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Konrad Witz - The miraculous fishing trip

by Alexandra Tuschka

3 They went out and got into the boat, and that night they caught nothing.

4 Now when it was morning, Jesus was standing on the shore, but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.

5 Jesus said to them: Children, have you nothing to eat? They answered him, No.

6 And he said to them: Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find. So they

cast it out, and could no more draw it, because of the multitude of fishes.

7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, It is the Lord! (John 21)

Jesus is now standing on the shore, covered in red and monumental. His feet are not visible, he almost floats a little above the ground. Peter has jumped into the water and the other disciples are struggling to hoist the net, now filled with fish, into the boat. The dramatically moving red coat of the foremost is particularly impressive and contrasts with the stillness and deliberateness of the Savior. Compositionally, this juxtaposition is also expressed through the vertical (Jesus) and horizontal (boat).

This work was created as an altarpiece and formed the left outer wing; unfortunately, only one more of the original four panels has survived. This altar was commissioned by Cardinal Francois de Mies for the St. Peter's Chapel in Geneva. Therefore both names are common "Petrusaltar" and "Genfer Altar".

Classically for the Middle Ages we also find here a simultaneous representation, so several scenes in the picture, which actually take place one after the other, we see simultaneously. Thus, the cyclical character is in the foreground, which was to be slowly lost in the course of the Renaissance. Thus we see Peter once on the boat and once jumping off the boat into the water. It is impressive how Witz captured the reflections of the water even back then. The so-called perspective of meaning also still takes hold in the somewhat larger dimension of Christ. In this type of representation, important figures are depicted large and unimportant ones small - also a characteristic of the Middle Ages.

The painter clearly uses the colors red and green. Single golden pigments can be found on Jesus. Peter is dressed in blue. But why does Peter jump into the water at all? On the one hand, the same Bible passage speaks of Peter "falling to his knees." Jumping into the water could be the equivalent expressing humility and surprise. On the other hand, reference is made to another biblical passage (Mt 14:22-33) in which Peter observes Jesus walking on the water, wants to try this too, but gets scared and sinks.

However, the work marks a milestone in art history not only because of its successful combination of these scenes, it has another special feature: Witz moved the biblical scene, which takes place at the Sea of Tiberias (Genezareth), to the local landscape at Lake Geneva. So precise is his depiction that on the right edge of the picture we can see original buildings corresponding to the fortification of the time. Above the horizon line, we see three mountains jutting out, which logically have not changed too much in the last centuries: on the left, we see the Voirons mountain range, in the middle, very present, the Môle, and finally on the right, cut off, the Salève. Even Mont Blanc can still be glimpsed far in the distance. The top of the Môle is certainly not located above the head of Christ by chance, but refers to its importance. The lush meadows and fields are populated by all sorts of figures. The depth of space created by this detail is an absolute exception of the period.

Thus, this is one of the first topographically accurate landscape paintings of the modern era. Witz is thus often seen as a pioneer who was ahead of his time. We do not know much about his life, only about 12 works are attributed to him and only this one bears the inscription "hoc opus pinxit magister conradus sapientis de basilea mccccxliiii" ("This work was painted by master Konrad Witz from Basel in 1444" and can be clearly attributed to him.

Konrad Witz - The miraculous fish migration

Tempera on fir wood, 1444, 132 x 154 cm, Museum of Art History, Geneva

Philipp Otto Runge - Peter on the Sea

Oil on canvas, circa 1806-1807, 116 x 157 cm, Kunsthalle, Hamburg


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