Stefan Lochner
Biography of German Gothic Painter, Cologne School.

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Madonna of the Rose Bower (1448)

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Stefan Lochner (c.1400-51)

The Northern Renaissance artist Stefan Lochner, sometimes known as 'Master Stefan of Koln', is regarded as the finest 15th century painter of the Cologne school, and one of the last great Old Masters of German Gothic Art, which led into the German Renaissance. He developed a unique soft-style based on the oil painting of his contemporary Jan van Eyck as well as on earlier works of the Cologne School. Noted in particular for the exquisite hues and delicate sentiment of his altarpiece art, he combined gem-like colours and flowing lines common to Gothic painting, with a Netherlandish eye for detail. Lochner is associated with the "Three Kings Altarpiece" (c.1440), a large triptych featuring the Adoration of the Magi on its central panel, now in Cologne Cathedral, Germany. Lochner's other works of Gothic art include St Jerome (North Carolina Museum, Raleigh); Adoration of Christ (1445, oil on panel, Alte Pinakothek, Munich); The Presentation in the Temple (1447, Museum of Art, Darmstadt); Madonna of the Rose Bower (1448, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne) and Three Saints (1450, National Gallery, London).

For an idea of the pigments
used by Stefan Lochner, see:
Renaissance Colour Palette.

For biographies of other painters
from 15th Century Germany, see:
Matthias Grunewald (1470-1528)
Hans Holbein, Younger (1497-1543)

German Medieval Art (800-1250)

For details of Gothic sculptors:
Veit Stoss (c.1447-1533)
Adam Kraft (c.1455-1509)
Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531)
Gregor Erhart (c.1460-1540)

For a guide to easel art, see:
Fine Art Painting.

Obscure Origins

In October 1520 Durer, who was on his way to the Low Countries, stopped in Cologne and noted in his diary that he had paid 'four Weissspfennig' in order to obtain permission to view a painting by 'Maister Steffan zu Koln' in the chapel of the Town Hall. From this it is possible to establish that the author of these panels, transferred to the cathedral in 1810, was none other than Stephan Lochner. In this way, Cologne's most distinguished 15th-century painter emerged from anonymity. His name appears for the first time in the account books of Cologne for 1442, and for the last time in 1451, the year of the Black Death, when he probably died. His repeated reelection to the town council reveals how high was his prestige among his fellow-citizens. One document mentioning him under the name of 'Stephan of Constance' suggests that he was born in that region.


Even today his artistic development remains obscure. He was probably trained in Upper Swabia, where he was born, but no precise facts are to hand to support this hypothesis, and by the time his name appears in Cologne he had already adopted that city's pictorial style. It is quite likely that he settled there some time during the 1430s, after a journey to the Low Countries from which he returned imbued with the art of Northern Renaissance artists such as Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441) and Robert Campin/Master of Flemalle (1378-1444).

Altarpieces and Other Religious Works

Although none of Lochner's religious paintings are signed, two of them are dated. These are the two leaves of an altarpiece representing the Nativity (with the Crucifixion on the reverse; Alte Pinakothek, Munich) and The Presentation in the Temple (with St Francis Receiving the Stigmata on the reverse; Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon), and another Presentation (Museum of Art, Darmstadt), which was the centrepiece for the main altar in the church of the Teutonic Knights. The works date back respectively to 1445 and 1447 and make it possible to establish a chronology.

Lochner's surviving works are now thought to begin with a St Jerome (North Carolina Museum, Raleigh) and an altarpiece of the Last Judgement, formerly in the Church of St Lorenz in Cologne (central panel with scene of the judgement, Cologne, W.R.M.; interior faces relating the Martyrdom of Six Apostles, Frankfurt; exteriors each displaying three standing Saints, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). For a long time there was hesitation about attributing St Jerome to Lochner, but it was precisely the Netherlandish features which led to its being included among his early works.

Last Judgement Triptych (1435-40)

The dismantled altarpiece showing the Last Judgement is slightly later. The division of the wings into six distinct scenes is still in accordance with medieval tradition and brings to mind the altarpieces of the early 15th century. The central image, too, consists of the juxtaposition of individual scenes. However, in details, Lochner enriched the Cologne School by his use of many original touches. The small figures have a new freedom and move easily and with spirit. The human figure, whether nude or in profile, viewed from behind, or in movement, had never before been represented in this way in Cologne. Each detail is rendered with equal attention, but the contrast between the richness of realistic features resulting from intelligent observation of nature, and the lack of cohesion of the whole, suggest that this triptych was one of Lochner's first works, probably executed around 1435-40.

Three Kings Altarpiece (c.1440)

The great Three Kings Altarpiece (Das Dombild), a masterpiece of Late Gothic Christian art - attributed to Lochner mostly on the basis of the statement by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), must therefore have been executed shortly after 1440 (Cologne Cathedral). The central panel represents the Adoration of the Magi; on the interiors of the wings are the city's patron saints, St Ursula and St Gereon, together with their attendants. The outside is devoted to the Annunciation, in an interior with a wooden ceiling and walls hung with brocades. Lochner depicts this scene with great restraint, and the theme is easily understood, thanks to the clear disposition of the characters. Nothing here recalls the hesitant attempts at perspective or at conveying a feeling of space such as characterized the triptych of the Last Judgement. Renouncing all ancillary detail, Lochner limits himself to essentials, and he remained faithful to this principle in the central panel, in which the monumental feeling and austere style are even more in evidence. Objects, figures and costumes are depicted with great care, in a pleasing style, rich in individual features, but unity of composition remains the dominant preoccupation. From now on composition took pride of place over detail, which remained subordinated to the whole.

The Altar of the Patron Saints led directly to The Presentation in the Temple (1447, Museum of Art, Darmstadt). In its layout the latter is very close to the central panel of the preceding triptych.

Reputation and Artistic Style

Compared with the paintings of Konrad Witz (1400-46) of the Swiss School in Basel, Ulm-based Hans Multscher (1400-1467), Hans Memling (c.1433-94) of the Bruges School, or the Ghent-based Hugo Van Der Goes (1440–1482), Lochner's art was not especially innovatory. In fact, he approached the problems which preoccupied these two masters - problems such as the suggestion of space and the representation of landscape - rather timidly. Too attached, probably, to the traditions of the Cologne School, he appears to have considered these questions as secondary to craftsmanship, colour and feelings of piety. He developed the 'soft style' of the International Gothic and was eager to characterize to extremes the costumes and individual features of his figures. A subtle use of colour confers lightness and a feeling of smooth solemnity on his paintings; no foreshortening or sharp gestures disturb the calm, introspective atmosphere.

Although Lochner remained close to the Cologne traditions, expressed, for example, by the Master of St Veronica, he also frequently stepped beyond these bounds. Turning away from the kind of dislocated composition which had been in favour by then for several centuries, he rediscovered the art of composition on large surfaces and with ample forms.

The Virgin in the Rose-Bower (Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne), one of his last panel paintings, in which he mingles own ideal with the Cologne tradition, is a fine example of his technique. Seated on the grass with her head lightly inclined, the Virgin is the centre of the composition. Around her angelic musicians, softly playing their instruments, convey the solemn calm and introspection which envelop the scene, and one finds here the same language as that used in the previous century by the Master of St Veronica.

Paintings by Stefan Lochner can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.

For another regional school of German art, see the Danube School, led by the Regensburg painter Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538), the Franconian artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553).

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