The Miraculous Draught of the Fishes by Konrad Witz

The Miraculous Draught of the Fishes by Konrad Witz (1444)

From yesterday’s late nineteenth century Swedish painter Sven Richard Bergh I am going back in time, almost five centuries, for today’s featured artist.  My Daily Art Display today looks at an exquisite painting by the 15th century German-born early Renaissance artist Konrad Witz.

Witz was born in Rottweil is now a german town some fifty kilometres north of the Swiss border and is part of the federal state of Baden-Württemburg, in south-west Germany    It was, at the time when Witz was born in 1400, a freie Reichsstadt (Free Imperial City) and formally ruled by the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire until 1463.  At that time the town joined the Swiss Confederation where it remained until 1802 and the onset of the Napoleonic Wars when it reverted to part of the Wurttemburg dukedom.  Witz although born in Germany always considered himself to be Swiss.

Through historical records we know that a certain “Master Konrad of Rottweil” joined the painter’s guild in Basle in 1434 and in the same year Witz was granted citizenship of Basle, the Swiss town along with the city of Geneva where Witz spent most of his life.  His style of painting lends one to believe that at some time he received training in the Flemish and Netherlandish painting styles.  Witz is noted as one of the first painters to incorporate realistic landscapes into religious paintings, an example of which we will see in today’s featured painting.

My Daily Art Display featured work today is part of an altarpiece by Konrad Witz entitled The Miraculous Draught of the Fishes which he completed in 1444 two years before he died.  Art historians believe that this beautiful work is amongst the high points of Early Renaissance painting.  Because of hinge marks on the frame of the painting, we know it to be the left exterior wing of the altarpiece commissioned by Bishop Francois de Mies for the high altar of the chapel of Notre Dame des Maccabées of the Cathedral of Saint Peter in Geneva, which belongs to the Swiss Reformed Church.  The right hand exterior wing depicted the release of St Peter from prison but sadly the central panel is lost.   The interior wings of the triptych depict, on one side, the Adoration of the Magi and on the other Saint Peter’s presentation of the donor, Bishop Francois to the Virgin and Child.  Fortunately the wings survived the Protestant Iconoclasm, the collective name for the destruction of catholic churches and possessions which had been raging in Europe since the early sixteenth century and hit Geneva in 1535.  During this Protestant Iconoclasm, hundreds of catholic churches, chapels, abbeys and cloisters in the Netherlands were totally destroyed by rampaging Protestant mobs along with all their contents such as, altars, icons, chalices, paintings, and church books.  The painting is signed and dated 1444 on the original lower frame.

It is by far the most famous of Witz’s works and is sometimes looked upon as the first “real” landscape painting, a painting in which one can recognise a certain landscape as compared with “an idealised landscape” where it is a composite of many places morphed into one idealised picture.  In today’s painting we are standing on the north-west shore of Lac Lehman (Lake Geneva), near Geneva and looking across to the south-east.  We can see the Saleve mountains in the background and included in the scene is the recognisable peak of Mont Blanc.  In the middle ground on the right we can see a pointed jetty and across the water is the staccato line of a breakwater.  Although Witz has given us a true landscape the characters and the scene before us are an amalgam of ideas and the exact subject of the painting is somewhat blurred.

Although the landscape has been identified as Lake Geneva the figures in the painting are all part of biblical stories which obviously took place in the Holy Land.   One reason for this could be that Witz met with his sponsor of the altar, the Bishop of Geneva, François de Mies, during the Ecumenical Council held in Basle.  It was at this Council that it was decided to the elect Amadeus VIII of Savoy to the throne Pontifical under the name of Felix V.   He was to become the last of the Antipopes.  It could be reasoned that by transposing geographically the biblical scene to the land of the pontiff was therefore more of political move that an artistic impulse.

There are three biblical stories going on within this one painting.  Firstly, we have the man who was to become the first pope, Saint Peter, unsuccessfully trying to walk on water.  (Matthew 14:22-26).  Secondly we see Saint Peter, this time in the boat with some of his fellow disciples, fishing which reminds us of the parable of the fishes (Luke 5:1-11).   Lastly, the painting reminds us of the story of the resurrected Christ on the shores of the sea of Tiberius appearing to his disciples as they were in a boat fishing.

This is a beautifully executed painting.  Remember that this is an early 15th century painting.  Look how the artist has skilfully depicted the water with its reflected shadows of the buildings and jettylook at the mirrored reflections of the people in the boat.  Observe the transparency of the water in the foreground as we see the legs of Saint Peter splayed apart as he walks in the shallows having failed to master the “walking upon the water”.

This oil on panel work of art could be seen at Musée d’Art Histoire in Geveva.  I say “could” as it has been taken down for some restoration work to be carried out upon it and will not be re-hung until March 2012.