Der Naumburger Meister: Bildhauer und Architekt im Europa der Kathedralen [The Naumburg Master: Sculptor and Architect in the Europe of Cathedrals]
Petersberg, Germany: Michael Imhof, two volumes, 1,567 pp., €69.99
In its first twenty-odd years, postwar Germany had no shortage of exhibitions of medieval art; most of them reflected the nostalgic yearnings of a politically and morally insecure country clinging to its Christian past. The 1950 show “Ars Sacra” in Munich invoked the transcendence of “Ottonian” art, named for the dynasty of Holy Roman Emperors founded by Otto the Great (912–973). In 1966 the “coronation town” of Aachen, where the German kings were crowned until 1531, staged a splendid show on Charlemagne which resonated with Germany’s push for increased cooperation within the European community. Shortly thereafter, the Cologne show “Rhein und Maas” (The Rhine and the Meuse) turned westward to focus on the art of the region between Liège and the Rhineland monasteries.
But in all those years, almost no attention was paid to the medieval art of the Duchy of Saxony, the German heartland, a large part of which was included in the German Democratic Republic (DDR). It wasn’t until after reunification in 1990 that a series of exhibits in Magdeburg in the former DDR reminded us of the migration—or invasion—of the Gothic style into Mitteldeutschland: Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia. It was the rediscovery of a world that had sunk into obscurity.
In the episcopal town of Naumburg, the state of Saxony-Anhalt is now sponsoring a triumphant show with a trumpet blast of a title: “The Naumburg Master: Sculptor and Architect in the Europe of Cathedrals.” When it was first announced, some skepticism was called for. Hadn’t the very concept of a somewhat mysterious “Naumburg Master” been irredeemably contaminated by the chauvinistic dithyrambs of German nationalism? And besides, where would the organizers turn for the loan works they would need for a comprehensive exhibition of monumental sculpture in the High Middle Ages?
Yet until November 2, we can wander with delight through a resoundingly successful show. Both the exhibition and its catalog have rescued the works of the Naumburg Master from the jaws of jingoism and embedded them not only in their European setting, but above all in the setting of Christian devotional history. Gone are the rhapsodies to the “sacred shrine of Germanic sculpture.” Instead, we are reminded of the tradition of creating memorials to donors and representing Christ’s Passion with a new empathy as it can be observed in the age of Saint Francis. The exhibition brings about nothing less than a historical rehabilitation of the Naumburg sculptures.
The show’s curators have succeeded in attracting a wealth of spectacular loans, chief among them sculptures from Champagne and the crown lands of the Capetian kings, who ruled France between 987 and 1328. The sculptures are supplemented by crowns, weapons, manuscripts, documents, and seals, making the show a mirror of courtly culture in the …