The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany
by Michael Baxandall
Yale University Press, 420 pp., $55.00
Limewood does not come, as I used to think before reading. Michael Baxandall’s admirable book, from some kind of citrus tree. The lime tree is a linden tree and it is the broad-leaved lime (Tilia platyphyllos)—as opposed to the small-leaved variety (Tilia cordata)—that provided the basic material for sculpture in the region that runs south from central Germany all the way to the Tyrol, roughly from Frankfurt to Bolzano. There it was used especially for a type of large-winged altarpiece, most intensively in the years 1475-1525, roughly the span of Dürer’s life; indeed, one of the first illustrations in Baxandall’s book is a beautiful Dürer water-color of three lime trees. In other regions wood sculptors normally used oak or walnut, and occasionally other hardwoods, but limewood sculpture is an unusual and rather special medium. The title of Baxandall’s book may appear modestly and misleadingly to examine a very narrow subject, while, in fact, what he treats is much the most important part of Renaissance sculpture in Germany.
The work of the German limewood sculptors is impressive, indeed spectacular. If the names of even the most prominent of these artists, Tilman Riemenschneider and Veit Stoss, are not widely known, they are nevertheless very great sculptors. But most of the major works are still in German churches and museums and because of their fragility they cannot travel to the large exhibitions which are so important in forming taste today. Baxandall’s book, beautifully produced and with numerous and excellent plates, makes it possible to form an idea of these insufficiently known masterpieces.
A typical work is the High Altar of Blaubeuren, near Ulm, executed around 1493. (See page 55; a detail appears on this page.) It is about thirty-six feet high: the central part or “corpus” presents the Virgin and Child and four saints, all life-size or just over, standing on little pedestals and sheltered under canopies with a rich and flamboyant late gothic ornamentation. The wings—Flügeln—that close the altar carry reliefs of the Nativity and Adoration of the Magi, while above are busts of the abbot who commissioned the altar and of the ruling lord Graf Eberhard im Bart of Würtenberg. Below the corpus are Christ and the Apostles, placed just behind the altar table as if performing the last supper. At the top, held by an elegant tracery, Christ is represented as the man of sorrows with St. John and the Virgin. The reverse of the wings carry paintings, as do a pair of outer wings that close the altar altogether.
All the sculpture is coated with gesso and painted, along with a generous addition of gilt. The wide cheekbones and sharply accentuated features of the main figures are vivid and strikingly German. The rich play of draperies is not unrelated to the body underneath, but it is treated with an expressive and ornamental independence unthinkable in the contemporary Italian world of Verrocchio and the young Michelangelo. The large statues relate to one another in a subtle and elaborate counterpoint of slight sinuosity quite distinct from Italian contrapposto.
The sense of line and texture, the use of the play of light as structural element mark this sculpture as German, quite different from the sense of volume and feeling for the anatomy of the human body that one finds in Italy. An emphasis on craft, on virtuosity in carving, also emerges very clearly from Baxandall’s discussion as a major feature that distinguishes these sculptures from the more abstract tradition of Italy. Baxandall has not only analyzed the craftsman’s mentality but also his methods:
The Riemenschneider hair offers half-a-dozen coiffures for males, two or three straightforward cutting operations being variously combined: one could count in his oeuvre many hundreds of knobs of wood grooved more or less spirally with skew firmer, drilled with a hole in the middle, and presented as a curl on head or beard.
Even the “unremitting but indeterminate” pathos in Riemenschneider’s work Baxandall finds something of a trick, if a great one.
Most historians of art are primarily concerned to ascribe particular works to specific artists, and to show where the works fit in the career of the artist. Not Baxandall. In matters of connoisseurship, he is ostensibly, not to say ostentatiously, modest. He writes, “In the few cases where I have not been able to suppress a heterodox opinion of my own (in the way of attribution) I have marked it as distinct: the recurrent phrase ‘in my view’ is therefore self-deprecating in tone.”
It is clear, however, that he is intimately acquainted with the literature and the problems involved in attribution and has his own distinctive ideas about them. Indeed the “Notes on Plates and Sculptors” constitute an excellent summary of previous scholarship. It is not simply his own ability and judgment that Baxandall distrusts, but the enterprise of attribution itself. The Blaubeuren High Altarpiece I described above was once attributed to Jorg Syrlin the Younger, and then to either Michel or Gregor Erhart. Baxandall comments, “On the whole, the case for Michel (see notably Paatz) is preferred here to that for Gregor (notably Otto), but the terms of the argument are unreal.”
What interests Baxandall is to relate the particular character of his sculpture to the conditions surrounding its production, what he calls its “circumstances.” He assumes that art depends on such circumstances, and even that works of art tell us something irreplaceable about the historical situation in which they appeared. This is hardly a new idea, but Michael Baxandall brings to his project a subtle intelligence, a competence in art history as well as cultural history, a scholarly tact that are most unusual.
After a brief introduction in which he limits and defines his inquiry and presents his cast of two dozen artists, roughly divided into three generations, Baxandall examines the material and tools they worked with. He brilliantly shows how the artists took the particular character of limewood into consideration and how the large forms of the statuary reflect this concern. We move in a convincing way from the cellular structure of the tree to the peculiarities of the statues that derive from the qualities of the wood, such as the inclination of the Virgin’s head or the long roughly vertical folds of drapery. (The deep incisions of vertical folds lessened the chances of the wood splitting, while a horizontal fold was more vulnerable.) The even and tractable texture of the wood was suited both to virtuoso carving and to the sensitive handling of surface texture, especially after the gessoed and polychromed sculpture was replaced by Riemenschneider with works on which the wood itself is apparent under a coat of varnish.
Baxandall not only points out the consequences of the wood for the appearance of the sculpture, but convinces us that this corresponds to a particular awareness of limewood at the time. Although locally grown, limewood was expensive; and there was, moreover, a special respect for this wood, probably reinforced by superstitious beliefs attached to it. Baxandall appeals to Paracelsus, the sixteenth-century Swiss doctor and alchemist, for the notion of ‘chiromancy” which the Renaissance scholar extended from the reading of the lines of the hand to the interpretation of exterior signs in general in order to understand the nature of things. This may at first seem farfetched and we may feel that all too much has been made of Paracelsus, especially since Michel Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses. Baxandall himself realizes the danger of taking this somewhat obscure figure as representative of thinking at the time. But when we read in Paracelsus that “people who work wood, carpenters, joiners and such, have to understand their wood by chiromancy of it, what it is apt and good for,” the quotation is too eloquent to be brushed aside.
Baxandall examines the growing feeling throughout the Reformation that religious images, devotional images especially, were idolatrous and sinful. He shows that the iconoclastic movement, which put an end to the Florid style of sculpture, as he calls it, did not destroy as many works as one might have expected. One unanticipated result of this movement was to stimulate the development of secular sculpture, especially public fountains and erotic cabinet pieces. The religious sculpture, as Baxandall’s analysis points out with great originality, had already in fact provided some of the same satisfaction as the secular genres.
Baxandall only concerns himself with the best sculpture of the time and pays no attention to the innumerable mediocre altarpieces that filled the churches during the period. This choice is not merely a matter of aesthetic preference but corresponds to Baxandall’s focus on advanced sections of society and on what is distinctive and original about Renaissance Germany. He shows that the economic conditions in which these exceptional carvings were made were by no means those in which ordinary sculptures were produced. They were not the work of ordinary craftsmen but of virtuoso specialists working for a very small but powerful minority of merchants and patricians. These sculptors managed to beat the system of the traditional medieval guilds by modeling their commercial strategies on those of their patrons.
The guild existed to protect its members from competition and secure work for all of them as equitably as possible; but in order to do so, it limited their individual freedom of action, regulating the kind of work they could or could not take on, how many apprentices they were allowed to hire, and so forth. The great limewood sculptors, while retaining their membership in a guild, managed to create monopolies. As Baxandall writes, “The system of the guilds could not contain the outstanding men this book is about, and instead they turned from oligopoly to monopoly of one form or another: they are the Fuggers of art and realize in their carving the new economic Europe.”
By monopoly, Baxandall means “no more than the position of sole or dominant seller of a commodity,” and he astutely argues that a highly individual and prestigious style is one way of cornering a market. The limewood sculptors also practiced the “classic integration monopoly” by creating large workshops and subcontracting the parts of the work which did not fall within their own competence, like the joining of the framework or the painting. Baxandall gives a vivid account of their fights both with the guilds and with certain autocratic patrons, who preferred to keep control by contracting directly for the different stages of production.
The strong assertion of individuality that we sense in the limewood sculptors’ work is not simply something we impose on it from our sense of modern art; it was a conscious issue at the time. This point emerges clearly in an attempt by some sculptors of Strasburg to introduce a new condition for being admitted into the guild as a master: the creation of a figure without a pattern or model, that is, a work of the craftsman’s own invention. In other words, they wished to enforce originality rather than mere technical competence as a standard. This proposal provoked opposition and controversy. Baxandall also advances less direct but nevertheless explicit evidence for the notions of personal style and originality in the theories evolved at the time, or shortly before, by the Meistersingers, the poet-musicians like Hans Sachs who were made famous by Wagner.