The Frankfurt Altarpiece of the Exaltation of the True Cross
Oil on copper
Inv. No. 2024, 2131, 2142, 2118, 2140, 2119, 2054
49 x 35 cm (Central panel)
ca. 23 x 15 cm (Side panels)
ca. 15 x 16 cm (Predella panels)
Between 1950 and 1981 the Städel succeeded in reassembling this masterwork by Elsheimer, a house altarpiece which was documented by the sources but believed lost. Its frame was reconstructed according to sketches made in 1612. The central panel shows the Exaltation of the Cross (celebrated on 14 September). Joined by hosts of angels, a throng of saints and prophets gather in worship around the cross erected in the central axis. Above them, in the brightest zone, we see the Coronation of the Virgin. In clockwise order, the six surrounding scenes recount the Discovery of the True Cross as well as its later return: Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, embarks, interrogates an old man in the Holy Land, has excavations carried out on Golgotha in search of the crosses and identifies Christ’s cross with a miracle of reawakening. The Byzantine emperor Heraclius recovers the cross after it is stolen by heathens, but he cannot pass into Jerusalem on horseback. Only on foot – and barefoot – can he enter the city with his wonderworking load. Captivatingly composed with veritable fireworks of colour and dramatic lighting, these panels are highlights of Elsheimer’s late phase.