Munich's Alte Pinakothek
By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw
("Old Art Gallery," pronounced "ALL — tuh pee — nah — ko — TAYK")
Bavaria's best painting gallery shows off a great collection of European masterpieces from the 14th to 19th centuries, starring the two tumultuous centuries (1450–1650) when Europe went from medieval to modern. See paintings from the Italian Renaissance (Raphael, Leonardo, Botticelli, Titian) and the German Renaissance it inspired (Albrecht Dürer). The Reformation of Martin Luther eventually split Europe into two subcultures—Protestants and Catholics—with their two distinct art styles (exemplified by Rembrandt and Rubens, respectively).
From the ticket counter, head toward the back wall and walk up the stairway to the left. All the paintings we'll see are on the upper floor, which is laid out like a barbell. Start at one fat end and work your way through the "handle" to the other end.
Albrecht Altdorfer's The Battle of Issus (Schlacht bei Issus) shows a world at war. Masses of soldiers are swept along in the currents and tides of a battle completely beyond their control, their confused motion reflected in the swirling sky. We see the battle from a great height, giving us a godlike perspective. Though the painting depicts Alexander the Great's victory over the Persians (find the Persian king Darius turning and fleeing), it could as easily have been Germany in the 1520s. Christians were fighting Muslims, peasants battled masters, and Catholics and Protestants were squaring off for a century of conflict. The armies melt into a huge landscape, leaving the impression that the battle goes on forever.
Albrecht Dürer's larger-than-life Four Apostles (Johannes und Petrus and Paulus und Marcus) are saints of a radical new religion: Martin Luther's Protestantism. Just as Luther challenged Church authority, Dürer — a friend of Luther's — strips these saints of any rich clothes, halos, or trappings of power and gives them down-to-earth human features: receding hairlines, wrinkles, and suspicious eyes. The inscription warns German rulers to follow the Bible rather than Catholic Church leaders. The figure of Mark — a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other — is a fitting symbol of the dangerous times.
Dürer's Self-Portrait in Fur Coat (Selbstbildnis im Pelzrock) looks like Jesus Christ but is actually 28-year-old Dürer himself, gazing out, with his right hand solemnly giving a blessing. This is the ultimate image of humanism: the artist as an instrument of God's continued creation. Get close and enjoy the intricately braided hair, the skin texture, and the fur collar. To the left of the head is Dürer's famous monogram — "A.D." in the form of a pyramid.
With the Italian Renaissance — the "rebirth" of interest in the art and learning of ancient Greece and Rome — artists captured the realism, three-dimensionality, and symmetry found in classical statues. Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin and Child (Maria mit dem Kind) need no halos—they radiate purity. Mary is a solid pyramid of maternal love, flanked by Renaissance-arch windows that look out on the hazy distance. Baby Jesus reaches out to play innocently with a carnation, the blood-colored symbol of his eventual death.
Raphael's Holy Family at the Canigiani House (Die hl. Familie aus dem Hause Canigiani) takes Leonardo's pyramid form and runs with it. Father Joseph forms the peak, with his staff as the strong central axis. Mary and Jesus (on the right) form a pyramid-within-the-pyramid, as do Elizabeth and baby John the Baptist on the left. They all exchange meaningful contact, safe within the bounds of the stable family structure.
In Botticelli's Lamentation over Christ (Die Beweinung Christi), the Renaissance "pyramid" implodes, as the weight of the dead Christ drags everyone down, and the tomb grins darkly behind them.
In Titian's Christ Crowned with Thorns (Die Dornenkronung), a powerfully built Christ sits silently enduring torture by prison guards. The painting is by Venice's greatest Renaissance painter, but there's no symmetry, no pyramid form, and the brushwork is intentionally messy and Impressionistic. By the way, this is the first painting we've seen done on canvas rather than wood, as artists experimented with vegetable oil–based paints.
Rubens and Baroque
Europe's religious wars split the Continent in two — Protestants in the northern countries, Catholics in the south. (Germany itself was divided, with Bavaria remaining Catholic.) The Baroque style, popular in Catholic countries, featured large canvases, bright colors, lots of flesh, rippling motion, wild emotions, grand themes... and pudgy winged babies, the sure sign of Baroque.
In Rubens' 300-square-foot Great Last Judgment (Das Grosse Jüngste Gericht), Christ raises the righteous up to heaven (left side) and damns the sinners to hell (on the right). This swirling cycle of nudes was considered risqué and kept under wraps by the very monks who'd commissioned it.
Rubens and Isabella Brant shows the artist with his first wife, both of them the very picture of health, wealth, and success. They lean together unconsciously, as people in love will do, with their hands clasped in mutual affection. When his first wife died, 53-year-old Rubens found a replacement — 16-year-old Hélène Fourment, shown in an adjacent painting (just to the left) in her wedding dress. You may recognize Hélène's face in other Rubens paintings.
The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (Der Raub der Tochter des Leukippos) has many of Rubens' most typical elements—fleshy, emotional, rippling motion; bright colors; and a classical subject. The legendary twins Castor and Pollux crash a wedding and steal the brides as their own. The chaos of flailing limbs and rearing horses is all held together in a subtle X-shaped composition. Like the weaving counterpoint in a Baroque fugue, Rubens balances opposites.
Notice that Rubens' canvases were — to a great extent — cranked out by his students and assistants from small "cartoons" the master himself made.
Rembrandt and Dutch
From Holland, Rembrandt van Rijn's Six Paintings from the Life of Christ are a down-to-earth look at supernatural events. The Adoration (Die Anbetung der Hirten) of Baby Jesus takes place in a 17th-century Dutch barn with ordinary folk as models. The canvases are dark brown, lit by strong light. The Adoration's light source is the Baby Jesus himself — literally the "light of the world." In the Deposition (Kreuzabnahme), the light bounces off Christ's pale body onto his mother Mary, showing how his death also hurts her. The drama is underplayed, with subdued emotions. Looking on is a man dressed in blue — a self-portrait of Rembrandt.