Striking a rare balance between formal elegance and expressive strength, the sculpture of Tilman Riemenschneider (ca. 1460–1531) is anchored in the late Gothic tradition while also reflecting emerging humanist concerns. This international loan exhibition brings together many of the sculptor's finest works from throughout his career, including elements from altarpieces, cult figures, objects of private devotion, models, and secular sculpture. Highly regarded in Europe for his technical virtuosity in wood and stone, and for his sensitive blending of religious subject matter with a deeply felt appreciation for humanity, Riemenschneider is among the major artists of his time, yet he is little known in this country.
A contemporary of the noted painter, printmaker, and theoretician Albrecht Dürer, Riemenschneider developed a highly personalized artistic vision of his own. Working in Würzburg from about 1483 until 1531, he was one of the first sculptors to abandon polychromy (the application of color to sculpture) on selected works, leaving visible his favored material, limewood. Placing several figures that have retianed much of their polychromy side by side with his natural wooden sculptures, as well as exquisite works in alabaster and sandstone, the exhibition illustrates the incredible range and mastry Riemenshneider achieved in his work.
While the details of the sculptor's life remain largely undocumented, it is known that he was born in Heiligenstadt, in Thuringia, around 1460. When he moved to the Franconian town of Würzburg in 1483 to work in a sculptor's workshop, he was already fully trained as an artist. In 1485, he acquired the title of "master," which allowed him to open a workshop of his own, and was awarded with numerous commissions from throughout Franconia. A respected member of Würzburg society, Riemenschneider served on the municipal council, and was even elected mayor for a year in 1520. His personal as well as professional career came to an abrupt halt, however, during the Peasants' Revolt of 1525. As a member of the municipal council that opposed the prince-bishop of Würzburg, who wished to move his troops into the town and use it as a center of defense in the uprising, Riemenschneider was imprisoned and possibly tortured. Although he is listed as having performed minor repairs on some sculptures in 1528, no new carvings are known to have been made by him after the Revolt. Riemenschneider died in 1531.
The first-ever international presentation of the sculptor's life and work, the exhibition includes sixty sculptures representing forty-five ensembles from museums, churches, and private collections in Europe and America. The inclusion of a few outstanding works by Riemenschneider's most important predecessors and contemporaries—such as Niclaus Gerhaert von Leiden, Michel Erhart, and Veit Stoss—allows his achievement to be viewed in its proper context.
Noteworthy among the polychrome sculpture in the exhibition is a group of four figures—two works representing deacons, lent by the Cleveland Museum of Art, and two of female saints, from the collection of the Historisches Museum in Frankfurt am Main—thought to have been carved for the same altarpiece. Other figures that once belonged to the same ensembles but have long since been dispersed are also on view: among the most notable are two groups from a monumental altarpiece depicting the Holy Kinship (the family of the Virgin Mary), lent by the Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The display of two virtually unpublished Female Saints in private collections, shown with a third figure from the same retable (altarpiece), a Saint Elizabeth, now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, is a revelation.
The Skulpturensammlung of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin agreed to the unprecedented loan of twelve key works, including such masterpieces as the Noli me Tangere and the Evangelists (Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Luke, and Saint John) from Riemenschneider's Münnerstadt altarpiece (1490–1492). Four works from the permanent collection of the Metropolitan—among them the limewood Seated Bishop, a striking depiction of the physiognomy of an old man—are also on view.
The broad range of Riemenschneider's artistic production is illustrated by elements from altarpieces, cult figures, objects of private devotion, sculpture with a secular function, and models he carved for assistants.
Like other great sculptors of the late Middle Ages, Riemenschneider was proficient in a variety of materials—wood as well as stone. The impressive Enthroned Saint Anne with the Virgin and Child ("Anna Selbdritt"), lent by the Mainfränkisches Museum, Würzburg, bears eloquent witness to the sculptor's mastery of sandstone sculpture. The exhibition also reunites Riemenschneider's five extant carvings in alabaster, exquisite works that are relatively little known.
To place Riemenschneider's achievements within a broader context, the exhibition also includes several particularly fine works by his most important predecessors. Riemenschneider's conception of sculpture as a "kinetic" experience—in which the viewer is drawn to move around the work either physically or with the mind's eye—derived from Niclaus Gerhaert von Leiden (active 1460–73, died 1473) of Strasbourg, who is represented in the exhibition by an exquisite boxwood carving of the Standing Virgin and Child, from the collection of the Metropolitan. The introspective, almost elegiac, quality of Riemenschneider's work, on the other hand, can be drawn from Michel Erhart (ca. 1440–1522) of Ulm, and from Ulm sculpture in general, as exemplified by the countenance and pose of Erhart's tender and pensive Seated Virgin and Child, from the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Skulturensammlung. Riemenschneider's intimate familiarity with the work of engraver Martin Schongauer (1445 or 1450–1491) is apparent in the rich tonal range of his sculpture, as demonstrated in the exhibition by the juxtapostion to several works on paper, from the collection of the Metropolitan.
The exhibition is made possible in part by Bayerische Landesbank. The exhibition is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
An indemnity has been granted by the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Education programs have been supported in part by the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation.
The exhibition catalogue is made possible by the Doris Duke Fund for Publications.