Konrad Witz’s sole existing, signed, and dated work is the Altarpiece of Saint Peter for the Cathedral of St. Peter in Geneva, Switzerland. It only survives partially; one of the four surviving wings is the exterior panel depicting the scene of the Miraculous Draught of Fish. It was commissioned by Cardinal Francois de Mies around 1443. Konrad Witz’s oil on wood painting represents some of the numerous ideological shifts that were occurring during the Renaissance. Witz’s Miraculous Draught of Fishes reflects the Renaissance’s changing ideas concerning Naturalism; the power of observation; the changing role of the artist in depicting the sacred; a painting’s composition; and the increasing completion amongst components of the Catholic Church.
The scene that Witz depicts on this altarpiece is most closely related to the second miracle of fishes attributed to Christ. According to the Gospel of John, seven of the apostles had decided to go fishing after the resurrection of Christ. After an unsuccessful night, a man calls to the apostles instructing them to cast their nets off the right side of their boat. After doing so, the apostles could not haul in the net because it was so full of fish. Peter realizes that the man that had called to them off the shore was Jesus. Peter jumps into the water and wades to shore to meet Jesus. The other apostles haul in the catch. Then Christ and his apostles share a meal of bread and fish on the shore. Witz has set this story off the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.
The most prominent aspect of Witz’s altarpiece is its detailed landscape. Witz attended to the background with such detail that this landscape is termed as the first “portrayal landscape” in Northern European art. The view can be identified as the view from the Southwest shore of Lake Geneva. The Savory Alps stretch across the background with Mont Blanc rising up on the right. In the distance washmen work along the shore, shepherds attend to their flock, and soldiers march towards the town of Geneva carrying their banner ahead of them. Witz carefully captures the reflective qualities of light upon water, the delicate reflections of the apostles, and the detailed shallow water along the shore. The boat sends gentle ripples across the placid lake. Monumental clouds rear up in the light blue sky and seem to mirror the events that occur below. This depth of detail, especially Witz’s attention to realism in his landscape, demonstrates a definite shift from the flat and abstracted backgrounds that characterized pre-Renaissance art.
The genre of landscape painting arose prominently during the Renaissance. Landscape painting was only possible through careful observation. Observation is the collection of information through the senses. Before the Renaissance, the Christian Church held that the human senses were easily corrupted and thus led to sin. However, during the Renaissance humanist thinking led to an increased importance of the senses and...