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German carpenters who brought the Virgin to life

by
15 December 2006

Kim Woods enthuses about the riches of late-Gothic altarpieces

St Johannes der Täufer, Blaubeuren: the Virgin, with St Benedict, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and St Scolastica

St Johannes der Täufer, Blaubeuren: the Virgin, with St Benedict, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and St Scolastica

THE READER’s first encounter with the subject-matter of Carved Altarpieces, this sumptuous English translation of Rainer Kahsnitz’s massive book on late-Gothic carved altarpieces, is the carved figure of God the Father on the cover.

His wildly curling beard and bejewelled crown and cuffs are a tour de force of carving, unaided by colour except for the discreetly tinted facial features. This is God from the Breisach altarpiece, created by the south German sculptor known as Master HL. It was made in the 1520s, and is the last in the book’s 22 case studies.

More than two metres in height, and surrounded by infant angels of unparalleled exuberance and charm, this is one of the three principal figures from the coronation of the Virgin. The Virgin’s delicately tinted face, and Christ’s smooth torso, are the only resting-places for the eye in this dazzling explosion of twisting drapery and thick, foliate tracery.

The Virgin sits between Father and Son, and her central place in humanity’s redemption is celebrated not just through her position, but in the impact of the spirited carving itself.

The Virgin sits between Father and Son, and her central place in humanity’s redemption is celebrated not just through her position, but in the impact of the spirited carving itself.

The Virgin Mary features heavily in the late-Gothic carved altarpieces described in this book, but never apart from her Son. If not held as a baby in her arms, Christ is to be found in the structure above the altarpiece; or on the cross, as in Bieselbach and Moosburg, for example, or as Man of Sorrows, as in Tilman Riemenschneider’s Creglingen altarpiece, or Michael Erhart’s 1494 high altarpiece in the abbey church at Blaubeuren.

The Virgin Mary features heavily in the late-Gothic carved altarpieces described in this book, but never apart from her Son. If not held as a baby in her arms, Christ is to be found in the structure above the altarpiece; or on the cross, as in Bieselbach and Moosburg, for example, or as Man of Sorrows, as in Tilman Riemenschneider’s Creglingen altarpiece, or Michael Erhart’s 1494 high altarpiece in the abbey church at Blaubeuren.

Unlike their Netherlandish counterparts, however, curiously few south German late-Gothic altarpieces put the crucifixion centre-stage. The two chief festivals at which these winged altarpieces would have been open in all their splendour, Christmas and the Epiphany, dominate overwhelmingly over Easter and the crucifixion.

Christ’s Passion is there in the wings (sometimes literally) to remind the viewer that Christmas was a beginning, not an end, but the joy of the nativity is the favoured subject.

Christ’s Passion is there in the wings (sometimes literally) to remind the viewer that Christmas was a beginning, not an end, but the joy of the nativity is the favoured subject.

This is conveyed through ever more exuberant carving — sometimes painted and gilded, but often of such a complexity that it must have rendered polychromy beyond the purse of the patrons and the patience of the painter.

This is conveyed through ever more exuberant carving — sometimes painted and gilded, but often of such a complexity that it must have rendered polychromy beyond the purse of the patrons and the patience of the painter.

Oddly, it was one of the most flamboyant of these south German carvers, Veit Stoss, who in his old age was responsible for one of the calmer of the visual extravaganzas included in this book: the high altar from S. Maria Himmelfahrt, Nuremberg, now in Bamberg Cathedral.

This quieter-spirited nativity altarpiece shows the Virgin kneeling in prayer before her infant son. To either side are biblical narrative reliefs from the nativity of Christ. A casualty of the Reformation, this altarpiece was appropriated but not destroyed by the Protestant Nuremberg City Council on the closure of the Carmelite monastery to which it belonged. It was eventually sold to the resolutely Catholic city of Bamberg.

This quieter-spirited nativity altarpiece shows the Virgin kneeling in prayer before her infant son. To either side are biblical narrative reliefs from the nativity of Christ. A casualty of the Reformation, this altarpiece was appropriated but not destroyed by the Protestant Nuremberg City Council on the closure of the Carmelite monastery to which it belonged. It was eventually sold to the resolutely Catholic city of Bamberg.

Countless other such works were deliberately destroyed because they allegedly contravened the Second Commandment (prohibiting images of God), and also, it seems, because Protestant Reformers feared their affective power. The actions of the Wittenberg iconoclast Andreas Karlstadt were, on his own admission, partially prompted through the realisation of “how strongly and how deeply images are rooted in my heart”.

With its stunning photographs, this book shows clearly the power of late-Gothic carved imagery that so disturbed Karlstadt. Sir Thomas More acknowledged, without such qualms, that “Images painted, graven or carved may be so well wrought and so near to the quick and to the truth that they shall naturally and much more effectually represent the thing than shall the name either spoken or written.”

Although a literary humanist, More was able to appreciate that God might be glimpsed through the carver’s art as well as, and perhaps better than, through the written word. The better the art, the more effective the glimpse: “And now likewise as a book well made and well written better expresseth the matter than doth a book made by a rude man that cannot well tell his tale and written with an evil hand: so doth an image well workmanly wrought better express the thing than doth a thing rudely made.”

Among present-day worshippers during Advent and Christmas, there will be those who remain unconvinced that the infectious exuberance of a carved altarpiece can lift the spirits to the divine as effectively as can a rousing hymn. Even these, however, can still be thankful that the masterpieces of carving featured in this book were produced not to flatter an aristocratic patron, nor to serve as propaganda for a political regime, nor to appeal to the sensual appetites of a collector, but to the glory of God.

Carved Altarpieces: Masterpieces of the late Gothic by Rainer Kahsnitz & Achim Bunz (Thames & Hudson, £85; 0-500-512981).

Dr Woods is Lecturer in Art History at the Open University.

 

Dr Woods is Lecturer in Art History at the Open University.

 

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