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The Council of Salvation

Christmas Story, Image 206

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Audio transcription

What a peculiar painting! It displays two motions: We see two godly children in the right part of the painting. They hover as tiny babies in front of their mothers’ wombs. One of them falls on his knees before the Christ child. This is the yet unborn John the Baptist. He recognises in the other baby Jesus the Saviour. On the left of the painting, you can see Christ’s divine designation to redeem humans from sin: Godfather in his magnificent red mantle points to the pages of an empty book, while his son humbly accepts his father’s council to become human and sacrifice himself like a lamb.

The lyrics of the five-part motet „Over the mountains Mary goes“ by Johannes Eccard refers to the gospel of Luke, exactly like the painting by Konrad Witz: After Mary has conceived a child through the Holy Spirit, she visits her relative Elizabeth. Although Elizabeth could be considered too old to have a child, she is also pregnant. When the two women meet and Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, „the baby leaped in her womb“ and Elizabeth blesses Mary the godmother.

In the gospel of Luke Mary says the Magnificat as Elizabeth recognises in her the godmother. Johannes Eccard turns the Magnificat into the chorus of his motet which he composed on the occasion of the Christian holiday „Visitation of the Virgin Mary“. The words „He is my saviour“ lead the polyphonous movement of „Over the mountains Mary goes“ into one voice. This shows: The certainty of redemption is as irrevocable as God’s Council.

Golden background with figures, a throne, and a book. God the Father on an ornate throne, wearing a red robe, holding a golden key. Jesus kneeling devoutly before God the Father. An open book between them with a small lamb symbol. Mary and Elizabeth on the right, pregnant, with embryos of John and Jesus. A dove hovers over God, the Lamb, Christ, and the book.

Full Length Music

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Johannes Eccard (1553–1611)
„Übers Gebirg Maria geht (nach Lukas 1, 46–55)“
RIAS Kammerchor Berlin
around 1640


The Council of Salvation (1444),
Konrad Witz,
Fir wood,
135.3 × 164.0 cm

Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Christoph Schmidt

Detail, Book

An impressive painting depicts an empty, dynamic page between God the Father and Christ, symbolizing the New Testament. God's energetic hand adds depth to the image, while the blank pages indicate that the New Testament is yet to be written.
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Audio transcription

From an interview with Stephan Kemperdick, curator of the Gemäldegalerie, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

This beautifully depicted book between Godfather and Jesus is a lovely and characteristic detail. Its pages flutter as if blown open by the wind. Godfather grabs the pages, creasing them, and we can see him saying something. The pages are empty, they yet have to be filled – with the New Testament. Everything this book is ever to contain has yet to be accomplished.

Detail, Key

A large, golden key with an engraved cross hovers above the hands of God. The heavenly key represents the binding and loosing authority given by Christ to Peter, as described in the Gospel of Matthew.
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Audio transcription

From an interview with Stephan Kemperdick, curator of the Gemäldegalerie, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

Godfather sits on his throne with a tiara like a pope; a suspended key before him. That’s actually Petrus’s attribute, the power of loosing, as we know it. This very power of loosing is of concern here because it promises to redeem humankind from sin and possibly unlock heaven.

Detail, Elizabeth’s face

The red figure on the right side of the painting is Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Her deeply wrinkled face and missing tooth emphasize the divine miracle of her late pregnancy.
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Audio transcription

From an interview with Stephan Kemperdick, curator of the Gemäldegalerie and Gregor Meyer, artistic assistant of the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

Mary and Elizabeth meet and are both delighted. Elizabeth is an older woman, Witz painted with delicate strokes the many lines and wrinkles around her eyes. The artist really wants to demonstrate the miracle of her pregnancy.

At the time, there were practically no paintings that looked so convincingly real, and that’s why people memorised this one. People who had seen The Council of Salvation knew how Mary’s visitation to her cousin Elizabeth had taken place. Seeing the painting has a memo-technical aim of recognising the biblical scene, and it also had a very strong emotional effect that could never be achieved by a text alone.

This piece by Eccard is completely written in German, so people in Germany could understand what was sung. And yet, the music Eccard composes with ever so small gestures really also enacts the visit. It is a really simple and plain piece of music, but Eccard actually redraws „Mary Over the Mountains goes“: the music climbs high and then comes down again. People can hear Mary visit her cousin and greet her friend, the stress is on „greet“, that’s really clear.

The Council of Salvation
Main floor, Room I