Exhibition 'Michel Sittow in the North? Altarpieces in Dialogue' on display

The royal couple King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden, along with President Alar Karis and Sirje Karis, at the exhibition's opening.
The royal couple King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden, along with President Alar Karis and Sirje Karis, at the exhibition's opening. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The international exhibition "Michel Sittow in the North? Altarpieces in Dialogue," which gives a new perspective on Tallinn as a center of 16th century art is on display at the Niguliste Museum in the Tallinn old town.

The origins of the Bollnäs Holy Kinship Altarpiece in northern Sweden have long puzzled art historians, who have attributed it to both Dutch and German masters.

Enough comparative evidence has now been gathered to suggest that the work was made in Tallinn in the early 16th century in Michel Sittow's workshop, (ca 1469–1525), an internationally renowned artist who was born in Tallinn (Reval). 

Merike Kurisoo, the curator of the exhibition, said that the exhibition explores what was happening in Tallinn at the beginning of the 16th century and who were the other masters Sittow may have met and collaborated with.

According to Kurisoo, the exhibition started as a dialogue between the two works. The paintings on the outer wings of the Passion Altarpiece in Tallinn, which are attributed to Sittow, are very similar in style to those on the Holy Kinship altarpiece in Bollnäs. "The comparison of the two works was the beginning of this project," she said.

The exhibition also features a third altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin Mary and created in a Brussels atelier around 1500.

"Its iconography, and especially the iconography of the sculpted body, is almost identical to that of this magnificent Bollnäs alterpiece. It is likely to have been the pictorial model for this work in Tallinn," Kurisoo said.

The exhibition's co-curator, art historian Jan Friedrich Richter, said that in the early 16th century, talented artists from all over Europe converged on Tallinn, bearing with them the best of their abilities. The result was a mixture of styles, rather than a distinct local handwriting, which has puzzled art historians.

"After all, Tallinn was geographically at the easternmost edge of the Hanseatic League's sphere of influence, which was reliant on imports and lacked significant domestic production. For long, it was assumed that there could be no art here," Richter explained. "There was not a longstanding tradition of art production in this region, so all the artists who moved here brought their knowledge with them. Only most intriguing and best of the available options were chosen, which explains the very distinctive combination also seen in this Bollnäs altarpiece, which had previously gone unnoticed," he explained.

The exhibition is a part of the international research project of the same name, started in 2021, involving the Art Museum of Estonia, the Hälsingland Museum and the Church of Sweden. It brings together works of art from Estonia, Sweden, Finland and Latvia which were probably created in Tallinn in the first quarter of the 16th century. 

The project is also accompanied by two international conferences.

The exhibition "Michel Sittow in the North? Altarpieces in Dialogue (2021–2024)" is open at the Niguliste Museum (St. Nicholas' Church) until November 5.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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