The Metropolitan Museum’s current exhibition of the sculpture of Tilman Riemenschneider and some contemporaries is, I would guess, the most exquisite package to arrive on these shores from pre-modern Northern Europe since the Vermeer show at Washington’s National Gallery in 1995-1996. As with the Vermeer, there is a problem of seeing. The Vermeer paintings, though most of the twenty-three had a wall to themselves, were hard to glimpse through the scrum of art lovers in front of each; and, once a view had been obtained, it was hard to maintain it for more than a moment in the press of bodies. The Riemenschneider exhibit is besieged by no such throngs, but its elements, ingeniously mounted through seven spacious chambers, pose in acute form the perennial visual problem of sculpture: From what angle is it best, or most appropriately, viewed?

A color reproduction of a painting gives us, as precisely as the printer’s process can manage, the thing itself, minus only the (not inconsiderable) qualities of its texture and scale. Sculpture, however, exists in three dimensions, and in variable light, so that no photograph, even in as exemplary and weighty a catalog as this one, can be definitive for more than one moment, usually a frontal and evenly lit moment, in a potentially infinite array of appearances.

Most of these pieces were designed as aids to worship, mounted in churches at some height above the congregation and to be seen, dramatically shadowed, in the trembling soft glow of candlelight. Is it proper to approach, as I did in hopes of duplicating a supplicant’s aesthetic sensations, a large limewood representation of the Virgin and Child, raised on the museum wall to place her feet level with my eyes, so closely that, looking upward, I created steep perspectives wherein hands, drapery, and the two holy heads achieved a dramatic, foreshortened conjunction? Was it legitimate to admire, from the side, in the Seated Virgin and Child attributed to Michel Erhart, the way the Christ child’s tiny uplifted right arm is free-standing in the narrow slot of space between his mother’s abdomen and her arm, which thrusts into the Man-God’s mouth one of the world’s earliest (circa 1480) representations of a pacifier? More urgently still, did it deviate from permissible connoisseurship to look behind the wooden tableaux that predominate in Riemenschneider’s late work, and to see, with a perverse thrill, that the figures so impressive and finely worked from the front are hollowed out like huge salad bowls, figures five feet high but hardly more than six inches deep? Riemenschneider, we feel, somehow tricked his public with such august trompe l’oeil, but the modern museumgoer sneaks behind the altarpiece and catches him out.

In his 1955 Mellon Lectures for the Fine Arts, The Art of Sculpture, Herbert Read claimed that sculpture appeals to the “haptic” sense. The word, scarcely heard of in 1955, can now be found in dictionaries, defined as “related to or based on the sense of touch.” Read employed it in a subtler sense, closer to its parent Greek haptikon, “to lay hold of”: the forms of sculpture arouse in the viewer “tactile impressions” which translate into semiconscious “bodily sensations,” a virtually muscular apprehension of the object’s dynamic mass and weight. Riemenschneider is a disconcerting sculptor in that his career evolved toward weightlessness, in the form of large altarpieces like bas-reliefs without the grounding panel of wood or stone.

Born around 1460, he appears on the records of Würzburg, in Franconia, in 1483, as a journeyman, having evidently received training elsewhere. Fourteen months later, in early 1485, he received his citizenship in this, the smallest (at six or seven thousand souls) of the three centers of woodcarving, the other two being Nuremberg and Ulm.

An early Annunciation in alabaster, dated circa 1485, is displayed with another, anonymous, alabaster Annunciation, produced in Würzburg in 1484, and, though the comparison is meant to be in Riemenschneider’s favor, the anonymous work distinctly makes the stronger appeal to our haptic sense: the figures are palpably blocks of stone, the faces rather lightly nicked by their features, whereas the Riemenschneider Gabriel’s robes swirl and the Virgin’s cup her torso like a crumpled chalice. The hair of both Riemenschneider figures is wonderfully dematerialized; the angel’s long locks curl around deeply drilled vortices and the Virgin’s long strands ripple in their gilt like slender snakes. The alabaster is subverted to animation and lightness; spirituality tugs at the relatively chunky figures. In another early alabaster, of Saint Barbara (circa 1485-1490), the characteris-tic Riemenschneiderish expression—mournful eyes drooping down at the outer corners and underlined with at least one crease; lips pressed together with pensive, determined dents at the downturned corners—is already in place.

Throughout the exhibition, regrettably, I was instinctively attracted to the statues that were not Riemenschneider’s: the two finely carved Virgin and Childs attributed to Niclaus Gerhaert von Leiden, especially the superb small boxwood piece, whose tight grain permits the most uncannily delicate carving of the show; the faintly Romanesque, round-eyed applewood carving Virgin and Child on the Crescent Moon, attributed merely to “Strasbourg(?)”; the good-humored, even humorous sandstone Saint Anne with the Virgin and Christ Child, also from Strasbourg (see illustration on page 20); and, from 1516, the robust, theatrical Archangel Raphael and the Young Tobias by Veit Stoss, described by the catalog as “Riemenschneider’s most important contemporary and… often seen as his polar opposite.” All of these works have a certain earthiness, an aura of good cheer, that is not prominent among Riemenschneider’s beautiful qualities.


In Till-Holger Borchert’s instructive catalog essay on Riemenschneider’s “shifting critical fortune” in Germany, it is noteworthy that Riemenschneider’s name emerged from the multitude of late Gothic sculptors only in the nineteenth century, and that a Weimar Republic exponent of “the autonomous entelechy of German art,” Wilhelm Pinder, found Riemenschneider “dried up” and “senile” compared to what Borchert terms the “expressionist modernity of a Veit Stoss.” Pinder, who became a Nazi supporter, admired Veit Stoss’s unbending, pugnacious character and saw Riemenschneider’s prolific production as having corrupted all of Lower Franconia, blaming “this gentle tyrant” for “the destruction of the individuality of an entire artistic region.”

Such cultural politicizing was encouraged by the political content of Riemenschneider’s life. A prominent artist-burgher, he was several times elected to the Würzburg municipal council, and served as mayor in 1520-1521. During the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525, aimed at the Catholic nobility and especially violent in Franconia, he was on the municipal council which refused to allow Würzburg’s prince-bishop, Konrad von Thüngen, to gather all his troops in the city. After the rebellion was crushed, Riemenschneider was dismissed from the council, jailed for two months, and, it is said, tortured. Though he lived for six more years, until 1531, no new sculpture appeared under his name; his resistance to the prince-bishop apparently cost him the state’s indispensable patronage.

In 1945, speaking at the Library of Congress in the immediate wake of Allied victory, Thomas Mann cited Riemenschneider (in contrast to Martin Luther) as a good German who had resisted authority for the sake of “freedom and justice,” which were “more important to him than art and peace of mind.” At the same time, the artist’s popularity within Hitler’s Third Reich was second only to Dürer’s, though the leading expert on Riemenschneider, Justus Bier, was a Jew and had been forced to emigrate in 1936. In the years of Communist rule in East Germany, Riemenschneider was cherished as a hero of “early civic revolution” and thus as a forerunner of German socialism.

His tardy emergence as a star of late-Gothic limewood sculpture, the popularity that overrode scholarly antagonism, and the uneasy feeling among explicators of German culture that he was somehow not quite German enough: these derive, it may be, from the sculptor’s curious tenderness, a preoccupied dreaminess that sets him apart from what Georg Dehio, in his Weimar-era History of German Art, called “the simple efficiency of our nation.” To him Riemenschneider seemed to “make a concession to beauty, with ethical and artistic sincerity, which was unexpected for German art of that time.” A Netherlandish influence, by way of Strasbourg, has been proposed to explain the strangeness.

What we seem to have, most conspicuously in Riemenschneider’s large male figures, is an attempt to express spirituality while acknowledging the heightened awareness of human individuality that came with the Renaissance. The faces on the High Gothic portal figures of the Chartres, Amiens, and Reims cathedrals, though individual, are relatively smooth; only beards and a few forehead wrinkles age them, their eyes are unnaturally far forward in their faces, and there is a tendency, vivid at Amiens, to smile. They stare over our heads toward a glory close at hand; Riemenschneider’s socketed eyes, with their creased lids, also stare over our heads, but at something farther away. The figures from Strasbourg in this show, the applewood Virgin especially, still have the round Gothic stare, whereas the eyes, say, of Mark from the Münnerstadt altarpiece (1490-1492) and of the Seated Bishop (circa 1495-1500; see illustration on page 20) usually displayed at the Cloisters are weeping eyes—eyes weeping, unlike those of the crucified Christ from Darmstadt or the left-hand woman of the Mourning Women (circa 1510) from Stuttgart, without an immediate reason to weep.

Riemenschneider’s figures are deeper sunk in the mire of this world than the Gothic statues, and their aspirations to rise above it leave them little margin for smiling. Of course, the medium of limewood permitted him greater precision in carving than limestone afforded the Gothic sculptors; his virtuosity extends itself in the bumps and sags of aging faces, such as those of the Cloisters bishop, the wonderful Saint Matthias (circa 1500-1505) from Berlin, Zebedee (circa 1505-1510) from the Victoria and Albert, the Saint Anne from Munich (circa 1505-1510), Nicodemus in the big Lamentation from Grossostheim, and the unignorable fat man at Simon’s table in one of the relief panels from the Münnerstadt altarpiece.


Such fleshy realism, in the younger figures, can became sensual; the throats and hands of his Virgins, the only exposed flesh save for their faces, are attentively rendered. Their hands, with their manneristically extended fingers and sometimes grotesquely elongated thumbs (see that of the 1495 Virgin from Cologne) have been much praised, but I was struck by the delicately muscled throat of the Virgin (1490-1495) from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and by those of two female saints brought forth, for this exhibit, from private ownership: that of Saint Catherine shows its delicate rings of fat. The Virgin from Hamburg (1503-1505) has enough soft flesh under her dimpled chin to remind us that chucking beneath the chin was a favored medieval form of sexual play. It is this Virgin, incidentally, who is most successfully united with the Child—holding him securely but up for display, turned to face his cosmic audience.

Riemenschneider, it is known, had four wives—two called Anna and two called Margarete—and his females, with their snug small bosoms and outthrust abdomens, are executed with a confident verve. The S-shaped pose, with a hip cocked to take the weight of a holy child or ponderous holy book held in a curved arm, is icon-ically standard, and a pose not given this swing would be too, well, wooden. Still, Riemenschneider’s female statues made me wonder if the emphasis, by posture and costume both, on a woman’s belly wasn’t a medieval equivalent of the outthrust bosom and derrière of modern fashion: the visual signaling of a gender characteristic, heightened in these Gothic carvings by deep, often oval drapery folds leading the eye up from the peeping feet to the area of the womb.

The uses of sculpture in a culture with no direct connection to classical humanist art are somewhat problematic. How lovely should a Virgin be? Some of Riemenschneider’s—the one in the three-person fragment from an Adoration in Nuremberg (1485-1490) and the late studio piece carved from an inferior piece of limewood (1521- 1522)—are very lovely, or are made to seem so in the catalog photographs. Their real presence is less striking, less glamorous. As I say, the statues are generally mounted high, and their gazes search the space over our heads. Their realism aims to take us to the edge of an immaterial realm. Small statuettes for private worship arose in the late medieval period, as part of the privatizing of religious experience that would flower, or burst, into Protestantism. These figures, fanatical in their detailed working, were designed to be tactilely cherished: a contemporary book of devotions instructs the worshiper, “Kiss the beautiful little feet of the infant Jesus who lies in the manger and beg his mother to let you hold him for a while.”

Does color add to the seductive persuasiveness of statuary? The Middle Ages thought so, at least in its church interiors, as we can see in Catholic churches to this day. Riemenschneider is associated with the shift to uncolored carving; if not the originator of it, he was an early convert. Most of the items in the exhibition are monochromatic wood, which does not mean that they were always so. Fashions changed: some works which Riemenschneider intended to be without paint looked so bare to their public that paint was soon added, whereas the nineteenth century so strongly preferred “honesty toward the material” that it stripped statues of paint which the centuries had left shabby in any case. The polychroming was not done in the sculptor’s studio, but by a separate guild; the application of glazes, pastes, gilding, and sizing was a complex, gluey affair and filled in the finest details of the carving. The presence of very fine carving and textural stamping indicates that the sculptor intended the work to go unpainted.

The few colored pieces at the Metropolitan show confirmed this twenty-first-century viewer’s prejudice that paint makes the statue less persuasive—more toylike, more visually brittle, more clearly “off.” Uncolored, of one natural substance, the statues occupy a realm of their own rather than enjoy a second-rate, inanimate status within ours. Mimesis does best with a restricted set of tools. Just as black-and-white movies had a stylish authority before the onset of Technicolor, so statuary in abandoning color became both more intimate and more impressive. Images self-professedly from the hand of man extract from us a leap like the leap of empathy; we are no longer children to be fooled into idolatry, into thinking a tinted simulacrum is inhabited by an actual spirit.

Yet something is lost in the sophistication. The representational statues we most trust are those which, in marble or metal, seem solid enough, sturdy enough in the round, to receive a spirit if one were, in answer to a Pygmalion’s prayer, to descend. For that reason, we like to see the backs finished; Riemenschneider’s little pearwood Adam from Vienna (1495-1500) is in fact least gawky when viewed from the back. A statue should exist in God’s circumambient eye; there is a savor of bad faith to not-quite-three-dimensional fabrications designed, with careful distortions, to present a satisfactory illusion—stage sets within the holy theater of the Mass. Of course, church interiors were to become more theatrical yet, in the Baroque manner that accompanied the Counter-Reformation—a spillage of marble statues above the columns and a painted cupola receding straight up to Heaven in a flurry of pink putti bottoms.

It occurred to me that my unease with mild, melancholy, masterful Riemenschneider had a Protestant accent, a touch of puritanical iconoclasm. Iconoclasm, and a whitewashed starkness of church interiors, was to follow Luther’s revolution in Northern Europe. Most of what made the objects of Christian faith concrete—holy relics, indulgences, idol-like images—were renounced. The crucifix became a symbolic cross, without a man on it. Riemenschneider participated in this sublimating though he died a Catholic—his tombstone portrait has a rosary in its hand. But his saints and gods represent an anxious humanity, a citizenry possessed by the invisible but not bodying it forth. They wear no haloes, even in carved low reliefs, as from the Münnerstadt altarpiece, where it would have posed no mechanical problem to impose them. The exemplars of the new faith are heroic inwardly, their struggles and ardor written on their faces in a calligraphy of wrinkles and careworn resolve. When transcendent worth can wear no outward sign, the interesting amorphousness of democracy descends. In these galleries of complex visages and deeply carved, agitated draperies we feel the feudal hierarchies (though still puissant enough to jail and torture Riemenschneider and end his career) slipping away, ebbing from nations and the heavens leaving mankind as we see it here—heroic, wistful, desolate, and willing to “make a concession with beauty.”

This Issue

April 13, 2000