Lübeck's Dance of Death

The Triumphal Cross in Lübeck's Cathedral

The Triumphal Cross
The Triumphal Cross
Albert Crummedik kneeling in front of the cross while usurping John from his place.
Albert Crummedik

This monumental cross is hanging in the Cathedral in Lübeck. Jesus Himself is 3.25 meters, and at the base of the cross stands the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and John, who are about 2.80 m. At the left and right are Adam and Eve, and distributed over the rest of the work are resurrected corpses, apostles, evangelists, patriarchs and prophets.

The cross was paid for by Bishop Krummedick, who in return gets to appear among the figures. The bishop has the same size as the two Mary's and John, and he kneels in pious prayer before Jesus' cross — at the place which is normally reserved for John.

While the bishop says his prayer, an angel directly under the cross holds his family armour: a golden tree on blue background. And just in case God on High should have forgotten the name of the generous bishop, his name and the date of consecration has been carved out in both Latin and Low German.

On the front side it says: »An[n]o d[omi]ni m cccc lxxvii R[everen]d[us] in Christo pater Et d[omi]n[u]s d[omi]n[u]s albert[us] crum[m]edik E[pisco]pus lubice[n]s[is] hoc magnu[m] opus ad laude[m] dei p[ro]priis suis su[m]ptib[us] fieri fecit«.

According to legend, Biskop Krummedick's girl friend served as model for the kneeling Mary Magdalene.
Adam, Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene
An angel holding the bishop's family crest. To the left are seen the words »Albert Crum[m]edik « and to the right »E[pisco]pus lubice[n]s[is]«
An angel holding Albert Crummedick's armour

On the back there's a similar text in Low German: »Anno domini m cccc lxxvij up krutwiginghe(1) hefft herr albert krummedik eyn bisschop to lubeke dit werk to dem lave gades van sinem ehrliken gude bereden laten«. Or in English: In the year of the Lord 1477 on the day of the Assumption of Mary, Mr. Albert Krummedick, a bishop of Lübeck, has let this work be prepared to God's glory out of his rightful means.

And if God should have forgotten the address, all He had to do was to look at the floor below the triumphal cross, where the bishops grave slab was located. He died 12 years later: »Anno Domini MCCCCLXXXIX in vigilia Symonis et Jude obiit reverendus in Christo pater et dominus dominus Albertus Crummedyk Dei gracia episcopus Lubicensis de Holzacia ex militarium genere natus«.

Has Bernd Notke Created the Triumphal Cross?

Note found inside John
Note found inside John

As always it's far easier to answer who sponsored the work of art, rather than who executed it. In this case we do have a clue or two though:

During a restoration in the 1970'ies a small parchment note was found inside John, which stated that this figure had been produced by Notke and a number of his staff in 1472. The parchment mentioned five of them by name, and even if they didn't get their names written with as large letters as Bishop Krummedick, the note still ends with a pious wish that God will show mercy upon their souls: »Anno domine m cccclxxii iare do makede meister bernt notken dit stuke werkes myt hulpe siner gesellen genomet in dat erste eggert suarte, de snider, lucas meer, de bereder, berent scharpeselle, de bereder, ilges, de bereder, hartich stender, en meler, biddet got vor de selen dat em got gnedich si«.

Art historians could chalk up a victory here, since they had long ago declared the triumphal cross to be one of Notke's works. On the other hand it's hardly all that impressive, considering that there aren't many anonymous works from the Middle Ages that haven't long ago been ascribed to this Michelangelo of the North.

Where is Notke?
Note found inside Mary

Inside the figure of Mary were found some chalk lines (picture to the right). These chicken feet scrawls are hard to make sense of, to say the least. Nonetheless art historians will assert that they are proof that Notke must have created not only John, but also Mary and the entire cross.

As a skeptic I'm bound to point out, that if it took the master himself and at least five of his journey men to produce the figure of John, and if this figure was produced five years before the consecration of the cross, then this speaks volumes about the magnitude of the undertaking. The person who was responsible for the triumphal cross has been a grand entrepreneur and not an artist.

Further information:

Footnotes: (1)

krutwiginghe . . .: (High German, Kräuterweihe) meaning "Consecration of Herbs" because on the day of Assumption of Mary, August 15th, the Catholic church would consecrate healing and protective herbs.

Up to Bernt Notke's biography