Tilman Riemenschneider
Biography of German Gothic Sculptor, Medieval Wood-Carver of Holy Blood Altar.

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Tilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531)

Detail from the Holy Blood Altar (1501-5). Late German Gothic sculpture.
St. Jakobs Church, Rothenburg. A masterpiece of wood carving from one of the
greatest sculptors of the Gothic/Renaissance era. Opened only on certain occasions,
this beautiful piece of biblical art depicts "The Last Supper". Recognizable by his purse,
Judas is (unusually) standing in the centre, talking to Jesus, who has just announced
that a traitor is present among them. The artist's focus on the religious message of the
work, rather than pure aesthetics (for example, drapery and facial features are carved
without excessive detail) shows that Riemenschneider belongs essentially to the medieval
tradition of Gothic sculpture, rather than that of the emerging Renaissance sculpture,
embodied by Donatello and Michelangelo. Other similar masterpieces of wood carving include:
the Gothic oak Altarpiece of the Passion and Childhood of Christ (c.1520, Anvers, Belgium;
now in Musee National du Moyen Age, Paris); and the spruce and limewood Baroque style
Altar of the Virgin (c.1616, Uberlingen Kirche, Uberlingen.)

Andre Beauneveu (c.1335-1400)
Claus Sluter (c.1340-1406)
Hans Multscher (c.1400-1467)
Giorgio da Sebenico (1410-1473)
Michel Colombe (c.1430-1512)
Michael Pacher (1435-98)
Gregor Erhart (c.1460-1540).

For painting and wood carving
in Germany (1430-1580), see:
German Renaissance Art.

For the top works, in the
history of art, see:
Greatest Sculptures Ever.

See: History of Sculpture.


One of the greatest exponents of German Gothic art, the master sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider specialized in wood-carving, especially from limewood and lindenwood. He was active in Wurzburg from the mid-1480s, and was one of the most prolific and talented carvers of figurative Christian art, in the form of altarpieces and statuary.

Although his sculpting career coincided with the High Renaissance in Italy (c.1490-1530), he himself remained a medieval artist who practised a late style of Gothic art, and remained entirely unaffected by the new forms and ideals of Italian Renaissance art developing south of the Alps. In fact, along with Veit Stoss (1450-1533), he was the leading Late Gothic German sculptor, and his workshop employed up to 40 assistants and pupils. He was principally a woodcarver, though he worked also in stone. His influence over later sculptors, like the German master carver Jorg Zurn (1583-1638), should not be under-estimated.

For different types of 3-D
carving/casting, see:
Stone Sculpture
Granite, limestone, sandstone
and other rock-types.
Marble Sculpture
Pentelic, Carrara, Parian marbles.


Tilman Riemenschneider was born in Heiligenstadt im Eichsfeld a town located in the German province of Thuringia. At the age of 5, his family resettled in Osterode. At about 13, he began to learn the trade of sculpting and woodcarving, training at several different workshops throughout the area of Swabia and the upper Rhine (including that of Michael Erhart), as required by the Guild of Sculptors.

In 1483, after completing his apprenticeship, Riemenschneider moved to the prosperous mercantile city of Wurzburg where he worked until the end of his life. He joined the Saint Luke's Guild of painters, sculptors and glass workers, and not long afterwards he married Anna Schmidt, a widow of a master goldsmith with three sons, an arrangement that allowed him to become a master craftsman. In due course he would marry three more wives.



Early Religious Carvings

Riemenschneider's earliest authenticated sculpture is the Gravestone of Eberhard von Grumbach in the Pfarrkirche at Rimpar. It wasn't long however before he started to receive numerous commissions from the municipal authorities of Wurzburg and neighbouring towns. The earliest large-scale work of sculpture attributed to him is the Franziskusaltar in the St Jakobskirche in Rothenburg ob der Tauber (c.1488).

In 1490, the town council of Münnerstadt commissioned Riemenschneider to make an altarpiece for St Maria Magdalena, the parish church, which featured a carving of St Mary Magdalene with Six Angels. The following year, the town council of Würzburg commissioned two life-size stone figures of Adam and Eve for the Marienkapelle. in 1495 he created the statue of Mary with child which resides in the Pfarrkirche St Bernard in Wurzburg.

Foremost Sculptor of the Wurzburg Region

By 1500, Riemenschneider had developed a widespread reputation as the foremost wood carver of the region and had become a prosperous member of the Wurzburg community. His workshop had grown to include some 30 apprentices training in woodcarving, sculpting and painting, including Peter Breuer and Philipp Koch. In 1504, he was elected a councillor (late Mayor) of the city, an office which he held for some 20 years and which brought him a number of lucrative commissions. In 1505 he was selected to appear in the official welcoming party for Emperor Maximilian I when he visited the city.



Alas, his fortunes changed in the mid 1520s during the Peasants Revolt, when he refused to vote in support of military force against the peasants. After the revolt was suppressed, he was imprisoned by supporters of the Prince Bishop of Wurzburg and heavily fined, and went on to produce little work in the final six years of his life. Among his sons, two (Jorg and Hans) became sculptors, while two others (Bartholomeus and Tilman junior) became painters.

Riemenschneider's Art

His initial works were sculpted in alabaster. Later he carved in stone as well as wood, but was always admired for his virtuosity in the carving of wood, notably limewood. As fundamentally a Gothic sculptor, familiar with the traditions of medieval art, Riemenschneider was renowned for his attention to surface detail and texture, being more concerned with surface realism than Renaissance priorities of volumetric modelling and anatomical accuracy. (The broader forms of some of his late works hint at the possible influence of Italian Renaissance sculpture). In general, his carved figures are characterized by their unique emotional expressiveness and by the detail of their clothing.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to judge artists like the German Late Gothic wood-carver Tilman Riemenschneider, see: How to Appreciate Sculpture. For later works, please see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

Holy Blood Altar (1501-1505)

Characteristic of the altarpiece art of the time and opened only on certain occasions, this monochrome altarpiece in limewood (Jakobskirche, Rothenburg ob der Tauber) shows some fundamental Christian scenes. On the left panel, Christ is represented seated on a donkey, entering Jerusalem in all his glory, while on the right panel he is shown abandoned on the Mount of Olives surrounded by his sleeping disciples.

In the centre appears a majestic depiction of The Last Supper. Judas, recognizable by the purse he holds in his left hand, is unusually situated at the centre of the scene, talking to Christ who, on the contrary, stands in the background. Christhas just announced that the traitor is among them and will betray him. Besides fear and indignation, astonishment is also visible on the faces of the apostles, and St John rests his head against Christ in distress. The draped clothing is elaborate but without exaggeration. The work illustrates the fact that Riemenschneider is more concerned with the importance of the message than pure aesthetics, underlining his detachment from the Italian Renaissance. In this piece the artist abandons the usual polychromy in order to highlight the beauty of lime wood, a common sculptural material in Northern Europe at the time. This slightly offbeat portrayal of The Last Supper, through the premonitory presence of Judas, is perhaps even more important as it suggests a return to the reading of the Scriptures, possibly foreshadowing the coming protestant reformation (1519).

Riemenschneider: Selected Works

The biggest collection of his work (some 80 pieces) can be seen in the Mainfrankisches Museum in Wurzburg. Among his authenticated works are the following:

- Hassenbacher Vesperbild (wood) (1490) Hassenbach Church.
- Altar of the Farewell of the Apostles (1491) Allerheiligenkirche, Nuremberg.
- Altar Piece (1490-92) Maria Magdalena Munnerstadt.
- Adam and Eve (1491-93) Mainfrankisches Museum, Marienberg Citadel.
- Assumption of the Virgin (Creglingen Altarpiece) (1495-99) Herrgottskirche.
- Statue of Bishop Rudolf von Scherenberg (1496-99) Cathedral of Würzburg.
- Emperor's Tomb (1499-1513) Bamberg Cathedral.
- Mary Salome and Zebedee (1510), Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
- Saint Anne and Husbands (1505-1510), Bayerisches Nationalmuseum.
- Grieving Maria (c.1505) Mainfrankisches Museum, Wurzburg.
- Altar of Maria (c.1505-8) Creglingen.
- Carving of St. Kilian, Crucifix (1500) St.Leo Church, Wurzburg.
- Crucifixion (1500-1505) St.Nikolas Church, Eisingen, Bavaria.
- Holy Blood Altar (1501-1505) Jakobskirche, Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
- Crucifixion Altar (1510-13) Kurpfalzisches Museum, Heidelberg.
- Tomb of Bishop Lorenz of Bibra Cathedral of Würzburg (1520-22).
- Madonna of the Rosary (1521-4) Weinbergen Church, Volkach.
- The Grieving for Christ (1525) Klosterkirche, Maidbronn near Wurzburg.

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