Artistic Genius versus the Hanse Canon from the Late Middle Ages to the Early Modern Age in Tallinn

  • Juhan Maiste
Keywords: Artistic genius, Hanse canon, workshop of Hans Memling, Michel Sittow, the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy


In the article, the author examines one of the most outstanding and
problematic periods in the art history of Tallinn as a Hanseatic city,
which originated, on the one hand, in the Hanseatic tradition and
the medieval approach to Gothic transcendental realism, and on
the other, in the approach typical of the new art cities of Flanders,
i.e. to see a reflection of the new illusory reality in the pictures. A
closer examination is made of two works of art imported to Tallinn
in the late 15th century, i.e. the high altar in the Church of the Holy
Spirit by Bernt Notke and the altarpiece of Holy Mary, which
was originally commissioned by the Brotherhood of Blackheads
for the Dominican Monastery and is now in St Nicholas’ Church.
Despite the differences in the iconography and style of the two
works, their links to tradition and artistic geography, which in this
article are conditionally defined as the Hanse canon, are apparent
in both of them.
The methods and rules for classifying the transition from the
Middle Ages to the Modern Era were not critical nor exclusive.
Rather they included a wide range of phenomena on the outskirts
of the major art centres starting from the clients and ending with

the semantic significance of the picture, and the attributes that were
employed to the individual experiences of the different masters,
who were working together in the large workshops of Lübeck, and
somewhat later, in Bruges and Brussels.
When ‘reading’ the Blackheads’ altar, a question arises of three
different styles, all of them were united by tradition and the way
that altars were produced in the large workshops for the extensive
art market that stretched from one end of the continent to the other,
and even further from Lima to Narva. Under the supervision of
the leading master and entrepreneur (Hans Memling?) two other
masters were working side by side in Bruges – Michel Sittow, who
was born in Tallinn, and the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy
were responsible for executing the task.
In this article, the author has highlighted new points of reference,
which on the one hand explain the complex issues of attribution
of the Tallinn Blackheads’ altar, and on the other hand, place
the greatest opus in the Baltics in a broader context, where, in
addition to aesthetic ambitions, both the client and the workshop
that completed the order, played an extensive role. In this way,
identifying a specific artist from among the others would usually
remain a matter of discussion. Tallinn was a port and a wealthy
commercial city at the foregates of the East where it took decades
for the spirit of the Renaissance to penetrate and be assimilated.
Instead of an unobstructed view we are offered uncertain and
often mixed values based on what we perceive through the veil of
semantic research.


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Author Biography

Juhan Maiste

Juhan Maiste is Professor and Head of the Department of Art History
at the University of Tartu. He has been a visiting professor at the
universities of Helsinki, Turku, Oulu in Finland, Greifswald, La
Sapienza in Rome and others. Doctor Honoris Causa of the Latvian
Academy of Sciences. Main fields of study: classical ideal and its
,reflections in the Renaissance and Neoclassicism in Northern Europe
and Baltic countries, manor architecture, the university landscape
of the Enlightenment period. He is author of several monographs
on philosophy and the poetics of art history, cultural heritage and

landscape architecture and the editor-in-chief of the Baltic Journal
of Art History. Recent works include: series of publications on the
architectural and cultural history of Tartu University and the
architecture of Johann Wilhelm Krause and Karl Morgenstern.