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…
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