Tilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531)
RENAISSANCE IN NORTH
EVOLUTION 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.
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.
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.
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)
For the history and types of sculpture, see: Homepage.