c.1520; Oil on limewood; 139.2 x 108.7 cm; National Gallery, London
The subject of Christ Taking Leave of His Mother derives from devotional, not biblical sources. It relates to the moment when Christ leaves for Jerusalem and anticipates his coming death. The Virgin is shown prostrate with grief, attended by four holy women: Mary Cleophas, Mary Salome, Mary Jacobi and Mary Magdalene. The Virgin's companions also make an emotional appeal to Christ not to leave. Christ is accompanied by Saint Peter and Saint John the Evangelist. The minuscule family of donors at the bottom right have not been identified, although it is probable that they commissioned this picture.
Albrecht Altdorfer can people his landscapes, and with remarkable effect. Christ Taking Leave of His Mother has an extraordinary, gawky power. The vague gestures towards graciousness fall completely flat, and we see that almost comic awkwardness of the enormous feet of the supportive mourner. In this, as in other works by Altdorfer, the figures are elongated and their hands and feet enlarged. These distortions emphasise the language of gesture and stance, which Altdorfer uses so effectively. Much of the composition is taken up with landscape, particularly the tall fir trees which Altdorfer often depicted. On the left, through the arch, the sky is red, suggesting sunset and, perhaps, the death to come. We also see that there is a sad dichotomy between the ruined castellations on the left, on the side of the women, and the wild encroachments of the forested world of the men on the right. There seems to be a painful absence of communication, an accepted harshness, and we come to a painful realization that this is of the essence of any saying of goodbyes. This striking scene makes a rough, embarrassing, ardent picture that is quite unforgettable.
Altdorfer is an unexpected painter and with many more personae in his repertoire than we might expect. Surprisingly, he has a feel for allegory, which has produced some of the most enchanting small paintings in all Northern art (there is a wonderful example in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin). This art is landscape-based but uses the landscape to make some mysterious moral point. We can never quite comprehend the meaning of an Altdorfer work--there is always an elusive element--which is perhaps one of the reasons why he remains so consistently a source of delight and interest.