Historical Pictures of the Ev.-Luth. Divine Service: Olbernhau

Historical Pictures of the Ev.-Luth. Divine Service

A Documentation
by Helmut Schatz

English translation by Matthew Carver

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Saxony, Marienberg district

City church

Altar painting on copper depicting the Supper in both kinds, by Johann Finck (Freiburg, 1648; framed 1790).

Painting has been again in use as altarpiece since 1952.
Photograph: Hermann Schmidt, Olbernhau, Fig. 37

A comprehensive analysis has been made by Rennau, a senior educator in Freiberg, in Unsere Heimat (op. cit.) This combination of the art analysis article by H. Uhlemann (in the Erzgebirgischen GA, op. cit.) and of Pr. Pinder (in Neue Sächsische Kirchengalerie, op. cit.), is hereby reproduced in excerpted form supplemented with personal observations.

“The surviving altar painting is a donation by Rohdte of Grünthal, manager1 and owner of the clinching and sheet metal hammer factory in Rothenthal. The oil painting of this altar, painted on a large copper plate originating from Grünthal—now removed and placed in the museum2 is less artistic in its execution than the original on its base. (According to Dr. Uhlemann, it will claim its place in a good position in the relatively small number of older Saxon church paintings as the work of a painter highly esteemed in his time.) “The larger upper portion of the painting depicts the institution of the Holy Supper by Jesus surrounded by His disciples. Immediately below this, the viewer’s eye is met with the celebration of this Supper according to the evangelical church. Here two ministers, one older with gray hair and a simple gown [chorrock], the other younger in a gold-embroidered chasuble, stand before an altar distributing the consecrated Elements to the attending communicants. In the front of the communicants, according to legend, are what are believed to be the members of the Rohdte family. If this is right, it is also possible to see in the older of the two distributing ministers the erstwhile Parson Pistorius, who suffered so many afflictions with his congregation of Olbernhau during the Thirty Years’ War. But who, then, is the second, younger minister in the chasuble? Could this be the elder Pastor Pistorius’s son who was added as a substitute (parish assistant) in 1652, and became parson of Olbernhau after the death of his father in 1664? This theory should not be dismissed out of hand, but it is hard to square with the notice which the painter of the image himself makes on one of the altar steps in the painting, in the words “J. Fink pinxit 1648” [J. Fink painted this, 1648]. . . . But at this time, there was not yet a deacon in Olbernhau, and even the son of Parson Pistorius had not yet advanced enough to be able to help his father in the distribution of the Holy Supper.” (Here let it be noted that this is still not impossible. When the son became substitute in 1652, he could certainly have been at the beginning of his theological studies. And if, at that time, as is plentifully attested in the church gallery, ministers went directly from lyceum or Latin school into ministry without having attended university, we could not exclude the possibility that this son assisted his father without anyone finding anything remarkable in this. Furthermore, the son, Israel Pistorius, was then eighteen years old, and there are known cases of especially gifted students going to university at a very young age. Thus, if at that time he was already a student of theology, our supposition would imply nothing that was impossible, particularly if the minister on the right of the image, as Dr. Uhlemann also emphasizes, is a young man. In addition, the son was certainly groomed for pastoral ministry from early on.)

Pr. Pinder continues: “But how did the painter arrive at the decision to portray two ministers serving in his picture? Perhaps he was emphasizing with perfect clarity a distinction from the Catholic Church, and wanted to admit no suspicion that this might be a Catholic Mass, even though one of the two ministers is vested in a chasuble, as was normal even in the evangelical church, but rather that in this image, a truly evangelical eucharistic celebration was being represented—a distribution in both kinds.”

(Perhaps the matter is even simpler. Rohdte had endowed the church with a rich, gold-embroidered chasuble, and the painter may have desired, or been obligated, to make a permanent memorial of this generous gift by the depiction of the second minister clothed in this chasuble.)

“Finally, let it be noted,” says Pr. Pinder, “that the names of Rohdte’s business partners, who contributed to the purchase of this altar painting” (which he mentioned previously) “are recorded on the back of the copper plate.”

“Mr. Lichtenberger, senior educator in Olbernhau, was kind enough to establish the following: ‘No names are indicated on the back of the image. They must have been removed from the image during renovation. The image is 1 meter wide and 1.33 meters high. It is now (1940) located in the antiquities collection, which however is currently closed.’

“Aside from the altar with the image, the factory manager, Augustus Rohdte, Sr., donated a portable organ for the accompaniment of congregational singing, along with the aforementioned gold-embroidered chasuble for the administration of the Holy Sacraments, the wife of Rohdte donating an altar parament and his father-in-law, Friedrich Schönlebe of Freiberg, a pair of pewter candlesticks for the altar, which are still present in the sacristy. On August 21, 1670, a stormy night, there was a break-in at the church, and the Rohdte chasuble and another, along with two altar paraments and three fine eucharistic chalices with patens and pyxes, were stolen. The church burglars were never found.3 In 1697, K. Gottlob von Leubnitz, senior gamekeeper, had legal patronage of the church . . . [and] made many additional, valuable gifts of chasubles and the like” (op. cit., p. 593).

“Regarding the master of the Olbernhau Altarpiece, we have already hinted at his identity. This was Johann Finck of Freiberg, working in the year 1648, as his curlicued signature on the right-hand side of the upper altar step testifies. Yet, says Dr. Uhlemann, the year 1648 should not be accepted with complete certainty as the year of creation; for upon closer examination, it is clear in this date that the ‘4’ is a later addition by a less practiced hand, but that a ‘3’ in the style of the earlier hand has been preserved along with it, so that the date should be read ‘1638.’ But the painter, Finck, is believed to have been born in 1628, probably in Freiberg. It is impossible for this work to have been painted at ten years of age; even for a twenty-year-old, which he would have been in 1648, it seems a bit premature. Here there is a gaping hole. It might content us to know that we are dealing with a work of that same Johann Finck who after various travels (Italy, Naples) secured the favor of the Wettin court in Dresden at an early age, being named a court painter by Electoral Prince Johann Georg II in 1659, and senior court painter in 1663. Between 1661 and 1674, he often painted portraits of the members of the Elector’s household, and in the year 1670, five years before his death, produced his masterpiece, a Crucifixion, for the church of Dippoldiswalde, today in the Sacristy (according to Dehio, {op. cit.} now an altar painting). . . Upon further study of the image, we are met with a surprise which we can no longer contain.

Fig. 37: Altar painting of the Olbernhau church, Marienberg district, Erzgebirge
Photograph: Hermann Schmidt, Olbernhau

“The Olbernhau Alterpiece has, namely, very close ties to our greatest German painter, Albrecht Dürer, since the main part of the scene reproduces an almost exact copy of Dürer’s Last Supper (1510), from the woodcut series ‘The Great Passion.’ This fact is in itself nothing astounding. All the nations of the world at that time opened their doors to the almighty power of Dürer’s art, and copies of Dürer are typical for the first half of the sixteenth century, a generation during and after Dürer. But after 125 years or so, a latecomer to German painting being attentive to Dürer’s creative power is, if perhaps not uncommon, nevertheless remarkable, especially in our region, the more so since the copy is visibly distinguished from the original by different techniques, since under the hand of our Freiberg native, Dürer’s black and white folio sheet has become a large-format panel painting. Its strong, warm colors now have nothing to do with Dürer . . . This inner dissonance, not without its allure artistically in showing us Dürer through the lens of the seventeenth century, leads us in the lower third of the painting to a strong visual break which tends to throw the whole painting off balance. No longer is Dürer the basis here, but our master is giving free rein to his own inclinations.

“We are shown in this lower portion of the image, certainly to be seen as the natural continuation of the upper, a reflection of the Supper in the protestant church. Against the contrasting immensity of Dürer’s figures moving in their timeless Apostles’ garb, there appear in almost childlike conception, entirely with the sense of medieval, painted figures, a row of fashionably dressed little men and women to whom two ministers are giving the Supper. The pious rite is conducted before a simple altar raised on two steps. As modest as it appears, this illustration nevertheless presents an abundance of notable details which we would not wish to dispatch with a few short words.

“Firstly, we are struck by the younger of the two serving ministers on the right. Although there is no doubt, because of the distribution in both kinds, that we are here concerned with a purely evangelical celebration of the Supper, this minister wears a Catholic chasuble. Such an article must in the earliest periods of the evangelical church have been retained among us as Catholic vestiges, for we are told that the same Augustus Rohdte endowed such a gold-embroidered chasuble.4

“The fact that men and women formerly went to Communion separately is plain: while two groups of women still wait for the Holy Sacrament, male participants, having already left, approach the foreground edge of the painting in an orderly line. This separation according to sex is not surprising to us, since in earlier times it was observed even at the usual divine service. More peculiar to us seems another long-forgotten custom: during the sacred rite, two servers on each side, wearing short, collared frocks and breeches, hold up a dark cloth resembling a towel5, half symbolic, half for the sake of cleanliness, before the chin and breast of the two kneeling. — The number of women predominates. Perhaps it is accidental, perhaps not. In the woman standing farthest to the right we recognize a widow. Here we might venture to ask whether these figures do not have a particular, personal relationship. And even though it is still undetermined whether the grizzled minister with rather general features represents Parson Elias Pistorius, serving between 1633 and 1644, nevertheless with regard to the communicants we are inclined to speak positively without hesitating, since their heads show unmistakable signs of portraiture. Might we see in them the image of the Donor, the factory manager Rohdte, with his business partners and their wives, who took part in the donation, or, perhaps nearer the truth and more in step with the tradition, that they are various members of the Rohdte family only? Yet new puzzles now appear, for those familiar with the history of clothing cannot ignore the foremost figure to the right. In his short, fur-lined cloak [‘Schaube’] and the long black stockings, there stands out a form a full century older, which with its imposing stature and silhouette is familiar to us from countless paintings by Cranach. This, then, is a man from the first half of the sixteenth century. Once we have arrived at this important conclusion, another suddenly offers itself by way of the first: while the next three men (the women are treated less individually) still bear the short hairstyle of the first half of the seventeenth century, the last ones flaunt the adornment of the voluminous, full-bottomed wig, as was unthinkable before the mid-seventeenth century (thus around the year 1648). We must have before us, then, not only contemporary family members but also an abridged family line by generation. The one in front—probably the first protestant in the family, whom the line follows in close confessional agreement, would thus be some ancestor of the youngest, kneeling. Regarding the latter, we might even entertain the suspicion that a descendant, as the latest branch, had himself painted into the Communion scene long after the painting was completed, since his attire, with its intricate trim—he must have been an especially distinguished gentleman—betrays later fashion trends. Can there be greater opposites than this clean-shaven, wig-wearing cavalier sipping from the chalice with Spanish grandeur and his bearded yet (according to the custom of his day) almost bald-pated ancestor on the right of the foreground, standing solidly in his times and striking us as so Lutheran-German?

“So much for that. Moving on from all these interesting points, let us turn our attention to the large Dürer Supper scene constructed as a unit, towering directly over the lower image, threatening to crush it with its ponderous girth. The artist attempts to form a connection between the two parts by means of the altar, candlesticks, and crucifix, which reach almost to the middle of the upper scene. One can detect a movement in the fold of the tablecloth repeated in the bare arm of Christ. Or one may see the white of the tablecloth echoed in the altarcloth below . One might also—as a sample of the internal regularities which may be latent in a picture—draw an imaginary line over the back of Judas (front right) up to the head of our Lord. This same line is repeated by our master, parallel to it, somewhat farther below, running along the lined-up heads of the communicants over the candle to the point of the crucifix. Two such parallels may also be detected less markedly on the left side of the image.

“Dürer also makes use of such aids in the handling of his composition, at least with greater success than our master. We only identify those most apparent to the eye. The apex created above the Lord through the ridges of the vaulting is subtly reflected in the leg with the two bent supports, finally to leap above the triangle: Christ’s head and the Apostles in the front, left and right, to the figures themselves. Thus zones are produced which facilitate our orientation in the image as a whole, and in these, finally reinforced by the horizontals of the table, the whole scene is unalterably framed. Unfortunately in the place where the sculpture of a cloud-encircled Eye of God is located [in the surrounding altar-frame], our master fails to duplicate Dürer’s space-defining vaults in the copy, so that there is a noticeable opening toward the top. Instead of this, we view, through two windows, a landscape of the Mount of Olives (left), and to the right, in an as of yet unidenteified Bible scene with seven young women in a wooded area coverd with ruins and gabled houses. (This probably refers to Olbernhau, largely in ruins from the Thirty Years’ War, and the time when the people had to flee the enemy and live in wretched huts in the solitary wooded regions.) Above on the left, in a wall niche, we find the bottle which in Dürer stands in the foreground of the space, in which the Lord, circled round by His disciples, keeps His last supper. The apostle standing front and left is still uninvolved in the tension just beginning to build. He busily occupies himself with the flagon. He seems not to have heard Christ’s word, “One there is among you . . .” But behind him, around the table of the disciples, which along with the prophets of the Old Testament were long objects of strongest spiritual interest in German art, the tumult is flaring up. The meal seems to be forgotten, only one last knife is left sitting on the edge of a plate. A gesticulation leaps about from man to man, a questioning glancing from one to other, a murmur that fills the whole room up to the vaulting and finally breaks upon the radiant presence of Christ, who as though protecting His Word, put His arm around His favorite disciple. Only on His body does the fullness of the light rest, which, increasing the unrest, astonishes the faces of the apostles, its gathering point. In front, hunched over, with averted gaze directed upward, sits the Betrayer, who, having received the purse in the sight of the disciples, indicates by his bare legs the carnal nature of his enterprise. As frequent in German art, Dürer here depicts him from behind. Everything in his garishly lighted figure is brought into sharp contrast with the collected calm of the apostle with the wine flagon. Here, diligent service for the Lord; there, cowardly betrayal.

“We clearly detect, beyond the power of words to convey, the Teutonicism in the art of Albrecht Dürer, when we take the effort simply to compare the folio with that of Leonardo’s ‘Supper’ familiar to us from any hymnal. The ultimate purpose of the latter is the harmony of all the parts, which the German one gladly sacrifices for the sake of internal action.

“Reduced to its simplest formula: In Italy form, in Germany content.

“Here let our review, which has strayed into many areas of pictorial arts, be concluded. Even if our altarpiece, unfortunately bearing the traces of later but inconsequential over-painting, does not meet the demands of great art, arising as it does from a time when German culture had been entombed with the Thirty Years’ War, let us nevertheleses do justice to the image and bring greater attention to it than hitherto, as a memorial of Saxon art history and something which appeared worthy of honor to our ancestors, and must certainly have been epoch-making in its own time. We will be glad to have been able to preserve for our own days any work of the old masters generally, even if the bared tongue of demolition in the ages of material necessity have touched it more than before; for the whole image—in its size a singular case and a proof of its fundamental importance—consists of a heavy copper plate. That along with its various deficiencies it also has its positive qualities which evince themselves in its warm colorfulness and in the loving treatment of the details, which above all lie in the cultural-historical realm, should have become adequately clear from these lines. In the relatively small number of Saxon church paintings before the eighteenth century, it will claim an important place as the work of a painter who was highly esteemed in his time.”

Thus far the art historian Dr. Uhlemann, who thus in a scientific way brought to his homeland a memorial of a time long past, and taught them perhaps to value more than it had been before, for which we are obligated to give him greatest thanks. And now one further note which, however, affects nothing in the previous art-historical remarks.

The former Olbernhau altar painting has in its arrangement and in all its principal features a companion in the revered altar-monument of the cathedral of Freiberg, by the grandfather of the donor of our painting, the electoral mint-master, Matthäus Rohdte, in the year 1560, which is now located in the Freiberg museum of antiquities.

However, since we were unable to follow the art-historical field and to speak to the particulars, we leave this to the pen of one better appointed for the task, and share the following here from Mitteilungen des Freiberger Altertumsvereins [Transactions of the Freiberg Society of Antiquities], vol. 36, p. 59.

“The former altar monument of the Freiberg cathedral, which was then preserved in the chapel of St. Anne in the cloisters,6 contains a painting depicting the Supper, which according to tradition derives from Lukas Cranach the Younger. The altar monument, donated by the electoral mint-master of Annaberg, Matthäus Rohdte, in 1560, is no longer preserved in its original condition, since it was renovated in 1649 at the expense of his sons—must mean grandchildren—August Rohdte, factory manager of Saigerhütte Grünthal, and Konstantin Rohdte, mint-master of Dresden. The portraits of the last named, rendered in oil, are additions and presumably works of the Freiberg master Christoph Tümmel.

“The former altar monument of the Freiberg cathedral, 1 meter high and 1.6 meters wide, painted on wood, shows in the foreground—the lower portion of the image, exactly as in Olbernhau—the distribution by two ministers; in the background, the upper portion, the Lord’s institution of the Holy Supper. The richness of the figures, the characteristic forms and heads, which may safely be taken in part as portraiture, the rich dress of the persons represented, all elevate the work and confirm it as one to be regarded as valuable and noteworthy for art history.

“The inscription reads: ‘Anno Christi 1560 this panel and its pertinent articles, of the altar of the cathedral, were donated and erected by sir Matthäus Rohdte. Afterwards, the two surviving sons of his son, sir Michael Rohdte, electoral Saxon factory manager of Saigerhütte Grünthal, namely, sir Augustus Rohdte, himself appointed factory manager of Saigerhütte Grünthal, and sir Constantinus Rohdte, esteemed electoral Saxon mint-master of Dresden, have to the glory of God above all, as also in Christian remembrance of their blessedly departed grandfather, caused this structure to be renovated and covered over again. This was done in the year 1649.’ The principal difference between the two altarpieces consists primarily in the fact that the painter Finck substituted for the Supper scene attributed to Lucas Cranach the one by Dürer. R.”


Dehio, Georg: .Handbuch der deutschen Kunstdenkmäler (Saxony, Berlin, 1965).
Erzgebirgischer General–Anzeiger (April 20, 1935).
— “Unsere Heimat,” supplement to the Erzg. Gen. Anz. No. 1 (1940).
Hahn, Max: Das alte Altarbild der Kirche zu Olbernhau (MS, 1952?).
Neue Sächsische Kirchengalerie: die Ephorie Marienberg (Leipzig, 1900).


  1. Lit., factor, that is, the overseer of a factory in the former sense of trading post. —MC.
  2. Restored to use as altarpiece since 1952—Author’s note.
  3. From the Neue Säschsiche Kirchengalerie, op. cit., p. 590: “. . . two very fine chasubles and altar hangings dissected (but perhaps replaced with new donated chasubles, p. 592, op. cit.?) —Author.
  4. Who endows a “vestige”? No, but wearing a chasuble was the general practice in those days. —Author.
  5. “Houseling cloth” [Vorhaltetuch]. —Author.
  6. But which for some years has served as the high altarpiece. —Author.