 10 to c. 14 cm wide. The boards in the wing panels are vertical: the panel with the Adoration of the Magi and the Crucifixion is made up of 7 boards ranging from c. 8 to c. 16 cm in width 11.

The canvas entirely covers both surfaces of each panel except for the edges wedged into the rabbets of frames 12. It is a simple linen cloth of average density of 10 by 10 threads per square centimeter.

The white ground consists of chalk bound with glue. The total thickness of it varies from c. 0.5 to c. 0.75 mm: successive coatings have not been identified. The upper layer of the ground about 0.03 to 0.04 mm thick is sized with glue and possibly saturated with some painting medium, which gives to it a slightly beige tint. The sizing may be discerned as a separate layer reaching up to 0.02 mm at the cross sections of some samples.
There are two kinds of preliminary drawing on the panels: an incised one and the other made with a brush. The incised drawing defines the simple geometric shapes drawn with the aid of a ruler or a compass: such as the outlines of the architectural setting, of furniture etc. It divides also the gilded and silvered surfaces from those merely painted and marks the folds of those draperies which are painted over the gilding or silvering. This kind of drawing occurs only incidentally under the painted surfaces, as can be seen on the X-ray photograph of the painting of the dying Virgin Mary, where the grooves filled with lead white appear as a thin white line.

The drawing with a brush is made with some brownish organic pigment. It can be seen in certain places in natural light, more of it appears under infra-red rays 13. It seems not uniform in character: at least three types of it can be distinguished. The simpliest follows the incised geometric lines mentioned above. The folds of garments and other draperies are sketched with bold strokes well appearing in the infra-red light. The lines are rather broad, more or less curved, narrowing towards the ends. This drawing defines only the disposition of the folds: no hatching or intersecting lines occur. The third kind of drawing marks the parts of the naked corpse of the crucified Christ. It is slightly visible in natural light and even better with the aid of the infrared image converter. This drawing is made with fine, thin lines, denser than those on the draperries. These lines sometimes intersect themselves and constitue a kind of shading on the muscles of the belly.

The large surfaces of panels are gilded or silvered. The foils are applied on a red bole. Gold is used exclusively for the paintings of the »festive« mariological cycle. The Passion paintings are covered with silver leaves coated with yellow resionous varnish in order to imitate gold. Silver along the gold is used in the ornamentally painted parts of the Coronation. No foils occurs on the paintings of the Last Judgment.

The gilded backgrounds of the mariological painting are adorned with floral ornament punched with a simple pointed punch. The slightly similar but more crude ornaments on the silvered backgrounds of the Passion paintings are made with incised lines. Certain golden haloes are adorned with incised concentric circles.

The thin undercoat of lead white in oil occurs under certain flesh colours and certain draperies, as can be seen on X-ray photographs. It does not seem to appear under red garments painted with the use of vermilion, as the robe of the servant maid in the Presentation at the Temple and the coat of one of the Magi in the Adoration. The layer of lead white is evenly spread in the painting of the Dormition and in the wing panels where its average thickness measures 0.03 mm. It seems to be thicker in the painting of the Coronation (c. 0.05-0.06 mm) and spread unevenly, in such a way that it prepares later modelling.

There is no lead white underpainting under the flesh tones in the Passion paintings. The figures appear weakly if at all on the X-ray photographs. However this layer occurs under some garments like the light crimson robe of Christ in the Road to Calvary.

The principal medium of painting seems to be oil, which has been identified in the majority of micro-samples. Contrary to the expectations as to the character of the paintings it suggests tempera. In random samples oil tempera was found none the less.

The colour paint lies not only immediately on the ground but also covers vast surfaces of gildings and silverings. The inner contours of foils covering the backgrounds are not congruent with the shapes of the painted motives, thus they overlap sometimes even whole large details and are in their turn hidden under the paint. There are also extensive surfaces of foils adorned with ornamental designs painted with thin colours of various degrees of transparency, up to full opaqueness, thus accomplishing the effect of brocade.

The modelling of draperies is rather simple, though not uniform. Usually the suitable colour was prepared in appropriate shades and after being spread on the ground: shades, half-tones and lights separately, it was softly united. The deepest shades were glazed with similar but darker colour, lights were brought out with the addition of lead white. On the whole, the procedure is to a certain degree similar to that described by Cennini in the »Trattato dellapittura« (cap. CXLV). Only exceptionally two different colours are used in the same vestment as in the yellow tunic shaded with red worn by one of the tormentors in the Road to Calvary.

Entirely closed altarpiece of Grudziądz. Reverse sides of the outer wings with scenes of Mary's Intercessions (The Last Judgement).

The pigments used in the draperies are, beside lead white: vermilion, minium, iron oxides, organic red lake, massicot, ultramarine (in small quantities), smalt, azurite, copper green, various earths, charcoal black.
The lead white with a small admixture of minium was used for the lights in flesh tones, the shades were glazed with brown earth colours. The tint of the flesh corresponds to the character of the depicted persons. The completions of female figures are light and pinkish: men, especially elderly Apostles, and tormentors have darker, brown faces, the face of the dying Virgin has a greenish hue in glazed shades.

Infrared photographs, details of the Crucifixion

The analysis of the painting technique of Grudziadz altarpiece leads to the conclusion that at least two, but possibly three mature painters were active at its realization, not to count the journeymen. The leading master of the workshop decided about general project of the work and its final outlook but did not interfere with the execution of specific details.


The participation of each master at the work may be only roughly estimated, and probably no painting can be ascribed solely to one of them. The differences of the preparatory drawing within a single painting may have been caused by the different modes of working - one suitable for drawing folds of draperies, the other form naked bodies - but it does not exclude that they stem from different artistic traditions and that the different hands were at work here. Even more striking is the use of the lead white undercoat. The differences here are certainly of personal character. It was not the same painter who underpainted the figures of the Coronation with the distinct brushwork and who spread thin preparatory layers in the Dormition. Neither of them would probably have omitted the underpainting in flesh tones of the Passion cycle, but, on the other hand, there is a layer of lead white under the certain draperies in the Passion paintings. It can not be excluded that the masters specialized in certain motives like draperies, faces, naked bodies etc.

Marian cycle (open wings)

The type of support of the Grudziądz panels made of the narrow boards of coniferous wood is common in Czech painting after the Třeboň Master. It occurs also at that period in territories dependent upon Czech art like Silesia 14. The Pomeranian painters seem to use more frequently oak panels under the North European influence. In the Torun altarpiece 15, which is the collective work inspired by Czech painting from c. 1370 -1390, both oak and pine panels occur 16.
The canvas covering the whole surface of panels, being a solution of Italian origin, is typical of Czech painting after the Třeboň Master. Northern painting, including Pomeranian, used usually only strips of cloth to reinforce the joints of the boards 17.

The ground of the Grudziądz paintings is simply white chalk without the bottom layer of gray silica, which is a distinctive feature of Czech Gothic painting.
The drawing of the draperies in the Grudziądz altarpiece is similar to that which occurs in fourteenth century Czech paintings from Master Theodoric to the followers of the Master of the Třeboň Altarpiece. The use of brownish colour instead of gray or black recalls the practice of the painters from the circle of the Třeboň Master, although they used red iron oxide pigment, not organic brown.

X-ray photograps of the Holy Virgin - from Coronation (above) and from the Dormition (below), executed by the Academy of Fine Arts in Warszawa.

Such drawing as appears in the parts of the naked body in the Grudziądz paintings has to our knowledge not been, found in the Czech works of the fourteenth century.

The incised drawing in the Czech paintings usually follows the painted one in every detail, which practice was known to Pomeranian painters as well 18. The Grudziądz altarpiece differs in this respect from the Czech examples.

The use of lead white both under the flesh tones and the draperies is similar in the Grudziądz paintings to the way it was used by the Czech painters after the Třeboň Master. The omission of this layer under the flesh tones by one of the Grudziądz painters makes a characteristic difference.

The painting technique of the Grudziądz altarpiece is rather simplified compared with the practice of Czech painters. The extensive use of oil as medium seems to be its most striking feature. Oil painting was well known in the fourteenth century; Cennini considered it to be a »German method« 19. The Czech painters used pure oil in certain glazes or with some pigments (Master Theodoric, the Master of the Dubeček Panel). The liberal use of the oil medium by the Grudziądz masters seems to be of North European origin.

The pigments used in the Grudziądz paintings are very common in medieval art, and they do not make a base for comparison.

The above analysis leads to the conclusion that at least the leading master of the Grudziądz altarpiece was schooled in a Czech workshop but neither he nor his partners kept to Czech artistic practices steadfastly. They simplified it and introduced into it foreign elements. The diversified technique of painting of the Grudziądz altarpiece indicates that it was not made by a long established workshop active in the artistic circle with its own tradition but it is rather a product of a joint enterprise of painters of different training. The workshop of this kind worked probably for local customers in one of the Pomeranian towns or was perhaps connected with the Order of Teutonic Knights.


The Road to Calvary • yellow garment of tormentor

1) layer of varnish up to 0.02 mm thick composition: resin

2) layer of yellow colour c. 0.05 mm thick
composition: massicot, white lead; medium - oil

3) layer of white - beige ground c. 0.03 mm thick composition: chalk; medium protein glue

4) layer of white ground c. 0.72 mm thick composition: chalk; medium protein glue

The Presentation at the Temple - white shawl of Simeon

1) layer of varnish c. 0.02 mm thick composition: resin

2) layer of white colour c. 0.05 mm thick composition: lead white; medium oil

3) layer of brownish colour less than 0.02 mm thick (drawing)
composition: brown organic pigment; medium - no identifiable amountl found

4) layer of white ground c. 0.68 mm thick composition: chalk; medium protein glue

The Betrayal of Christ - flesh colour from the leg of a tormentor

1) layer of transparent medium c. 0.02 mm thick composition: protein

2) layer of pink colour c. 0.05 mm thick composition: lead white, minium

3) layer of white - bieige ground c. 0.04 mm thick composition: chalk; medium protein glue

4) layer of white ground c. 0.68 mm thick composition: chalk; medium protein glue

The Betrayal of Christ • light crimson robe of Christ

1) gray pink layer c. 0.04 mm thick

composition: white lead, carbon black, single grains of natural ultramarine, red organic lake; medium - oil

2) layer of white colour c. 0.03 mm thick composition: white lead, medium - oil

3) layer of white beige c. 0.04 mm thick composition: chalk; medium protein glue

4) layer of white ground c. 0.65 mm thick composition: chalk; medium protein glue

The Adoration of the Magi - red coat of one of the Magi

1) layer of pink colour c. 0.03 mm thick
composition: white lead, vestiges of vermilion; medium - oil

2) layer of red colour c. 0.04 mm thick
composition: white lead, vermilion, single grains of iron oxides; medium - oil

3) layer of white beige ground c. 0.05 mm thick composition: chalk; medium protein glue

4) layer of white ground c. 0.5 mm thick composition: chalk; medium protein glue

1. Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie inv. n. Sr. 22

2. T. Dobrzeniecki, Catalogue of Mediaeval Painting, Warszawa 1977 (Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie), n. 32 - presents extensively the earlier state of research. The most recent published position is: A. Labuda, J. Domaslowski, A. Karlowska Kamzowa, Malarstwo gotyckie na Pomorzu Wschodnim, Warszawa Poznań 1990, p. 75 nn

3. Některé ztracené obrazy Mistra Třeboňského otáře, Umění, 26, 1978, p. 297 nn

4. A. Stange, Deutsche Malerei der Gotik, II, Berlin 1936, p. 86 nn; K. H. Clasen, Der Graudenzer Altar der Marienburg, Marburger Jahrbuch fiirKunstivissenschaft, 8, 1944, p. Ill nnsee also: B. Schmid, Schloss Marienburg in Preussen, Berlin 1942, p. 77 nn

5. Z. Michalowski, A. Karlowska-Kamzowa, Badania konserwatorskie obrazu Madonny z kościoła Sw. Jakuba v Toruniu, Ochrona Zabytków, 33,1980, n. 3, p. 232 nn

6. The information on the technique of Czech Gothic painting is obtained from the following papers: M. Hamsík, V. Frömlová, Mistr třeboňského oltáře, Umění, 13, 1965, n. 2, p. 139 nn; V. Frömlová, Restaurace a průzkum techniky malby církvické desky, Umění, 15,1967, n. 2, p. 109 nn; M. Hamsík, Die Technik der böhmischen Tafelmalerei des 14. Jahrhunderts, in: Kunst des Mittelalters in Sachsen. Festschrift Wolf Hubert, Weimar 1967, p. 321 nn; idem, Protivínská deska a počátky techniky krásného slohu, Umění, 17, 1969, p. 584 nn; V. Frömlová, Adorace Děcka z Hluboké, Umění, 19,1971, n. 6, p. 580 nn; M. Hamsík, J. Tomek, Technika české malby po Třeboňském mistru: epitaf Jana z Jeřeně, deska z Dubečka, Umění, 24, 1976, n. 5, p. 436; eldem, Malířská technika Mistra Theodorika, Uměni, 32, 1984, n. 5, p. 377 nn; M. Hamsík, Madona »Ara Coeli« k 349. Restaurace a malířská technika, Umění, 39, 1991, n. 4, p. 316 nn

7. K. H. Clasen, op. ctí.

8. The analysis of samples was carried out in the chemical laboratory of the Muzeum Narosowe by Izabela Kobla M.Sc.

9. X-ray photographs was made by dr. Piotr Rudniewski and Roman Stasiuk M.Sc. from the Akademia Sztuk Pięknych in Warsaw

10. The dendrological analysis was carried out by Iwona Panenko M.Sc. from the laboratory of Muzeum Narodowe

11. It was not possible to measure the dimensions of the boards in all the panels

12. The frames are modern, coming from the time of the renovation of the altarpiece by C. Steinbrecht in Malbork

13. The observations in the infra-red rays were carried out with the use of an infra-red image converter of Russian make «INFRAM». The IR-photographs were taken by mr. Zbigniew Skoskiewicz from Centralne Laboratorium Kryminalistyki

14. J. Kruszelnicka, J. Flik, Zbiory gotyckiej rzeźby i malarstwa Muzeum Okręgowego w Toruniu, katalog, Toruń 1968, n. 32; T. Dobrzeniecki, op. cit., n.n. 59, 60, 64, 65; A. Ziomecka, Śląskie malarstvogotyckie. Muzeum Narodowe we Wroclawiu, Wrocław 1968, n.n. 2, 4, 5, 6

15. Formerly Warsaw, Muzeum Narodowe; nów Pelplin, Muzeum Diecezjalne

16. We owe this information to Ziemowit Michalowski M. A., an art restorer from Toruń

17. see notes 5 and 16

18. Z. Michalowski, A. Karlowska-Kamzowa, op. cit.

19. Trattato della Pittura, cap. LXXXLX; see also: Ch. L. Eastlake, Materials for a History of Oil Painting, vol. I, London 1847, chap. IV

Enlarged detail of the corpse of Christ

Władysław Łoś, Jolanta Meder-Kois (Warszawa),
AHVT B 041