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The Master of Frankfurt

The Master of Frankfurt

Illustration 1: The Master of Frankfurt | Virgin and Child with Saint James the Pilgrim, Saint Catherine and the Donor with Saint Peter c.1496 | Purchased 1980 with funds from Utah Foundation through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Queensland Art Gallery Collection


Illustration 2 X-Radiograph


Illustration 3 Infra-red reflectogram


Illustration 4 Ultra violet image


Illustration 5 X-Radiograph and colour overlay


Illustration 6 Paint cross section

The Master of Frankfurt: The examination of a panel

The painting

Virgin and Child with Saint James the Pilgrim, Saint Catherine and the Donor with Saint Peter c.1496 is a small devotional panel dating from the end of the fifteenth century. It is the oldest European work in the Collection.

The subject

The scene illustrates a 'holy conversation' portraying the Virgin and Child with selected saints. St Catherine is receiving a wedding ring from the infant Jesus who sits on the Virgin's knee. St James the Pilgrim kneels behind St Catherine. A donor, who likely paid for the painting, sits at the prayer desk turning the pages of a Book of Hours. St Peter stands behind him and a small dog gazes faithfully at the donor.

The artist

The identity of the Master of Frankfurt is unknown, however he is defined as the artist who painted the Saint Anne Altarpiece for the Dominican Church in Frankfurt, consecrated in 1492. Although his name suggests otherwise, he is firmly associated with the Guild of St Luke and the city of Antwerp. Possible identities for the artist are Conrad Fyol, Hendrik van Wueluwe or Jan de Vos, with van Wueluwe seen as the most likely candidate.

Research findings

The painting is in good condition and has obviously undergone several major restorations in its history. The oak panel has been thinned down to approximately 5mm, cradled and impregnated with wax on the reverse. The cross-braces of the cradle can be seen on the X-radiograph of the panel (see illustration 2).


Initial technical analysis of this painting using X-radiography revealed that the male donor seated at the prayer desk was originally a woman. The X-ray image shows the veil and head of the original female donor or saint underneath the head of the current donor (see illustration 2). A 1902 exhibition catalogue described the male donor wearing a man's black coat with white fur trim. This black coat has now disappeared, most likely removed as 'overpaint' during a past restoration, revealing a woman's brown gown. Now a man's head remains on a woman's gowned body (see illustration 5).

Infra-red reflectography

Infra-red study of this painting shows that the initial underdrawing is quite different from the painting we see on the surface. This is an exciting discovery as paintings from the late fifteenth century usually show little deviation from their careful underdrawing. Old master oil painting technique involved the build up of transparent layers of paint on a reflective white ground, and changes were avoided as they could be seen through the layers above.

It appears that the figure seated at the prayer desk was originally accompanied by St Joseph and St Cornelius. St Joseph has become St James the Pilgrim by overpainting his bare head with a shaggy hat and scallop shell, removing his shoes and adding a long staff (see illustration 3). By overpainting his horn with a key, St Cornelius has become St Peter. As the donor figure changed, so did the symbolism of the whole painting. The identity of the original donor is not yet known, but ongoing research may answer this pivotal question.

As well as highlighting changes to the symbolism within the painting, the infra-red reflectogram illustrates the underdrawing style. The lines are generally confident and fully resolved with no searching for contours evident. This suggests tracing from an existing pattern and, given that the Master of Frankfurt managed a busy studio, this is likely.

Studies of other underdrawings by the Master of Frankfurt reveal that he usually used a brush rather than dry charcoal, which appears consistent with the Gallery's painting. Other consistent stylistic traits include the folds in the drapery being drawn with straight lines; parallel marks for areas of shadow; and the use of two simple lines indicating eyes, lips and a nose, with the upper lip given as a broad stroke. This information is critical to placing the work authentically in the late fifteenth century and to the studio of the Master of Frankfurt.

Ultra-violet light imaging

An inspection under ultra-violet light reveals splits in the panel and dark areas of retouching, probably from a 1959 restoration (see illustration 4).

Paint cross-section analysis

A paint sample the size of a pin-head was taken from the edge of the panel near St Peter's glove for paint cross-section analysis (see illustration 6).

Looking at the cross-section from the bottom up, the thick white ground layer was found to consist of calcium carbonate which is typical of a fifteenth-century Netherlandish chalk ground. Usually the drawing layer is directly on top of the ground, as we see in this cross-section. The thin black line above the ground consists of carbon black. There is usually a very thin oil priming layer on top of the ground and underdrawing so that the underdrawing remains visible. As we see in this cross-section there appears to be a thin white layer consisting of lead white and calcium carbonate above the drawing layer. The blue layer above this is the image layer and is mostly likely to be azurite. The layers above are probably later restorations.


Physical evidence of pentimenti (the artist changing their mind) is a rare and always fascinating find. Research has highlighted changes previously invisible, allowing a reassessment of the iconography of the panel. Particularly important is the detail now available of the underdrawing line. Distinction of the possible use of a brush and some freehand drawing implies variance from a speedily traced pattern, and gives some credence to part of the drawing being undertaken directly by the Master.

Anne Carter – Conservator, Paintings at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art
Mandy Smith – Conservation Technical Assistant Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

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