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The last U.S. exhibition dedicated to the “three godless artists of Nuremberg”—Georg Pencz, Hans Sebald Beham, and Barthel Beham—was mounted by Stephen Goddard at the Spencer Museum of Art in 1988 as The World in Miniature: Engravings by the German Little Masters, 1500–1550; however, as its title indicated, that exhibition and its accompanying catalogue viewed these artists as “little masters,” both lesser followers of Albrecht Dürer and virtuoso miniaturist engravers. A delayed but opposite reaction, Grand Scale (by this reviewer with Elizabeth Wyckoff at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, 2008), involved staging another aspect of these and other printmakers: their mural-sized, multiple-sheet woodcut ensembles. Both shows presented distinctly partial visions of the print achievement of the brothers Barthel and Sebald Beham.
Now in their hometown of Nuremberg, Thomas Schauerte, the new director of the Albrecht-Dürer-Haus, and Jürgen Müller of the University of Dresden have redressed the earlier neglect of the Beham brothers in a comprehensive exhibition that offers up both—seemingly contradictory—aspects of their print output, a total of ninety entries of small engravings as well as mammoth woodcuts. The catalogue assembles an outstanding collection of essays, including an introductory biography with historiography of Sebald Beham by Alison Stewart, who is preparing the definitive Hollstein catalogue on the artist’s prints; she has already published a major monograph on his genre subjects in woodcut, Before Bruegel: Sebald Beham and the Origins of Peasant Festival Imagery (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008).
Simply to itemize the sequence of fourteen essays will consume much of the space of this review, but their range of topics shows the broadly diverse output of subjects produced in the oeuvre of the Behams and the varied methods adapted to explicate those topics.
Because the Behams (along with Pencz, still understudied and only present as a catalogue cameo) were expelled from Nuremberg in 1525 as “godless,” a number of the essays attempt to read anti-clerical or anti-religious sentiments into their print subjects. Gerd Schwerhoff (33–45) interrogates the term “godless,” and examines the documents of the trial of the artists (45–48) during this formative phase of the Reformation, noting how censorious even a city council could be concerning religious authority and disbelief. With Michael Baylor he invokes the radical local theologian, “Spiritualist” Hans Denck (49–55), with whom their views have been associated.
Jessica Buskirk (56–63) examines a 1534 broadsheet about the departure of the nine muses from Germany, penned by Hans Sachs and illustrated with a Pencz woodcut. She notes that Pencz returned to the city in 1532 to assume duties as civic painter. The classical rhetoric theme of complaint that informs the imagery bewails the loss of a golden age, in this case the optimistic cultural hopes of the early sixteenth century of Dürer and Latin poet Conrad Celtis. Yet the vitality of Sachs’s verses and the artistry of Pencz’s designs exemplify a continuity of culture along with the self-consciousness of the Behams’ generation.
Though the complex outlook of Pieter Bruegel toward peasants has been ferociously debated by scholars, Sebald Beham’s own attitude begs interpretation as an earlier, widely circulated imagery closer to the fons et origo of peasant imagery. Thus many of the essays focus on peasant themes and their valence. Bertram Kaschek (88–97) rehearses earlier discussions but also broadens them to consider other images of peasant seasonal dance festivity within a Twelve Months engraved series (1546–47; 202–3; cat. no. 40), anticipated by Barthel Beham’s Church Festival at Mögeldorf (ca. 1528). Historiography reveals that peasants have been viewed sympathetically through a Marxist lens as laborers, but from a civic bourgeois perspective as vulgar sensualists, little better than beasts. Another swing of the pendulum found sympathetic humanist texts in support of peasants as hard-working producers. Through Tacitus’s Germania, even excesses of drinking could be reframed within Germanic nationalist values. Kaschek refers to the complexity of the series, which includes labeled patricians and cannot be expressly considered satirical; moreover, references to other artists, including Dürer, suggests a reformulation of German art making. References to traditions of both Labors of the Months and Children of the Planets (as well as astrological cycles) also involve peasant activities, though this multiplication of interpretive frames of world/cosmic order undermines the specificity of Beham’s prints and Kashek’s analysis. His grander claim for links between peasant dance and apocalyptic debates becomes special pleading with less than solid foundation.
On the large scale of woodcut, Beham’s Great Kirmes (1535/39), a full-sized foldout, receives fresh analysis by Wolf Seiter (115–25; 206–7; cat. no. 42). Instead of social or religious satire (toward either religious confession, depending on interpreter), Seiter finds here a more general anti-religious orientation—Catholic and Lutheran alike—amid tavern excesses. He also examines dialogue around the table among soldier, theologian (Luther?), and peasant, along with explicit contrasts between sexual license and a background marriage before a church. But in his desire to reinstate the “godless” component of Beham, he too searches for religious symbols and fallout from 1525, the year of Beham’s exile but also of the abortive Peasants’ Revolt.
Müller, ever the Erasmian, invokes the concept (also basic to Rabelais) of the adage “a Silenus of Alcibiades,” which notes the profound interior, when opened, of a sculpture otherwise ugly from the outside (German translation, 139–50). His “Peasant als Silenus” (77–87) discusses the Barthel Beham woodcut Spinning Room (ca. 1527–30; 190–91; cat. no. 34) as a sermo humilis, like a parable conveying hidden spiritual truths. The ultimate topic, he claims, would address post-Edenic sin and labor, with apocalyptic warning, rather than conveying a litany of vices, as traditional moralistic interpretations would assert, even while the image’s surface appearance contributes to the origins of pictorial genre subjects.
The other great cluster of Beham imagery uses the human body to convey myth, allegory, or even fundamentals of physicality itself, the latter discussed specifically in an article about folly and scatology by Birgit Ulrike Münch (64–76). While also considering the religious heterodoxy of their pictorial “preaching,” an introduction on “convention and subversion” by Müller and Kerstin Küster (20–32) raises the topic of a relationship to bodies in Italian art and the slippery slope from there across the boundary toward pornography (a useful essay by Janey Levy on the erotic engravings appeared in the World in Miniature catalogue [Janey Levy, “The Erotic Engravings of Sebald and Barthel Beham,” in The World in Miniature: Engravings by the German Little Masters, 1500–1550, Stephen H. Goddard, ed., Lawrence: Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, 1988: 40–53]). Another multi-sheet woodcut with sexual byplay, the 1531 Fountain of Youth, is discussed by Jan-David Mentzel (98–114; 152; cat. no. 1) not only for its irreverent relationship to the bodies in Italian prints and ancient models but also as a covert plea for salvific baptism.
Most mythological and allegorical subjects by Beham, including frequent imagery of death, appear only in the individual entries, but Schauerte’s Hercules essay (126–35) builds upon his scholarly expertise on German humanism, already displayed in his 2003 Dürer-era catalogue (Thomas Schauerte, Albrecht Dürer—Das große Glück: Kunst im Zeichen des geistigen Aufbruchs, Bramsche: Rasch, 2003). For this material the Hercules precedents—philosophical allegory of Dürer and irony of Cranach—loom large, along with their humanist sources. Sebald Beham, in contrast, systematically issued virtuoso miniature engravings of the Deeds (rather than the Twelve Labors) of Hercules (1542–48; 229–31; cat. no. 56). Schauerte links these prints with antique inscriptions compiled by Petrus Apianus (1534; woodcuts by Hans Brosamer) and with the heroic tondo cycle of Hercules (1542/43) carved by Thomas Hering for the Landshut Residenz of Ludwig X of Bavaria. This focused interest in classicism, recently explored in a 2009 catalogue about Duke Ludwig X and Landshut, should merit more attention in sixteenth-century German cultural history, especially to clarify the linkage between Beham’s Nuremberg engravings and Bavarian (or additional) Renaissance court decorations (Ewig blühe Bayerns Land: Herzog Ludwig X. und die Renaissance, Brigitte Langer and Katharina Heinemann, eds., Regensburg: Verlag Schnell and Steiner, 2009).
Taken together, many of the essays in Die gottlosen Maler von Nürnberg strive to attach a deeper meaning to Beham prints, particularly for the multi-sheet large woodcuts that do not initially appear to have religious resonance. The older genealogy of Beham as a Dürer offshoot, especially for his forms, has largely given way to considerations of content, and the easier answers of a previous generation are now seen as layered and complex. As Schauerte suggests, many questions remain open for the ninety prints in this catalogue. Pencz remains another vital missing link. But this exhibition and its stimulating essays finally provide a closer look at the Behams and their moment in Nuremberg printmaking, for both small engravings and large woodcuts.
A final production note: this important catalogue borders on ephemeral. Its generous imagery threatens to fall away, as the softcover binding detaches with only one or two consultations. Such thoughtful and basic scholarship needs more lasting permanence as a publication.
Farquhar Professor of History of Art, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania