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St. Peter Blesses the Apostles. Etching. 30.6 x 40 cm. Garas 321; not in Nagler. Watermark: anchor mark with double cross and the letters HN (?).
Franz Anton Maulbertsch, the most important painter of Austrian late baroque, is known to have procuced just twelve etchings, all of which he made during the last twenty years of his life. In 1770 he was admitted to the Academy of Engraving in Vienna, which had been founded a few years previously by
his later father-in-law, Jakob Schmutzer. The artist subsequently devoted more of his time to etching. His sheets rank among the great masterpieces in this technique.
The varied content of the subjects addressed in his etchings reflects the radical changes in mental history that emerged in the second half of the 18th century when, during the period of the Enlightenment and following the political upheavals of the time, traditional iconography diminished in importance. Maulbertsch’s printed œuvre comprises religious depictions, isolated scenes from ancient history, a mythological/allegorical work based on Klopstock’s poetry, genre scenes catering to the taste of the emerging bourgeois class and, finally, the complex Image of Tolerance, a formally Baroque yet essentially Enlightenment piece, which refers to the Tolerance Edict passed by Emperor Joseph II (cf. Katharina Setzer, Der Graphiker Franz Anton Maulbertsch, in: Franz Anton Maulbertsch und sein schwäbischer Umkreis, edited by Eduard Hindelang, Museum Langenargen, Langenargen am Bodensee, 1996, p. 194 ff.).
This is illustrated by the unusual iconography of the present sheet, which was also called the Confirmation of the Apostles. It depicts neither a moment from Peter’s life nor from the saints legends surrounding him that were common in Baroque art. Peter is shown blessing the men kneeling before him in the semi-
darkness of a Gothic church building. The light emanating from the three candles appears to mark the way for the young man standing to the left of centre – and the viewer – to pass between the apostles and up the steps to Peter, whose body shines brightest in the light of the candles and above whom two angels accompany the blessings. The conception of Peter as the forerunner of the popes often imbued depictions of the apostle in the Roman Catholic context with a degree of significance that was designed to legitimise ecclesiastical and papal sovereignty. There may be overtones of that in the present scene, although nothing is known of the exact circumstances in which it arose. The etching has been executed in a very free, spontaneous style bordering on the experimental. The architecture that forms the backdrop is sketched in broad outline and with a delicate lightness. The entire scene radiates intense spontaneity and artistic freedom. Only in Vienna (Albertina, Sammelband Ö.K. Maulbertsch, fol. 7.) and in Budapest (Museum of Fine Arts, inv. no. 1915–206) were we able to verify this extremely rare print. A very fine, contrasting impression with a 5 to 10 mm white margin around the image. Occasional foul biting, as in the impressions in Vienna and Budapest. Minor handling traces, otherwise in excellent condition.
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