Friday, August 26, 2016

Sankt Sebaldus and Peter Vischer the Elder

Before Sankt Lorenz in Nuremberg, there was Sankt Sebaldus on the other side of the Pegnitz river.  It is one of Nuremberg's oldest churches, the present church was begun in 1225 to replace an even older Romanesque church.  It is another parish church of the city's mercantile elite, but also a pilgrimage church containing the shrine of a local hermit saint from the 8th century, Sebaldus.
Like Sankt Lorenz, Sankt Sebaldus is also worth another visit and another.

All photos here are mine and are freely available, especially to educators.

The west front of the church with its twin spires.

The 13th century nave looking east toward the 14th century choir.

The magnificent 14th century nave, much restored and rebuilt after World War II.

Looking west in the 13th century nave toward the westwerk.  Sankt Sebaldus is the only church in Nuremberg with this type of structure.  The original Romanesque church had a westwerk, a structure usually associated with Imperial churches; it was a structure designed for the Emperor's throne when he visited the church.

The 13th century westwerk is now a baptistery.

The restored vaults of the choir and nave as seen from behind Veit Stoss' Crucifixion group.

Old Scratch himself in the nave wearing a pleasant face...

... but full of corruption on the other side.

And such magnificently carved corruption.

The centerpiece of the church is the shrine of Saint Sebaldus in the choir.  Sebaldus is an especially obscure saint.  Almost nothing is known about him for certain, and the pious legends don't agree with each other, not even over when he lived.  Some legends place him in the 11th century, others as early as the 8th century.  All that is agreed upon is that he lived in the forests just west of Nuremberg.
Despite his obscurity, for three centuries the rulers of the city spent lavishly to promote his veneration.  Among the last and most lavish of those expenditures at the beginning of the 16th century was for a bronze shrine containing the 14th century silver and gold coffin of the saint, and the masterpiece of the Nuremberg sculptor Peter Vischer the Elder.

Peter Vischer's shrine for Saint Sebaldus is a very late Gothic structure covered with Classical motifs and figures.  It is a hybrid combination of elaborate Gothic verticality with Classical quotations.
While Italian artists drank in Classicism with their mother's milk, for German artists in the Renaissance, the Classical style was very alien and only dimly understood.  Even the great Dürer struggled with that foreign visual language, and while his understanding of Classicism was certainly far beyond the quotations in Peter Vischer's work, it was still imperfect and uncomfortable, especially with the idealized nude figure.

Saint Sebaldus' silver and gold casket made about two centuries before the shrine that houses it.  Peter Vischer and a small army of assistants spent 19 years making the shrine.

At one end of the shrine facing west into the 13th century nave is Saint Sebaldus himself holding a model of the church that bears his name in his left hand.

On the other end of the shrine facing east into the choir is Peter Vischer himself proudly dressed in his work clothes wearing a leather apron.  Another testimony to the growing pride of artists in their work in Renaissance Nuremberg.

A detail of Peter Vischer's bearded and rotund self portrait.

Saint John the Evangelist on the shrine.  The statues of saints and apostles on the shrine are especially fine and graceful, worthy of Lorenzo Ghiberti's work from a century earlier in Italy.

The canopy of the shrine, an elaborate Gothic mish-mash of Classical quotations.

The Christ Child holding the orb of the world tops the canopy.

The base of the shrine shows scenes from the legends of Saint Sebaldus.  None of these stories are familiar to me.  They are beautifully composed low relief narrative sculptures.

The base sitting on the shells of enormous bronze snails is a swarm of figures and creatures, all taken from Classical sources.  All appear to be figures from Arcadian literature; nymphs, satyrs, bacchantes, and creatures of the forest.  I'm guessing that this is an elaborately erudite reference to Sebaldus as a forest hermit.  I also suspect that it is an excuse for all kinds of invention and showing off of technical expertise.  Peter Meyer insists that the snails are resurrection symbols.  Maybe, but I'm not so sure about the rest of the crowd on the base of the shrine.

A Classical youth with a quiver of arrows.  Behind him appears to be Pan with his pipes and a small frog listening to the tune.

And this figure on the southeast corner of the shrine is doing exactly what he looks like he is doing... and in church! and Protestant church at that!  It turns out Tristan Alexander was right about this 2 years ago.   Peter Vischer knew his Classical literature enough to know that the forest demigods were usually horny little things with not much self control.  That's why I love the Renaissance.  You can have horny satyrs and suffering Jesus within spitting distance of each other without any conflict.

An allegorical figure (Justice?) whose face is worn from touching; a local custom that I don't fully understand.

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