A Fragment from Lübeck?

Summary: A false hypothesis about the painting in Tallinn being a remnant of Lübeck's original painting from 1463.

The painting in Lübeck was replaced by a new one in 1701 and Jacob von Melle wrote down the old text. Jacob von Melle was unable to read great parts, but luckily the fragment in Tallinn gives us some of the missing text. The two texts complement each other like two pieces from a jigsaw puzzle and some researchers believe that this is not a coincidence - but that the fragment in Tallinn is actually a remnant of the original painting from St. Mary's Church in Lübeck.

This hypothesis is utterly false, but it keeps popping up in new versions and to disprove it might be as difficult as killing the proverbial hydra. Therefore we'll concentrate on the hypothesis as it was originally put forward by Carl Georg Heise in 1937.

Heise's Hypothesis

The empress from Lübeck - lots of sky.
The empress from Lübeck
The empress from Tallinn - before the restoration - without sky.
The empress from Tallinn - before the restoration

The hypothesis is as follows:

In 1588 Sylvester van Swolle was paid for having "upgeluchtet" - i.e. freshened up - the painting. Heise postulates that the first half of the painting was in so bad a condition that van Swolle gave up at once and instead of "upgeluchting" the painting, he cut out the first half. Then he sold it to some travelling merchants - after having restored it!

Heise does not think that the painting was replaced by a copy - on the contrary the wall was bare for 113 years. Apparently the burghers of Lübeck didn't mind van Swolle cutting their famous painting in pieces and didn't think twice about how van Swolle was able to restore the irreparable painting - after having sold it.

Needless to say there's no mention of such a transaction in the church records of Lübeck or Tallinn.

Is it True?

Not a word - Heise quoted in a very dishonest way. It should be remembered that Heise's presented his hypothesis in the late 30's - just before 2nd World War - when pseudo science was flourishing and many German researchers were busy cooking up hypotheses about old German territories and property - you might call it a *cough* German occupation.

Is about time to finish off this stupid hypothesis - once and for all. A close examination will reveal that:

Why is it so important to disprove Heise?

Heise's crackpot hypothesis is not taken seriously today, but it still re-appears in new disguises.

Even worse: The seeds of misinformation are sown and two corollary errors are repeated constantly:

  1. Countless books repeat the "information" that back in the 19th Century there was exactly 11 humans on the painting in Tallinn. Even a scholarly and relatively new book like Totentänze by Schulte (p. 194). The truth is that it was Heise who misquoted Gotthard von Hansen.
  2. Heise claimed that Bernt Notke had executed the painting in Tallinn (and the painting in Lübeck as well - since according to Heise's hypothesis it was the same painting). The truth is that there is no proof that Notke painted the dances of death.

Sources Used for this Section

Further information

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