The Altarpiece of the Exaltation of the True Cross, 1603–05

Born in Frankfurt in 1578 the son of a tailor, Elsheimer died a premature death in Rome at the age of thirty-two, leaving behind only a very small œuvre. Thanks to his revolutionary innovations, however, he bore a tremendous influence on the development of European Baroque painting.

Among his fellow painters, but also art experts and collectors, his paintings – usually small in scale – were already legendary in his lifetime. Rubens evidently considered Elsheimer on a par with himself, Rembrandt admired him, and his landscapes paved the way for artists from Claude Lorrain to Caspar David Friedrich. The Frankfurt “Altarpiece of the Exaltation of the True Cross” is one of his chief works. The central panel shows the Exaltation of the Cross by saints, prophets and angels. The six accompanying scenes recount the legend of the discovery of the cross on which Jesus allegedly died, its reappropriation and return to Jerusalem. Here we see a clever storyteller at work who finds the right pose and an expressive movement for every figure, but also a brilliant colourist and virtuoso orchestrator of light capable of opening up an entire (pictorial) world in the smallest of spaces.


Copper
133.6 × 107 cm
Inv. Nos. 2024, 2054, 2118, 2119, 2131, 2140, 2142
Owned in part by the Städelscher Museums-Verein e. V.