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Tilman Riemenschneider: a great master of the Northern Renaissance

29 March 2018

Steve Collins celebrates the undersung genius of the medieval German sculptor and woodcarver Tilman Riemenschneider

Berthold Werner/WIKI

Central panels of the Altarpiece of the Holy Blood, Jakobskirche, Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber, Franconia, Germany

Central panels of the Altarpiece of the Holy Blood, Jakobskirche, Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber, Franconia, Germany

TILMAN RIEMENSCHNEIDER (1460-1531) is a great master of the Northern Renaissance. His works are among the first and finest to challenge the excessive “heavenward” emphasis in medieval art, and portray real people, and their feelings, on earth.

Some large galleries — such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London — display some of his minor works, two or three exhibitions have been held in the UK and the United States, and a few smaller publications dedicated to his work have been published. Sadly, in modern times, he commands little attention, and remains largely unrecognised beyond his locale in southern Germany.

His works mainly serve religious purposes, as did all art in his time. Although he also sculpted (mostly for tombstones) in sandstone and marble, the bulk of his output was carved limewood — or linden wood, as it is often known — which was ideally suited for his highly detailed working. Sometimes, these works were painted, but, more regularly, they were finished in a honey-coloured glaze.

His most commonly recognisable smaller works include angels, often in pairs; they are youthful, clothed loosely in simple tunics, and slender in stature. Many have two clearly defining features: abundant, curly waves of hair that roll on to their forehead and continue round to cover their neck, and reverent, clear, innocent faces with small features, lips slightly pursed, and sorrowful eyes, generally downcast or looking towards heaven.

ImageBROKER/AlamyRiemenschneider has manipulated the changing natural light to create the drama and highlight Judas and the sop of bread at the Last Supper, in the altarpiece

Riemenschneider was a successful entrepreneur, and, in Bavaria, his name became what today would be something of a brand. His range was one of the most prolific in Germany: he produced custom-made altarpieces, statues, memorials, and other religious items in response to a high local demand. Over several decades, he enlarged his workshop: in his later years, he employed some 40 apprentices to satisfy this demand.

Unlike Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and other contemporary artists, he never travelled to the main Renaissance centres in the Netherlands, or even Italy, to further his skills and reputation, but spent his whole life in Bavaria.

He married four times, gaining several adopted children and fathering many of his own. Two of his sons, Jorg and Hans, succeeded him as sculptors, taking over the business, while two others, Bartholomeus and Tilman, became painters (the former was a pupil of Dürer’s).

Riemenschneider owned several houses and extensive lands and vineyards, and became a pillar of the community in Würzburg. From 1505, he held several civic posts, finally becoming elder burgomaster in 1520. He remained in office until the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525, when the city opposed its sovereign lord, Prince-Bishop Konrad von Thüngen. Because the council had given support to the rebels, some of its members’ lands were confiscated.

Riemenschneider and other members were arrested and imprisoned. It was said that his hands were broken, but the evidence for this is scant. He left prison a few months later, and died in 1531.


INTERFOTO/AlamyDetail from the tomb of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II “The Saint” and Cunigunde (1513), Bamberg Cathedral

ALTHOUGH many of his works were destroyed by Protestants during the religious wars of the ensuing centuries, much is preserved in the cities, towns, and villages around Würzburg. They all demonstrate his considerable artistic merit.

Riemenschneider’s success in his day can be gauged by the many prestigious church and civic commissions that he completed, including the marble tomb for the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II and Cunigunde, his wife (1513), in the cathedral at Bamberg near by. It was described by Justus Bier in The Art Bulletin (1947) as “one of the great masterworks of Late Gothic art”.

Also widely admired are the Ascension of Mary Magdalene (1490-92), from the Magdalena altarpiece, in Münnerstadt (now in a gallery dedicated to Riemenschneider at the Bavarian National Museum, Munich), and the Adam and Eve statues (1493) in the permanent exhibition in the great Marienberg Fortress that overlooks Würzburg, his home city.

Riemenschneider’s most celebrated work is the Holy Blood altarpiece in Jakobskirche, in the small, picturesque city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Today, it is visited by travellers from around the world as the high point on their excursions on the “Romantic Road” (based loosely on an old Roman route between Würzburg and Füssen). Their numbers recall the massed pilgrims of earlier centuries, who travelled on foot rather than by luxury coach.

Those earlier pilgrims, whose visit was an act of piety, would often take several days to make the journey, and stay for as many days at the site. For most, the pilgrimage was undertaken as an act of penance and in pursuit of holiness, and they spent some time each day in prayer and contemplation.

Both the altarpiece and the earlier work that it replaced were commissioned primarily to hold a reliquary, reputed to incorporate three drops of consecrated wine that had fallen on an altar cloth and were said to have taken on the appearance of Christ’s blood at the Last Supper.

The whole structure is almost nine metres high, and was designed, in accordance with the practice of the time, to incorporate the reliquary and a pictorial narrative. Here, the latter is the Passion story, which runs from left to right, then downwards to the Crucifixion in the predella. The younger, seated disciple in the central Last Supper seems to be pointing downwards to this final outcome below him.


INTERFOTO/AlamyTilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531), a self-portrait in the Grieving for Christ altar, Maidbronn

WHILE it is clear is that much of the surrounding structure and carving is of lower quality, and must have been completed by other workmen and apprentices, the central works clearly demonstrate Riemenschneider’s artistic greatness. The Last Supper, with its magnificently carved figures of Christ and the apostles, dominates the work. These figures, clearly human and individual, sit beneath a canopy of intertwining, leaved branches, with movable panels on either side, and, below, a smaller carving of the crucifixion scene with hovering angels.

Over the whole is an elaborate, towering, and tapering sculpture with more angels, the Virgin Mary, and the Archangel Gabriel on either side of the reliquary cross, and the figure of Christ showing his wounds. At the pinnacle is a carving of Christ as the Man of Sorrows.

The inner sides of the two panels reveal elaborately and finely carved reliefs. The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, to the right, includes a superb, lifelike crowd, and a beautifully detailed donkey, carrying Christ as he travels over draped cloaks amid an enthusiastic throng.

On the right-hand side, Christ is seen praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, again attracting interest from the crowds: one spectator at the rear is falling halfway over a wicker fence. In the foreground, Peter and other disciples, as described in St Matthew’s Gospel, have fallen asleep.

The position of the altarpiece at first-floor level rather than in the chancel of the church below serves to demonstrate Riemenschneider’s real artistry in manipulating the daylight from the rear windows to create the drama of the Last Supper for the mostly illiterate pilgrims of his time.

The art historian Michael Baxandall notes that the morning view initially — “increasingly from the left” — picks out only the front row of heads, hands, clothing, and a few feet of the figures, which, except for Judas, turn their faces slowly to the light. As the sun moves south, Judas becomes increasingly the solitary figure.

There is ar “dead period” in the middle of the day when the sun is overhead, followed by a “second act” in the afternoon, when Judas again becomes effectively the single lit figure in prominence.

Crucially, it is Judas who becomes the central figure rather than Christ, who stands higher than the rest, but more isolated, to the rear of the group. The light falls on Judas, and within it he receives the sop of bread from Christ. By this act, Christ not only identifies Judas as his betrayer, but, at the same time, offers to bring him back into the fellowship.

INTERFOTO/AlamyThe Virgin and Child in a Rosary (limewood sculpture, 1521-24), Church fo the Virgin of the Vineyard, Volkach

For the attendant pilgrims, God was near by, just above them in the sky, watching their every move, and communicating with them through miracles. During the “event”, they felt themselves to be in God’s presence; the highlight of the miracle of the passing of the sop to Judas offered them also God’s blessing and dispensation from punishment for their own sins.

In his BBC series on German art (The Art of Germany, 2010), Andrew Graham-Dixon included a brief analysis of the altarpiece and its manipulation of light. He moves on to another great Riemenschneider masterpiece, the Virgin and Child in a Rosary, in the Church of the Virgin of the Vineyard, in Volkach, some 20 miles west of Würzburg. Here, the finely worked Riemenschneider carving is a rosary surrounded by roundels (devotional scenes) that catch the light in turn as the sun moves round the work during the day, as signals for changes of prayer.


THE lack of appreciation today, outside Germany, of Riemenschneider’s work can be attributed to several factors. He did not travel as other artists did, and carvings and statues were less easily transported than paintings or tapestries. But his great ability — so admired in his own time — to create miracles in the eyes of pilgrims by the manipulation of daylight is no longer understood or appreciated.

Recognition of this significant further dimension to the greatness of Riemenschneider’s work should help to elevate him to his rightful place among the most significant artists of the Renaissance: a reputation that he richly deserves.


Dr Steve Collins is a retired management consultant and lecturer who now travels widely researching fine-art history.

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