A spotlight on Adam Elsheimer

Tico Seifert is Senior Curator of Northern European Art at the National Galleries of Scotland. He developed a passion for Adam Elsheimer’s small and incredibly rich paintings many years ago, before joining the Galleries in 2008. If anything, his fascination with the artist has intensified since!

Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610), the German painter who spent the last ten years of his short career in Rome, is widely regarded as a pioneering artist of the European Baroque. His ability to condense epic drama and monumental figures into small, jewel-like copperplates, were praised by contemporaries and had a lasting impact on artists north and south of the Alps throughout the seventeenth century and beyond.


The National Galleries of Scotland holds a world-class group of works by Elsheimer, an artist whose paintings and drawings were always rare and cherished by collectors. When the great Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens learnt of his friend’s death in 1610, he expressed deep grief and added: “I pray that God will forgive Signor Adam his sin of sloth, by which he has deprived the world of the most beautiful things” (R.S. Magurn (ed.), The Letters of Peter Paul Rubens, Cambridge MA 1955, p.54). A few years later, the Roman collector, writer, and papal physician Giulio Mancini noted that ”one sees little of Elsheimer’s work because he produced little and this little is in the hands of princes and those persons who, in order that they should not be taken from them, keep them hidden” (K. Andrews, Adam Elsheimer: Paintings, Drawings, Prints, Oxford 1977, p.52).

Adam Elsheimer The Stoning of Saint Stephen About 1603 - 1604

It is therefore exceptional that the National Galleries of Scotland are home to two superb paintings as well as a drawing by Elsheimer. The Stoning of Saint Stephen (left) was painted around 1603-04. Saint Stephen, appointed by the apostle Saint Peter as one of the seven deacons of Rome, was the first Christian martyr. According to the New Testament (Acts 6-7), he had angered the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem with his zealous preaching and was accused of blasphemy. The saint wears an embroidered dalmatic – the liturgic garment of a deacon – depicting Christ carrying the cross. Wounded by stones and bleeding heavily, he has sunk onto his knees. Raising his head, he experiences a vision of the open heavens, with the small figures of Godfather and Christ visible in the top left. In a beam of intense light, an angel and putti present the saint with the palm fronds of martyrdom and a laurel crown. The shaded figure in the lower left may be Saul, who according to the Acts of the Apostles witnessed the martyrdom and participated in the prosecution of Christians. After his own conversion on the road to Damascus, Saul became the apostle (Saint) Paul. Elsheimer took inspiration from Caravaggio for the dynamic figure of the angel and from an ancient Roman sculpture of the satyr Marsyas, for the stone thrower on the right, who is about to deal the final blow to the dying saint.

The second painting, Il Contento ("Contentment") is inspired by a popular Spanish novel published in 1599, describing how the people worshipped Contento, the god of happiness, more than Jupiter. To punish his folk, the jealous father of the gods sent Mercury to abduct Contento and leave behind his twin, Discontento. Elsheimer was the first artist ever to depict this story, but deviating from the novel, he turned Contento into a female goddess.

Jupiter hovers in mid-air above the beautifully lit group of singers, while directing Mercury, who wears his distinctive winged hat, to pull Contento away from the angry crowd, some clinging to her cloak in despair. In the background, people are feasting – here Elsheimer took to the Roman carnival for inspiration – unaware of these dramatic events. Begun around 1605, the painting was still unfinished when Elsheimer died in Rome in 1610 and recorded in this state by Johann König (1586-1642) in a drawing, which was presented to the Galleries in 2016. One of Elsheimer’s rare drawings, a preparatory design for ‘Il Contento’, demonstrates that the artist initially had devised a less dynamic composition, with two groups moving towards the centre from opposite directions.

Both the paintings are usually on display in Room 4 at the Scottish National Gallery. Because of their sensitivity to light, the drawings are not on permanent display.


Adam Elsheimer Il Contento [Contentment] About 1607
Adam Elsheimer Il Contento [Contentment] About 1607 Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture collections, David Laing Bequest (on loan to the Scottish National Gallery)
3 November 2021