How does the Getty Museum choose which drawings to bring into its collection? As a member of the Drawings Department, I often field this question. The curatorial team considers many factors when approaching a potential acquisition, from more measurable elements—such as funding, rarity, provenance, and condition—to aesthetic and scholarly concerns.
Of course, the drawing should be visually compelling—it should captivate visitors in our galleries and inspire close looking. After all, the Getty’s collection is intended for public display.
But curators also discuss what role the drawing would have within the collection: How will it help us share stories about the history of art? Does it transport us back in time and reveal insights about the period and place when it was made? What does it illuminate about the artist, their process, or the medium itself? One drawing can contain a wealth of information.
The Getty Museum recently acquired a striking drawing by the sixteenth-century Swiss artist Christoph Murer. During the acquisition process, we asked ourselves these questions and considered the following.
An Unusually Large Drawing
Murer’s drawing is of an extraordinary and impressive scale. Most drawings are relatively small, but this one spans four sheets of paper joined to make a composition of about 25 x 25 inches. What is the reason for its unusual size? It was made as a to-scale model for a stained glass window at the Cistercian abbey of Rathausen near Lucerne, Switzerland.
The corresponding glass belonged to a series of 67 windows decorated with biblical scenes related to the salvation of humankind. Murer worked on scenes from the Life of Christ, and this design features a dramatic composition of the Ecce Homo in which the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate displays Jesus before a jeering crowd shortly before he is crucified. Christ, recently scourged and bound, looks down at the crowd, while Pilate looks directly out of the page at the viewer, as if implicating him or her in the action.
An Impressively Detailed Scene
The complicated composition, which includes a detailed architectural setting and large crowd, requires the viewer’s careful observation to take in all the details. A member of the crowd holds up the cross on which Christ will be crucified, as a grim reminder of what is to come. Another man uses what looks like a magnifying glass to examine Christ, while a small child at the foot of the steps points upwards; both figures draw the viewer’s attention to the main action of the image.
Yet characters from a different chapter in the story frame the scene. At right stands the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ in her arms, and at left, the wise man King Caspar appears bearing his gift of frankincense. Above them float angels who bear instruments of the Passion: the Cross on which Christ was crucified and the column to which he was bound when flagellated. At the bottom are two coats of arms and two putti flanking a cartouche intended for a later inscription.
Murer took great pains to articulate details, such as the folds of drapery, facial features, and musculature of the figures who populate the scene. The pen line is fine and delicate, executed with exceptional precision, while the sensitive application of wash creates volume through nuanced shadow.
From Paper to Glass
Today we consider drawings autonomous works of art, but they were often made as models for works in other media, such as paintings, metalwork, prints, sculpture, or—as in this case—stained glass. While Murer came up with the design, another artist, Franz Fallenter, handled the execution of the window itself.
Unfortunately, the corresponding window does not survive, but this drawing is a testament to the process that went into its making and gives us a sense of the final product. Further, it’s rare; models like this one were often destroyed or badly damaged in the process of making the window, yet this one survives in surprisingly good condition.
During the early modern period, stained glass was a luxurious medium because of the great cost of materials and labor that went into its manufacture. Commissioning a work of stained glass was an act of prestige and sign of wealth for the patron.
The two coats of arms on the bottom of the sheet attest to the patronage of the Kündig and Pyffer families who commissioned the work for the abbey. The figure of the biblical magus Caspar is also a reference to a member of the Kündig family who shared the wise man’s name.
Joining the Collection
The Getty Museum acquired Murer’s Ecce Homo in honor of Dr. Lee Hendrix, senior curator emerita and former head of the Drawings Department. It is a fitting honor, and joins a strong collection of sixteenth-century Swiss drawings, including a sheet by Murer’s brother, Josias, as well as other designs for stained glass by Daniel Lindtmayer, Werner Kübler the elder, Hans Jacob Plepp, and Christoph Bockstorffer. As a leading scholar in the field, Hendrix organized the pioneering show Painting on Light: Drawings and Stained Glass in the Age of Dürer and Holbein (2000), which brought stained glass designs to a much wider audience.
Murer’s drawing is a particularly engaging one, as it is not only powerful and fascinating visually but also illustrates the essential role drawing played in the manufacture of stained glass. It fits into and illuminates overlapping histories about sixteenth-century art that make it a valuable addition to the Getty Museum’s holdings as an object of interest to scholars and art enthusiasts alike.
A high-resolution image of the drawing is now available on our website, and it will go on display in the galleries in February 2019 for you to marvel at in real life.