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    Poet in Wood and Stone
by Fred Stern
ca. 1485
Saint Barbara
ca. 1485-90
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
(left to right) from the predella of the Münnerstadt altarpiece
ca. 1490-92
Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen (Noli Me Tangere)
from the left wing of the Münnerstadt altarpiece
ca. 1490-92
Virgin and Child on the Crescent Moon
ca. 1495
Enthroned Saint Anne with the Virgin and the Christ Child (Anna Selbdritt)
ca. 1490-95
Saint Jerome with the Lion
"Tilman Riemenschneider: Master Sculptor of the Late Middle Ages," Feb. 10-May 14, 2000, at the Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.

He shouldn't need an introduction. But he does.

He was a member of the great triumvirate that rules religious art in the decades just before the Reformation in Germany. They are Albrecht Dürer, the powerful painter, printmaker and virtuoso of the woodcut, and Matthias Grünewald, the expressionistic master of the late Gothic period who created the Isenheim altarpiece.

And the third is Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531), the immensely talented sculptor whose work is currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum, the first U.S. show of the artist's work in 70 years.

More than 60 sculptures, individual statues and groups from larger altarpieces are presented, each one a challenge to even the most practiced eye in terms of intricacy and emotional power.

Riemenschneider's training ground was Strasbourg and Ulm, the two main centers of Gothic sculpture. There he learned to work and carve his materials, to understand the difference between the brittle, crystalline structure of stone and wood's much tougher, cellular composition. He composed with ease in both mediums. Plus, he had the inner vision to intuitively know what lay dormant within his materials. The results were spectacular.

To this day I remember with awe when I first saw Riemenschneider's work. I was 11 years old at the time, wandering into local churches in Bavaria that were filled with Tilman's treasures. "How could he do this," I marveled.

What a happy reunion for me to see the Annunciation once more in the Met's show. The archangel Gabriel seems to be flying in from a far off place, gown billowing behind him as he faces Mary seated at a reading bench. Made in ca. 1485, when the artist was about 25 years old, the alabaster masterpiece is a clear demonstration of Riemenschneider's youthful mastery.

This Annunciation was his first project. The year 1485 was an important one for Riemenschneider. He acquired Franconian citizenship, he was anointed with the status of "master sculptor" (meaning he could sell his work under his name, and accept commissions from church and the laity) and he wed what was to be the first of a string of wives.

One of his most important works shows the alabaster Saint Barbara (ca. 1485-1490). The youthful yet assertive presence of the Saint is emphasized by the sweeping drapery of her gown. Carved fully in the round with substantial areas of undercutting, it reflects his careful study of the concepts of his teacher, Gerhaert von Leiden.

Today, Riemenschneider is praised for working in unpainted limewood, in contrast to his peers who preferred polychromed surfaces. With painted sculpture, tough jobs such as shaping a facial surface or deep-cutting hair could be avoided, knowing the Fassmaler -- or coloring studio -- would create the last sculptural refinements with coloring, gilding or silverwork.

A limewood composition of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are from the predella of the disassembled Münnerstadt altarpiece, (Staatliche Museen, Berlin). Each evangelist is cut from a separate limewood block. The positioning of the group is skillful and their features are highly individualistic. Mark and Luke are clothed in the garb of medieval scholars.

Another limewood construction, Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen (Noli me Tangere) is from the left wing of the same altarpiece. It represents Christ's encounter with the Magdalen after the resurrection. The figures seem to be in different planes and, though they appear near one another, the tension of the movement prevents any contact. A carved zig-zag pattern varies the surface of the wood in a richly satisfying manner.

Yet, another limewood group dated to 1495 and now in the Cologne Art Museum is The Virgin and Child on the Crescent Moon. The concept of the crescent moon comes from the woman described in the Book of the Apocalypse, in which the Virgin is said to grant indulgences for 11,000 years if specific prayers are said in front of her.

The highly detailed execution encourages close viewing. The statue was probably a single object on an altar. It invites the viewer to move around the work and view it from the full 180 degrees.

From a Würzburg museum comes the Enthroned Saint Anne with the Virgin and Child, created in sandstone in 1495.

A majestic, elderly Anne balances the Virgin on her left knee and the Christ child on her right. The sculpture is carved from a single sandstone block and originally rested on an octagonal column.

A deeply sensitive person, Riemenschneider can be counted among the first humanists totally committed to the naturalistic representation of religious icons. He became the mayor of his adopted city, Würzburg (1520-21), but ran afoul of the Prince- Bishop Konrad von Thüngen when he sided with a peasant uprising. For his efforts he was imprisoned and tortured. Aside from making minor repairs to his altarpieces, he did not sculpt from 1525 to the end of his life in 1531.

A few works by Riemenschneider remain in private hands, and are subject to ardent courtship by American museums.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.