The presentation of medieval art at the Historisches Museum Basel offers a fascinating glimpse of the Christian faith at a time when it was omnipresent. Installed in the choir of the Barfüsser Church, these choice works of art from the 11th to 16th century unfold a remarkable beauty and spiritual potency.

What do we believe in today?
What do the religious notions of the Middle Ages mean to us now?
What role do saints, Jesus, and God play today?

The interior of the choir of the former Franciscan church has been refurbished with some haunting medieval monuments. The paintings and sculptures from Basel, the Upper Rhine region, Switzerland, and Southern Germany attest to the medieval world of faith and to the pervasiveness of the church in everyday life. High-calibre objects underscore both the formal changes and the repurposing that have since taken place. Besides referencing liturgical functions and religious ideas, they offer us an insight into the interior design and iconography of medieval churches. Important tropes of medieval art such as the crucifix and images of the Virgin are highlighted in order to visualize the loves, sufferings, and hopes, as well as the glories and miseries of a long-gone era. The show thus turns the spotlight on religious associations and values that have perhaps become quite alien to us in our predominantly secular society.

The new presentation, and the restoration of some of the exhibits that it entailed, would not have been possible without the generous support of: Peter und Simone Forcart-Staehelin, Riehen, Bowmore Foundation, Vaduz, L. & Th. La Roche Stiftung, Basel, Ulrich- und Klara Huber-Stiftung Basel, Verein für das Historische Museum Basel, Dr. Urs D. Gloor, Iseli Optik AG, Basel, as well as several private sponsors.



Schliessen Details


Blessing Christ
Central Switzerland (?), late 12th cent.
Origin: Steinen (Canton Schwyz), charnel house chapel
Poplar, overpainted several times
H. 143 cm, W. 35.7 cm, D. 33.6 cm
Inv. 1897.187.

This sculpture was discovered under a mound of bones and skulls in the charnel house of Steinen. As Steinen is located on the Gotthard Pass, it seems likely that the poplar, from a tree felled in ca. 1160, was imported. The feet and hand held up in blessing were later replaced. The many layers of paint on the head and drapery tell us that the figure was in use for a very long time. A raised pattern of small lozenge-shaped motifs done in pastiglia technique can be made out on the robe. Among them is the fleur-de-lys of French royalty and an eagle, the heraldic beast of the Stauffacher family of Steinen, among whose forebears was one of the three men to swear the Rütlischwur, the legendary oath by which the Old Swiss Confederacy was founded.
According to the most recent findings, Christ originally held a staff surmounted by a cross. Probably it was a Resurrection Cross, possibly with a banner of victory attached to it. This could indicate that the blessing figure represented the resurrected Christ, who conquered death by rising from his sealed tomb on Easter Sunday.


Christ from a Crucifix
Southern German master, ca. 1500
Lime wood (?), carved, painted
H. 70 cm, W. 22.5 cm
Inv. 2002.275.

From the High Middle Ages, the crucified Christ was depicted as a broken figure, as he is here. The beholder was supposed to recognize in him the promise of salvation made by God through the sacrifice of his son, Jesus. The expression of anguish on Christ’s face, the cavernous thorax, and the folds of skin banked up behind the nail serve as vivid proof of the horrific load his suffering body had to bear.
When the piece was examined under the microscope, it quickly became apparent that the surface of this finely carved work had not been painted originally. Only the eyes, mouth, crown of thorns, and the trickle of blood from the wound in the side were accentuated in colour – and probably the other stigmata, too. The loincloth was gilded. Later the whole corpus was painted over. From this we can conclude that the crucifix was in use as part of the cult for a very long period of time.
The figure was apparently acquired on the art market by Rudolf Kaufmann, who later gave it to his daughter-in-law Annie Kaufmann-Hagenbach (1908–2002). She is the one who bequeathed the figure to the HMB, along with a bust of Saint John (inv. 2002.274). An art historian by profession, she continued adding observations and comments to her own private copy of her 1938 doctoral thesis on “Late Gothic Sculpture in Switzerland” right up to a very advanced age.


Lake Constance region, ca. 1500
Lime wood (?), carved, painted
H. 190 cm, W. 96 cm, L. 112 cm
Inv. 1898.275.
The restoration of our Palmesel was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Ulrich und Klara Huber-Reber-Stiftung, Basel.

Palmesel (lit. “palm donkeys”) were typically pulled through the streets in the Palm Sunday procession one week before Easter. The custom rests on the biblical account of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, when the people laid palm fronds in his path and welcomed him like a king. The fronds painted on the cart of this Palmesel are still visible. Worldwide, there are around sixty Palmesel like this one dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. Remarkably, the collection of the HMB accounts for no fewer than five of them, including three from the Upper Rhine region.
The best preserved of these, and the finest in terms of artistic quality, is this Palmesel from Kreuzlingen on Lake Constance. To judge by the style, it is the work of the same circle as a comparable piece held at the Rosgartenmuseum in Constance.



Altar Cross
Lake Constance region (Constance?), ca. 1250–1270
Origin: Katharinental Convent (Canton Thurgau)
Beech, canvas, parchment, original polychromy, precious stones, gems, glass
H. 99 cm, W. 66 cm
Inv. 1905.70. Gift of Karl Bachofen-Burckhardt, Basel

This altar cross is one of very few 13th-century crucifixes produced north of the Alps to feature a painted figure of Christ. Following Italian models, it emphasizes Christ’s essential humanity. His anguished facial expression with closed eyes and caved-in, moribund body attest to the then widespread interest in piously contemplating the crucified Christ – a practice cultivated by convents, especially.  The signs of wear and abrasion on Christ’s belly tell of the intensity with which the cross was venerated, including by touching and kissing. The form, modelling, and gilding of the cross all imitate goldsmithing.
The importance of this crucifix is evident from both the artistic aspirations of the painter and the quality of the gemstones, which include an orange gem with a Jupiter Ammon and a blue one with a stag. Painted on the reverse is an outline of the Lamb of God as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice.


Virgin and Child
Graubünden or South Tyrol, 1st half 13th cent.
Find spot: Obervaz (Canton Graubünden)
Lime wood, remains of original polychromy
H. 99 cm, W. 52 cm
Kunstmuseum Basel, Prof. Handmann-Horner-Stiftung 1941, inv. P 77, on permanent loan to the HMB, inv. 2007.333.

This image is based on a Byzantine icon type called the Hodegetria, meaning “She who points the way.” The name is derived from one of the most famous icons in the Hodegon Monastery in Constantinople. That monastery was home to those who guided the blind and who took care of the sacred springs that are thought to have occasioned the original Hodegetria.
The composition can be traced back to a miracle-working icon in Constantinople, which according to one legend was painted by Luke the Evangelist. It has remained one of the most widely copied Byzantine images to this day. The relief is believed to have been produced in a Crusader milieu in either South Tyrol or Graubünden. The Alpine passes made both these regions receptive to active cultural exchange. The painted remains of a bishop in Western-style garb are still visible on the reverse.
Very little is known about the provenance of the relief. The work was discovered by Prof. R. Handmann of Basel in a walled-up niche of a house in Obervaz in Canton Graubünden in 1901.



Winged Altarpiece
Memmingen (Upper Swabia), dated 1512
Ivo Strigel (ca. 1430–1516) and workshop; Christian Scheller (d. 1529) and workshop
Origin: Santa Maria in Calanca (Canton Graubünden), church of Santa Maria Assunta
Lime wood, original polychromy
H. 375 cm, W. 567 cm (open)
Inv. 1887.95.

This monumental polyptych is impressive testimony to the Marian cult. It comes from the church of Santa Maria in the Calanca Valley, a church dedicated to the Mother of God. The inside of the altarpiece, which was opened only on feast days, shows Mary as Queen of Heaven surrounded by scenes from her life. The work counts among the finest Late Gothic altarpieces to have been carved in Swabia for export to Switzerland. Ivo Strigel was an entrepreneur whose workshop exported numerous winged altarpieces to Graubünden. The Calanca Altarpiece is the largest and most important carved altarpiece on Swiss soil, after the high altar of the cathedral in Chur. The Medieval Collection, as the predecessor of the Historisches Museum Basel, acquired it from the parish in 1887.
The wing panels of the Calanca Altarpiece were kept firmly closed for most of the year, when all that could be seen were the painted figures of saints. Mounted on the rear wall of the shrine are the Four Evangelists. Between them, the Archangel Michael presents the artist’s inscription: “In the year 1512 this work, as seen here, was installed in this sacred building by the hand and industry of Ivo, named Strigel, burgher and inhabitant of the emperor’s most excellent city of Memmingen, on the vigil [the eve of a high holiday] of the Great Prince Michael [29 September], who may henceforth protect this work of art.”


Saint Nicholas
Upper Rhine / Constance (?), 2nd half 12th cent.
Origin: Berau (Baden-Württemberg), Nikolauskapelle
Lime wood, overpainted several times
H. 87.5 cm, W. 31 cm
Inv. 1930.619.

This figure probably dates from the mid-12th century, when the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Nicholas in Berau, near Waldshut, was first built. An unusually early sculpture of Saint Nicholas, it was originally embellished with glass stones underlaid with coloured paint and gold leaf. The breast compartment contained relics. The style of the chasuble (vestment), pallium (the band-like shoulder ornament), and low mitre matches that of the second half of the 12th century.
Clearly, the figure was in use for several centuries. A new board dated 1705 attached to the rear of the throne tells us of the saint’s restoration. Probably the painted Baroque flowers were added at the same time.



Sainted Bishop (Saint Martin?)
Schaffhausen (?), ca. 1475
Augustin Henckel (1477/78–1547/49), attributed
Origin: Mumpf (Canton Aargau), church of St. Martin (?)
Lime wood, original polychromy
H. 117 cm, W. 37 cm, D. 24 cm
Inv. 1910.47.

Since the attributes are missing, this fine carving of a sainted bishop can no longer be identified with certainty. According to the vendor, the sculpture comes from Mumpf near Rheinfelden in Canton Aargau. It could show Saint Martin, therefore, to whom the parish church in that village is dedicated. According to the most recent findings, it could be an early work by the wood carver Augustin Henckel (1477/78–1547/49) of Schaffhausen.
The right arm stump was recently found to contain a piece of paper dating from the time the sculpture was carved. A message from the artist perhaps? This sensational find – hardly any comparable examples are known – features an ink drawing of a woman in secular garb and a fragment of a sentence. This has been deciphered as: “Omnia (dat) dominus non habet ergo minus.” (The Lord gives all and has no less for that.)


Late Gothic Sculpture of Saint Christopher
Vorarlberg or Allgäu (?), late 15th cent.
Lime wood, carved, painted
L. 89.5 cm, W. 64 cm, D. 13.5 cm
Legacy Dr. Ruth Kessler-Uebelin
Inv. 2000.31.

The giant Reprobus wanted to serve the most powerful prince in the world. A hermit told him that no one was more powerful than Jesus Christ, and advised him to assist travellers wishing to cross a river. One night, the child Reprobus was carrying became heavier and heavier until he felt as if he had the weight of the whole world on his shoulders. The child then revealed himself to be Jesus Christ and said: “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it [Jacobus da Varagine, Legenda aurea, ca. 1264].” He then gave the giant the name Christopher, meaning “carrier of Christ.”
The unknown sculptor shows the saint standing barefoot on a patch of earth, which seems to have a spindly tree growing out of it. The naked boy Jesus perched on his left shoulder has his right hand raised in blessing and in his left holds a golden orb that identifies him as the redeemer of the world.
The stamp on the underside of the base plate tells us that the collector Dr. Fritz Uebelin acquired this finely sculpted work in Austria, indicating that it might perhaps have been made in the Vorarlberg or in the Allgäu.


Saint Wendelin
Central Switzerland (?), ca. 1500
Origin: Central Switzerland (Canton Schwyz ?)
Lime wood, remains of original polychromy
Inv. 1894.401.

Saint Wendelin, the patron saint of cattle, is popular with peasants and shepherds. His father was an Irish king who forced him to become a herdsman, believing that this would cure him of his Christian faith. Here, Wendelin is shown with a dog, sheep, and cow.
His clothes, specifically his pilgrim’s cloak, slouch hat, staff, and bag, identify him as a pilgrim. As such, this saint was one of several Irish monks who converted people on the European mainland between the 6th and 8th century. Without any fixed abode, these monks saw themselves as engaged in a pilgrimage for Christ alone (Latin: peregrinatio propter Christum). The most famous of them was Gallus, founder of the convent of St. Gallen.


Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Strasbourg, ca. 1500
Origin: Kippenheim near Offenburg (Baden-Württemberg), high altar of the church of St. Mauritius
Lime wood, original polychromy
Inv. 1977.240. Gift of Prof. Dr. Edgar Heilbronner, Basel

Saint Catherine counts as the helper of the speech-impaired and the patron saint of schools. Blessed with remarkable intelligence, she defended her faith when challenged by the Roman emperor and was thereupon sentenced to be broken on the wheel. Before this could happen, however, the wheel itself miraculously broke to pieces. In the end, Catherine was beheaded by the sword.
This figure belonged to the altarpiece adorning the high altar of the church of St. Mauritius in Kippenheim near Offenburg, which was replaced by a new altarpiece in 1714/15. The figures were scattered and are now to be found in four places: Basel, Breisach (cathedral of St. Stephan), Kippenheim, and New York (Metropolitan Museum). The dismantling of carved altarpieces followed by the sale of their parts was a common fate for works of sacred art.


Votive Plaque of Isabella of Portugal, Duchess of Burgundy
Tournai (?), ca. 1440
Origin: Carthusian monastery of St. Margarethental in Kleinbasel
Plaque: brass, remains of the original painting; frame: limestone
H. 147 cm, W. 129.5 cm (with frame)
Inv. 1870.673., inv. 1929.297.

The plaque recalls a generous gift made by Isabella, Duchess of Burgundy (1397–1471) to the Charterhouse of Basel in 1433. To secure her family’s salvation, she gave the monastery 1,700 gold gulden to be used for the celebration of two daily Masses for the souls of the departed and two “Jahrzeiten” Masses on the anniversary of her death. Priestly vestments and liturgical utensils also formed part of the gift, as did the funds needed to finance two monks’ cells.
The plaque shows the grieving figure of Mary in front of the empty cross, cradling her dead son in her lap. At right is Isabella at prayer with her two deceased children, and at left her consort, Philip the Good (1396–1467) with their son Charles, known as “the Bold” (1433–1477). Saints Elizabeth and Andrew appear as intercessors.
The plaque is an outstanding example of Burgundian courtly art of the 15th century. It attests to the geographical reach of the culture of giving practiced by the Burgundian rulers. Their generous gifts to various places both inside Burgundy and beyond – as in the case of Basel – were a way of securing their own salvation and keeping their memory alive in perpetuity.



Altarpiece of Peter Rot
Basel, ca. 1476/84
Circle of Bartholomäus Ruthenzweig (active 1470–1492/93)
Origin: Basel, convent church of the Franciscan order (Barfüsser Church)
Mixed media on spruce
H. 109.5 cm; W. 192 cm (open)
Inv. 1978.322. Acquired with a special loan from the Executive Council of Canton Basel-Stadt

The altarpiece is the only movable furnishing from the Barfüsser Church to have survived the Reformation. It attests to the Franciscans’ veneration of the Virgin Mary and reflects the controversial dogma of immaculate conception with which theologians in Basel were preoccupied at the time. The donor of this altarpiece was Basel’s burgomaster, Peter Rot (d. 1487), whose coat of arms, along with that of his wife Margarethe von Rümlang (d. 1479), adorns the central panel. The thirty-three saints were to intercede on the pair’s behalf.
The central panel of the open altarpiece shows a floating Virgin of the Apocalypse as Queen of Heaven and conqueror over evil. The Archangel Gabriel at left recalls the Virgin’s immaculate conception, while the Archangel Michael at right keeps two devils in check. The thirty saints on the wing panels are there as celestial intercessors – hence the little clouds. The resurrection scene on the outside proclaims the hope of salvation. It was made after an engraving by Martin Schongauer of 1475. Not only is this altarpiece a rare example of Late Gothic panel painting from Basel, therefore, but it also tells of the influence of the great master of Colmar.


Altar Tablet
Basel (?), ca. 1269
Origin: Basel, convent church of the Dominican order (Predigerkirche)
Red sandstone, original polychromy, partially overpainted
H. 93–104 cm, W. 105 cm, D. 6.5 cm
Inv. 1876.67. Gift of the Predigerkirche Parish Council

This rare example of a 13th-century painted stone altar tablet comes from the former convent church of the Dominican order in Basel, the Predigerkirche. When the convent was dissolved, the celebration of Mass abolished, and the icons rejected, the tablet was removed and henceforth used as building material. It was rediscovered in 1876, cemented into the wall below the west window.
Enthroned in the middle of the tablet is the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus, framed by an architectural structure consisting of pillars and pointed arches. The figures are flanked by two angels holding candles and two saints: on the right Saint Dominic (ca. 1170–1221), founder of the order, and on the left probably Saint Peter the Martyr (ca. 1206–1252), a Milanese Dominican.