Despite this amazingly vivid self portrait on the base of his most famous work, the Sacrament Tabernacle in Sankt Lorenz in Nuremberg, we know very little about Adam Kraft, and much of the biographical accounts available are full of speculation. As is the case with Veit Stoss, the exact time and place of his birth remain unknown. He was possibly born around 1460. There is speculation that he might have done work as part of a team of stonecutters at Strasbourg Cathedral and at Ulm Cathedral, but little is known for sure. He may have married twice, but there is no record that he had any children.
Almost all of his known work is in stone and in Nuremberg and the surrounding region of Franconia. If he did sculpture in wood, none of it survives or has been identified. His working career in Nuremberg was short but very full, from around 1490 to his death in 1509.
This self portrait is hard to miss. It is very prominent at the front of the tabernacle, it is comparatively large, and it is the only sculpted figure on the whole monument that is painted. I remember remarking to Peter Meyer when I first saw this in 2014 what a strikingly proud gesture this is by the artist. Peter Meyer pointed out that Kraft actually presents himself in a pose of humility, on his knees, and carrying the weight of the monument on his back; and indeed, the self-portrait sculpture is a crucial structural support for the tabernacle. And yet it is so very prominent and vivid, the most vivid figure on the tabernacle. Yes, the pose is humble, but proudly so. We are a long way from the old Victorian legends of selfless and self-effacing medieval artists (I doubt that they were ever so; Gislebertus signed his name quite proudly and prominently under the feet of Christ in the center of his Last Judgement sculpture in the 12th century). Adam Kraft in his self portrait is proud of his craft and his ability. He shows himself in his work clothes carrying a stone carver's mallet. He asserts himself as an artist and as an individual so very strikingly here. That we know so little about this lively presence represented in stone is not his fault. He makes himself alive and present to his legacy as he once did in Nuremberg when he lived. The artist in Renaissance Germany, just as much as in Renaissance Italy, claims a new and higher status based upon the magic he works, and upon the knowledge required to make it. Albrecht Dürer was just 22 years old when Kraft signed the contract to make the tabernacle that includes this self portrait in 1493.
All the photographs here are mine except where noted. They are freely available especially to educators.
Here are all 61 feet (18.7 meters) of Adam Kraft's celebrated and astonishing Sacrament Tabernacle in Sankt Lorenz.
More of the amazing carved shrine-work that begins to look like something fantastic from a coral reef in the South Pacific.
As amazing as all the fantastical fretwork of this tabernacle is, the most striking part of it are the narrative scenes of the Passion in the midst of all the carving. This is a photo I took in 2014 of Kraft's conception of the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Like so much of the best Renaissance German sculpture, it is great emotional drama, and Kraft was among the best of them. Something else that is particularly striking about Kraft's relief work is that it can be very pictorial. Kraft manipulates the the light and dark falling across the stone to create a landscape setting complete with distant mountains. Like sculptors in Italy at the time (such as Ghiberti and Donatello), Kraft uses both high relief where figures are almost carved in the round, together with low relief especially for areas that we are supposed to read as distant. The pictorialism of Italian Renaissance relief work builds upon the Classical legacy in ancient Roman sculpture. German relief sculpture develops out of Gothic art. Whereas the Italians made a conscious break with the medieval past, German artists, and most other Northern European artists, continued the Gothic style transforming it into something as humanistic as the Classical revivals of Italy, and with possibly even more successful verisimilitude.
Gerrit makes a good case for the kneeling figure to be Mary Magdalene, and points out that Mary and John flank the Crucified Christ in their traditional positions (visible in this photo).
Since Gerrit has access to a broad range of imagery, he shares these close ups of Adam Kraft's Crucifixion group at the top of the Tabernacle.
Both of these photos are courtesy of CKD, Nijmegen University.
Upon seeing these pictures, I agree with Gerrit's conclusion, and I'm very impressed by the quality of the carving in figures that are over 50 feet from the floor.
Another slightly earlier project by Adam Kraft appears on the outside of the 14th century choir of Sankt Sebaldus, under the small roof on the center right at the base of the building.
Landauer Altarpiece now in Vienna
This whole project is pictorial relief in spades. This Resurrection panel appears to me derived not from other sculptures, but from paintings, and quite directly. It looks to me a lot like paintings of the same subject by usually more conservative Nuremberg painters like Michael Wolgemut.
famous painting by Rogier Van Der Weyden.
I'm proud of my pictures of the Landauer monument. It's hard to find good pictures of it, and it made quite an impression on me when I first saw it in 2014. I'm glad I had a chance to come back to Nuremberg and take a closer look at it.
Earlier, I misidentified the noble family who commissioned this monument as the Paumgartner family. I regret the error and I have corrected it in the captions and text.
Adam Kraft specialized in scenes from the Passion, and he made a series of 7 stone panels for a kind of early Stations of the Cross (long before that rite was formalized into today's ritual) along the streets of Nuremberg from the city center to the Johannesfriedhof, the medieval cemetery. The originals are all now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in what used to be the church of a Carthusian monastery.
If there ever was a Crucifixion panel, it doesn't survive
The great Albrecht Dürer came out of this company of local artists. He emerged out of what was already a strong and vigorous narrative tradition in German sculpture, and German painting and graphic art. His trips to Venice to learn the "secrets" of the Italian artists was never meant to be a break with his hometown and its artistic legacy, but an effort to deepen and focus it, and to give it a broader international appeal.
I photographed this small painting in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg.
A woodcut print by Dürer of the Last Supper from The Great Passion (reproduction from Wikipedia) showing what Dürer learned from the Italians -- linear perspective with consistent believable space for the figures to move in; concentrated monumental groups of figures joined together by form and emotion. Unlike the crowded relief sculptures of Kraft, Stoss, and Brabender, Dürer's Apostles have plenty of room, both in 2 dimensions and in 3, to move around in. This great woodcut has a completeness and clarity that most Northern European narrative pictures at that time did not have.
It also shows what Dürer learned from his German masters; vivid storytelling and drama enacted not by ideal heroic characters, but by figures that were not much different what what anyone could see on the streets or in the shops and taverns of Renaissance Nuremberg. One Apostle on the left pours himself a beer while the rest of the gathered Apostles look not much different from what you might find nightly in a lower class tavern, all of them carrying knives ready to cut their meat or a drunken idiot out to start a fight. The vaulted room itself looks less like a palace chamber and more like room in a cheap cellar complete with water damage in the ceiling on the right.
What mattered to Dürer and to Renaissance artists in general was not the archaeological accuracy of depicting events in ancient Palestine, but what the stories meant in the here and now. The meaning of the Passion and its events played out in daily human life in the streets, shops, and taverns of Nuremberg (or any other place) if we would only pay attention. The artists took upon themselves the task of teaching the public how to look at the life playing out around them and to see its spiritual meanings.