The end of the Middle Ages was a time of change and turmoil – intellectual, religious, social and political. Luther’s Reformation, the start of which is conventionally dated to 1517, led to two centuries of convulsion and strife, but in the preceding years there had been a rising time of non-conformism and criticism of the Church. Humanism and Classical learning, even if confined to a tiny minority, were leading to unsettling questioning of assumptions and shibboleths. Uncertainty and anxiety touched nearly everyone, despite, for some, rising standards of living. They didn’t know it of course, but people of the time were living on the cusp of the modern world, and the transition was an uncomfortable ride – that much they knew.
Artists reacted to the Zeitgeist in varied and remarkable ways. The days of slow evolution of methods and style and of slavish submission to authority were ebbing. Originality and imagination came to be prized as much as dexterity and design – though arguably those skills were historically at a peak. Armed with newish discoveries such as oil paint and perspective, naturalism was triumphant – but not at the expense either of sheer beauty or of spiritual and emotional impact. Indeed, for intensity of expression and evocation of mood, art in German-speaking lands at the end of the Middle Ages has rarely been surpassed.
The tour is timely because several of the galleries visited have been comprehensibly refurbished within the last few years. The greatest transformation, and expansion, is at the Musée Unterlinden in Colmar, one of the great museums of France. All the museums on this tour have the highest standards of display.
Timeliness concerns also the major exhibition in Karlsruhe devoted to Hans Baldung Grien (1485–1545), painter, printmaker and draughtsman. His prolific output included, highly unusually, depictions of witchcraft and erotica, but he also created some of the great religious, allegorical and mythological paintings of his time.
Basel. Fly at noon from London Heathrow to Basel (Switzerland) with British Airways. The Kunstmuseum in Basel has an excellent collection of late medieval paintings including masterpieces by one-time resident Hans Holbein and his father. Drive to Freiburg-im-Breisgau (Germany) for two nights.
Breisach, Freiburg. Drive to Breisach-am-Rhein (Germany). In the minster on a hill overlooking the Rhine there is one of the last great Gothic sculpted altarpieces, by ‘Master HL’ and dated 1526, and an astounding 15th-century silver reliquary. In Freiburg, visit the recently refurbished Augustiner Museum, a former monastery with paintings by Matthias Grünewald, Lucas Cranach and Hans Baldung Grien among many others. Visit Freiburger Münster, the great Gothic cathedral. Overnight Freiburg.
Colmar, Strasbourg. The Collégiale Saint-Martin in Colmar (France) houses Martin Schongauer’s Virgin of the Rose Garden, his greatest painting (1473). The Musée Unterlinden is installed in a friary, though recent transformation has extended it into neighbouring buildings. Here is one of the greatest artworks of the Middle Ages, the Crucifixion polyptych by sculptor Niklaus of Hagenau and painter Matthias Grünewald. In Strasbourg (France), visit the cathedral and the cathedral museum, one of the best of such collections. Overnight Karlsruhe (Germany).
Karlsruhe, Stuttgart. The Staatliche Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe has an outstanding collection of the whole spectrum of German art, and temporarily the Hans Baldung Grien retrospective. The city is a fascinating example of 18th-century town planning with concentric streets rippling out from the Schloss at its centre. The Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, made famous by James Stirling’s wing, beautifully displays a superb collection of early German painting including The Grey Passion by Hans Holbein the Elder. Fly from Stuttgart and return to Heathrow c. 8.30pm.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £1,880 or £1,670 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,040 or £1,830 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 320); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts; 1 lunch and 3 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
The tour involves a lot of standing in museums and churches. A good level of fitness is essential. You will be on your feet for lengthy stretches of time. Average distance by coach per day: 70 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.