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The museum is best known for its remarkable holdings in Rhenish painting and sculpture from the 15th and 16th centuries, a genuine golden age for artists active in the Upper Rhine region.
Inspired by the international Gothic style that developed in Europe around 1400, characterised by graceful, softly curved lines, human figures with elongated proportions and gestures of precious elegance, a movement promoting an inward-focused realism emerged towards the middle of the 15th century in Rhenish art. At the time, this region was part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The artists of the Upper Rhine, grouped by art historians under the term “Rhenish Primitives”, worked in Strasbourg, Colmar, Freiburg im Breisgau (Karlsruhe was only founded in the 18th century) as well as in Basel, and tended to travel often between these centres, as commissions warranted.
Heavily influenced by Flemish artists, this very uniform school offers a rich variety of painted wooden panels and polychrome sculptures (cult of the Virgin Mary and the saints in general) from the end of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.
Works representing the international Gothic style, characterised by delicate silhouettes emerging from gold ground panels (Crucifixion, around 1410), are succeeded by paintings depicting more palpable emotions (the Stauffenberg Altarpiece, around 1460, offered to the Antonite monastery at Isenheim by a bailiff from Rouffach, Hans Erhard Bock von Stauffenberg). The Pietà expresses a contained sadness: only a few tears trickle down the Virgin Mary’s cheek.
Other works, such as Kaspar Isenmann’s Altarpiece of the Passion (1465), from the Collegiate Church of Saint Martin in Colmar, adopt a less realistic approach, with the artist offering a more dramatised interpretation of the scene depicted. On the panel representing the Arrest of Christ, two scenes are superimposed: Saint Peter raising his sword to cut off the ear of a servant of the high priest while Jesus is already preparing to restore it to the mutilated victim.