St Catherine of Alexandria refusing to worship the idol (?)
The Royal Collection of Graphic Art
Sophus Larpent bought this drawing in 1873 in Paris with an attribution to Albrecht Dürer, and that is how it was catalogued in the KKS in 1913. But even Larpent thought there were striking similarities to Altdorfer's The Mouth of Truth (fig.32a), which is now in Berlin.3 Hanna Becker believed that the drawing must be a copy, and since then its attribution has been the subject of debate, although after Winzinger's endorsement of the suggestion in 1952 it has generally been accepted as an Altdorfer.
There have been various reasons for the doubts. The rather poor state of preservation and the dark overall tone have made it difficult to make a proper assessment of the drawing's style on the basis of black-and-white photographs and reproductions. However, the doubts have mainly arisen because of certain rather curious aspects of the drawing. It was signed and dated after execution, but with a replicated Dürer monogram and a replicated Altdorfer date, the latter in particular awakening suspicions that the drawing might be a copy.
Moreover, it has been cut in two and rejoined, a strip originally at least 15 mm wide having been removed from the top and added to the bottom (see fig. 32b). Careful examination reveals that the lines on the lower part of the recto are part of the continuation of the arches of the vaulting at the top of the drawing. Several strips of paper pasted onto the verso as reinforcement (fig. 32c) contain rough architectural sketches in the same style as those in the Albertina in Vienna (inv. no. 26 166, D 227). The cutting and piecing together have been explained as an attempt to correct a somewhat unfortunate composition, and this could have been done either by Altdorfer himself or by a less assured copyist. They have also been seen as a way of improving the appearance of a worn drawing by removing certain parts and moving others around. This might suggest the loss of a possibly original signature or date, or both, which would make it an obvious course for a later hand to copy an original date that had disappeared as a result of the piecing together and to supplement it with an incorrect attribution to Dürer, probably as a result of misunderstanding the monogram. The fact that there is a small "D" added between the legs of the A in the Altdorfer monogram in both the Louvre Witches' Sabbath (see fig. 31a) and the Berlin allegory (see fig. 31b) at least suggests that Altdorfer's monogram was sometimes interpreted as Dürer's. I am most inclined to subscribe to the latter explanation of the alterations. The use of pieces of sketches that were apparently the work of Altdorfer himself suggests that the rearrangement of the sheet was done by someone who had sufficient Altdorfer material to be able to do without a sheet of sketches. So it could well be imagined that an heir to Altdorfer's workshop collection carried out the early repair. The inscription on the verso might derive from this individual. It seems to be an annotation of 1575 on the provenance of the drawing by the owner's master, who appears to have been a stained-glass artist. The date of 1537, which also appears in the inscription, might possibly be a slightly incorrect indication of the year in which Altdorfer died.
If one examines areas where the drawing is not worn and compares them with the way of creating outlines and hatching in the Altdorfer drawing of St Christopher (Hamburg, Kunsthalle, inv. no. 22887), there are no stylistic differences. The few discrepancies suggested by reproductions are due to the fact that Hamburg drawing was later "improved" in a different and clearly distinguishable ink, especially in the hatching of certain passages.
The tree on the left of the figures, however, is shaped in a manner rather atypical of Altdorfer. In his many other drawings in this technique he used the white heightening to produce either long, wispy lines or very curly ones to render foliage and vegetation, but here small, short, horizontal lines are also used to the same end. This might raise doubts about the authenticity of the drawing, but it could also merely be understood as a special characteristic of this particular sheet.
The subject is still something of a mystery. An Oriental of some kind seemingly forcing a young woman to her knees in front of an idol on a pillar in a loggia in the woods. But this is not very indicative. Some of the rather strange elements are not yet thoroughly explained. The idol itself is in the shape of an unelegantly seated, ugly old woman with a torch and a basket. Thus, the idol is not the beautiful youth on the column that is often found in the backgrounds of e.g. The Flight into Egypt, where the pagan idols fall as the Christ Child passes by. Instead, it is more in the shape of a witch, a figure very popular in the iconography of the first decades of 16th century Germany. Similar idols are found in several other of Altdorfer's works, though most often in the shape of an ugly old man, conforming to the picture of the wild man as depicted in the late Middle Ages.4 Neither this figure, nor the location in the woods, really seem to fit any of the stories about refusal of idolatry.
Nevertheless, taking the often very regional interpretation of the sacred stories in Germany at that time, Winzinger's suggestion that it is St Catherine of Alexandria refusing to worship the idol has much to be said for it, and indeed appears to be generally accepted today. It is also followed here.
3 Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, inv. no. KdZ 112.
4 See e.g. Thomas Noll, Albrecht Altdorfers "Ruhe auf der Flucht nach Ägypten". Annäherung an eine Deutung, Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, 3.Folge, 45 (1994), pp. 83ff.