(1586 – Nuremberg – 1642)
The Resurrection of Christ
Signed and dated lower left:
Johan. : König / 1622.
Oil on copper, 24 x 18 1/8 in
Wilhelm Kreis (1873-1955), Düsseldorf, by the 1920s,
and thence by descent until 2012.
We are grateful to Dr. Gode Krämer for his invaluable help in researching this painting and for providing the following catalogue text.
The present signed and dated oil painting of The Resurrection of Christ constitutes an important addition to Johann König’s oeuvre. The size of the copper panel on which it was executed is unusually large, while its chromatic richness is remarkable and its compositional qualities striking, combining as it does a large variety of energetically juxtaposed figures within the confines of an extremely small space.
Although the theme of the Resurrection is one of the more frequently depicted biblical scenes, the gospels contain no direct account of it but are restricted to a description of events leading up to and following it. König’s handling of the scene draws upon traditional iconography in the depiction of the angel seated on the edge of the open tomb clothed in shining white robes while armed soldiers sent to guard the tomb flee in fright, seemingly blinded by the apparition of Christ. However, in a remarkable break with convention, König has set the scene within the burial chamber looking outwards. The eye is led past an agitated group of figures through a massive, arched portal towards the silhouette of the city of Jerusalem. The tiny figures of the three holy women are shown emerging from the city’s great domed basilica, hastening on their way to the tomb as described in the gospel account: ‘And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.’ (Mark 16: 1-2).
The chromatic richness and drama of the foreground scene contrast strongly with the early morning quiet of the distant city and the landscape. The cityscape is silhouetted against a bright patch of sunlight spreading from the left as the sun rises. The moon at the upper right is depicted as a tiny speck above a vast bank of dark clouds and the peaceful moonlit landscape below. The compositional structure is dominated by diagonals. The three downward diagonals at the left of the image – formed by the figure of the seated soldier in the lower left corner, the white-robed angel and the figure of Christ – are juxtaposed with the upward diagonals at the right, created by the bodies of the soldiers and the two seated figures.
While the structure might appear simple, a preliminary study by König reveals the care that the artist took in the construction of the composition. The preparatory drawing in Dresden, which was formerly and incorrectly attributed to Christoph Schwarz,[i] is naturally smaller than the painting, though still impressive in size. However, it lacks the verticality of the painting and is more broadly executed. As a result, it appears less dynamic than the painting even though it is very close in its overall composition and the placement of the figures and their poses.
König’s prime objective in the painting was to achieve a more dynamic impact. The few major departures from the preparatory drawing contributed significantly to this end. In the finished work the figures of Christ and the angel by the tomb have been lengthened and enlarged, accentuating the diagonals. The position of the soldier’s leg in the right foreground has undergone a similar change, König has grouped the figures more cohesively, allowing them less space and, in the case of the smaller angel at the left edge of the image, has confined the figure to a profile view. These changes enabled the artist to achieve the desired increase in dynamic effect in his depiction of the upward movement of the figure of Christ, but they also have an additional compositional impact. Running inwards from the left and right of the lower area of the painting are two diagonals. They are directed towards each other, tapering inwards to create a darker area at the centre of the image, which again accentuates the upward movement of the figure of Christ. Just above the area where the diagonals meet are three seated figures - a swarthy youth, a turbaned young man in elegant dress and an elderly bearded man. The inclusion of these figures is iconographically unusual in a depiction of the Resurrection, although the weapon at the feet of the first and the archer’s bow resting on the shoulder of the second suggest they may be soldiers. These deviations from conventional iconography are not uncommon in König’s work.
This picture was painted in 1622, a significant year for König both artistically and in terms of the increase in his social standing. In that year he was elected Dean of the Augsburg painter’s guild and also received a major commission to work on an extensive decorative scheme for Elias Holl’s recently completed City Hall in Augsburg. Although König’s reputation was largely based on his small-scale cabinet pictures – paintings on copper, miniatures and a number of Kunstkammer pieces on marble and agate – he was asked to execute three monumental paintings for the south-west Fürstenzimmer (princes’ room) in the City Hall – twomeasuring 79 x 96 in. (1.97 x 2.4 m.) and one 79 x 136 in. (1.97 x 3.4 metres) – and seven allegories, each measuring 44 x 24 in. (110 x 60 cm.). Two further large-format works were commissioned for the Gerichtsstube (courtroom) and a further seven allegories on canvas. All of these paintings compare favourably with the monumental paintings produced for the remaining Fürstenzimmer by such experienced frescoists as Matthäus Gundelach and Johann Matthias Kager.
Mastery of the organization of large surfaces was an essential requirement of success in carrying out the Augsburg commission. This obliged König to develop new compositional skills in the handling of large-format images and figures. His small formats were not unaffected, and indeed he began to produce larger works on copper, although a Conversion of St. Paul recorded in 1622 (present location unknown) still has the dimensions of the artist’s earlier works (22.5 x 34.5 cm). However, the copper panels used for the present picture and for an Ecce Homo (private collection) which is probably datable also to the year 1622, are considerably larger, both measuring 61 x 45/46 cm. König is also known to have produced other large-format paintings on copper of which at least four, measuring 52/55 x 76 cm, are recorded. While the Ecce Homo, with its simple compositional structure, can be seen as the culmination of a thematically related series of very similar drawings, gouaches and paintings, of which the earliest was executed in Rome before 1614, the present Resurrection of Christ, with its sophisticated compositional design, clearly heralds the masterly achievements of König’s late period.
Dr. Gode Krämer, 5 July 2013
Johann König, who was born in Nuremberg in 1586, was one of the most distinguished masters of the early seventeenth-century German school; an artist, who like Elsheimer, whom he greatly admired and emulated,[ii] combined a mastery of the northern traditions of small-scale cabinet picture, with a sophisticated understanding of Italian sixteenth-century painting. He is first documented working in Rome between 1610 (the year that Elsheimer died) and 1614, but his obvious knowledge of the late-Mannerist paintings of Hans Rottenhammer, suggests that may have lived for a time in Augsburg before setting out for Italy. He almost certainly visited Venice where is is documented that he made a small-scale copy of Veronese’s Marriage at Cana (1563 Paris, Louvre) and the works of the great Venetian sixteenth-century masters, in particular Veronese and Tintoretto, were to remain important influences on his compositions. In Rome he probably met Elsheimer, the inspiration of whose small, exquisitely painted coppers with their dramatic lighting effects is strongly evident in his work. He also encountered in Rome the landscapes of Paul Bril and the early paintings of Carlo Saraceni. In 1614 he returned to Augsburg, where he married and became a master (and later Dean) of the painters’ guild.
König was best known for his small-scale cabinet pictures of historical and mythological themes, often adapting motifs from Venetian painting. The figures in his Toilet of Bathsheba (Oxford, Ashmolean Museum), for example, are closely derived from those in Tintoretto’s Susannah in her Bath (Paris, Louvre) combined with an architectural background inspired by Veronese. Elsheimer’s influence is evident both in his figure compositions such as Il Contento (1617, Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum) and his landscapessuch as the Thanksgiving Sacrifice of Noah (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie). Both artists tended to work on copper and on a small scale and König emulated both Elsheimer’s treatment of landscape (in particular in details such as the painting of foliage) and the elder artist’s mastery of lighting and atmospheric effects, as in König’s Minerva and the Muses (1619, Darmstadt, Hessisches Landesmuseum) and Landscape with Arethusa and Altpheus (c.1625, Augsburg, Shaezlerpalais), though König’s colouring tends to be more strident and his brushwork harder than that of the Frankfurt master. Occasionally, like some of his Rudolfine predecessors such as Hans van Aachen, König painted using stone as a support, exploiting the natural striations to represent landscape elements (eg Flight into Egypt, Esztergom, Christian Museum).
Elected Dean of the Augsburg City Guild in 1622, the year our Resurrection was painted, König became a member of the Greater Council of the City in the following year and, after 1620, collaborated with Matthäus Gundelach and Johann Mathias Kager on the decorations of the new Rathaus for which he painted an allegorical cycle of different forms of government as well as idealized portraits of the various Roman generals who were said to have founded Augsburg. For the Rathaus courtroom König painted a monumental Last Judgement (1626, Augsburg, Rathaus), which shows strong Venetian influence as well as a series of personifications (Justice, Civil law, Consceince, Clemency, Prudence and Procrastination), which are now in the museum in Augsburg (Augsburg, Shaezlerpalais). Possibly prompted by the events of the Thirty Years War, König returned in 1631/2 to his native city of Nuremberg where he continued to satisfy the demand for his ever-popular cabinet pictures.
[i] Kupferstichkabinett der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen, inv. C1037 as ‘Christoph Schwarz, “Auferstehung Christi” [Resurrection of Christ], pen, brown and black ink, grey brush, red chalk underdrawing, double framing line: pen and black ink; 38.4 x 30.7 cm, inv. C 1037’. The attribution to Schwarz was dismissed by Sandra Christin Diefenthaler, author of a forthcoming thesis on Christoph Schwarz, and by the present author, who attributes the drawing to König.
[ii] See W. Drost, Adam Elsheimer und sein Kreis, Postdam, 1933, pp. 160-66.